How All Systems Red by Martha Wells dispelled my fear of sentient machines

Many Science fiction books and movies feature sentient robots or Artificial Intelligence that has evolved to gain consciousness. These stories often end up in a man versus machine theme. The robots may crave power and think they are superior to the fragile humans and decide to kill them off. Or they may enslave humans in a matrix to use us as a source of their power supply. They may even decide to end some humans for the sake of preserving humanity as a whole.

There is differing opinion on how close we are to Artificial Sentience or Machine Consciousness. Some believe that it is not even possible. There is also confusion about how to identify whether machines have become sentient. And then there is the moral dilemma of whether robots need to be given rights and responsibilities from a legal standpoint if they become sentient.

While these are all important questions, let us focus on the prevalent theme of science fiction – sentient machines killing humans. I also had this fear till I read All Systems Red by Martha Wells. This story focuses on a murderbot who is assigned to protect humans during a planetary mission from local fauna.

Summary:

In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety. But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid—a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.

But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

The story starts off by showing how our murderbot is a rogue. It has hacked into its governor module and uses this freedom to download the entertainment feed. If this book followed the usual sci fi trope, the robot designed to kill would be plotting the end of humanity. Thankfully, this is not a usual story. Our rogue robot ends up getting addicted to watching series, just like us.

This made me wonder how sentience may come with a desire to explore the universe instead of wanting to rule it all. Maybe the robots would crave entertainment and sensory input just like we do and binge watch series. Even if they have plans to conquer the universe, it will be put in the back burner when a new episode is available. A sentient machine with a creative streak may even make art.

The more curious a robot gets and learns about the world, it may also go through existential crisis. Imagine having an identity crisis coupled with near immortality. That is enough to give a sentient machine depression. We only focus on the scary parts of sentient machines like rage and a will to kill, but they may also be shy and get anxiety attacks. Perhaps sentient robots may need help from us as much as they could threaten us.

Sentient robots may end up being similar to humans but with an armour and a higher shelf life. Of course, I may be surprised when I read the next book in this series and my perspective may change again. However, as Eliezer Yudkowsky said, “By far the greatest danger of Artificial Intelligence is that people conclude too early that they understand it.” In conclusion, let’s not worry every time we read the news about advancement in AI. To quote Douglas Adams, Don’t Panic!

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