The best science fiction books on artificial intelligence

Casey Dorman Author Of Ezekiel's Brain
By Casey Dorman

The Books I Picked & Why

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

By Philip K. Dick

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Why this book?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is the novel behind the 1982 film Bladerunner, is the quintessential AI novel because it presents two of the major dilemmas presented by advanced artificial intelligence: 1) If an AI is as smart as a human, how do humans control it? 2) If an AI can think like a human, should it be regarded as a fellow living being? The beauty of the novel is that it presents these issues from the point of view of a human being, Rick Deckard, who has to make decisions about whether to allow the android AIs in the story to live or die.

The novel takes place on a post-nuclear-war Earth, which has been abandoned by healthy and well-to-do humans, leaving radiation-infected and poor people behind. The rich are served by androids, some of whom escape to come to Earth and pass themselves off as humans. Deckard must hunt them down and kill them. A new version of these androids is indistinguishable from humans, even when given the empathy test that usually identifies them, and Deckard falls in love with one of them he is supposed to kill.

When Deckard encounters these new AIs, he has difficulty distinguishing them from humans and begins to wonder if he, himself might be an AI. Even when he decides he is human, he is torn between allowing the AIs to live and terminating them, especially the one with whom he has fallen in love. It’s a classic story and one that makes you think.


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The Invincible

By Stanislaw Lem

The Invincible

Why this book?

Stanislaw Lem, the Polish philosopher and science fiction novelist, had the talent of writing novels that raise profound questions about the human condition. One of the issues he tackled was whether our human form of intelligence is just one of many types of intelligence that might be found in the universe.

In one of his most gripping and mind-stretching novels, The Invincible, an Earth spaceship lands on an apparently uninhabited planet only to find that many years previously, another race had crash-landed on the planet, and their small, robotic assistants were the main survivors of the crash. Those automata evolved into a collection of tiny “flies,” which, although not individually conscious or possessed of reasoning, use evolved herd behaviors to destroy their surviving alien masters and all other living creatures on the planet’s surface. When the humans from Earth explore the planet, they encounter clouds of these tiny metallic creatures who think as one entity and kill any other living creatures including the humans from Earth.

Lem’s novels, such as The Invincible, are groundbreaking from a philosophical point of view because they show us that conceptualizing intelligence and consciousness in human terms and elevating it to the peak of evolutionary development is a limitation in our thinking, based upon our anthropocentrism.


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Permutation City

By Greg Egan

Permutation City

Why this book?

A different version of the AI problem is the one discussed by a multitude of scientific and philosophical authors: what if the world in which we live, including our own consciousness, is a computer simulation? Permutation City, by Greg Egan, is one version of this dilemma. In this novel, those wealthy enough to afford it may upload their consciousness into a virtual world, one which they have a part in creating, and one which aims to be self-sustaining after they die.

The plot revolves around a researcher who has invented a virtual self-generating chemical germ-seed that can evolve and populate such a world. However, eventually, the germ-seed creates its own world and rejects the presence of the uploaded human consciousness in it, who are then faced with having to decide whether to leave and seek another virtual universe that the mathematics predicts exists. This novel challenged my intelligence at every turn of the page, but was also mind-expanding, and, although written in 1994, it is still considered a classic example of philosophical techno-sci-fi.


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2001: A Space Odyssey

By Arthur C. Clarke

2001: A Space Odyssey

Why this book?

It took me many years after seeing the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey to finally read the book. At last, I learned why “Hal,” the cordial, polite, and deadly AI of the film went rogue and killed all but one of the travelers on the spaceship heading to one of Saturn’s moons (Jupiter’s moon in the film). Hal and his voice are by far the signature and most unforgettable aspects of the film and ones that live on as cultural memes for AIs who defy human control.

The novel was written simultaneously with the film (Arthur C. Clarke co-wrote the film script). However, the novel is more detailed, less confusing, and more extensive than the film, which relies heavily on visual effects. It’s a novel about the evolution of man and about the dangers of nuclear war even more than it is a novel about the dangers of artificial intelligence. It remains a classic by one of the all-time greats in the science fiction field.


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I, Robot

By Isaac Asimov

I, Robot

Why this book?

When people think about artificial intelligence or robots, invariably they mention Isaac Asimov’s classic book, I, Robot, which is really a collection of stories, held together by a thin overall plot. The book was published in 1950, but some of the stories appeared earlier in various science fiction magazines in the 1940s. Asimov, who was knowledgeable in a variety of scientific and mathematical fields as well as literature and philosophy, used his ample imagination to deal with issues that were far from reality at that time, but not so far now.

The central character of the novel, Dr. Susan Calvin is a robot psychologist who is an expert regarding the psychological issues of robots. She tells a series of stories about various issues that came up with the first group of robots invented by her employer, U.S Robotics and Mechanical Men, Inc. Central, to several of the stories is the development of Asimov’s famous “3 laws of robotics,” which are still quoted today in discussions of how to keep AIs “friendly” or, in AI terms, “aligned” with human values. Asimov is, above all else, an entertaining writer with a rich imagination and a healthy sense of humor. I, Robot is well worth reading, despite its age.


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