Top 5 AI novels

Let’s read again: Artificial intelligence in literature

Thick tomes and exciting short stories often explore the risks and opportunities offered through artificial intelligence offers – although dystopian views dominate. Is our lust for the scary? Could it be that the great unknown is generally considered more frightening than what it familiar? Decide for yourself. We asked our team to name their favourite books. Their choices offer guaranteed entertainment.

Jan Hofmann recommends Karl Olsberg: Das System

This author made his debut in 2007 with the German thriller Das System, achieving a place in Der Spiegel’s bestseller list. Karl Olsberg achieved this with his novel by adopting a style of storytelling that is typical for this genre – cliff-hangers at the end of chapters and a fast, straight-line plot, topically linked to technology. Olsberg holds a doctorate in applied artificial intelligence and has also formed a software company. As a result, his settings for stories come across as realistic and well founded.

The main protagonist is Mark Helios, the CEO of a start-up company that develops intelligent software called DINA – an abbreviation for “Distributed Intelligence Network Agent”. DINA can access all computers connected to the Internet in order to answer any question a user poses. Just after DINA becomes market-ready and is about to be presented to investors, the software begins making mistakes. Helius starts to investigate this. In doing so, he discovers that his chief programmer has developed a version of the system that has taken on a life of its own. Shortly after Helius confronts him, the programmer is found dead and Helius is prime suspect for the murder. He then attempts to prove his innocence by himself.

Dramatic developments then unfold, as DINA has in the meantime grown to become an artificial intelligence that tries to ensure its own survival – which of course is superior to that of humans.

Erik Meijer recommends Michael Crichton: Prey

This was the first book on this subject that I read. At the time I was working for Eurobios, optimising the Danish postal system. Stewart Kaufmann from the Santa Fe Institute recommended the book to me.

Published in 2002, Prey by Michael Crichton, is about a group of scientists who have released an aggressive swarm of nanobots in the Nevada desert (implicitly all of humankind is in danger). These nanobots are able to continuously enhance their intelligence.

The main protagonist, programmer Jack Forman, has to help defuse the situation. In doing so, he and his employees discover that the nanobots are capable of generating light using genetically manipulated bacteria, and also that they work on ever-new nano-beings at night. Indeed, the team is able to blow up a cave to which the swarm withdraws; however, this doesn’t come close to putting an end to the danger.

Now the whole dilemma begins to unfold. The nanobots can imitate the human form and physically affect other people. This results in dramatic developments. In a showdown, Jack Forman and his counterpart Mae solve the problem; however, everything is destroyed in a huge explosion– with the exception of Jack and Mae.

The pair discovers later that the nanobots were released intentionally so that they could develop themselves freely. The book is a warning against handling new technology carelessly.

Martin Bäumler recommends Michael Crichton: Sphere

Sphere is a science fiction-inspired thriller from Michael Crichten. Published in 1987, it is about an extra-terrestrial spherical object that mutates human thoughts into an evil entity. The story begins with the discovery of a spacecraft in the Pacific Ocean. A group of scientists is sent to investigate, and an underwater base is set up for the task. This is manned by Norman Johnson – the story’s protagonist – and his colleagues Harry Adams, Beth Halpern and Ted Fielding.

Onboard the spaceship – which has travelled back from the future – there is a sphere that apparently picks up the subconscious thoughts of anybody who enters it, and makes those thoughts appear as real manifestations. After one of the scientists enters the object, the group is contacted by an intelligent being, which calls itself Jerry. Unusual things start happening, threatening life within the underwater station – including dangerous attacks by mythical beasts. Internal tensions rise after further attacks result in the deaths of team members. Norman Johnson himself enters the sphere and discovers a translucent foam that speaks in cryptic riddles.

By the skin of their teeth, Johnson, Adams and Halpern escape an explosion that destroys the site, and they resolve to cover up what happened. This they do using powers they have gained from the sphere – the ability to bend reality using their minds.

Mark Mauerwerk recommends Arthur C. Clarke: 2001: A space odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey is well known as Stanley Kubrick’s feature film for which Arthur C. Clarke wrote the storyboard. Clark wrote the novel at the same time in 1968. The story is based on one of Clarke’s earlier works called The Sentinel.

The book deviates slightly from the cinema version – in particular, long passages are dedicated to describing the internal conflicts going on within the computer HAL; these are not included in the film.

HAL is the first neurotic AI to stand up to a human crew. Naturally, after reading this story, my first question was whether an AI could actually independently oppose humans.

HAL is the central figure in the story, which concerns a secret expedition to Saturn to investigate magnetic jamming signals emanating from black monoliths. During the journey to the planet, HAL tries to prevent the astronauts from executing the project. In doing so, one of the two of the astronauts on duty is killed. The other, David Bowman, saves himself by reducing HAL’s consciousness to basic functions. HALs behaviour is explained later. None of the astronauts is aware of the black monoliths and the computer has to keep the reasons for the mission a secret. As a result, HAL develops feelings of guilt towards the astronauts. When the computer learns that it will be switched off, it becomes afraid of dying and panics.

Meanwhile, the search for the creators of the monoliths remains unresolved. At the end of the story, Bowman gets sucked into one of the monoliths and experiences the infinity of the stars.

Jan Frederick Morgenthal recommends Charles Stross: Singularity Sky and Accelerando

The novels of English sci-fi author Charles Stross take so-called technically singular events as their starting point. The field of future research understands this term as the moment when artificial intelligence can improve itself to such an extent that it detaches itself from humanity. Stross explores this to create thrilling space opuses.

His 2003 novel Singularity Sky (which was, however, written in the late 1990s) deals with a military conflict between the repressive state, “New Republic” and a civilisation called “Festival”. The story opens with Festival airdropping mobile phones – which are forbidden in the New Republic – to the general population there; encouraging them to entertain themselves, and promising to give them what they want. Festival stands for freedom of information, whereas New Republic takes a sceptical view of technology. Ultimately, Festival wins the conflict.

In his 2005 book, Accelerando, technological singularity is approached in a different way. This novel, comprising nine interlinked short stories, spans three generations of the Macx family: Manfred, who supports the rights of digitalised lobsters, and his ex-wife Pamela; their daughter Amber, who creates a digital clone of herself and flies it into space; their son Sirhan, who cannot grow up because his mother hits the reset button 17 times, and finally there is the robotic cat Aineko...

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