In one of his novels, the American author Kurt Vonnegut observes that science fiction writers generally know very little about science. While I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that statement, I can tell you that, as someone who researches and teaches science fiction, I know almost nothing about science, beyond what I covered for my Junior Cert. Nevertheless, I enjoy sci-fi, largely because it provides a language, a set of icons and images, through which we can explore the world around us. While science fiction often engages with ideas about technology, particularly the relationship between humanity and scientific advancement, it just as often employs scientific tropes to explore broader questions about society. A well-known twentieth-century critic of the genre, Darko Suvin, famously described science fiction as the literature of “cognitive estrangement”. For him, science fiction is a genre that transforms the world we know, making it appear strange through the addition of some novel form of technology. For as long as the genre has existed (some people date it to the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818, while others claim it began with the utopian fiction of the sixteenth century), sci-fi has used images of technological estrangement to question our basic assumptions about the world around us. 

Artificial intelligence has long been a recurrent feature of this kind of imaginative estrangement. The notion that machines, computers or other entities could be endowed with an intellect akin to our own often serves to undermine our belief in human uniqueness. The first literary text to use the word “robot” to describe artificially intelligent machines was Czech playwright Karel Čapek’s 1921 production RUR (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Čapek employed the motif of intelligent machines to critique the dehumanising aspects of early twentieth-century factory labour. In the 1982 film Bladerunner (based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), artificially intelligent replicants challenge what it means to be human. Before his death, one such replicant, Roy Batty, suggests that to be human is simply to be the sum of one’s memories and experiences. Lamenting that once he is destroyed, his remembered experiences “will be lost in time, like tears in rain,” Batty indicates that machines capable of learning and remembering are practically indistinguishable from their human counterparts. Another especially creative use of AI appears in Ira Levin’s 1972 novel The Stepford Wives. Written at the height of second-wave feminist activism, the novel condemns patriarchal resistance to gender equality by portraying a nightmarish scenario in which headstrong women are replaced by accommodating, domesticated and sexually acquiescent robots. 

Unlike other popular elements of science fiction (time travel, teleportation, intergalactic voyages), AI is, of course, something that exists in our world. As in fiction, real-world AI also challenges what it means to be fully human. If machines can take on certain jobs, what does that do to the humanity of the people who originally held those positions? To what degree do our smartphones serve as extensions of both our bodies and our identities? What does the feminisation of virtual assistants say about how our society views women? The last of these questions is, to me, particularly interesting. The majority of popular virtual assistants – Alexa, Siri, Cortana – have pleasant, soft-spoken female voices and appear to be gendered female. Like the obliging, eager-to-please Stepford Wives described in Levin’s novel, these AI assistants exist only to help and serve. As a recent UNESCO report observes

Because the speech of most voice assistants is female, it sends a signal that women are… docile helpers, available at the touch of a button or with a blunt voice command like “hey” or “OK”. The assistant holds no power of agency beyond what the commander asks of it. It honours commands and responds to queries regardless of their tone or hostility […]

Here in the real word, then, AI seems to reflect and even amplify existing social problems, particularly those related to class, gender and race. AI facial recognition technologies used in law enforcement and industry have even been criticised for reproducing troubling racial biases. In fiction, as in reality, AI encompasses an intriguing set of technological possibilities that simultaneously challenge what it means to be human and, sadly, echo some of our worst prejudices and assumptions.