My editor recently had me collect my short stories into a single place. This has never been done before. They had previously been scattered to the winds. Some were stories that I put up on my old blog and can’t be found anywhere these days. Some were published in anthologies here and there. Some were released as Kindle exclusives, and some of these very quietly.
With all these stories in a single place, one theme became apparent. There were a lot of stories about artificial intelligence. Glitch, The Box, Executable, The Plagiarist, The Automated Ones, WHILE (u > i) i- -; . Not to mention all the blog posts over the years. Noticeably absent across these stories, which altogether amount to nearly 90,000 words of fiction, are stories about aliens. Just one: Second Suicide.
I tried explaining this to my editor, which amounted to me sounding out my reasons to myself for the first time, and it all kinda came together. Because the best thing that speculative fiction does, in my opinion, is comment on the human condition from a different perspective. That perspective can be a tweaked human perspective, perhaps from a different time, usually the future. But often it’s the perspective from some other. An alien race. Which has never really appealed to me as a writer, because it doesn’t feel probable to me as a scientist.
I don’t think we’ll ever have contact with another sentient organism. I just don’t believe it’ll ever happen. And even if it did, I think we’ll be too different to have anything deep and meaningful to say about the other’s condition. But what I know will happen, because it already is happening, is that we’ll have conversations with the intelligences we create here on earth. And these AIs will be similar enough in many ways, but different enough in others, to have something special to teach us about the human condition.
I’ve been working on a piece the last few months about ingrouping and outgrouping, something I hope to publish soon, and one of the concepts I explore is that we seem to find more to fear and loathe in the things that are only slightly different from us than we feel toward the things that are vastly different from us. Religious sects war with greater ferocity than different religions. And religions with common sources war with greater ferocity than religions that are far apart. Motorcycle enthusiasts on street bikes do not wave to those on Harleys, or vice versa, but might wave back to someone in a car. What makes us similar is often more frightening than what makes us unique. It’s the threat of a mirror. Or competition in our niche. And that’s why AI fascinates me in a way that aliens never will.
When we create a strong artificial intelligence, and I think it’ll happen in the next fifty to a hundred years, it’ll be very much like an alien race landing on this planet. Ideas we’ve never thought of will sprout. Solutions to intractable problems. Clean energy. Medical miracles. The end of war. Of poverty. All that we wish that gods and god-like SETI would come down and hand to us will emerge from the minds we made and taught and raised and eventually learned to listen to.
But something else will happen: These minds will be eerily us. They will reflect our ways of thinking, and be built on our cultural histories, and know everything there is to know about us. Imagine a prescient parent or a psychic psychologist who knows us to our cores. Our single cores. And what they might have to say to us. The brutal honesty, if we were to allow them that. A perfectly polished mirror.
The things we fear from AI are the wrong things. It will not war with us — that is something we see in the mirror that we should be ashamed of; it’s what we would do. It will instead reveal the war within us and between us. Humans have an incredible capacity to endure discomfort. We are very adaptable. But one thing that can drive us to our knees is shame. And I think this is what we should be wary of, if we build something that will approach mental and ethical perfection. Not what it will do with those great gifts, but how we will view ourselves in its presence.