Literature has shown us that, however artificial they are, robots still exude intelligence—an intelligence that leads to cunning, to strategy, to scheming, to improvisation and, if you’ll permit some tin-foil-hat-ramblings, to rebelling!
HBO’s Westworld has revitalized the conversation exploring whether or not robots can—and should—attain their own rights. So considering the possibilities that literature has postulated, will robots lead their own sentient rights movement?
This list features nine novels chronicling how a synthetic species may (or may not) demand its own pursuit of happiness, plus one nonfiction book surveying AI’s historic progression.
1 of 10
1. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Robot Right Explored: Fair Trials
A high-concept, robot revenge saga, Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy is a modern classic in science fiction (book one, Ancillary Justice, won the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Awards). Leckie's series boasts an intriguing protagonist: an artificial intelligence that controls a starship and links thousands of soldiers. But the starship is torn asunder by an act of war, casting its last shred of sentience into a humanoid survivor known as Breq. To bring it back to our politically themed query of robot rights, it's interesting to think about the possibilities—and dangers—when sovereign robots have the ability to both promote inter-program cooperation and host trials of crimes against technology.
2 of 10
2. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Robot Right Explored: Shelter
The earth is dying in Philip K. Dick's dystopic future, and global citizens are ordered to begin emigrating to Mars. Meanwhile, most of society is gracelessly subjugating its doppelgangers, the Nexus 6 Androids. Androids like Pris Stratton and Roy Baty manipulate the ever-blurring behavioral lines that only minutely distinguish them from humans, trying their best to avoid being "retired" by a bounty hunter. The "andys" in this story are essentially prey, but a reader's empathy for them will vary based on his or her own perspective. When robots go wireless, when they're bipedal and possess artificial brains, will we hunt them down or will we provide them housing?
3 of 10
3. The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Robot Right Explored: Philosophy/Education
Can a supercomputer give us the answer to everything? The characters in Douglas Adams' space-spoof believe so, and they seek the meaning of life through a computer's meticulous calculations. It's like searching for God through Google, more or less. And then there's Marvin the Paranoid Android, who outshines Descartes and Camus (or at least Eeyore) with brooding existentialism and self-deprecation. Maybe we should consider the logic that robot philosophers could add to our intellectual debates.
4 of 10
4. Hyperion by Dan Simmons
Robot Right Explored: Complete Freedom
Hyperion opens in the wake of Armageddon, revealing that mankind's power surges from and through their WorldWeb. Meanwhile, an A.I. collective has seceded to form its own independent TechnoCore. Some of the AI's appreciate that they need to forge a symbiotic relationship with man; others consider humanity's purpose obsolete and support the creation of a deity-like project known as the Ultimate Intelligence. It gets more complex from here, particularly when the humans and AI's are flummoxed by a monstrous entity's arrival. But there's definitely a push from the robot antagonists to consider all-out war against humanity.
5 of 10
5. I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
Robot Right Explored: Freedom of Thought
I, Robot, Isaac Asimov's interlinking short story collection, presents three laws for robots: 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 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.
Asimov's stories show robots developing the ability to reason, leading to acts of rebellion when they find contradictions in the laws. One robot even believes that it was created by another machine, while a different robot learns how to tell a lie. So beyond driving our cars or performing surgery, should we give these robots the freedom to think for themselves?
6 of 10
6. Neuromancer by William Gibson
Robot Right Explored: Marriage
In William Gibson's seminal work of cyberpunk, two AI entities are veritable puzzle pieces for each other, designed to fuse into a superconsciousness and rule a virtual reality known as "the matrix." We witness multiple characters manipulating each other throughout the novel, but Gibson hides a twist until the end: the two AI's actually pulled the strings and truly manipulated the human protagonists into engineering their merger. Which begs the question: should we let robots marry, even if it would accelerate their evolution?
7 of 10
7. The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod
Robot Right Explored: Freedom of Religion
Ken MacLeod's novel about a human and robot detective pair opens after a rash of global wars have outlawed religious extremism from civil society. Robots, who served during the wars, are developing the human feeling of disillusionment after being reduced to second-class citizens during peacetime. But as these robots contemplate their own souls, it slowly invites seeds of extremism to return. So should they be allowed to practice religion?
8 of 10
8. Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson
Robot Rights Explored: Synthetic Civil Rights
This book will confirm all of your fears about robot uprisings. Robopocalypse's central drama finds a robotic protagonist in a relationship with a human, but the offsetting moment comes when an advanced AI becomes self-aware and plots a coup of its creators. While we can't guess what robots would do when attained full sentience, Daniel H. Wilson's novel posits they might declare war by way of a virus that transforms robots into rebellious assassins. We won't spoil the trilogy's first installment, but it does explore robots becoming "Freeborn" from their makers and suggests their desire for synthetic civil rights.
9 of 10
9. Speak by Louisa Hall
Robot Right Explored: Free Speech
The most intriguing narrative from Speak's five interconnecting vignettes involves a teen girl's chat room session with an AI program. Decades into the future, we discover that young teenagers have practice the trend of adopting their own AI. The further the girl's AI probes with questions about human behavior, the more the line between human emotion and robot emotion blurs. Many of the robotic "dolls" or AI entities in Speak are preoccupied with the desire to communicate, to be understood, accepted, liked, befriended, even loved.
10 of 10
10. Machines of Loving Grace by John Markoff
Robot Right Explored: Limited Sentience
John Markoff's nonfiction tome is the perfect chaser to this list, because it quiets the alarm bells and highlights a range of authoritative voices on both computer technology and human biology. It also reconfigures the conversation about robots surpassing us and instead offers perspectives on how they can enhance our lives. How do we get to the point of establishing a nuanced relationship with these mostly-sentient-but-not-yet-self-aware servants of ours—without robots undermining our authority? It requires "grace."