Robots: The Recent A.I. (anthology)
Posted March 19, 2012on:
Robots: The Recent A.I., edited by Rich Horton and Sean Wallace
published in 2012 from Prime Books
where I got it: purchased
For no good reason, I’ve never read much short fiction. I’ve had mixed luck with anthologies in the past, and that is a terrible reason to shy away from short fiction. Good thing I ran into Robots: The Recent A.I., an anthology so packed with my favorite authors that I felt like a kid in a candy store. Authors such as Cory Doctorow, Cat Valente, Lavie Tidhar, Tim Pratt, Rachel Swirsky and more whipping up near and far future tales of an aspect of science fiction that is near and dear to my heart: artificial intelligence. How could I possibly say no? Most of these stores have already appeared elsewhere, but I had only ever heard of the Valente and Doctorow titles. Blazing big and bold on the cover is the word “robots”, but artificial intelligence is so much more that a metal machine that can have a conversation with you or play chess.
These are the stores about the new holy grail: creating an artificial intelligence that is so close to human we can’t tell the difference. When an AI is so close to human you can’t tell, where is the line between ownership and freedom? Where is the line between loving someone and being programmed to love that person? For a discussion about cold hard programming, where every decision comes down to a sharply defined one or zero, these are some mighty emotional and sensual stories. Some are told from a humans point of view, others are from the point of view of an AI. These are not your Papa Asimov’s robot stories, and it’s suddenly about more than playing chess.
It’s one thing to program a machine to believe that it is a human. It’s an entirely different thing to deal with the consequences. Frankenstein’s monster indeed.
Although I was originally interested in this anthology because of the authors that I’d heard of, I’m happy to announce I’ve discovered some new names in science fiction that I will be watching closely for. Catherynne Valente’s Silently and Very Fast appears in this anthology, but I’ve already reviewed it here. Here are my thoughts on a handful of the other entries:
Eros, Philia, Agape by Rachel Swirsky- the title refers to three types of love – romantic love, platonic love, and unconditional love, and this is a story about love, discovery and loss. Lonely Adriana has never been married, never known love, never found a partner who could put up with her oddities. But there is happiness to be found in wealth, and Adriana purchases Lucien, one of the first available robotic spouses. He is programmed to love her, and he is perfect. They adopt a baby girl named Rose, and Lucien finds unexpected satisfaction tending his garden and playing with his daughter. But never forget, Lucien is not a person. Adriana owns him. No matter what she gifts him with, no matter that Rose believes Lucien is her biological father, when it comes down to it Lucien is chattel, owned, a slave. Where is the line between love and ownership, between programming and slavery? Like the best stories, the puzzle peices come together only at the end, and Swirsky doesn’t give us the whole picture in chronological order. This wasn’t the first story I read, but it was a perfect choice for the opening entry in the collection. My first exposure to Swirksy was her strange and delightful entry in The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, and she is quickly turning into a new favorite of mine.
Stalker by Robert Reed – In this future, we all have little electronic helpers that we can custom program to help us through the different things we do every day, from needing driving directions to get somewhere, to remembering appointments. The first generation helpers, known colloquially as Stalkers, were programmed to unconditionally love their owners. To help their owners with absolutely anything and everything, even horrible, evil things. Stalkers have no choice but to assist their humans, whom they are programmed to love and obey. When a machine loves you, there isn’t anything you can’t do. The story takes a very dark turn, and then flips the roles. Robert Reed, another new-to-me author I’ll be keeping my eye out for.
A Jar of Goodwill by Tobias Buckell – I recently reviewed Buckell’s Arctic Rising, and while that novel didn’t thrill me, this freakishly lovely short story most certainly did. A little shock value at first, and then we follow Alex Mosette, who has just been contracted out again as a Professional Friend, a job that is part negotiator, part translator, and mostly secret-keeper and confidant. Anti-rape contract in place, Alex meets the other humans on a Gheda ship. Only later does Alex find out the real job – to befriend a member of a hive mind and help determine if an alien race is intelligent. More about defining humanity rather than artificial intelligences, this is a fascinating piece from Buckell.
The Rising Waters by Benjamin Crowell – Sue knows she’ll eventually have to say good bye. Every AI project she works on comes to an end so the programmers can learn from their mistakes. The AIs have become the government’s only hope, and it seems to work best when the brains are raised as children. Ridiculously smart children who think protein folding projects are fun, but nonetheless, children. Their fourth generation brain, Debbie, might be able to finally solve their problem. when the compound is attacked, Sue takes the biggest risk of her life to save Debbie. when you are raising an AI as a child and treating it as such, how do you teach it to protect itself? Do you tell it everything is going to be OK, or do you tell it that it is actually an artificial construct and to run like hell?
Kiss me Twice by Mary Robinette Kowal – If there is anyone who could use the help of an AI, it’s police departments. No one can be expected to remember every single detail, so it’s helpful to have an AI recording everything the police detective sees. The department’s AI, Metta, must have a soft spot for detective Scott Huang, as she always appears to him in her favorite Mae West avatar. Huang is investigating a strange murder when Metta’s chassis, the metal box at HQ where her brain lives, is stolen. How could someone possibly steal a heavy metal box from the bowels of a police department? Huang is convinced it was an inside job, and they fire up Metta’s backup files. What could be a standard police mystery turns into a brilliant story involving an AI whose been kidnapped, brought back from the dead, accused of lying, and threatened with shut down. Huang is one of the few people who see Metta as a person instead of a thing, and when it comes to staying alive, he becomes her only hope.
Robots: The Recent AI is probably the best anthology I’ve read in a long time. Beyond the stories I mentioned above, I was wowwed by the entries by Tim Pratt, Ken Liu, and Genevieve Valentine. I got to spend a few hours with some of my favorite authors, and discovered new names in science fiction to keep an eye out for.
Artificial Intelligence is so beautifully tricky – is your AI a person, or a thing? a he, a she, or an it? Someone you can have meaningful conversations with, or something with an off switch that you flip at the end of the day? What do we want out of our artificial intelligences? Someone to play chess with, or something more? We’ve gotten too close to the uncanny valley to keep describing AI as hard science fiction.