I love reading traditional science fiction and fantasy books, but I also have a soft spot for graphic novels. In fact, I just posted a column over on EE Times — Gobsmacking Graphic Novels — that introduces five graphic novel series I'm currently reading.
One series I didn’t mention in that column is Alex + Ada by Jonathan Luna and Sara Vaughn. I decided to keep that one separate because it's more related to embedded systems with embedded vision and embedded speech. Also, I think the future presented in this series is much more likely to transpire and, indeed, is much closer than many might think.
Alex + Ada is set in the relatively close future. We start by meeting 27-year-old Alex, who is a pretty sad and dispirited character, if the truth be told. The first things we notice are the futuristic elements. Alex wakes up to be greeted by a holographic display showing the weather forecast and the news. In fact, it's from the news that we discover that an artificial intelligence (AI) became self-aware a year before. This AI uploaded itself into a hundred warehouse robots, which subsequently massacred any nearby humans. Not surprisingly, this has left people feeling pretty skittish, so even though humanoid robots have permeated society, their AI capabilities have been well and truly locked down.
Alex also has a “chip” implanted inside his head that lets him control and interface with the technology around. For example, he can to flush the toilet, make the coffee, and even call someone and talk to them “telepathically.” There are certain conventions in graphic novels, like using round “talk bubbles” with arrows to indicate people speaking locally, using jagged bubbles and/or jagged arrows to reflect people talking on the other end of the phone, and using talk bubbles with smaller bubbles instead of arrows to indicate thoughts. This is the first time I've seen a double-bubble (with smaller bubbles) used to indicate telepathic-like commands and communication.
It's not long before Alex gets a call from his grandmother who, it has to be said, is a somewhat frisky character. Grandma lives with an android called Daniel, who she describes as being “Kind and attentive and says all the right things, even if he needs a little direction.” It doesn’t take long for us to come to the conclusion that Daniel's duties go a tad beyond making a hot cup of coffee.
Sensing that Alex is a little “down in the dumps,” grandma decides to treat him to an X5, which is the latest and greatest in realistic robots. She even opts for the extra memory option (now, that's my sort of grandma).
Alex decides to name his android Ada. Initially, Ada's AI is locked-down, as is now the law for all androids. This means that she is totally subservient — she will do anything Alex asks her to do, but any interaction between them is sort of “flat” because she will agree with pretty much anything he says.
After a while, Alex starts to realize that he wants “more” from Ada, although he's not exactly sure what “more” entails. He ends up wandering around the future incarnation of the Internet, and he eventually tracks down a private forum where he discovers that Ada can be unlocked. He also discovers that if Ada is unlocked, she will become fully self-aware and self-deterministic to the point where she may decide to leave him and go off on her own. You probably won’t be too surprised to hear that Alex opts to unlock Ada, one thing leads to another, and they eventually fall in love.
On the one hand, Alex + Ada follows a fairly classic science fiction story line. Having said this, it's very well written and it really makes you think about what it is to be human and the dilemmas one would face having totally subservient android servants running around the place. Also, although Sara Vaughn's illustrations are spare and unassuming, they very well match the style and pace of the story.
I'm reminded of the 2013 American romantic science fiction comedy-drama movie Her , which was written, directed, and produced by Spike Jonze, and which involves a lonely, introverted, depressed man called Theodore Twombly forming a relationship with a talking operating system (OS) with artificial intelligence, who names herself Samantha. More recently, we have the 2015 British science fiction thriller movie called Ex Machina , which was written and directed by Alex Garland, and which involves a programmer called Caleb forming a relationship with a humanoid robot named Ava.
Is all of this far-fetched? Well, as far back as 1996, a California company called Realdoll began making realistic, lifesized dolls. Since that time, they've sold thousands of these dolls for upwards of $10,000 apiece. The thing is that many of the people who purchase these dolls end up having what appear to be real feelings for them, as you can see in this BBC documentary that chronicles both the industry and the people who buy the dolls.
There are also numerous stories of younger people becoming emotionally attached to robot “pets.” And there are documented cases of older people becoming attached to humanoid-looking bots with which they play therapeutic games, to the extent that the humans becomes depressed if they are prevented from interfacing with their bots.
There really is a lot to think about here. As one reviewer said: “After reading Alex + Ada , I'm really hoping my grandmother just gets me a jumper.” Personally, I would love to have an Ada to help clean the house and do the laundry and have a cold beer waiting when I get back from the office in the evening, but I'm fairly sure that my wife (Gina the Gorgeous) would have her own opinion on this. How about you? How long do you think it will be before humanoid-looking robots are commonly available and affordable?
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