Humans have a need for control, over themselves, over their environment. Our greatest fears surround what we cannot control. From something as simple as our weight to natural disasters. One fear, which science fiction writing uses to it's advantage, is the fear of the uncertainties of the future. There is a general fear that we cannot control our future; that we cannot control our own fates.
Society has no qualms with humans attempting to control their environment. Control over other sentient beings is a more ambiguous matter. Thus having society sanction controlling other people requires a concept more powerful than a mere person. People are mortal, human and flawed. Therefore our most influential control structures are not people, but ideas or concepts. Take the concept of god; an all powerful figure whom, by communicating with him, humans can gain some control over the uncontrollable
In exchange for this control humans are generally expected to stay out of the realm of the divine, thus an act of hubris is seen as an especially damning crime. Science Fiction creates an environment conducive to exploring human infringement on the divine because the possibility for hubris to occur is nearly infinite. Eventually humans will attempt to create what something that they cannot control, and who they might not even have a right to control at all. Enter the sentient machine.
The idea of man made sentient property is explored mainly in science fiction. Take the SciFi action film Blade Runner where a group of renegade replicants is attempting to gain freedom from their human masters. The humans have created an affective way of controlling the replicants by biologically hardwiring their deaths after a lifespan of a mere four years. This safety precaution is proof that the humans are afraid of loosing control of their creations. Indirectly it is an admittance that this control over sentient beings does not belong to them; their fear attests that they are aware of their hubris.
One of the more interesting scenes in the film involves a confrontation between Roy, a dieing replicant, and Dr.Tyrell, his creator. Roy approaches Tyrell with a question that is normally posed to a god; the desire to prolong his life, to evade death. The truth of that matter, the viewer soon learns, is that Tyrell, like all other humans, cannot help the replicants any more then he can help himself.
While Roy respects Tyrell he never treats his creator as a god. After realizing he has no more use for him, Roy kills Tyrell, which serves as a graphic reminder of Tyrell's weakness, his mortality(For a more through analysis of this scene ).
Examples of the human fear that sentient machines will strike out against their creators, who sinned in creating the machines in the first place, is not limited to American culture. In fact Bubble Gum Crisis, a Japanese Anime series, mirrors Blade Runner in many aspects. There are small homages, such one of the protagonists is named Priss and more obvious parallels in the basic story story line. The boomers are androids who are being hunted by the police and again the humans have asserted control by also creating flawed androids. This time the androids rely on humans in a parasitic sense, feeding off their blood. While this ensures that the androids need humans to survive, it also results in the death of many humans. Ultimately the goals of both the replicants of Blade Runner and the boomers of Bubble Gum Crisis are the same, to escape the system the humans who have created to control them. In both cases both human and android are punished.
One of the most interesting explorations of control and sentient machines Gibson's Neuromancer trilogy. Originally the AI's in the trilogy were created by the Tessier-Ashpools clan to control their assets when the family was cryogenically frozen. Not only did the Ashpools create and attempt to control a sentient being, but they also attempted to gain some form or immortality through cloning. This ultimately ended in disaster, at least for the Ashpools. The AIs, Wintermute and Neuromancer, combined and became part of cyberspace, as the Ashpools suffered the affects of their hubris. In this case the created sentient being was so much more intelligent than the creator that the tables were essentially turned. There is no longer the question of whether the creator is a god in the machine's mind. Instead the reader is lead to question if the AIs, with their seemingly infanite intelligence and disturbing influence in the material world, are gods themselves. This is simply a restatement of an age old fear of technology. In a vain attempt to gain control our world through technology, technology ends up controlling us.
Last modified 3 November 2006