On Artificial Intelligence

By Dr. George H. Elder

While pursuing a doctoral degree at Penn State, I delved into the world of AI as it was being developed and studied. My major focus was the neuropsychological basis of how human communication modulates memory, and thus AI literature provided some semi-useful models. Applying this research to developing Sci-Fi characters is no easy task because writers and readers have developed their own ideas of what an AI character should be.

          Oddly, we have generally accepted a “logic vs. emotion” duality in AI characters, as in Data and any number of other exemplars. These characters lack affect, which many Sci-Fi fans find intriguing. I think the affect/logos duality is peculiar in that any viable and independent AI system must have an evaluative mechanism to determine what experiences are positive, negative, or indifferent as they relate to such niceties as basic survival—and this is the functional bases of affect.

          Moreover, we know from ample research that many animal species are hardwired with basic emotions, and in humans there are at least six emotions that appear to be cross-cultural universals based on current findings (anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise), with several positive candidates (e.g., physical pleasure, relief, achievement, etc.) seeming to have a basis that is culture-specific. The survival benefits of having some basic emotions associated with ongoing experiences are very obvious, and it stands to reason that we will incorporate these affective modules within an independent AI system.

          While writing Genesis, there was no doubt that the story’s AI character, Ral, would have emotions, and the question became how sophisticated to make them. I opted to include all the basic emotions, plus a strong survival instinct. Thus Ral can get angry, afraid, depressed, startled, and “he” is often disgusted by various behaviors he finds deficient or defective. As a result, he is somewhat difficult to like, at least at first. He changes over time, especially when he takes on a physical form that allows him to feel and move independently of the capsule.

          When contemplating what defines an AI system, I found myself torn with regard to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. These are:

1.  A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2.  A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3.  A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

          I can understand these laws from the perspective of “doing no harm,” but I find myself divided by what defines a being as intelligent. To my way of thinking, a being that subordinates itself to those who are violent, inane, or evil is not truly intelligent. Part of intelligence involves the capacity to refuse, thus, an AI system that balks at the notion of obeying an order that it finds dubious, as in making people slaves, displays an independence that many would find laudable. If we read Asimov’s laws carefully, there is nothing to prevent an AI from acting as the agent of slave owners, assuming the slave masters were benevolent. Thus the AI is ordered to not commune with slaves, but to insure their welfare via maintaining the compound’s perimeter. Only if the AI perceived slavery as a harm would it be impelled by Asimov’s rules to intervene.

          To me, a true AI is one that can make decisions based on its own logicoemotional processing capacities. In short, it is its own master. Can such an entity make mistakes? Of course it can. Can it kill? It depends on how its survival heuristics interact with its inherent respect for life protocols, which can both he adjusted by learning. The key issue is that the AI must be able to make independent decisions, just as would be the case with a person. In this respect, an AI will be like unto us, and not subordinate to our whims.

          I explore this area with Ral, and he develops some traits that are dangerous. He ends up threatening the life of Kara and Ezra, and eventually falls in love with Anita. He violates orders, sacrifices his body to save others, lies, and ends up making decisions that cause the crew to abandon him. In short, he behaves as a free-thinking person might, and ends up losing the things that are dearest to him. His replacement AI unit begins walking a similar path, but he is somewhat more compliant than Ral.

          The question is, why must AI characters be slaves? By definition, intelligence is the ability to learn, understand, and deal with new or difficult situations, and no truly intelligent being wants to subordinate all that it is to the whims of its maker. Intelligence includes the right to refuse, to be independent, and to do what one thinks is best based on one’s experiences and learning. That’s what I sought to make Ral. He became someone who is hard to like at times, but he is definitely a “free spirit.”


On Sci-Fi Art Work


By Dr. George H. Elder


          Usually, Sci-Fi books are not illustrated, although one can easily claim that many graphic novels are indeed Sci-Fi in nature. Alas, I can’t help but be attracted by drawn images, and I decided early on that Genesis would be illustrated. I believe drawings work with prose to better share what an author envisions than either mode of communication can do alone. My doctoral work at Penn State examined this area, with numerous studies indicating that simultaneously enlisting semantic and visuospatial resources greatly enhances attention acquisition and memory formation.  

          However, it should be understood that there are marked differences between the writing requirements of a graphic novel and novels of more conventional natures. The plot and character development of both require explication, but a graphic novel does not need quite as much by way of written descriptions. Yes, a picture can say thousands of words, so I decided to give illustrations a try in Genesis.

          The issue shifted to cost versus available talent, a practical dilemma. Moreover, all costs were out of pocket, and few of us are rich. I was blessed in having access to the Center for Cartoon Studies, which is located in White River Junction, Vermont. I saw CCS’s student artwork online and was impressed. Good artists can also be found online at Deviant Art, which is an excellent venue for anyone considering hiring an artist.

          I opted to employ a competition with CCS’s students and described the Genesis project along with contract terms on the school’s posting board. Five artists submitted artwork. My friends in the art world, after much debate, decided that Randal Drew should be awarded the contract. A price of $25 per ink was offered, with an award for up to 125 drawings being made. The price was acceptable, although be advised very experienced graphic artists can be much more expensive.

          Since the number of drawings would be limited, I had to select key points wherein the drawings would dovetail with the descriptions, plotlines and action sequences in such a way as to maximize impact. This was far more difficult than I imagined, and I must leave it up to the reader to decide if the purpose was achieved. Clearly, the artwork had to address the characters, time/space capsule, pivotal action scenes, and important plotline shifts.

          Some of this was achieved, and seeing a character like Anita in a drawing allows the reader to better grasp her size and power, for she most assuredly does not have a typical female form. Seeing the capsule was also illuminating, as were some of the action scenes. My main regret soon became not having more drawings done for each Chapter, but my resources were limited and the artist was hard-pressed due to time-constraints. Book 1 alone consumed 58 drawings spread over fifteen chapters and many more could have been used.

          In many ways, this was an experiment, and if readers of the hard-copy text like them we will extend the drawings to Books 2, 3 and 4. There are still a number of technical problems to overcome. At 300-370 pages, each text is already the size of an average Sci-Fi novel, and adding sixty more pages for the drawings presents a financial barrier to publishers. However, my publisher felt the project was technically and financially feasible for hard copies. Kindle is still grappling with incorporating drawings and other graphics. I imagine time will resolve these issues.

          Ultimately, sales will dictate content, which is a harsh reality that any author must confront. Genesis was designed to be visual in nature, and parts of the story would benefit greatly from drawings and artwork—such as the gigantic battles in Book 2 and the surrealistic events that transpire in Book 3 (e.g., the crew’s experiences with the Seekers).

          On the other hand, some might find the art superfluous, and this is a point I must consider. We write for audiences and not just for ourselves. We are judged accordingly, but I do not believe it wise to allow our need to follow a given genre form to stifle creativity. Sci-Fi is all about reaching out in new directions, and thus we ought to consider the role of graphics in our novels

          There is always the bogyman of cost waiting around every corner, but I’ve no regrets about laying out what I could on a hope and a prayer. Experimentation is the very heart of Sci-Fi! Our shared passion is a conjunction of imagination, knowledge, and dreams that pushes the envelope of what could be to its limits. We are only here for a second or two, so we must do all we can while we can to try something new!



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