The best sci-fi books that describe how robots really work

Why am I passionate about this?

I have loved science fiction ever since I was a kid and read all my Dad’s ancient issues of Analog Science Fiction and Fact from the 1940s. The first book I can remember reading was The Green Hills of Earth anthology by Robert Heinlein. Fast forward to the 1990s, when, as a new professor of computer science, I began adding sci-fi short stories and movies as extra credit for my AI and robotics courses. Later as a Faculty Fellow for Innovation in High-Impact Learning Experiences at Texas A&M, I created the Robotics Through Science Fiction book series as a companion to my textbook, Introduction to AI Robotics


I wrote...

Robotics Through Science Fiction: Artificial Intelligence Explained Through Six Classic Robot Short Stories

By Robin R. Murphy,

Book cover of Robotics Through Science Fiction: Artificial Intelligence Explained Through Six Classic Robot Short Stories

What is my book about?

Robotics Through Science Fiction explains how robots actually work in a way that anyone, not just a scientist, can relate to. The book is a collection of six famous sci-fi stories, each of which illustrates some important aspects of real-world robotics, such as teleoperation, organization of intelligence,  machine learning, and human-robot interaction. Each story has a prologue that introduces the concept illustrated in the story and what to watch for while reading. After the story, there is a discussion of what was accurate or wrong, and why. It was originally intended as a fun companion to the college-level textbook, Introduction to AI Robotics, but became a standalone book for teaching anyone how robot intelligence is programmed. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Little Eyes

Robin R. Murphy Why did I love this book?

A Firby-like robot pet becomes an international fad, where a “keeper” buys a little wheeled robot and is randomly paired with a “dweller” who teleoperates the robot. The robot has only a camera and microphone, but no audio output, and the identity of the keeper and dweller are hidden. The game is that the keeper is entertained trying to figure out why the robot does what it does, while the dweller is entertained by exploring a new place. What could go wrong?  Lots. Lots! Little Eyes absolutely terrified me, much more than any Stephen King novel because there is nothing supernatural, it could really happen.

By Samanta Schweblin, Megan McDowell (translator),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Little Eyes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A visionary novel about our interconnected world, about the collision of horror and humanity, from the Man Booker-shortlisted master of the spine-tingling tale

A Guardian & Observer Best Fiction Book of 2020 * A Sunday Times Best Science Fiction Book of the Year * The Times Best Science Fiction Books of the Year * NPR Best Books of the Year

World Literature Today's 75 Notable Translations of 2020 * Ebook Travel Guides Best 5 Books of 2020 * A New York Times Notable Book of 2020

They're not pets. Not ghosts or robots. These are kentukis, and they are in…


Book cover of The Warehouse

Robin R. Murphy Why did I love this book?

This is my favorite introduction to the state of automation and autonomy in manufacturing. In a near future, a Sam Walton type has made a fortune through drone delivery and warehouse automation. The warehouse automation is based on a well-intentioned, but shallow, interpretation of the outdated Fitts Law in human factors that divide different jobs between robots and humans. Except humans can’t match robot speed and endurance. The tension is whether a corporate spy who has infiltrated a warehouse to steal secrets is there to expose the inherent cruelty or, worse, to replicate the work practices at a competitor’s facility.

By Rob Hart,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Warehouse as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Cloud isn’t just a place to work. It’s a place to live. And when you’re here, you’ll never want to leave.

“A thrilling story of corporate espionage at the highest level . . . and a powerful cautionary tale about technology, runaway capitalism, and the nightmare world we are making for ourselves.”—Blake Crouch, New York Times bestselling author of Dark Matter

Film rights sold to Imagine Entertainment for director Ron Howard! • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY Financial Times • Real Simple • Kirkus Reviews

Paxton never thought he’d be working for Cloud, the giant…


Book cover of Rendezvous with Rama

Robin R. Murphy Why did I love this book?

This 1973 hard sci-fi classic is perhaps the best fictional introduction to behavioral robotics there is, appearing a decade before researchers, most notably Rod Brooks, created the behavioral paradigm. An alien spaceship is passing through our solar system on a slingshot orbit. It is autonomous but controlled strictly by simple biological affordances that enable it to respond to the human intruders without applying any of the HAL 9000 reasoning Clarke popularized in his more famous 2001: A Space Odyssey. I mentally throw this book at engineers when they try to make unnecessarily complex robots. 

By Arthur C. Clarke,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Rendezvous with Rama as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the year 2130, a mysterious and apparently untenanted alien spaceship, Rama, enters our solar system. The first product of an alien civilisation to be encountered by man, it reveals a world of technological marvels and an unparalleled artificial ecology.

But what is its purpose in 2131?

Who is inside it?

And why?


Book cover of Kill Decision

Robin R. Murphy Why did I love this book?

When Kill Decision came out, I sent an email to all my Department of Defense colleagues saying: finally, a book that gets swarms, drones, computer vision, and lethal autonomous weapons right! The book shows behavioral robotics can duplicate insect intelligence to create simple, but relentlessly effective, drones. The inexpensive individual drones are limited in intelligence but a greater, more adaptive intelligence emerges from the swarm. It’s on par with a Michael Crichton technothriller with lots of action (plus romance), making it an easy read.  

By Daniel Suarez,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Kill Decision as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A scientist and a soldier must join forces when combat drones zero in on targets on American soil in this gripping technological thriller from New York Times bestselling author Daniel Suarez.

Linda McKinney studies the social behavior of insects—which leaves her entirely unprepared for the day her research is conscripted to help run an unmanned and automated drone army.

Odin is the secretive Special Ops soldier with a unique insight into a faceless enemy who has begun to attack the American homeland with drones programmed to seek, identify, and execute targets without human intervention.

Together, McKinney and Odin must slow…


Book cover of Head On

Robin R. Murphy Why did I love this book?

The second in his entertaining detective series in a near future where 2% of the population is paralyzed and has to teleoperate robots in order to interact with the world (interestingly, it was written before the pandemic). The protagonist, Chris (we never are told their gender, making for a delightful guessing game), is an FBI agent investigating a murder and along the way faces the kind of casual discrimination that the disabled undoubtedly face every day. Chris maintains a wry sense of humor through it all, adding an Elmore Leonard or Donald E. Westlake vibe that makes me laugh out loud. 

By John Scalzi,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Head On as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

John Scalzi's Head On, is a chilling near-future SF with the thrills of a gritty cop procedural. Head On brings Scalzi's trademark snappy dialogue and technological speculation to the future world of sports.

To some left with nothing, winning becomes everything . . .

In a post-virus world, a daring sport is taking the US by storm. It's frenetic, violent and involves teams attacking one another with swords and hammers. The aim: to obtain your opponent's head and carry it through the goalposts. Impossible? Not if the players have Haden's Syndrome. Unable to move, Haden's sufferers use robot bodies, which…


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Conditions are Different After Dark

By Owen W. Knight,

Book cover of Conditions are Different After Dark

Owen W. Knight Author Of The Visitors

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Visionary Compassionate Imaginative Conspiracist Apophenia (or apophenic)

Owen's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

In 1662, a man is wrongly executed for signing the death warrant of Charles I. Awaiting execution, he asks to speak with a priest, to whom he declares a curse on the village that betrayed him. The priest responds with a counter-curse, leaving just one option to nullify it.

Over four centuries later, Faith and James move to the country to start a new life and a family. They discover their village lives under the curse uttered by the hanged man. Could their arrival be connected? They fear their choice of new home is no coincidence. Unexplained events hint at threats or warnings to leave. They become convinced the village remains cursed despite their friends’ denials. Who can they trust, and who are potential enemies?

Conditions are Different After Dark

By Owen W. Knight,

What is this book about?

In 1660, a man is wrongly executed for signing the death warrant of Charles I. While awaiting execution, he asks to speak with a priest, to whom he declares a curse on the village that betrayed him. The priest responds with a counter-curse, leaving just one option to nullify it.
Over four centuries later, Faith and James move to the country to start a new life and a family. They learn that their village lives under the curse uttered by the hanged man. Could their arrival be connected?
Faith and James fear that their choice of a new home is…


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