February 18, 2015

Machine Consciousness in "Supertoys Last All Summer Long"

I've gotten myself scheduled to teach an interdisciplinary honors college seminar on science-fiction and philosophy in the coming fall. I've started working on a syllabus, which means I have the enjoyable task of looking through a lot of science-fiction stories to think about which ones provide the most interesting explorations of philosophical questions. Along the way, I noticed something very interesting about Brian Aldiss's "Supertoys Last All Summer Long".

This 1969 short story was the basis for the 2001 movie A. I. Artificial Intelligence, which was begun by Kubrick and finished by Spielberg after Kubrick's death. According to Aldiss's introduction to Supertoys Last All Summer Long and Other Stories of Future Time (2001), Aldiss strenuously objected to the Pinocchio motif in A. I., but had already sold the film rights to Kubrick.

In the story, there are strict government population controls that prevent couples from having 'real' children, so a company begins to sell robotic children as a sort of replacement. The central character of the story, David, is one such 'child'. David's 'mother' is frustrated by the fact that he is not a real child and so will always be five and will never grow up.

The thing that struck me about this story (and I'm sure I'm not the first to notice this) is that, when reading the story, the reader naturally projects all sorts of emotions onto David. We feel that David is unhappy, that he feels rejected or unloved by his disappointed 'mother', and so forth. We get the sense that the humans are treating David horribly and hurting his feelings. But a careful reading of the story reveals that the third-person narrator never ascribes any inner life to David. This contrasts with the rich inner life attributed to the 'mother.' David seems to the reader a much more sympathetic character than his 'mother', but, looking more carefully, it's not clear that there's anything there to sympathize with.

This, of course, makes this story a must-read for discussions of machine consciousness!

Posted by Kenny at February 18, 2015 4:12 PM
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Comments

I look forward to following along (from outside the class) as you develop the syllabus! I just requested a book from the Porter County Library that includes Aldiss's short story. :)

Posted by: Rich Schmidt at February 24, 2015 8:22 AM

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