Science Fiction

Views of the Future Involving AI

AITopics > Science Fiction


The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed.
- William Gibson

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
- Arthur C. Clarke

A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.
- Fred Pohl

Most of us came to technology through science fiction; our imaginations remain secretly moved by science-fictional ideas.
- Jason Pontin

city of the future

Science fiction is an incubator for imaginative minds to create visions that help us to glimpse not only the future, but also something about ourselves in the present. Fueled by the extrapolation of "what is" into "what can be", science fiction transports us beyond the horizon of our current technologies enabling us to observe the possible incarnations of scientific progress and to experience and appreciate the many ways this may impact upon us. For example, George Orwell's classic work, 1984, introduced the notion of an omnipresent "Big Brother" and served as a focal point for discussion about our attitudes, perceptions, hopes and fears about technology, society, and how they intertwine. Also, the concept of rules of ethical conduct for robots was introduced as ‘Three Laws of Robotics’ by U.S. author Isaac Asimov in his book Runaround originally published in 1942.

For those interested in AI, science fiction offers a window to the future, a mirror for the present, and even interesting career opportunities.

Good Starting Places


On Science Fiction - How it influences the imaginations of technologists. By Jason Pontin. Technology Review (March 12, 2007; from the March / April 2007 issue). "To this day, my tastes and choices as an editor and journalist are bluntly science fictional: I look for technologies that are in themselves ingenious and that have the potential to change our established ways of doing things. Best of all, I like technologies that expand our sense of what it might mean to be human. In this, I believe, I am an entirely conventional technologist. Most of us came to technology through science fiction; our imaginations remain secretly moved by science-fictional ideas. ... Robots first appeared in Karel Capek's play R.U.R. in 1921. Indeed, it is more useful to ask, What hasn't SF predicted? But the prescriptive power of science fiction has functioned both positively and negatively. Older computer scientists and electrical engineers such as Marvin Minsky and Seymour Cray, born in the mid-1920s, pursued a vision of humanlike artificial intelligence and mainframe computing popularized by science fiction after World War II (see Isaac Asimov's 'Multivac' stories)."

The Discover Interview - Marvin Minsky: The legendary pioneer of artificial intelligence ponders the brain, bashes neuroscience, and lays out a plan for superhuman robot servants. By Susan Kruglinski. Discover (January 2007; Volume 28, Number 1). "[Q] Has science fiction influenced your work? [A] It's about the only thing I read. ... [Q] What did you do as consultant on 2001: A Space Odyssey? ... "

Introductory Readings

Rise of the machines - In the future envisaged by the movies, technology is out to destroy us - but could it really happen. By Andrew Taylor. The Sydney Morning Herald (October 21, 2006). "Hollywood is rabidly technophobic. Whether it's robots, computers or genetically engineered beings, technology is out to get humanity. It's trying to enslave or kill us, or make us suffer on behalf of some corrupt corporate or government entity. But is it merely fanciful fiction or the bleak reality that awaits mankind? Many of our favourite science-fiction films are part of a genre known as 'tech noir', stories that prophesy that the advancement of technology will have foreboding consequences for humanity. Blockbusters such as The Terminator franchise, Blade Runner, RoboCop and Gattaca dissolve the distinction between man and machine, exploring what it means to be human and challenging contemporary values, says Dr Greg Dolgopolov, lecturer in the school of media, film and theatre at the University of NSW."

Watch 2 video excerpts from a 1965 interview with Isaac Asimov on BBC's Horizon:

  • Laws of Robotics - Asimov describes his three laws of robotics.
  • Robot Future - Asimov explains hos he sees the future of robotics.

Science fiction and reality. (June 8, 2006). Listen to this discussion with Tom Standage, Technology Editor of The Economist and then check out articles from the June 2006 Economist Technology Quarterly, such as Trust me, I'm a robot.

Artificial Intelligence: The Future Is Now - Scientists continue to discover new ways for robots to perform human tasks. Video segment from the ABC News program, Seen & Be Heard. (September 29, 2006). Reported by Katrina Szish, Nick Watt and Mark Halperin. With guests Rollo Carpenter, "George," and Eric Horvitz, plus viewer comments & questions. "KS: Joining us now from Seattle is Eric Horvitz. He's the President-Elect of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence. He currently works for Microsoft and specializes in, you guessed it, robots. ... And artificial intelligence, as well, is one of your areas of specialty. ... What can we hope to achieve from having robots who can actually think? HORVITZ: Let me just say that beyond robots, you might think about AI more generally as soft bots and robots, things that act in the background and on the foreground. Even today, already we have systems that are educating, tutoring kids in inner cities, how to teach and how to enjoy mathematics. We are having robots help surgeons at microsurgery. Robots, robotic systems actually land some of our commercial planes very smoothly at times. And at lower states areas, the magic of Web search these days. You go to Google or MSN search, it's actually enhanced by AI machine learning in the background looking at hundreds of millions of people querying like you are. So, it's really enhancing life in many ways. ... MH: So, what do you think? Are people who are scared, are they just being like lulled into science fiction fantasy, or is there any threat to human race because of artificial intelligence and the building of robots? HORVITZ: Well, it's pretty clear that you can fill a theater with a plot based on a robot going out of control more easily than a computer that happens to be helping a student learn how to read and write, or that can assist with forecasting traffic on highway systems, and so on. In general, we should look forward to the fruits of AI as being a tremendously good thing for human...."

Past is the future for Hollywood's robots. By Mark Ward. BBC News. "If you believed everything you saw in the movies, you could be forgiven for thinking that artificial intelligence (AI) research had not moved on since the late 1950s. In almost all the Hollywood movies that feature AI or explore its implications, the unspoken assumption is that all researchers in the field are out to create surrogate humans or computerised brains that threaten our existence with their utterly impersonal view of events. This is true even of Spielberg's film AI which, despite being set in the future, takes a decidedly old-fashioned view of artificial intelligence. It is perhaps no surprise that it does, given that its screenplay is based on a short story published in 1969. But many other Hollywood movies persist in pushing this view of AI. If truth be told, AI scientists have moved on from trying to instil human intelligence into a robotic or computerised guise."

Programming Commander Data, Coding the Borg - New Viterbi School Undergraduate Class in Artificial Intelligence Turns to Science Fiction for Problem Sets. University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering News (January 25, 2006). "Milind Tambe, an associate professor of computer science, will be using science fiction as problem sets in a class on artificial intelligence for undergraduate programmers [CS 499] beginning in the fall, 2006 semester. 'Computer science is catching up with the ideas in these stories,' says Tambe. 'We are using science fiction as the spice for the main dish of teaching an important new area of our discipline.' While a number of universities use science fiction to introduce concepts in physics and other fields, Tambe believes his course is the first of its kind in computer science. ... The class will focus not on robots per se, but on their 'minds,' what are called in the field of artificial intelligence 'agents.' These are virtual robots, disembodied machine entities that can create strategies to achieve ends, and even negotiate with each other to cooperate while doing so. 'Science fiction provides three key benefits in this course,' said Tambe. 'First, it is a great motivator and it provides context, generating excitement about artificial intelligence topics in general, and agents and multiagent systems in particular. Second, science fiction also helps provide a perspective on how far we have come in our research, as well as current limitations, and future research challenges. Third, science fiction literature is a great vehicle for understanding the impact on society if agent-based computing truly succeeds.'"
>>> AI Courses (@ Resources for Students), Science Fiction, Agents

"I never really identified with the heroes, the ones who fought all the space wars," she says. "I always thought the scientists who built things for these guys to go and do great things were far more interesting." - Professor Robin Murphy quoted in Robots to the rescue, by Dave Scheiber (St. Petersburg Times; March 2, 2003)

Fall 2004 AI in the news column in AI Magazine: How science fiction inspired several AI scientists.

General Readings

Super-Toys Last All Summer Long. By Brian Aldiss. "The inspiration behind Kubrick's ongoing AI project, a tale of humanity and of the aching loneliness in an overpopulated future." Available from WIRED (5.01 - January 1997).

Futurology: How to use science fiction. The Economist (June 8, 2006; subscription req'd). "Three tests to evaluate visions of the future ... First, is the imagined world really an allegory for some aspect of the present day? ... The second test for evaluating a sci-fi scenario is whether it makes the mistake of assuming that technology alone shapes the future. ... The final test is to ask whether a prediction is compelling enough to become self-fulfilling, by inspiring inventors to implement it. ..."

Fantastic answers to universal questions. By Alok Jha and Adam Rutherford. The Guardian (August 26, 2004). "We asked leading scientists from around the world what science fiction meant to them: how they related to it and what influence it had on them. The answers showed that science fiction not only reflects science but is also an inspiration for it. ... Robert May, population biologist and president of the Royal Society, says of science fiction: 'At its best it is very provocative and forethoughtful, like Asimov's books - they think of questions that have since arisen such as intelligent machines.' ... Science fiction, a term coined in the 1930s to distinguish the genre from the pulp fiction then becoming popular, carried on examining human morality by placing its characters into situations where some limiting problem had been overcome, such as time travel. What the stories invariably showed was that science does not have all the answers, and that each advance throws up new questions."

We have the technology - Bionic eyes, robot soldiers and kryptonite were once just film fantasy. But now science fiction is fast becoming fact. So how will it change our lives? By Gwyneth Jones. The Guardian (April 25, 2007). "After decades of stalling, it seems that science fiction is finally, rapidly, becoming fact - just as the first pulp writers and movie-makers were convinced it would, back in the 1920s. Robbie the Robot is no longer a figure of fun, or a novelty toy. The robot maid and butler of classic sci-fi may be a few years off, but nobody regards them as daft make-believe any more. ... A long time ago, back in the 1980s, a new kind of science fiction burst on to the scene. For progressive fans of the genre it was like a supernova, blasting the old finned space ships, streamlined Metropolis robots and tentacled aliens right out of the sky. It was called 'cyberpunk', and if you want to know what it looked like, you can see the cyberpunk future in Ridley Scott's dark, elegaic Bladerunner. ... Much of the science-fiction establishment hated the cyberpunks. Science fiction was supposed to be about progress, and how advances in technology will inevitably create a better world. ... Our gadgets are just like our children. They have the potential to be marvellous, to surpass all expectations. ... The technology, however fantastic, is neutral. It's up to us to decide whether that dazzling new robot brain powers a caring hand, or a speedy fist highly accurate at throwing grenades."

The Science of Pseudoscience - In a new, Web-only column, journalist David Kushner takes a look behind the scenes at how science is portrayed in movies and television, starting with the role played by the technical advisor. IEEE Spectrum Online (December 2005). "The representation of science on film has not been without its critics over the years. David A. Kirby, who studies science communication at the University of Manchester, in England, cites the U.S. National Science Foundation's 'Science and Engineering Indicators 2000' report, which criticized the so-called information pollution of fictional science, confused by the public as fact. ... The Star Trek series has ... become a model for collaboration between science fact and fiction, or as [Andre] Bormanis puts it, the resulting 'pseudoscience.' The goal is to create a plausible set of rules behind even the most unruly science fantasy."

From Eden to ENIAC: Attitudes toward Intelligence, Knowledge, and Human Artifice. From Chapter One (available online) of George F. Luger's textbook, Artificial Intelligence: Structures and Strategies for Complex Problem Solving, 5th Edition (Addison-Wesley; 2005). "The work of Aeschylus, the classical Greek dramatist, illustrates a deep and ancient awareness of the extraordinary power of knowledge. Artificial intelligence, in its very direct concern for Prometheus's gift, has been applied to all the areas of his legacy--medicine, psychology, biology, astronomy, geology--and many areas of scientific endeavor that Aeschylus could not have imagined. Though Prometheus's action freed humanity from the sickness of ignorance, it also earned him the wrath of Zeus. Outraged over this theft of knowledge that previously belonged only to the gods of Olympus, Zeus commanded that Prometheus be chained to a barren rock to suffer the ravages of the elements for eternity. The notion that human efforts to gain knowledge constitute a transgression against the laws of God or nature is deeply ingrained in Western thought. It is the basis of the story of Eden and appears in the work of Dante and Milton. Both Shakespeare and the ancient Greek tragedians portrayed intellectual ambition as the cause of disaster. The belief that the desire for knowledge must ultimately lead to disaster has persisted throughout history, enduring the Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment, and even the scientific and philosophical advances of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Thus, we should not be surprised that artificial intelligence inspires so much controversy in both academic and popular circles. Indeed, rather than dispelling this ancient fear of the consequences of intellectual ambition, modern technology has only made those consequences seem likely, even imminent."

Writing the Future: Computers in Science Fiction. By Jonathan Vos Post and Kirk L. Kroeker. Computer, 33(1): 29- 37 (January 2000). "Although we cannot be certain that science fiction directly influenced the course that computing technology has taken over the past 50 years, the genre has--at the very least--anticipated the technologies we're using and developing. Speculation about our future human relationship to computers-and to technology in general-has been the province of science fiction for at least a hundred years. But not all of that speculation has been as optimistic as those in the computing profession might assume. While cautionary tales in science fiction are plentiful and varied, the genre is also filled with more optimistic speculation about computer technology that will help save time, improve health, and generally benefit life as we know it. If we take a look at some of this speculation--both optimistic and pessimistic--as if it were prediction, it turns out that many science fiction authors have envisioned the future as accurately as historians have chronicled the past." - from the abstract.

Arthur C Clarke still looking forward. By Martin Redfern. BBC News (October 4, 2005). "Eighty-seven years and the after-effects of polio have left Sir Arthur in a wheelchair and somewhat forgetful of past events; but as a science visionary, he is as sharp as ever, looking forward to the time when other predictions he has made come true. He is convinced that we will become a space-faring species. ... He is sure that we will journey to Mars and eventually on to other solar systems; first sending robot probes, then humans, perhaps in suspended animation or even with their thoughts and consciousness transferred into a machine."

  • You can access the archived broadcast of the BBC Radio 4 programme, Arthur C. Clarke: The Science and the Fiction (October 5, 2005) via a link on the programme website. "In this programme, Heather Couper hears Sir Arthur's own story and meets with family, fans and fiction writers he has influenced."

Voices in Your Head series hosted by Dave Slusher: "James P. Hogan and host Dave Slusher discuss how the film 2001 started Hogan on a career as an author, on his relationship with Marvin Minsky and the world of artificial intelligence...." (December 22, 2004).

The Future Is . . . Then. A Federal Report that Takes a Page from 1930s Science Fiction. By Bruce Sterling. Wired Magazine (November 2002). "Who needs science fiction? Federal tech and science wonks this summer went wild in a 400-page assessment of what nano, bio, info, and cogno might do for humanity. Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance -- a joint effort by the Commerce Department and the National Science Foundation -- looks forward to a new age in federal science procurement. Consciously or not, the report echoes classic science fiction from 70 years ago at almost every turn."

Related Resources

The Syfy web site (A Division of NBC Universal) offers scifi movie clips and full-length movies, plus link to SciFi magazine and other resources.

February 11, 2009: 1000 novels everyone must read: Science Fiction & Fantasy (part one). The Guardian editors' choices of best science fiction. Part two (info)

February 11, 2009: 1000 novels everyone must read: Science Fiction & Fantasy (part two). Continuation of list in part one. (info)

The Isaac Asimov Home Page contains a comprehensive collection of resources pertaining to Isaac Asimov (1920-1992), the quintessential author, who in his lifetime wrote over 500 books that enlightened, entertained, and spanned the realm of human knowledge.

Science Fiction Filmsite. (2000). "Science and technology have promised many things over the years, including the end of human problems (such as war and overpopulation) and overcoming the problems and limitations of nature (such as disease and gravity). More often than not, these promises fail. Science fiction films are about the promises and failings of science and technology, and they offer a renewed emphasis on science and its power by placing science and technology themes at the center of plots and storyline. "

  • See also the review of cybercinema from Hunter Crowther-Heyck, “Artificial Intelligence in Film: A Review of Cybercinema,”Iterations: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Software History 3 (May 10, 2004): 1-2.

Timeline of Fiction Landmarks. From The Tech Museum of Innovation. "Even before the word "robot" came about earlier last century, people were thinking, writing, and creating fiction about the subject of humanity and its relationship to machines. Here is a reference list of landmarks in fiction about people and technology, many of which are centered around robots."

  • The first entry: "1726 Jonathan Swift: Gulliver's Travels (Academy of Lagado: satirized inventors and anticipated machine-produced literature).

Representations of Artificial Intelligence in Cinema. "This web site is mostly a summary of the movies that have some form of Artificial Intelligence in them, eg. as part of the background context as well embodied in a main character. I have also proposed a classification that discriminates between true AI (ie. agents with artificial computational systems) versus replicated or augmented humans (androids or cyborgs) which use natural intelligence mechanisms." From Bob Fisher, University of Edinburgh School of Informatics.

"The Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame (SFM) is a ... nonprofit organization created to inspire new generations to reach beyond the present, imagine the future and explore the infinite possibilities of the universe. ... Each year since 1996, the Hall of Fame has inducted four individuals on the basis of their continued excellence and long-time contribution to the science fiction field. The Science Fiction Museum is honored to now be the permanent physical home of the Hall of Fame, and will continue its mission through annual inductions of individuals who have made outstanding and significant contributions to Science Fiction. ."

Lost Philip K. Dick android back with loud shirts by Tim Hornyak, Crave (CNET Gadget Blog), (January 15, 2011). "The acclaimed author of science fiction classics "The Man in the High Castle" and "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" died in 1982, but this is his second resurrection in robot form. ...Hardware for the android was completed last year, and software is still being developed. It's the handiwork of Hanson Robotics, led by Texas-based roboticist David Hanson. He and collaborators first showed off the talking robot head at NextFest back in 2005. It later vanished. ... The redux Dick uses the same technology that went into Hanson's Einstein head, which has graced the top of a Korean humanoid robot and learned facial expressions at the University of California at San Diego. Hanson says he wants to get the reborn Dick android to walk, but meanwhile he's using it as a tool for AI and cognitive sciences research, undertaken in collaboration with staff at his firm and university scientists. He's working on scientific papers related to the project."

A Conversation with Cynthia Breazeal - A Passion to Build a Better Robot, One With Social Skills and a Smile. The New York Times, by Claudia Dreifus (June 10, 2003). "Dr. Cynthia L. Breazeal of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is famous for her robots, not just because they they are programmed to perform specific tasks, but because they seem to have emotional as well as physical reactions to the world around them. ... Q. What is the root of your passion for robots? A. For me, as for many of us who do robotics, I think it is science fiction. My most memorable science fiction experience was 'Star Wars' and seeing R2D2 and C3PO. I fell in love with those robots."Q. R2D2 and C3PO were good robots, friendly. But so many of the robots of science fiction are either hostile, or at least misunderstood, like Frankenstein's monster and HAL of '2001: A Space Odyssey.' Why have fictional robots been so menacing? A. We have a lot of suspicion of robots in the West. But if you look cross-culturally, that isn't true. In Japan, in their science fiction, robots are seen as good. They have Astro Boy, this character they've fallen in love with and he's fundamentally good, always there to help people. In a lot of Western science fiction, you need some form of conflict, whether it's aliens or robots. I think in Western culture, being more suspicious of science, and hubris, you'll see a lot of fear of creating something that goes out of control. Also a lot of Western sci-fi books and movies are about the basic notion of taking responsibility for what you create. If you're talking about creating any new technology, this is always an issue."

Teaching Units

Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute: Science Fiction and the Future. By Lorna S. Dils. "This unit is designed to be used in conjunction with the future studies that are a part of the curriculum for seventh grade Talented and Gifted students. However, the unit has been designed so that it can be used by any seventh, eighth, or ninth grade student of average or above average reading ability in their English classes with a minimum of adaptation....Perhaps the most important reason to discuss the subject of the future with our TAG students is to introduce them to the concept of change." In addition to the lesson plans and other resources you'll find here, there's a wonderful summary of the 20 short stories which have been selected for this teaching unit."

Specific Books, Movies, and People in Science Fiction Related to AI

Specific Items of Science Fiction Related to AI

Other References Offline

Asimov, Isaac. 1981. The Myth of the Machine. From the book Asimov on Science Fiction, pp 153-163. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co. Asimov does some psychologizing about why humans fear machines and how this is reflected in science fiction writing.

Asimov, Isaac and Ralph McQuarrie (Illustrator). 1986. Robot Dreams. Byron Preiss Visual Publications, Inc. Most recently reprinted in 1990 by Ace Books. New York, New York.

  • Excerpt from the Introduction: "I began writing robot stories in 1939, when I was nineteen years old, and, from the first, I visualized them as machines, carefully built by engineers, with inherent safeguards, which I called 'The Three Laws of Robotics.' (In doing so, I was the very first to use the word 'robotics' in print, this taking place in the March, 1942 issue of Astounding Science Fiction.)"
  • Also see:

Forster, E. M. The Machine Stops. Initially published in The Oxford and Cambridge Review (November 1909) and republished in various collections.

McCaffery, Larry. 1991. The Desert of the Real. Also Cyperpunk 101 (with Richard Kadrey). From the book Storming the Reality Studio, ed. by Larry McCaffery, pp. 1-29. A discussion of cyberpunk, and an annotated list of books, movies, songs, etc. that helped shape cyberpunk. The rest of the book contains fictional excerpts and critical essays.

Pierce, John J. 1987. Artificial Intelligence. From the book Great Theme of Science Fiction, by John J. Pierce, pp. 77 - 94. New York and Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. Pierce gives a comprehensive rundown of stories about robots and discusses the influence of Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics. He also gives an overview of science fiction stories with intelligent computers.

Warrick, Patricia. 1986. Artificial Intelligence: Wild Imaginary Worlds, Wilder Realities. From the book Hard Science Fiction, ed. by George Slusser and Eric Rabkin, pp. 152-163. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. Warrick discusses James Hogan (The Two Faces of Tomorrow) as one of the few science fiction writers who convey a realistic sense of what the future might be like given what we know now about AI.

Watson, Ian. 2003. The Aims of Artificial Intelligence: A Science Fiction View. IEEE Intelligent Systems 18(2): 78-80. "So what does an artificial intelligence do with itself after it has become self-aware?" (Available for a fee.)

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