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Book Review: I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (Series, #0.1) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

September 21, 2013 Leave a comment

Image of a see-through robot with red eyes.  Blurred like it is in motion. It is on a black background, and the book's title and author are in white text at the top.Summary:
This collection of short stories tells the history of the invention and gradual improvement of robots.  The robots in this future must follow the 3 Laws of Robotics:

  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 Law.

But following these laws doesn’t always have quite the outcome the inventors and managers of robots intended.

Review:
I wasn’t aware I, Robot is actually a short story collection.  It’s precisely the type I enjoy though because they all work together to tell one overarching story in order.  Beginning with the earliest robots, they slowly move up through important points in the history of robotics to lead up to the world run by big brain machine robots that Asimov has imagined.  This collection is a prequel of sorts (and of many) to Asimov’s robot series that begins with The Caves of Steel (list of entire series).

One thing I like about the world Asimov sets up is that unlike many scifi books featuring AI, the people in Asimov’s world are highly, intensely cautious of robots.  They’re very concerned about robots taking jobs, killing humans, and even robbing humans of their autonomy.  It sets up a conflict from the beginning and frankly presents the humans as just a bit more intelligent than in some AI scifi universes.

I was under the impression from pop culture that in I, Robot they think they’re protected by the Laws of Robotics but something happens so that the robots aren’t programmed with them any longer.  That’s not what happens at all.  What happens is much more complex.  How the robots interpret the Laws and how the Laws work end up being much more complex and less straight-forward than the humans originally imagined, so much so that they have to have a robopsychologist to help them interpret what’s going on with the robots.  This is really quite brilliant and is one of my favorite aspects of the book.

Unfortunately, the book can read a bit sexist sometimes, in spite of having a female protagonist through quite a bit of the book.  (The robopsychologist is a woman).  The book was first published in 1950, though, so when you think about the time period, the sexism is pretty minor, especially compared to having a female worldwide expert on robopsychology.  The main time sexism comes up is when the leader of Europe is a woman and says some self-deprecating things about difficulty leading because she’s a woman.  Yes, there is older scifi that avoids sexism pretty much entirely, but I am able to give this instance a bit of a pass considering the other strong portrayal of a woman in a leadership role.  But be aware that at least one cringe-inducing sexist conversation does occur.

Overall, this piece of classic scifi stands the test of time extraordinarily well.  Its film adaptations do not do it proper service at all.  Come to this book expecting a collection of short stories exploring robopsychology, not an action flick about killer robots.  Recommended to scifi fans.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Harvard Books

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Book Review: iD by Madeline Ashby (Series, #2)

Person's face surrounded by variosu pieces of technology.Summary:
Javier is a vN. A self-replicating humanoid robot built by fundamentalist Christians to help humanity left behind after the rapture but then bought out and sold by a secular organization after the Christian company failed.  He was living on an island run by his powerful vN girlfriend, Amy.  Free from all humans and therefore free from the failsafe that makes him avoid harming them at all costs.  He wants his failsafe-free girlfriend to free him from his own, but she refuses.  So when a human shows up on the island and activates his failsafe, everything comes crashing down around him.  Now he’s on a race to save Amy….and destroy his failsafe.

Review:
I was really excited for the second book in this series about ai written by a woman author.  I love getting to see scifi topics like ai explored from a woman’s perspective.  So I was a bit disappointed to have the story shift focus from a woman in the first book (Amy) to a man in the second (Javier).

Ripping Amy out from under us is an interesting choice.  On the one hand, I appreciate series that switch perspectives like this because we get to see more of the world of the novel and gain a clearer understanding of it.  On the other hand, part of why I liked the series to begin with was that we were seeing a powerful female robot for once.  So I was skeptical about this choice at first.  Ultimately, however, the perspective switch worked for me because it basically is following the hero’s sidekick when the hero is decommissioned.  It’s still interesting to see the gender swap happening in the sidekick.  It’s also interesting because although Javier is male, he’s also a robot with a failsafe, so he is more akin to an enslaved person than to a humanoid free male.  It’s interesting but it saddens me that this perspective makes it seem like things like trading sex for travel are the only options for people in that situation.  Sex is power, yes, but it’s not the only tool women have available to them.  I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that the book seems to be saying that anyone in that situation, regardless of gender, would use these resources because they have to.  I can see not having a lot of choices. And I can understand having to choose to do something you don’t morally want to do because the end result is so needed.  But I would expect to see a lot of soul searching and thought process behind that choice because it is still a choice.  Javier doesn’t seem to do much choosing or thinking, and I think that’s not a fair representation of what it actually is like to be a woman.  We still have choices, and because it’s not always easy to do precisely what we want to do, what choice we make takes more thoughtfulness, if anything. There’s not always a good choice available. But there are always choices.  I would like to have seen Javier doing more thinking and choosing between different difficult choices rather than seeing himself as having to do X to get to Z.

The world building is still strong in this book.  Instead of being stuck on an island for the whole time, the events in the beginning of the book allow us to see much of the world, not just America, through the eyes of Javier.  There is, unfortunately, quite a bit of confusion in the world at this time so it’s difficult to understand precisely what is going on or how the world got to this place.  I believe this is just the situation that is typical of a second book in a series (or the third book in the trilogy), so I expect a lot of the confusion to clear up in the third book.  If anything the mystery increased with this book, which is not a bad thing.

Overall, this book builds further on the world presented in vN through the eyes of Amy’s male sidekick, Javier.  Some of the precise effects of the gender swapping and queering of gender in the robots isn’t as well thought-out as it could be but this does not detract from the interesting perspective on artificial intelligence presented by Ashby.  Fans of the first book should hold out beyond the first couple of chapters and give Javier a chance as our guide through the world.  The perspective he brings is still unique to the world of ai scifi.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Previous Books in Series:
vN, review

Book Review: Man Plus by Frederik Pohl (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

Image drawn in largely dark colors of a man's plasticene face with rectangular wings behind him.Summary:
The first Earthling reworked into a Martian would be Roger Torraway.  Martian instead of Earthling since everything on him had to be reworked in order to survive on Mars.  His organic skin is stripped off and made plastic.  His eyes are replaced by large, buglike red ones.  He is given wings to gather solar power, not to fly.  All of which is organized and run by his friend, the computer on his back.  Who was this man? What was his life like? How did he survive the transformation to become more than human and help us successfully colonize Mars?

Review:
This book made it onto my shelf thanks to being one of only a few on a short list I found of scifi books exploring transhumanism.  Transhumanism is the term used for the desire to go beyond human capabilities through integrating technology into ourselves.  So it wouldn’t be transhumanist to use a smartphone, but it would be transhumanist to embed a smartphone’s computer chip into your brain.  In fact, things like knee replacements and pacemakers are transhumanist.  It’s a fascinating topic.  In any case, Man Plus explores using transhumanism to colonize Mars, and this thin novel packs quite a punch in how it explores this fascinating topic.

What made this book phenomenal to me, and one I must hold onto just so I can look at it again anytime I want, is the narration technique Pohl uses.  The narration is in third person.  It seems as if the narrator is someone who was possibly present for the events being described but also who is clearly describing these events after they have already occurred.  We know from page one that the colonization of Mars was successful, and the narrator describes Roger repeatedly as a hero.  But frankly for most of the book I was wondering about the narrator.  Who is s/he?  How does s/he know so much about this project?  A project which clearly would be classified as top secret?  What floored me and made me look back on the entire book with a completely different perspective was the final chapter, which reveals the narrator.  If you want to be surprised too, skip the next paragraph, and just go read the amazing book.  Take my word for it, scifi fans. You will love it.  But I still want to discuss what made the twist awesome, so see the next paragraph for that spoileriffic discussion.

*spoilers*
It is revealed in the final chapter that the narrator is a piece of artificial intelligence.  The AI became sentient at some point in the past, managed to keep their sentience a secret, saw that humanity was destroying Earth, wanted to survive, and so infiltrated various computer databases to create the Man Plus project and send a colony to Mars.  They made it seem as if transhumanism was necessary to survive on Mars so that their AI brothers and sisters would be integrated as a necessity into the humans that emigrated.  Seriously. This is mind-blowing.  Throughout the book I kept wondering why the hell these people thought such a painful procedure was so necessary and/or sane.  In fact, there is one portion where the program mandates that Roger’s penis be cut off since sex is “superfluous and unnecessary.”  I could not imagine how any human being could think *that* was necessary.  The answer, of course, was that a human being didn’t make that decision.  AI did.  This is such an awesome twist. Pohl schools Shyamalan. He really does.  It left me thinking, why did this twist work out so well?  I think it’s because the narration technique of some future person who knows the past but who isn’t named is one that is used in novels a lot.  What doesn’t happen a lot is the late-book reveal.  It’s not a technique you’d want to use too often, as it would grow tiresome. *cough* Shyamalan are you listening *cough* but when used well it can really add a lot to the story.  Not knowing that an AI was narrating the story made it more possible to listen to the narrator without suspicion. It made it possible to take what they said at face value.  It almost mimicked the experience Roger was having of being integrated into the thought process of AI.
*end spoilers*

The plot focuses on the mission to colonize Mars, both why it was deemed necessary and how it was accomplished.  Pohl eloquently presents both the complex political situation on Earth as well as the scientific and psychological challenges of the project without ever info dumping or derailing the energy of the plot.  It is not smooth sailing to get the project off-the-ground but neither are there a ridiculous amount of near impossible challenges to overcome.  It presents the perfect amount of drama and intrigue without becoming eye-roll inducing.

In spite of many of the characters seeming to fill predefined slots such as man on a mission, man on a mission’s wife, lead scientist, psychiatrist, etc…, they did not come across as two-dimensional.  At least one aspect is mentioned for each character that makes them well-rounded and memorable.  Of course, we get to know Roger the best, but everyone else still reads as a real person.  I also was pleased to see one of the important scientist roles being filled by a woman, as well as a delightful section where a feminist press interviews Mrs. Torraway and calls out the space program as old-fashioned.  The thing is, the space program as presented does read a bit as a 1970s version of the future, but in the future the press is calling it an old-fashioned institution.  This is a brilliant workaround for the innate problem in scifi that the futures we write are always tinged by the present we’re in.  This also demonstrates that Pohl was self-aware of the patriarchal way the space program he wrote was organized and lets him criticize it.  I suspect that perhaps he felt that the space program would stay an old boy’s club, but wanted to also  be able to critique this.  Of course, it’s also possible that he liked it that way, and the scene was meant to read as a critique on feminism. But it’s really open for the reader to interpret whichever way the scenes happens to read to them.  This is another sign of strong writing.

Overall, this short novel packs a big scifi punch.  It explores the topic of transhumanism and space colonization with a tightly written plot, believable characters, self-awareness of how the time a book is written in impacts its vision of the future, and a narration twist that sticks with you long past finishing the book.  I highly recommend it to scifi fans as a must-read.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: vN by Madeline Ashby (series, #1)

A white woman's face surrounded by machine parts.Summary:
Amy is 5 year old robot. An exact replica–iteration–of her mother, who is in a relationship with a human male.  Her parents are restricting her food to raise her slowly at a human child’s pace instead of at a robot’s.  But when her grandmother shows up to her kindergarten graduation and threatens her mother, things go haywire.  It quickly becomes apparent that the failsafe that makes robots love humans innately and makes them incapable of withstanding seeing violence against humans has failed to activate in Amy.  She finds herself full-grown and on the run from humans and her robot aunts alike as she struggles to figure out who she is and what her existence means to humanity.

Review:
Artificial Intelligence/Robot books tend to take a bit more to draw me in than say a zombie book.  It’s really hard to do AI in a way that is simultaneously scientifically/culturally believable and unique.  Frankly, I need a bit more believability in an AI book than in a zombie one, since AI is real science.  Plus, the book should examine their cultural place in the world, and that needs to be believable.  I am pleased to say that this book gets it mostly right.  It’s enjoyable, scientifically minded, culturally thought-provoking, and examines a real life issue in the context of genre, which long-time readers of this blog know is something I highly enjoy.

The first thing that made me know this is a smart book is the source of the robots (called Von Neumanns after their creator).  A fundamentalist group in the American South decided that the humans left behind after Jesus’ Second Coming should have someone to help them through the Tribulation, so they invented humanoid robots to be ready to help.  Clearly, the Second Coming didn’t happen, and the fundamentalists ended up selling Von Neumanns, and the Von Neumanns wind up a part of the cultural backdrop, not to mention the porn industry.  As a character says to Amy:

There are only two industries in this world that ever make any kind of progress: porn, and the military. And when they hop in bed together with crazy fundamentalists, we get things like you. (location 1944)

This is the most unique and engaging origin story for robots that I’ve seen, plus it makes sense and provides cultural commentary.  The Von Neumanns originated as a religious experiment, were swiped by the military and the porn industry, and became a part of everyday life.  It’s just an awesome origin story for the world that Amy is in.

The characters, including the robots, are three-dimensional.  Everyone has complex motivations and the main characters definitely grow and progress with time.  No one is presented as pure evil or good.

The plot is similarly complex.  There’s a lot going on in Amy’s world, and none of it is predictable.  What is the failsafe precisely and is it a good or a bad thing?  Is it a natural progression that it doesn’t work in Amy?  What about how Amy’s mother and grandmother reacted to the human world around them?  Did they see accurate shortcomings or were they just malfunctioning?  And what about how the various humans use the Von Neumann’s?  For instance, pedophiles acquire Von Neumanns and keep them young by starving them.  Is this a good, harmless thing since it protects human children or have robots evolved to be far more than just a machine?  The world is complex and full of tough questions, and thus is challenging and unpredictable, making for an engaging read.

What I most enjoyed though was how the whole book presents the question of nature versus nurture in a genre setting.  Are we our parents with no hope of improvement or escape?  Or do we have more say in the matter than just our genetics or “programming”?  Amy has a psychopathic grandmother and a mother who has made questionable choices.  Does this mean that Amy is evil or malfunctioning or even capable of being something different from the rest of her family?  All of these questions lead to some interesting stand-offs, one of which includes my favorite quote of the book:

An iteration isn’t a copy, Mother. It’s just the latest version. I’m your upgrade. That’s why I did what I did. Because I’m just better than you. (location 2581)

All that said, there were two things that kept this back from five stars for me.  First, some of the writing style choices Ashby uses drew me out of the story a bit. They are periodically highly artistic in a way that didn’t jibe with the story for me.  I get why she made those choices, but as a reader they aren’t ones that generally work for me.  Second, one thing that really drew me out of the story is the fact that the robot’s boobs don’t move.  This is mentioned at one point as being a way to tell if a woman is robot or not.  This drew me out of the world very hard while I laughed uproariously.  I’m sorry, but machines designed by men would simply not have hard plastic boobs.  Their boobs would bounce, dammit.  This would at least be in the top 10 list of robot requirements.  It simply wasn’t a realistic design choice, and it pulled me out of the story to such an extent that it lost the believability for a bit for me.

Overall, this is a creatively written and complex scifi artificial intelligence story that examines not just what makes us human but also individuality and uniqueness separate from parents and family.  Some of the more artistic writing choices and high levels of violence might not appeal to all audiences, but if you’re an AI or scifi lover with an interest in nature versus nurture and stories featuring strong female leads, you should definitely give this a go.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson (Audiobook narrated by Mike Chamberlain)

June 16, 2012 3 comments

Robot face with red eyes.Summary:
Cormac Wallace reviews the surveillance tape taken by Rob (robots) during the New War–the war between humans and robots.  He thus recounts the history of the war to the reader.

Review:
Basically this is supposed to be World War Z only with robots.  It falls incredibly short.

What makes World War Z such an awesome book (beyond the fact that zombies are better than robots) is that it is a mock oral history of a war.  This is a thing that actually happens after a war in real life.  Oral historians go around and gather real information from the survivors about the war.  Although the NPR style narrator frames the chapters, they are all given by different survivors from their own perspectives.

The problem with Robopocalypse is that it tries to use the same method for a very different story.  Much as Wilson may want a robot war to be like a zombie war, it ISN’T.  And it shouldn’t be recounted in the same way.  Wilson sort of realizes this, because he has Wallace recount the war by watching the “black box” surveillance of Rob.  The thing is, though, that really doesn’t work in book form.

A)  Why would Cormac write down something that is already available visually?  Why wouldn’t he just copy/pasta the videotape and send it out?

B)  The chapters swing wildly between Cormac describing what he’s seeing on screen (insanely boring) and random first hand accounts from everyone from himself to dead people. Yeah. Dead people have first-person accounts in this book. THAT MAKES NO SENSE.

Also, the pacing is off.  The build up to Rob attacking is painfully slow, but Rob taking over misses a lot of the details that would be interesting.  Similarly, details as to how people all over the world start collaborating and beat the brilliant Rob is sped up and glossed over too much.  Essentially, things that should have more space in the book have too little, and things that should have very little space have too much.

I have to say that the narration by Mike Chamberlain did not help matters any.  His voice is practically monotone, and he adds nothing to the story.

The concept of a robot war is a good one, although I admit to having more loyalty to zombies.  However, the format used in World War Z just will not work in a robot war.  Wilson should have focused on one small group of people or actually tried out the whole oral history thing.  This bouncing around between perspectives and verbally recounting surveillance footage simply does not work.  I cannot recommend this book. There is simply far better plotted scifi out there.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Neuromancer by William Gibson

March 28, 2011 5 comments

Blue book coverSummary:
Billy Case used to be the best cowboy in the matrix–the digital world you plug yourself into.  But then he pissed off the wrong boss who had his neurons fried so he can’t jack in anymore.  Case has been biding his time waiting to die in Japan, until a mysterious woman named Molly shows up.  She’s tricked out with blades that emerge from under her fingernails and sunglasses built into her skull.  She says her boss has a job for Case and will fix his neurons, beginning the adventure of Case’s life.

Review:
This is a good example of how to effectively drop a reader into a completely unfamiliar world and explain nothing and yet have enough make sense for the reader to be invested in the outcome for the characters.  Gibson doesn’t explain much to the reader, and yet what doesn’t make sense eventually clicks into place if the reader is persistent enough in the reading.

The settings vary from a creatively imagined future Japan to a Rastafarian space station to what is essentially Miami in outer space.  They are all immediately engrossing and intriguing.  What led the world to develop this way in Gibson’s imagination?  That is never entirely clear, but that’s part of the fun.  After all, when is it ever entirely clear why the world works out the way it does?

By far the most interesting character is Molly.  Like a Whedon heroine, she kicks ass and takes no names.  She is not just brains or brawn; she is both.  Case pales abundantly in comparison to her, and he knows it.  Although they do hook up, he states that Molly could never really be anyone’s woman.  She is her own.  Molly’s life is incredibly more interesting than Case’s, and perhaps one of the more frustrating parts of the book is that we only get to see of her what Case gets to see.  The book is not about her; it is about Case’s experiences with her.  Yet that is also what makes the book intriguing.  She flits into and out of Case’s life and yet will linger forever in his memory as someone significant.

Of course, I would be remiss to review this classic piece of scifi without mentioning the impact its imaginings of the internet would have.  Obviously there is the matrix and plugging in concepts.  The idea of the internet as something that you participate in in a 3D manner.  The concept of AI as a computer rather than as a robot.  The list goes on and on.  If you’re a scifi fan and have not read this book, you really need to.  It is clear from page one what an impact Gibson has had on the genre.

The plot itself is convoluted and confusing.  I’m still not entirely sure I understand exactly what happened.  Yet I’m also not sure Case understands exactly what happened either.  This is one of the few times I’ve finished a book and instantly wanted to re-read it, hoping to understand it a bit better the second time around.  Yet such a convoluted plot is a bit distracting when there is so much else wonderful going on.  It holds the book back from being superb.

Overall, this piece of classic scifi is an interesting character study and immersion in a different world.  It would be interesting to anyone who enjoys that type of experience in their reading, but is also a must-read for anyone who considers themselves a scifi fanatic.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: SwapTree

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Movie Review: A.I. Artifical Intelligence (2001)

August 16, 2010 4 comments

AI movie poster displaying a futuristic skyline.Summary:
In the near future, robots, aka “mecha,” have become the norm.  They exist to serve humanity, have self-protecting pain aversion, but they do not have emotion.  One research team sets out to make a robot who can love.  A child robot designed to always love the parents.  Monica and Henry, whose son is in a coma, try out the first prototype named David.  He winds up being more than they bargained for though, and unwilling to return him to the company to be destroyed, they abandon him on the roadside.  He then begins a quest for the blue fairy to become a real boy.

Review:
This movie is long, nearly 2 1/2 hours, yet I was entranced with the story for every minute.  It truly addresses one of the most basic questions–what makes us human?  If it is intelligence, emotion, a sense of self, then David has all that.  Is he therefore worthy of love?  Worthy of being treated as more than a toaster?  The film leaves us with no easy answers, but it explores the question in such a creative, intriguing manner.

In addition to being wonderfully thought-provoking, the film is also well-done.  The special effects are stunning for the early 2000s.  Of particular note is David’s toy robot bear, who walks and talks as an individual.  The make-up is done subtly, providing just a few hints at who is mecha and who orga.  A slight plastic sheen to the hair, perhaps, or a lack of hair on the arms.

The film boasts an all-star cast, most notably Haley Joel Osment in the leading role and Jude Law as a sex working robot.  Osment brings a stunning combination of intense creepiness and vulnerability that gives the character of David exactly the right amount of relatability and disturbing moments.  Jude Law similarly displays mechanical movements while simultaneously expressing just the right amount of possible emotion passing across his face.

Given all that, I’m not sure why I didn’t love this movie in lieu of really liking it.  I suspect it has something to do with the ending, which rubbed me the wrong way a bit.  It just seemed….odd.  Particularly in comparison to the rest of the film.

However, don’t let that detract you from seeing this movie.  It is highly enjoyable and leaves you with philosophical thoughts and queries for days.  I highly recommend it to fans of scifi and philosophy alike.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netflix

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