MENACE OF THE MACHINE; The Rise of the AI in Classic Science Fiction edited by Mike Ashley
British Library p/b £8.99 (UK) 347pages
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
Mankind has always been fascinated by machines, especially those that make a job much easier. While we tend to forget that the lever and the screw are simple machines, they show the principles have been around for a very long time. Even the ideas behind the steam engine were known in the Ancient World. But there were always people who were suspicious of new developments. That hasn’t changed. With more advanced technology, there is a greater risk of something going wrong. At the forefront of the ‘What if’s there is the science fiction writer.
In Menace of the Machine, Mike Ashley has gathered a range of stories that warn of the dangers of being too complacent about new technology, especially the problems that could arise if those machines began to think for themselves. In some cases, science has moved on considerably from the era of the story’s genesis. In other cases, the predictions have uncanny resonances. The story in this volume that made the most impact when I first read it at school was ‘The Machine Stops’ by E.M. Forster (1909). Though I didn’t remember all the details, it seems prophetic in that all the inhabitants of the underground city live isolated in rooms, communicating solely through the machine that runs everything. All food, comfort and entertainment are provided. They don’t go out because the surface is too dangerous. Kuno, though is bored and curious. He builds up his strength by lifting pillows for exercise because he wants to see the surface. As the title suggests, part of the story concerns what happens when the technology everyone relies on begins to break down.
Most of the stories here are more concerned with machines getting out of control, especially when they develop intelligence. This seemed to be the main concern. Automata have been around from ancient times, and most were purely mechanical. The original automaton Chess Player of 1770 was later proved to be a fake, but it may well have influenced Ambrose Bierce’s story ‘Moxon’s Master’ (1899) which revolves around a chess-playing machine and the consequences of building it. The problem encountered in ‘Ely’s Automatic Housemaid’ by Elizabeth Bellamy (1899) is that a machine will do what it is programmed to do and doesn’t have initiative. Likely it was written as a warning about trusting the new ‘labour-saving’ domestic machines that were beginning to appear. This problem of programming the machine arises again in ‘Danger In The Dark Cave’ by J.J.Conningtom (1938) where the inventor installs in his device a mechanism for self-preservation but doesn’t give it the information to discriminate between enemy and benign beings.
When Perley Poore Sheehan & Robert H, Davis wrote their playlet ‘Efficiency’ (1917) WWI was still in progress and introduced the concept of the cyborg. It posed the question that if injured soldiers were ‘repaired’ by replacing damaged parts with machinery, how much of his humanity does he retain.
The problem when machines are allowed to think for themselves and learn from observation is illustrated in ‘The Discontented Machine’ by Adeline Knapp (1984) when the shoemaking machine decides to emulate human workers and goes on strike because it isn’t being paid. ‘The Mind Machine’ of the title in Michael Williams (1914) story takes the situation a step further with the machines it controls, turning on the humans that created them. It is an argument against becoming too reliant of technology. ‘Automata’ by S. Fowler Wright (1929) takes it a step further postulating the over-reliance on technology will lead ultimately to the extinction of the human race.
Intelligent machines are supposed to work for the improvement of the human race, but the problem with people is that their emotions get in the way. The robot surgeon in ‘Rex’ by Harl Vincent (1934) is designed to remove the emotional centre of the brain to make society fairer. It was probably written as a dig at the spread of communism.
With most of these stories, the danger from the machine is not so much the development of artificial intelligence in the sense that the construct has been programmed in such a way to follow its orders. It hasn’t had much reasoning ability, but with the advent of computers that are more complex and can learn, initiative is the next step. ‘A Logic Named Joe’ by Will F. Jenkins (aka Murray Leinster) (1946) is scarily prophetic. Every home has a ‘logic,’ i.e. computer, and one develops an intelligence capable of accessing all other databases. It will answer any question and reveal intimate details. Well ahead of its time, this is a story that foreshadowed internet hackers and the dark web. No collection about AIs would be complete without an Isaac Asimov story. In ‘The Evitable Conflict’ (1950), the benign machines follow the 1st Law of Robotics and in doing so, rule the world. If they were not in charge, they would be allowing humans to come to harm. In any society, there will always be law-breakers. In ‘Two-Handed Engine’ (1955) C.L. Moore & Henry Kuttner have come up with a solution. Any murder will be followed by a robot which is their justice. Eventually, the robot will carry out the death sentence, but the convicted felon does not know when this will be.
A big question will always be how intelligence arises in the machines. In the early days, that problem was ignored, only the story was important. Asimov had the scientists develop a positronic brain for his robots, others have suggested that linking too many computers together might cause that step in machine evolution. Arthur C. Clarke the elaborate telephone connections resembled the connections in a human brain. In ‘Dial F For Frankenstein’ (1965) and with an increase in automation, he postulates an emerging sentience that will experiment and play with all the electronic ‘toys’ at its disposal. The final stage of the take-over by the sentient machines comes in ‘But Who Can Replace Man?’ by Brian W. Aldiss (1958) everything is automated, but without guidance, they continue to follow their programming despite their purpose being lost.
This is a fascinating collection, and although some of the concepts ate now dated, the evolution of the AI story and its dire warnings can be traced.