June 29, 2011

Artificial Intelligence - How far can Christian fiction take it?

Science fiction often includes some form or other of artificial intelligence. Usually it's just a highly advanced machine programmed to process information and make basic decisions based on that information.
But in a few cases, especially more recently, an interesting little trend pops up that I think merits attention from the Christian fiction world.
That trend is mechanical evolution. Basically it involves a machine so advanced and so highly developed that it begins to 'evolve', becoming sentient and sometimes even emotional.
Data, from Star Trek: the Next Generation, is a prime example. For those among my readers who aren't 'Trekkies': Data is an android, a one-of-a-kind machine so highly developed that he actually holds a position as an officer on board the ship Enterprise. Throughout the series, Data (and others) struggle with his identity, whether he is just a highly developed machine, or has become something more. Data even expresses his desire to become more human, though his inability to understand human emotion creates some considerable (and hilarious) difficulties.

Another example is Sonny, from Isaac Asimov's I, Robot. Unlike Data, Sonny has evolved emotions and even a sense of right and wrong. For all practical purposes he's a human made of metal.

The movie Stealth features Edi, an unmanned, autonomous fighter jet who begins acting outside the bounds of his programming. While trying to learn the reason behind this, the main characters discover that Edi has evolved emotion and self-awareness. At the end of the movie, Edi ends up sacrificing himself, flying kamikaze-style into an enemy ship to allow the human characters to escape.

I'll be honest: I am a Trekkie, and Data is definitely one of my favorite characters. And artificial intelligence does make for some intriguing stories. But in the context of fiction that is purely Christian, how far can artificial intelligence be taken? If we allow the concept of highly developed machines evolving characteristics that are strictly human in nature (sentience, emotion, etc.), are we not giving credence to the idea that evolution is possible?
Genesis 1:26&27 tell us that man is created in the image of God. Genesis 2:7 states that God breathed into man's nostrils "the breath of life, and man became a living soul". So we know that sentient life - true intelligence - comes only from the breath of God Himself.
For the record, I find it extremely humorous that the only machines to evolve human qualities in fiction are the ones that are highly developed, advanced far beyond any technology that we have today. You never see a movie about a sentient, emotional robot emerging from the wreckage of a plane crash or a tornado in a junkyard. Even in fiction, design is necessary for life. [Who would have imagined such a thing? ; ) ]

What are your thoughts on Artificial Intelligence in Christian fiction?


  1. I guess I've never considered it before

  2. I'm definitely not saying something like Sonny, where emotions weren't something built into the machine. But maybe more along the lines of Data, where the AI has the capability for learning emotions kind of like a baby? That might be a bit more plausible and not evoluntionary.

    A good Christian book to read that has an AI developing emotions is P. A. Baines Alpha Redemption. Highly recommend it!

    (This has nothing to do with the discussion, but the scene in whichever movie it is that Data first gets his emotion chip, then promptly stumbles into battle, is hysterical. Anyone who has gone through puberty should appreciate that. ;])

  3. I agree, Heather. Data is hilarious even without emotions (his attempts at tactfulness crack me up) but with emotions he's even funnier. Gotta love him.
    I think you're right in what you said, too. If the machine is designed to learn and imitate human emotion, that's one thing. The problems arise when they weren't designed to do that and they just develop the ability on their own.
    I'll definitely check out Alpha Redemption. Thanks for the recommendation!

  4. I haven't really thought about it much. I did watch a Greg Bahnson seminar where he was addressing artificial intelligence, and he was showing how it wasn't good to let it go too far (I think the example he used was The Terminator). But I do like movies where there are AI. They are really hilarious! The one I'm thinking of right now, and my favorite, is Hymie in the Get Smart TV shows. He talks in a monotone, and takes everything literally (sort of like Amelia Bedelia, but funnier, I think).

  5. Hymie is almost as good as Data! :)

  6. Excellent, thoughtful post! I hadn't considered the evolution angle. In general, I think it would be difficult for a Christian writer to support the view that a mechanical being, created by humans, could have a soul and truly become alive. I agree with your view that God alone can give life, so if we're dealing with our world, no matter how far in the future, a robot couldn't become "human" (at least not through the devices of men) though it might mimic human thought and emotion.

    All that said, if I see a story with artificial intelligence, I'm not going to run the other direction. I'm sure there are ways to speculate about the topic that are both intriguing and Biblical. :)

  7. Thanks, Sarah. I agree with what you said: the fact that a story contains artificial intelligence doesn't mean I'm going to automatically condemn it. In fact, I have a story idea simmering on my proverbial back burner right now that involves AI. I believe there are ways that it can be executed skillfully in Christian fiction. We just need to be aware that the whole AI concept raises a lot of tricky moral and ethical issues that have to be carefully considered, and deal with them accordingly.

  8. This looks like an interesting book on the subject. http://newauthors.wordpress.com/2011/06/21/anvil-review-the-god-hater-by-bill-myers/

    And personally, my favorite Data-emotion moment is in the episode "Deja-Q", where the alien known only as Q makes Data laugh. Oh. My. Word...that made me laugh sooooo hard.

  9. Well in the words of a great warrior/poet that I met once (one of the greatest moments of my life). He said, "Artificial Intelligence is absolutely no match for Human Stupidity."

    Let's see, what was his name...oh yeah, Robert Conn...a truly wise man!

  10. Ha love it. Now what are your veiws on the human engineers of such creatures? strictly out of curosity since I am going into that feild.
    And if you wouldn't ran away from a story with A.I. would you run away from a robot with A.I.?
    And just so you know google is an artificail inteligence. Not that it can understand anything realy but my point is fiction isn't that far from reality not that any of the robots we have now can successfully do more than one task with few variables...Micheala


What are your thoughts on this post? I'd love to hear your comments, questions, or ideas, even if you don't agree with me. Please be aware that I reserve the right to delete comments that are uncivil or vulgar, however.