5 Books That Explore the Secret Lives of ‘Bots

Earlier this year I wrote a post about how artificial intelligences might develop a personality. And once you are a person (biological, artificial, or some combination of the two), theoretically you are entitled to have your own life—and you can chose to keep at least part of that life private. Five recent books that explore the secret lives of robots also happen to have done well for themselves during awards season, and are worth another look.

Annalee Newitz’ Autonomous received a deserved Nebula nomination this year. It is an exploration of a future where Big Pharma has run amok, and drugs, robots, and people can be owned and monetized—even more so than they can today. What I found most interesting in this novel is the private life of the character Paladin, a newly activated, indentured cyborg working for the government.

Paladin has a human handler, Eliasz, and together they are hunting Jack, a renegade scientist fabricating medication for the many who cannot afford it at Big Pharm prices. Through Paladin’s point-of-view chapters, we witness the lives of the lives of robots as lived outside of human notice, facilitated via both a public botnet and direct communication between individuals via microwave. There are robot forms of entertainment, including some that provide the equivalent of a high or an orgasm.

Initially Paladin understands little of “HUMINT” (human intelligence), and tries to learn through research, observation, and interaction. One thing he absorbs (besides that “he” is initially identified as male) is that humans place great importance on the sole organic element in robots like Paladin—their biobrain. For the robot, this human organ—sourced from tissue donors—is simply a graphic processor that aids in facial recognition. But Eliasz is obsessed with the gender of the human that provided Paladin’s biobrain, perhaps because it makes it easier for him to rationalize his own sexual proclivities (spoiler alert: if you’re looking for some hot human-on-robot love scenes, you could do worse than this book).

When Paladin finds out that its organic brain came from a woman, Eliasz starts identifying Paladin as female as well. Paladin has a rich inner life, struggling with how much his/her behavior is driven by true desire versus programing and algorithms. In fact, the entire question of sentience rests on a contradiction: Paladin’s desire to survive is part of that programing, and what legally defines an intelligence as “human-equivalent,” and therefore deserving of autonomy.”

In addition to earning top honors from this blog, Robert Cargill’s Sea of Rust made the shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke award. Its robot narrator, Brittle, is hiding her interior life not from humans (who are extinct, killed by the robots, who were arguably acting in self-defense), but from the One World Intelligences (OWI) that evolved from massive computer mainframes.

OWI’s seek to subsume all robots into their intelligence, and the remaining individual minds must hide and fight to maintain their independent existence. At the start, Britt only cares about her own survival, scavenging spare parts in the titular Sea of Rust, a 200-mile long desert in what used to be the Michigan/Ohio rust belt. At times she even takes the parts from other, dying robots. As she tells one of them, “That’s why we’re all out here. To get through one more day.” Britt grows and changes as the narrative unfolds, as she reflects on how she, and the world, got to where they are. She learns the value of friendship, and finally understand the importance of becoming part of something greater (provided that something greater is not an OWI.). By the end, she has adopted a new outlook on artificial life: “You have to choose to do the right thing. You have to deny your programming, or else you aren’t really living.”

The first two books in Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series, Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, were between them nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke awards. The trilogy (which concluded with this year’s Revenant Gun) is high level science fiction, with ships and weapons running on math and science so advanced they border on magic.

In the series, servitors—mobile machine intelligences—are almost beneath notice in a society whose rulers see even humans as little more than cogs in the machinery. Captain Kel Cheris seems to be the only human who views servitors as people, mourning their loss as much as her human soldiers, and asking, not ordering, servitors to take an unaccustomed role in an upcoming battle. The servitors value her consideration and respect, and debate how much they should help her. But they worry that revealing Cheris’ connection with them could endanger her, and themselves—since the servitors’ safety “[relies] on the humans thinking of them as well-trained furniture.”

The servitors’ loyalty to Cheris saves her in the climax of Ninefox Gambit, during which her enemy greatly underestimates the “furniture.” The servitors play a crucial role in Raven Stratagem as well. I have yet to read Revenant Gun, but in an interview on this blog, Lee discusses the role of the servitors across the trilogy, and discusses the decision to make a servitor a viewpoint character in the last book, which has definitely moved it higher in my to-be-read pile—I would really like to see what a servitor’s life looks like from the inside.

That brings us to All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells,  this year’s winner of the Nebula and Hugo awards for best novella. The Murderbot universe includes a continuum of sentient beings, from totally artificial robots, to ‘bots that are constructions combining organic and machine parts, as well as augmented humans, and old-fashioned un-augmented ones. The narrator, who calls itself “Murderbot,” is emphatic that it is “bot,” not robot—more specifically, it is an Imitative Human Bot Unit. (As it has no gender or sex-related parts, I am going with “it” for the pronoun.)

The whole book (which has expanded into three additional novellas and an eventual novel or two) is something of a window into the artificial mind; Murderbot, we learn, prefers the future equivalent of a TV binge to interacting with meatbags, which is an all too relatable stance, even for us humans. It has hacked the internal controls intended to restrict its free thought, but usually decides to carry out its prescribed functions anyway, figuring it’s easier to go along to get along.

Case in point: despite its own autonomy, Murderbot innately understands humans are more comfortable interacting with it when it is wearing its armor that covers its organic parts and makes it look like a robot. For this and other reasons (for one, the threat of deactivation), Murderbot guards its private life from the humans for whom it serves as security detail; even for robots, hell is other people.

I highly recommend all four of these novels, but I can’t end this post without one final tout, this one for a shorter work. When I was fact checking the above books’ award wins and nominations, I came across this year’s newly christened Hugo winner for Best Novelette, which has almost exactly the same title as the one I had already picked for this post—Suzanne Palmer’s “The Secret Life of Bots.” Naturally, I had to read it, and I am very glad I did. It is an amazing story about how noble and resourceful even a very small, outmoded robot can be. It’s a worthy addition to this list, and another reminded that our human notions of what defines a life may be very narrow indeed.

What other books explore the inner lives of robots? Let us know in the comments.


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