Will Fiction Work on Robots?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Have you ever thought about the nature of fiction? With books, we put ourselves into a trance and transfer our consciousness into a story. That’s pretty weird when you think about it. We’re just looking at black marks on a white background and yet we create all kinds of colorful imaginary worlds in our minds. With television and film, we have the sound and visuals to fool our minds with less work. (It’s no wonder fewer people choose books as their gateway to make-believe.) Audiobooks are somewhere in between.

Humans evidently have a mechanism in their brain for pretending that can tune out reality. It might be related to our mechanism for dreaming. But if you think about it, we embrace a lot of fiction. Religion is totally make-believe yet the faithful feel it is real. Same thing for romance, where we give the objects of our desires traits that don’t exist.


This morning I was so engrossed in a story that I felt like I was escaping reality. That made me wonder about how my brain works to do that. Then I wondered if robots in the future, the kind that will have artificial intelligence, will be able to read a book and find an escape from reality too.

I assume if evolution through random selection can create a biological being that is self-aware then eventually our applied efforts will produce robots that have self-awareness too. Because they won’t be biological driven by chemical and hormonal processes, they might not need sleep. One current theory about why we sleep is because we need to clean out chemical wastes in the brain so it functions properly when we’re conscious. Another theory suggests dreaming is a way to process, organize, and store memories. Robots won’t need sleep, and memory processing won’t be chemical. So they might not have that mechanism for make-believe.

Our brains have to attach meaning to everything we experience, and we usually do that with a story. However, our stories are seldom true. Our mental mechanism for storytelling is sometimes called a narrative fallacy because humans aren’t too anal about accuracy. (Example, the stories conservatives choose to believe about their new tax law.)

I believe we constantly fool ourselves because of the biology of survival. Romance and religion serve a purpose even when they are intellectually untrue. We lie to ourselves and others for a variety of survival functions, and I can’t help believe all those processes go into allowing fiction to work on us.

Robots won’t need any of that. I wonder if fiction and lying will fail on them. I can imagine an AI mind seeing us as rather delusional creatures. They certainly won’t trust us. Even our languages are full of confusing allusions when analyzed for realism. For example, if a robot hears a human saying, “I’ll be going to heaven soon” they’ll probably be smart enough to know it means “I’m going to die” but will they ever understand the will for eternal life seeded by ancient memes? In Battlestar Galactica, they had a race of robots that were monotheistic. I thought that a fun idea, but now I’m wondering if its a fiction only humans could enjoy.

I believe robots will understand our languages. It won’t take much to give them a universal language translator feature. But I’m not sure they will need language to converse with their fellow robots. AI minds will be able to record inputs from all their senses so when they need to communicate with another robot all they have to do is transmit that input. The other robot will have a perfect duplicate of the experience being conveyed.

So, in the future, will robots sit around and read books? If they read the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov will they enjoy spending hours imagining a galactic empire? I doubt it. A long string of words will probably feel like sensory deprivation to them. Even elaborate movies might feel crude compared to their hyper-view of reality.

We have 4k television cameras on our phones. What if robots had 4m or 4g eyes? We see a tiny slice of the electromagnetic spectrum. They could create to see and hear whole swaths of the spectrum. I suppose they could create equally detailed virtual worlds but would it be fiction? When we read a short story we trick our minds with a small number of suggested clues to create a fictional world in our minds. Most books today are heavy on dialog. Movies are far richer, but the actual story details in filmed fiction are still rather primitive. To robots, War and Peace would be a simple-minded Clif Notes – book or miniseries. (They could hold a whole library of Russian history in their AI mind.)

I tend to think we crave make-believe because of our limitations. We love romance or adventure stories because our lives lack romance and adventure. But I’m not sure robots will crave that. However, they might. They might even envy us. Robots will probably be 100% literal about reality. And even though the universe is extremely far out, robots will comprehend it in totality rather quickly. I don’t think they will be bored, but I don’t think they will see a lot to be done either. We can switch off reality and play in fiction. Robots might seek a similar creative outlet. Maybe it will be a super form of AI fiction we can’t even comprehend.

[Note to self: write a science fiction story about science fiction stories robots would write and read.]




6 thoughts on “Will Fiction Work on Robots?”

  1. I could envision sentient robots exploring and playing with words, perhaps just to see what sort of meanings or emotional responses they generate in humans. They might be poets. However, I doubt a machine language would be rich enough for robotic language literature. Instead, I have envisioned robot art as using observed data points to construct ever more elegant models of natural phenomena at every scale – sub atomic to cosmic.

  2. Pardon me while I flush my ports: Jimmy-me-boy, this email response should shake that tree just a little bit.
    Until there is a discernible difference between a human and a bot online, this won’t be a problem. Once that differentiation no longer exists? – Then we are at the apocalypse, aka that stupid idea of IE taking over all
    things digital in our Pewniverse. And then we are become just fodder for the process.

    Think about it: our so-called democracy is based on “One man, one vote”, and that is already gone, unless you live in the deep south. In other words, it ain’t about being one man, it’s about being one human being. Male, Female, or Indifferent; every single human on this planet and in this Nation gets to vote as they wish in this USA – so far.
    Once we open the door for Bots in voting, the very last chance that any human being can effectively participate in a vote for elected office is long gone. Vast numbers of purchased personal information and votes will continue to control the most meaningful of elections; and even if there be a mighty revolt against the giant stupidity of ignorance by so many that won’t be enough. The Bots will win.

    Humans can ignore the fluff and paid-for- adverteasements if they want to do so. But any Bot is only programmed to do one job. And that job is to fulfill one single task – get the votes that matter into the polling place. If that is not enough, then their job is to replace and completely remove the actual source of our identity, and our decision making choice in electing our legal representatives for both the House of Representatives, and for the Senate.

    That being said; Does anyone want to argue the point of what an ignorant and local electorate can turn out >(@50%) is a better government than one that is raised up by a legally corporate entity?

    Don’t think I’m an advocate for this; I live in a town were the voters are mostly Republican, and most really can’t be bothered to pay attention to just how that affects the rest of us. I can make my way out of this crap into an open country where my property and it’s limits are fairly well defined. Also, I do know how to defend that property and continue with my own water well, wind power, and a damned sure visual control over my property. And can remain free up to defending it against Federal Armed Forces. Up to a point; Those guys have more and bigger guns than all of the rest of us.

    Shades of Robert Heinlein.

  3. I’m reading Ken MacLeod’s The Corporation Wars: Dissidence which features a plethora of different robots. I grew up reading I, ROBOT and Asimov’s excellent robot novels, CAVES OF STEEL and NAKED SUN. Of course, decades later, we all had to deal with THE TERMINATOR which presented a different kind of robot from Asimov’s.

  4. Ken MacLeod’s The Corporation Wars: Dissidence is the first book in a trilogy about the rise of self-conscious robots. In this first book, the robots “talk” in a somewhat stilted manner. They’re just coming to grips with their self-awareness as the Corporations send forces to destroy them. When I finish all three books, I’ll report back how MacLeod handled his various robots. Right now, I’m rooting for the robots over the greedy Corporations!

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