AI in science and science fiction

Artificial intelligence (AI to you and me), as we have come to know it, started out life in 1821…

John Herschel (yes the son of the William Herschel, who discovered the planet, Uranus) brought with him some astronomical calculations of the (human) computers to his friend, Charles Babbage. They commenced the tedious process of verification. After a time many discrepancies occurred, and at one point these discordances were so numerous that Charles exclaimed, “I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam,” to which Herschel replied, “It is quite possible.”

But computers, or to be more correct, automatons had been predicted by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels, where an inventor has constructed a gigantic machine designed to allow the most ignorant person to write works of ‘philosophy, poetry politics law mathematics and theology’. Swift was undoubtedly satirising the then more far fetched pretensions of science and technology of his time.

So the natural question is did Babbage think back to Swift when he made his utterance? If so, the real hero of this vignette is Herschel who had a belief it could be done.

Both science and science fiction have come a long way in describing computers, robots and artificial intelligences since then. It would certainly be interesting to know when science influenced science fiction and vice versa.

But science fiction uses artificial intelligences for several purposes:

  1. part of the prediction of the future, including how they will impact us mortals
  2. as an entity that is close to being human, but for various reasons could not be put into human form
  3. as a mechanism to show us something on the possible development of our society, much like H G Wells used time travel to depict the interaction between the Eloi type of people and the Morlocks
  4. as is the case with my C.A.T. series, teaching us about human traits e.g. trust
  5. as a device to help save words and paper when the author wants something particular done (really a tool for a lazy science fiction writer – but hey, if it adds to the readers enjoyment, so what?)

Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between the above reasons of why an artificial intelligence is used in a particular story, but the issue that is bugging me is, why didn’t science fiction predict the computer revolution we’ve been seeing in recent decades? Why did it drop the ball so to speak?

And it’s not just science fiction writers, but also science people.

My guess is that we missed out on the impact of economics… the 1980s saw computers becoming affordable in the home. There was one computer that used your standard TV screen. From there it was easy to build up a network… the internet and so on… now we have a computationally wired behemoth.

So the next question is what else are we missing out because we scientists and science fiction writers have not understood the economics impact on our cultures?


4 thoughts on “AI in science and science fiction

  1. Ah, but SF did forsee the rise of the net. Neuromancer was published in 1979.

    That said, SF isn’t really supposed to be predictive, I don’t think. It’s supposed to discuss possiblities, but the results we get aren’t going to particularly be the ones discussed. It’s a tool with many uses, and often it’s discusing the present, or even the past, not predicting the future.


  2. With so many wonderful ideas having their origins in the Victorian period, it is no wonder steampunk is so popular. The only surprise is that it took so long to rise up as a subgenre.

  3. Hello Colum… entirely agree that science fiction should discuss possibilities and ergo can’t be predictive in its totality. But a subset of it is…. some of it will be right about some of its predictions some of the time… if only because someone is lucky enough to hit on the right answer!

    Hello mgm75… the height of Victorian invention was achieved in 1851 with the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace… or at least that is what many believe… my view is that science had started to show signs of idiocy in the UK before – just look at what happened with the discovery of the planet, Neptune, when John Couch-Adams predicted its position, but the astronomers did not follow it up… that was c. 1846.

    But just to amuse you… did you know that George Stephenson of the Rocket steam engine fame also invented cucumber straighteners… there are two examples in the Chesterfield museum… in those days they didn’t have the varieties of cucumber we have today and they tended to grow into all sorts of odd shapes…

    Best Wishes, Rosie

    1. No, I didn’t! But thanks, that’s quite amusing. If he lived today I’m sure he would have invented a “banana straightener” so we could all submit to EU regulations.

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