A few questions from Moyukh of Australia

I’m writing the Molly Fyde series with readers of all ages in mind, but I really get excited thinking about the young adults that might pick up these books. Science fiction has always been tops for posing tricky ethical dilemmas, some of them just around the corner. As much as I enjoy positive reviews and endorsements from famous writers, it’s going to be letters from young adult readers that I most look forward to.

This morning, I received an email from Moyukh, a student in Australia. He is writing a report on potential android relations using my short story THE AUTOMATED ONES as inspiration (feel free to read the story first, but it does contain adult language).

Moyukh had the following questions, which I attempt to answer as well as I can:

How would emotions be generated in the android brain?

We are gradually unraveling the mysteries of the human brain. We have a long way to go; but new tools, which allow us to look inside at a functioning, normal brain are revealing amazing clues to how we think. For one, it seems our brains are built of many interconnected and often competing modules. It isn’t one big lump working in concert, it’s more like an orchestra with each seat playing its own tune. The secret to AI, then, will be to build a hundred programs that interact and work together (and competitively) instead of writing a single-threaded program that attempts to do everything. This is the first step in creating my androids.

The second step is to introduce some randomization. Allow the programs to make mistakes. Allow the visual module to “see” things that aren’t really there. Make the pattern-recognition module hyper-sensitive and have it confuse cause and effect, creating a semblance of superstition (and perhaps developing the first artificial conspiracy theory).

How would emotions work with these modules? There would be a trio of main modules for my three axis of emotions. I won’t go into those in detail, but imagine one that ranges from happy to sad. The way this module (just a computer program, remember) would work is this: Happy/sad range is -100 to +100. If at -80, slow down the physical movement module. Inject negativity into the language module. Reduce the motivation module level.

The self-aware module (the one that looks at behaviors and only afterwards attempts to determine internal states–what we call rationalization) would soon pick up these clues and tell the Stream-of-Consciousness module: “I am sad.”

Would the programmed emotions be any more real than a humans?

I don’t think either would be any more or less “real” since they would both exist and both control or influence the actions of a physical being. A human’s could be considered more “natural,” but I would even argue that point. If a beehive is natural, so is anything humans create. To me, unnatural things are unicorns and leprechauns and things which do not exist in nature. In my opinion, nothing mankind has ever created can truly be considered “unnatural.” We have devised nothing in the laboratory more strange, biologically, than the sight of conjoined twins crab-walking down the street, sharing a blood supply yet unique, caring, loving, wonderful individuals with separate brains. I think we tend to ignore nature’s mistakes when we applaud how wonderful and “natural” her products can be.

Aren’t all of us programmed to be emotive to certain responses?

This is certainly how I see it. Hormones and pheromones seem to be nature’s tools for creating its emotive modules. I’ve seen ants go into a furious tizzy. I’ve seen birds get confused, angry, and happy. Size and scale don’t seem to matter. Society and culture doesn’t create it. If there’s a god, she didn’t make humans unique in these regards. So I see no reason to place human emotions on a pedestal and treat them as products of a soul-infused and culturally-aware being. They just seem to be the states that certain stimuli can put us in, altering our behavior as a result.

Does this remove the mystery of emotions? No more than the theory that they are products of our soul and given to us in order to enjoy our existence as we puzzle the meaning of life. Any explanation removes some of the mystery yet none seem to suffer from this (I always feel a greater connection to the truth than I do to the mysterious, anyway). When I first learned about the mechanics of love, the specific brain chemicals that are exuded during moments of pair-bonding, it didn’t make me feel that love was less real, it made it more real! I wasn’t deluding myself with feeling different, I really was feeling an incredibly new sensation. The magic of this creature that I’m falling in love with now becomes her ability to make these chemicals course through my bloodstream. No one else makes me feel this way, and we have this effect on each other, which is what makes this person special. I find nothing dehumanizing in this.

And I think there’s plenty of evidence that our DNA programs us to feel and act certain ways, no different than a computer program. First, there’s the universality of almost all human behaviors and emotions. People laugh, yawn and cry in every culture on the planet. Jealously, rage, anger, prejudice, fear… these things are found everywhere we look and the similarity is striking. Also, there are separated twin studies and adoption studies that show children to be more like their biological parents than their adoptive parents; and more alike their twins than their other siblings. So, yes, I think we’re programmed. But that doesn’t mean we can’t, once we know this, alter that programming and be wonderful, unique creatures. Understanding genetics and our programming creates a new module inside each of us. A module that now understands why we are the way we are; what motivates us; and how we can rise above the ugly, primal modules that would have us do shameful things.

For me, this works better than embracing the parts of me that I don’t like, resigned to my “fate” and my “soul” and pretending that everything has a larger purpose to which I’m not privy.

Are your androids mostly mechanical or genetically engineered?

All mechanical. Even the real flesh, and the blood supply it receives from mechanical pumps, was manufactured. The fact that these additions were created using biological processes doesn’t change that in my opinion. We have grown human ears on the backs of laboratory animals. To me, this is a new form of manufacturing, like the push into nanotechnology. We have been “manufacturing” insulin using biological processes for a long time. If we keep at it, we’ll be creating legs and lungs along an assembly line one day.

I hope these explanations help, Moyukh; thanks for the excellent and difficult questions.

Of course, these answers just detail how things work in my fictional world. They are guided by my current understanding of human psychology and engineering breakthroughs, but they are not meant to be a literal roadmap for where things will absolutely progress from here. Like any decent speculative fiction, they are my best guesses, and as such I adore them completely and trust them not one bit!


Thanks to Moyukh–these are some great questions. And thanks for the thoughtful answers, Hugh!

Made for some great reading on a Monday morning…when I should have been working, but was more interested in stimulating some creative thoughts versus pushing the same pieces of paper across my desk for the 1000th time. Thanks to both Moyukh and Hugh!

Good science fiction will always provoke good thoughts, I just feel lucky that Hugh gave such great responses.