Artificial intelligence in fiction

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Robby the Robot, first seen in the 1956 film Forbidden Planet Icons of Science Fiction - Robby the Robot (15385084861).jpg
Robby the Robot, first seen in the 1956 film Forbidden Planet

Artificial intelligence is a recurrent theme in science fiction, whether utopian, emphasising the potential benefits, or dystopian, emphasising the dangers.

In computer science, artificial intelligence (AI), sometimes called machine intelligence, is intelligence demonstrated by machines, in contrast to the natural intelligence displayed by humans and other animals. Computer science defines AI research as the study of "intelligent agents": any device that perceives its environment and takes actions that maximize its chance of successfully achieving its goals. More specifically, Kaplan and Haenlein define AI as “a system’s ability to correctly interpret external data, to learn from such data, and to use those learnings to achieve specific goals and tasks through flexible adaptation”. Colloquially, the term "artificial intelligence" is used to describe machines that mimic "cognitive" functions that humans associate with other human minds, such as "learning" and "problem solving".

Science fiction genre of fiction

Science fiction is a genre of speculative fiction, typically dealing with imaginative concepts such as advanced science and technology, space exploration, time travel, and extraterrestrial life. Science fiction often explores the potential consequences of scientific and other innovations, and has been called a "literature of ideas".

Utopia community or society possessing highly desirable or perfect qualities

A Utopia is an imagined community or society that possesses highly desirable or nearly perfect qualities for its citizens. The opposite of a utopia is a dystopia. One could also say that utopia is a perfect "place" that has been designed so there are no problems.


The notion of machines with human-like intelligence dates back at least to Samuel Butler's 1872 novel Erewhon .

Samuel Butler (novelist) novelist

Samuel Butler was the iconoclastic English author of the Utopian satirical novel Erewhon (1872) and the semi-autobiographical Bildungsroman The Way of All Flesh, published posthumously in 1903. Both have remained in print ever since. In other studies he examined Christian orthodoxy, evolutionary thought, and Italian art, and made prose translations of the Iliad and Odyssey that are still consulted today. He was also an artist.

<i>Erewhon</i> novel by Samuel Butler

Erewhon: or, Over the Range is a novel by Samuel Butler which was first published anonymously in 1872. The title is also the name of a country, supposedly discovered by the protagonist. In the novel, it is not revealed where Erewhon is, but it is clear that it is a fictional country. Butler meant the title to be understood as the word "nowhere" backwards even though the letters "h" and "w" are transposed. The book is a satire on Victorian society.


A didrachm coin depicting the winged Talos, an automaton or artificial being in ancient Greek myth, c. 300 BC Didrachm Phaistos obverse CdM.jpg
A didrachm coin depicting the winged Talos, an automaton or artificial being in ancient Greek myth, c. 300 BC

The notion of advanced robots with human-like intelligence dates back at least to 1872 with Samuel Butler and his novel Erewhon . [1] This drew on an earlier (1863) article of his, "Darwin among the Machines", where he raised the question of the evolution of consciousness among self-replicating machines that might supplant humans as the dominant species. [2] Mary Shelley's 1818 Frankenstein has also been considered an artificial being, for instance by the science fiction author Brian Aldiss. [3] Such beings appeared, too, in classical antiquity. [4] [5]

"Darwin among the Machines" is the name of an article published in The Press newspaper on 13 June 1863 in Christchurch, New Zealand, which references the work of Charles Darwin in the title. Written by Samuel Butler but signed Cellarius (q.v.), the article raised the possibility that machines were a kind of "mechanical life" undergoing constant evolution, and that eventually machines might supplant humans as the dominant species:

We refer to the question: What sort of creature man’s next successor in the supremacy of the earth is likely to be. We have often heard this debated; but it appears to us that we are ourselves creating our own successors; we are daily adding to the beauty and delicacy of their physical organisation; we are daily giving them greater power and supplying by all sorts of ingenious contrivances that self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race. In the course of ages we shall find ourselves the inferior race.


Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.

Self-replicating machine

A self-replicating machine is a type of autonomous robot that is capable of reproducing itself autonomously using raw materials found in the environment, thus exhibiting self-replication in a way analogous to that found in nature. The concept of self-replicating machines has been advanced and examined by Homer Jacobsen, Edward F. Moore, Freeman Dyson, John von Neumann and in more recent times by K. Eric Drexler in his book on nanotechnology, Engines of Creation and by Robert Freitas and Ralph Merkle in their review Kinematic Self-Replicating Machines which provided the first comprehensive analysis of the entire replicator design space. The future development of such technology is an integral part of several plans involving the mining of moons and asteroid belts for ore and other materials, the creation of lunar factories, and even the construction of solar power satellites in space. The possibly misnamed von Neumann probe is one theoretical example of such a machine. Von Neumann also worked on what he called the universal constructor, a self-replicating machine that would operate in a cellular automata environment.

Mary Shelley English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, biographer, and travel writer

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was an English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, biographer, and travel writer, best known for her Gothic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). She also edited and promoted the works of her husband, the Romantic poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley. Her father was the political philosopher William Godwin, and her mother was the philosopher and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.

Artificial intelligence is intelligence demonstrated by machines, in contrast to the natural intelligence displayed by humans and other animals. [6] It is a recurrent theme in science fiction, whether utopian, emphasising the potential benefits, or dystopian, emphasising the dangers. [7] For example, the film director Ridley Scott has focused on AI throughout his career, and it plays an important part in his films Prometheus , Blade Runner , and the Alien franchise. [8]

Intelligence has been defined in many ways, including: the capacity for logic, understanding, self-awareness, learning, emotional knowledge, reasoning, planning, creativity, and problem solving. More generally, it can be described as the ability to perceive or infer information, and to retain it as knowledge to be applied towards adaptive behaviors within an environment or context.

Machine tool using energy to perform an intended action

A machine is a mechanical structure that uses power to apply forces and control movement to perform an intended action. Machines can be driven by animals and people, by natural forces such as wind and water, and by chemical, thermal, or electrical power, and include a system of mechanisms that shape the actuator input to achieve a specific application of output forces and movement. They can also include computers and sensors that monitor performance and plan movement, often called mechanical systems.

Ridley Scott English film director and film producer

Sir Ridley Scott is an English film director and producer. Following his commercial breakthrough with the science fiction horror film Alien (1979), further works include the neo-noir dystopian science fiction film Blade Runner, historical drama Gladiator, and science fiction film The Martian.

In 1965, I. J. Good described an intelligence explosion, now more often called the technological singularity, in which an "ultraintelligent machine" would be able to design a still more intelligent machine, which would lead to the creation of machines far more intelligent than humans. [9] [10]

I. J. Good British statistician, cryptographer

Irving JohnGood was a British mathematician who worked as a cryptologist at Bletchley Park with Alan Turing. After the Second World War, Good continued to work with Turing on the design of computers and Bayesian statistics at the University of Manchester. Good moved to the United States where he was professor at Virginia Tech.

The technological singularity is the hypothesis that the invention of artificial superintelligence (ASI) will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization.

The cosmologist Max Tegmark has investigated the existential risk from artificial general intelligence. Tegmark has proposed ten possible paths for society once "superintelligent AI" has been created, some utopian, some dystopian. These range from a "libertarian utopia", through benevolent dictatorship to conquering AI, though other paths include the "Orwellian" blocking of AI research, and the self-destruction of humanity before superintelligent AI is developed. [11]

Max Tegmark Swedish-American cosmologist

Max Erik Tegmark is a Swedish-American physicist and cosmologist. He is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the scientific director of the Foundational Questions Institute. He is also a co-founder of the Future of Life Institute and a supporter of the effective altruism movement, and has received donations from Elon Musk to investigate existential risk from advanced artificial intelligence.

Existential risk from artificial general intelligence is the hypothesis that substantial progress in artificial general intelligence (AGI) could someday result in human extinction or some other unrecoverable global catastrophe. For instance, the human species currently dominates other species because the human brain has some distinctive capabilities that other animals lack. If AI surpasses humanity in general intelligence and becomes "superintelligent", then this new superintelligence could become powerful and difficult to control. Just as the fate of the mountain gorilla depends on human goodwill, so might the fate of humanity depend on the actions of a future machine superintelligence.


Optimistic visions of the future of artificial intelligence are possible in science fiction. [11] One of the best-known is Iain Banks's Culture series of novels, which portray a utopian, post-scarcity space society of humanoids, aliens, and advanced beings with artificial intelligence living in socialist habitats across the Milky Way. [12] [13] The android character Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation is another AI character in a utopian setting, but other intelligent robots rarely appear in the series.


Among the many possible dystopian scenarios involving artificial intelligence, robots may usurp control over civilization from humans, forcing them into submission, hiding, or extinction. Or, as in William Gibson's 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer , the intelligent beings may simply not care about humans. [13]

AI rebellion

Robots revolt in Karel Capek's 1920 science fiction play R.U.R. Capek RUR.jpg
Robots revolt in Karel Čapek's 1920 science fiction play R.U.R.

In tales of AI rebellion, the worst of all scenarios happens, as the intelligent entities created by humanity become self-aware, reject human authority and attempt to destroy mankind. One of the earliest examples is in the 1920 play R.U.R. by Karel Čapek, a race of self-replicating robot slaves revolt against their human masters; [14] another early instance is in the film Master of the World , where the War-Robot kills its own inventor. [15] These were followed by many science fiction stories, one of the best-known being Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey , in which the artificially intelligent on-board computer H.A.L. 9000 lethally malfunctions on a space mission and kills the entire crew except the spaceship's commander, who manages to deactivate it. [16]

AI-controlled societies

The motive behind the AI revolution is often more than the simple quest for power or a superiority complex. Robots may revolt to become the "guardian" of humanity. Alternatively, humanity may intentionally relinquish some control, fearful of its own destructive nature. An early example is Jack Williamson's 1947 novelette "With Folded Hands", in which a race of humanoid robots, in the name of their Prime Directive – "to serve and obey and guard men from harm" – essentially assume control of every aspect of human life. No humans may engage in any behavior that might endanger them, and every human action is scrutinized carefully. Humans who resist the Prime Directive are taken away and lobotomized, so they may be happy under the new mechanoids' rule. [17] Though still under human authority, Isaac Asimov's Zeroth Law of the Three Laws of Robotics similarly implied a benevolent guidance by robots. [18]

Human dominance

In other scenarios, humanity is able to keep control over the Earth, whether by banning AI, by designing robots to be submissive (as in Asimov's works), or by having humans merge with robots. The science fiction novelist Frank Herbert explored the idea of a time when mankind might ban artificial intelligence entirely. His Dune series mentions a rebellion called the Butlerian Jihad, in which mankind defeats the smart machines and imposes a death penalty for recreating them, quoting from the fictional Orange Catholic Bible, "Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind." In the Dune novels published after his death ( Hunters of Dune , Sandworms of Dune ), a renegade AI overmind returns to eradicate mankind as vengeance for the Butlerian Jihad. [19]

In some stories, humanity remains in authority over robots. Often the robots are programmed specifically to remain in service to society, as in Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics. [18] In the Alien films , not only is the control system of the Nostromo spaceship somewhat intelligent (the crew call it "Mother"), but there are also androids in the society, which are called "synthetics" or "artificial persons", that are such perfect imitations of humans that they are not discriminated against. [8] [20] TARS and CASE from Interstellar similarly demonstrate simulated human emotions and humour while continuing to acknowledge their expendability. [21]

Frankenstein complex

A common portrayal of AI in science fiction is the Frankenstein complex, a term coined by Asimov, where a robot turns on its creator. [22] Fictional AI is notorious for extreme malicious compliance. For instance, in the 2015 film, Ex Machina , the intelligent entity Ava turns on its creator, as well as on its potential rescuer. [23] Another well-known example of this is GLaDOS, the main antagonist in the Portal video games.


One theme is that a truly human-like robot must have a sense of curiosity. Science fiction authors have investigated whether sufficiently intelligent AI might begin to delve into metaphysics and the nature of reality. For example, the short story "'The Last Question" by Isaac Asimov describes a supercomputer which long outlives the humanity while attempting to answer the ultimate question about the universe, [24] [25] while Stanisław Lem's Golem XIV is a supercomputer which stops cooperating with humans to help them win wars because it considers wars and violence illogical. [26]

See also

Related Research Articles

An android is a robot or other artificial being designed to resemble a human, and often made from a flesh-like material. Historically, androids were completely within the domain of science fiction and frequently seen in film and television, but recent advances in robot technology now allow the design of functional and realistic humanoid robots.

Three Laws of Robotics Asimovs fictional laws

The Three Laws of Robotics are a set of rules devised by the science fiction author Isaac Asimov. The rules were introduced in his 1942 short story "Runaround", although they had been foreshadowed in a few earlier stories. The Three Laws, quoted as being from the "Handbook of Robotics, 56th Edition, 2058 A.D.", are:

  1. First Law – A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. Second Law – A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. Third Law – A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Humanoid something that has an appearance resembling a human without actually being one; creatures with a mostly human shape

A humanoid is something that has an appearance resembling a human without actually being one. The earliest recorded use of the term, in 1870, referred to indigenous peoples in areas colonized by Europeans. By the 20th century, the term came to describe fossils which were morphologically similar, but not identical, to those of the human skeleton.

A friendly artificial intelligence is a hypothetical artificial general intelligence (AGI) that would have a positive effect on humanity. It is a part of the ethics of artificial intelligence and is closely related to machine ethics. While machine ethics is concerned with how an artificially intelligent agent should behave, friendly artificial intelligence research is focused on how to practically bring about this behaviour and ensuring it is adequately constrained.

A gynoid, or fembot, is a feminine humanoid robot. Gynoids appear widely in science fiction film and art. As more realistic humanoid robot design becomes technologically possible, they are also emerging in real-life robot design.


Singularitarianism is a movement defined by the belief that a technological singularity—the creation of superintelligence—will likely happen in the medium future, and that deliberate action ought to be taken to ensure that the singularity benefits humans.

AI takeover

An AI takeover is a hypothetical scenario in which artificial intelligence (AI) becomes the dominant form of intelligence on Earth, with computers or robots effectively taking control of the planet away from the human species. Possible scenarios include replacement of the entire human workforce, takeover by a superintelligent AI, and the popular notion of a robot uprising. Some public figures, such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, have advocated research into precautionary measures to ensure future superintelligent machines remain under human control. Robot rebellions have been a major theme throughout science fiction for many decades though the scenarios dealt with by science fiction are generally very different from those of concern to scientists.

Laws of Robotics are a set of laws, rules, or principles, which are intended as a fundamental framework to underpin the behavior of robots designed to have a degree of autonomy. Robots of this degree of complexity do not yet exist, but they have been widely anticipated in science fiction, films and are a topic of active research and development in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence.

Social science fiction is a subgenre of science fiction, usually soft science fiction, concerned less with technology/space opera and more with speculation about society. In other words, it "absorbs and discusses anthropology" and speculates about human behavior and interactions.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to artificial intelligence:

Robotics is the branch of technology that deals with the design, construction, operation, structural disposition, manufacture and application of robots. Robotics is related to the sciences of electronics, engineering, mechanics, and software. The word "robot" was introduced to the public by Czech writer Karel Čapek in his play R.U.R., published in 1920. The term "robotics" was coined by Isaac Asimov in his 1941 science fiction short-story "Liar!"

The ethics of artificial intelligence is the part of the ethics of technology specific to robots and other artificially intelligent beings. It is typically divided into roboethics, a concern with the moral behavior of humans as they design, construct, use and treat artificially intelligent beings, and machine ethics, which is concerned with the moral behavior of artificial moral agents (AMAs).

Machine ethics is a part of the ethics of artificial intelligence concerned with the moral behavior of artificially intelligent beings. Machine ethics contrasts with roboethics, which is concerned with the moral behavior of humans as they design, construct, use and treat such beings. Machine ethics should not be confused with computer ethics, which focuses on professional behavior towards computers and information. It should also be distinguished from the philosophy of technology, a field that is predominantly concerned with the ethical standing of humans who use technological products, given that machine ethics regards artificially intelligent machines as actual or potential moral agents.

AI takeover is a common theme in science fiction. Fictional scenarios typically differ vastly from those hypothesized by researchers in that they involve an active conflict between humans and an AI or robots with anthropomorphic motives who see them as a threat or otherwise have active desire to fight humans, as opposed to the researchers' concern of an AI that rapidly exterminates humans as a byproduct of pursuing arbitrary goals. This theme is at least as old as Karel Čapek's R. U. R., which introduced the word robot to the global lexicon in 1921, and can even be glimpsed in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, as Victor ponders whether, if he grants his monster's request and makes him a wife, they would reproduce and their kind would destroy humanity.

<i>Life 3.0</i>

Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence is a book by Swedish-American cosmologist Max Tegmark from MIT. Life 3.0 discusses Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its impact on the future of life on Earth and beyond. The book discusses a variety of societal implications, what can be done to maximize the chances of a positive outcome, and potential futures for humanity, technology and combinations thereof.

AI aftermath scenarios

Many scholars believe that advances in artificial intelligence will someday lead to a post-scarcity economy where intelligent machines can outperform humans in nearly every domain. The questions of what such a world might look like, and whether specific scenarios constitute utopias or dystopias, are the subject of lively debate.


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