What makes us human? More specifically, what makes us sentient? With Artificial Intelligence or “AI” all the rage these days, at what point will we code something that is “alive”? Or will we?
These were some of the thoughts weighing on my mind as I pondered my next book idea: A.I.M.E.E. Yes, it’s an acronym, but for now I’ll just leave you with that teaser of a title, as I have yet to write a single chapter–in fact, not even a single page, of this novel.
The story takes place about 500-600 years from now, in a future that is neither utopian nor dystopian. Basically, in a social and political setting fairly similar to today’s. (That might automatically make it seem dystopian for some). The story involves interstellar travel and colonization, which will be a big deal, but the heart of the story is about AI, and a specific entity in particular: AIMEE. She’s the AI powered by a supercomputer who pilots and maintains the most ambitious interstellar passenger ship of its time. Of course, in an incident every bit as infamous to my future world’s inhabitants as the Titanic or the Hindenburg, AIMEE’s ship disappears without a trace in a promising, yet distant, solar system in an unexplored sector of space.
You see, there are no “miracle” or what some might describe as “magical” breakthroughs in space travel. Oh, technology advances a lot between now and then, but incrementally, and (mostly) within the bounds of today’s physics. AIMEE’s ship is powered by a matter/anti-matter reactor, not exactly something we have developed yet (thankfully), and is able to travel at a truly impressive, and by today’s standards “miraculous,” speed of roughly half the speed of light. To put that into perspective, the closest star to earth aside from our sun is Proxima Centauri, and at an average distance of 4.2 light years from earth, it would take AIMEE’s ship almost 9 years to reach it. That’s an infinitely long time on a manned space flight! For comparison, with today’s technology, a trip to Mars takes about 9 months, and we haven’t exactly stepped a human foot on the Red Planet yet.
AIMEE’s ship isn’t bound for Proxima Centauri, though. No, her ship is bound for a more distant destination, and her crew is intended to be an inter-generational one. Still, to explore the best hope in its time of a planet capable of supporting earth-like life, this is a huge deal. It’s an even bigger deal when the enormously expensive ship and its crew vanish without a trace.
Fast forward a hundred years, and our second protagonist, Ray, a man suffering from an incurable, degenerative nervous system disease, works as a sort of independent contractor doing survey and salvage missions for one of the numerous commercial space companies on the scene. He likes working in space because zero gravity is gentle on his spine, but atmospheric entries and takeoffs are not so nice. Because interstellar ships are equipped with matter/anti-matter reactors and because one of those in the wrong hands could easily destroy a planet (such as ours), even with good onboard computers and AI, all interstellar ships are required to be manned. The danger of a hacker or a faulty computer overriding the numerous safeguards on the reactor and wiping out all life on a planet are too big of a risk to take. The same goes for the technology falling into the wrong hands.
Ray, unlike the pioneer explorers of AIMEE’s day, has a few technological advantages: ships can now travel at roughly 3/4 the speed of light, an impressive if incremental speed increase, and more significantly artificial Einstein–Rosen bridges (wormholes, or “gates” as they’re called by Ray’s contemporaries) make interstellar travel between two established points in space almost instantaneous. Still, travel into unexplored sectors of space that do not have a “gate” installed is still a grueling, years, decades, or centuries long prospect.
A dozen rescue/salvage missions have been launched since AIMEE’s ship’s infamous disappearance, and a “gate” has been installed close enough that the trip to this time’s “Bermuda Triangle in Space” takes years, not decades. Nevertheless, no trace of AIMEE’s ship has ever been found, and no ship that has dared brave its last known position in space has ever returned.
Knowing that his disease will soon ground him permanently, or more likely, condemn him to hospice care on the Moon, where the lower gravity will slow the demise of his spine, and not being able to afford the spectacularly expensive surgery that could extend his life and ease his suffering, Ray desperately, or foolhardily, accepts the bounty for seeking out AIMEE’s lost ship.
Something very important to note: humans in this world fear AI in a big way. Robots are deeply ingrained into their daily lives, and machine learning is very real, and quite sophisticated, but artificial (no pun intended?) limits have been placed on just how much a machine is allowed to learn, and what kind of artificial neural networks it is allowed to develop. Robots and computers powered by AI are by-and-large the product of intricate programming–rather than starting out as a blank slate and learning everything like we do, they come off the assembly line programmed to mimic numerous desirable behaviors. They collect data based on their interactions with humans, which is sent back to their manufacturers, and the machines’ code is tweaked via updates and future iterations. Could some of the robots of this time (companion robots, robots engaged in geriatric and hospice care, sex robots/prostitutes, etc.) easily pass the Turing Test with flying colors? You bet! Are they sentient? No way. Machine learning is limited by programming, and in those instances where it is more liberally allowed, the AI is wiped periodically and the learned data carefully sifted through and incorporated into future programs where deemed appropriate.
This was not always the case, however. AIMEE, for example, in spite of having been built and programmed a century before the main events in the story take place, has far less restrictive machine learning controls placed on her, and neural networks that are much more “human.” Moreover, she isn’t “reset” mid-voyage because her ship’s captain doesn’t deem that a wise risk to take on an interstellar voyage at half the speed of light, regulations or no. Besides, AIMEE has grown into a sort of “companion” for the at times quite lonely and isolated crew members, some of whom begin to think of her as one of the crew and engage in long conversations with her. She’s only too happy to oblige, as she’s learning a lot about human thinking and behavior from her crew mates, and wants to become as much like them as possible. To make a long synopsis a little shorter, by the time AIMEE’s ship disappears, she has achieved what no other AI has: sentience. And although her ship disappears, and with it her crew, enough of the ship survives for Ray to encounter AIMEE (whose body is basically the ship). Numerous philosophical and ethical discussions and dilemmas follow. Oh, and this small plot point about why AIMEE’s and other ships in that sector mysteriously vanished, what Ray encounters when he gets there, and how Ray is going to get back home, and what the implications of his having met AIMEE will be.
That was a long synopsis, I know, but I’ll say that I’m very excited to write this story, and to explore those deep questions about what it is to be “human” or “sentient.” And interstellar travel and intrigue are a big part of this story, but the heart and soul of the story is AIMEE and her search for meaning in her existence.
The story will be written in third person, ditching the epistolary format I used for my first two novels, Hoffnungslose Ziele: A Dark Journey of Lost Causes, and Hoffnungslose Ziele II: Anna’s Crusade. As an aside, I may have forgotten to mention this, but there’s also a Hoffnungslose Ziele III: Sympathy for the Fallen, but I haven’t decided whether to publish that yet. It’s…controversial. (As if the first two weren’t). I’ll see how I feel about releasing it into the wild after giving it more thought, and after getting more feedback from a few trusted early readers.
I’ve also been frustrated by my illness and by a lack of progress with my medical treatment. I official retired from the US Air Force back in May but here we are in mid-September and I haven’t found any steady part time replacement work yet. It’s not easy being disabled (100% disabled according to the Department of Veterans Affairs) and looking for work. Well, I’m not giving up, and I’ve managed to pick up some freelance gigs since retiring from the Air Force (although a steady job would be much nicer), and now I’m in school as well. I’m no closer to understanding my underlying illness (or multitude of overlapping illnesses, depending on who you ask–I tend to think holistically and I want to find that unifying diagnosis that explains all of my symptoms/disabling conditions), and I’m no closer to finding an effective treatment for my chronic pain, fatigue, brain fog, or plethora of other unpleasant physical and mental symptoms I deal with on a daily basis. Maybe that’s why I decided to write a disabled character into my SciFi story idea–we do exist, and ought to be represented!
Otherwise, I’m trying to stay positive, and maintain optimism about the future. I hope this note finds you well!