Driven to Affection

BIS Odyssey Driverless

Asimov’s choice of stories after ‘Nightfall’. This edition published by Granada Publishing Limited in Panther Books 1978. Cover illustration by Ken Sequin.

In this commercialized world in which we in the West find ourselves, it’s a fair assumption that many developments in science and technology will be largely dictated by what consumers want, and are willing to pay for. So, if we look for the arena in which artificial intelligence might yet arise, it may not be in some academic laboratory, but possibly in the realms of consumer product development.

Driverless cars definitely seem to be the way forward for the transport of the future and, whatever one thinks of the possibility of enabling an entirely automatic system to function fully as a human driver would (or even better), it’s an area where having some form of intelligence at the wheel would be an advantage, if not a necessity. And, given the risks, perhaps a superior intelligence.

The science fiction author Isaac Asimov took this idea forward as long ago as 1953 in his short story Sally, which has been included in many anthologies since. He himself made it one of the stories in his Nightfall anthology from 1969, having made the point that people were endlessly referring to the title story of that collection, originally published in 1941, as the finest thing he had ever written, and he wanted to make clear that he had produced a great deal since which was just as good. Having said that, Nightfall itself is still one of the single most famous science fiction tales of all time.

Asimov developed the idea of robots controlled by positronic brains – a concept familiar from his tales of robotics beginning with Strange Playfellow in 1940 and as demonstrated so well in the 1950 collection I, Robot. In Sally, a robot driverless car “scans the road, reacts properly to obstacles, humans, and other cars, and remembers routes to travel.” All of which sounds like a good set of principles for driverless cars these days, even though it was written over sixty years ago.

Inevitably, owners in the story end up feeling affection towards truly intelligent cars and, since the car is a thinking being itself, that can be reciprocated. And when that car has performed a lifetime of useful service, it wants a happy retirement. It has a mind of its own, and it most certainly doesn’t want its ignition turned off. It may feel that its very existence is being threatened, and you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of a large, powerful vehicle that feels you have become such a threat.

In real life nowadays, people can get extraordinarily attached to their cars, giving them pet names and almost treating them as fellow humans with all their foibles and eccentricities. Add to that a satnav voice which increases the sense of interacting with another person, and the voice-activated commands for in-car entertainment systems or environmental controls which are becoming more common, and you already have the foundation for considering your vehicle to be something significantly more than a means of getting from A to B. To complete the picture along the lines of Asimov’s story, for consumers wanting to travel without driving themselves, AI must be the future.

The television series Knight Rider from the early 1980s, along with its later sequels, was based around the exploits of an artificially intelligent car. Yes, Michael Knight, played by David Hasselhoff, may have been the main protagonist, but there wouldn’t have been much of a story without the car, KITT – sentient, full of the latest technology, and virtually indestructible. And if we ignore the indestructible aspect, which is going a bit too far, it might well be feasible in the near future.

And who isn’t going to feel just a little guilt at leaving their helpful, intelligent friend out in the cold and rain, or rusting whilst not being used enough, while you get on with your own life? Therein lies a potential problem – true AI may become a great servant to the human race, but will more than likely make demands on us, intentionally or unintentionally, which will pose problems of their own.


Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

With a lifetime’s interest in science, history and human behaviour, Richard Hayes focuses his writing on how the imagination has created the world in which we live, and where it may lead us in the future.  Odyssey, the e-magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, draws on the rich treasury of science fiction to explore many fields of speculation, enabling us to glimpse what might yet be, both here on Earth and out amongst the stars.

For related Odyssey posts, please click here: The Ethical Robot | I’m Sorry, Dave. I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That

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