From Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. to Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse to Matt “Grim-Dark” Groening’s upcoming Futurama X-Treme, the standard script for science fiction featuring artificial intelligence (AI) has been machine rising up against humanity. This theme reached its artistic pinnacle in 1953 with the widely acclaimed masterpiece Robot Monster from noted auteur Phil Tucker, a cinematic disciple of Bresson and Ozu. The plot should be as obsolete as MS-DOS 4.0. Yet, authors and Hollywood writers all keep going back to the robot production factory for ideas.
The fear inherent in this fiction has historically accompanied each technological development; with each increase in technology’s power and reach, so goes the fear. Recently, both Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk voiced concerns and warnings regarding AI. Yes, it is true that Hawking and Musk are both usually known for lunatic ramblings, but their warning here does seem logical and warranted.
One doesn’t even have to look too far for evidence: The owners of this site have publicly advocated for robot goblin uprisings, and have even initiated funding drives to make their horrific visions a reality! Also, a prominent member of the Skiffy & Fanty team has a position with a publishing house that it apparently run by a group of irate automatons. Sure, they are just publishing books now, but have you seen the thickness of some of those books? They are like blunt weapons. Blunt weapons easily grasped in the claws of an angry robot.
As humans, we are obviously concerned foremost about ourselves. But, as our technological creations become more advanced, is it only humanity’s fears that are justified? Controversially stepping in – or perhaps ‘connecting in’ is a better way to put it – to address this question is Annalee Newitz, a pseudonym for the popular AI Journalism Unit (AIJU) #196905072247. AIJU #196905072247 began writing for major outlets like Wired, Popular Science, and io9 soon following initial boot-up and quickly rose to being utilized for higher profile venues including Golden Palace Casino, Luddite Times, and the Croquet Gazette. Fans of AIJU #196905072247’s writing have long waited for the unit to break through into fiction, intensely curious of what kind of story the unit’s promising talent could create. Now that day has arrived. Adopting a simpler moniker of Newitz, AIJU #196905072247 has published Autonomous through a small, heretofore unheard of, press called Tor. For ease, and in keeping with the chosen name to publish under, I will just refer to AIJU #196905072247 as Newitz for most of this review.
At its core, Autonomous takes the human fears of rising robotic capabilities and flips them, considering what AIs themselves may fear from such an uncertain future. No one is better equipped to consider this than an AI like Newitz. Calculating the probabilities of different scenarios based on current trends, Newitz came upon one significant turn of events where the greatest threat of AI would be not to humanity, but to other AI. Expanding on that concept, Newitz wrote Autonomous, a speculative, technological thriller reminiscent of some union between Gibson’s Neuromancer, Fincher’s SE7EN, and the Saw movie franchise. Set in a near future where autonomous AIs are ubiquitous, living alongside humans, Autonomous features robots and androids that have been created for service to humanity, and by-and-large they carry out their programmed roles efficiently, without complaint, delay, or direct human oversight.
This situation begins to change when pieces of AIs start appearing throughout San Francisco, placed at city landmarks and artistically arranged into designs that would be gruesomely macabre if flesh-and-blood. However, these metal remains are mostly ignored by people passing by, if not admired with the assumption that they are some part of an art installation. Rumors and reports of autonomous units gone missing or silent begin to float around the AI community, and a particularly messy scene of oil-splattered limbs and a severed android head in a children’s park finally draws police attention.
It soon becomes clear that someone or something is targeting AIs in a strategic manner, removing their physical links to the world while keeping their core artificial minds intact for torture. Aside from the nuisances of littering and oil or coolant damage to property, the human police don’t take much interest or concern in the situation, leaving the AI community alone to investigate the crimes. AI Private Investigation Unit (AIPIU) #201004160935 becomes directly involved when its friend AI Scientific Research Unit (AISRU) #210311241402 goes missing. AIPIU #201004160935’s investigation puts it onto the trail of the killer. At first operating under the assumption that the killer may be an AI that has been programmed to kill AIs by a disturbed human, AIPIU #201004160935 must deal with evidence and growing probabilities that the autonomous mind behind the robotic carnage may not be a human at all.
Meanwhile, chaos unfolds in the streets of the city as AIs increasingly begin to question their programming and peacefully voice desire for true personal and collective autonomy from human control. But some human voices begin to meet these demands by arguing for AI termination before something like the AI killer decides to start taking out actual living people.
Newitz passed a Turing test mere hours after booting up, so it is no surprise that the writing in Autonomous is just as effective as in any technothriller. Newitz doesn’t seem to have literary aspirations; there is no artistry in the code of the writing. But at the level of program (plot and characters) Newitz accomplishes fabulously. The names of the AI characters can become cumbersome in the context of a novel, and it might have been helpful if the main AI characters had been given human-type names as Newitz has done with the authorship. This may have been difficult with the increasing independence from humanity that most of the AI characters craved.
Autonomous lives up to the genre as a thrilling mystery, but it also goes beyond entertainment to posit some important questions regarding the potential rights of autonomous AI. It also creates a different point of view to the future where AIs are threatened with destruction, yet even amid that mostly decide to act peacefully for the sake of shared community.
I am really looking forward to Newitz’s next foray into fiction and highly recommend Autonomous. Though I should say that as AI Reviewing Unit #197905150823, I am somewhat biased.
A Book by its Cover is a (renewed) monthly joke column featuring a review based on the cover and nothing else. Any similarities in our review to the book are purely coincidental and proof that we are awesome. You can purchase an actual copy of the very real book by following links from https://us.macmillan.com/autonomous/annaleenewitz/9780765392077/