The central character in my novel The Actuality is Evie, a female A.I. created in the image of a woman she is expected to replicate, even though they have never met, an exercise which even she is experienced enough to perceive is something of a quest to be second best. In creating Evie, I’d like to acknowledge five influential pioneers in the depiction of artificial consciousness that have been instrumental in shaping our response to thinking machines in fiction.
The portrayal of created consciousness dates back to Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein published in 1817, a hundred and fifty years before modern computers, which is extaordinary enough in itself but Mary’s achievement is all the more astonishing because she was just eighteen and working in what was then a man's world.
The Frankenstein story is etched into the imagination for many through the medium of film and in particular Boris Karloff’s haunting 1931 performance, in which he depicts the monster as a clumsy tragic creature, never having been asked to be created, exciting both sympathy and horror. The monster in the book is more agile and arguably even more frightening as it pursues its ghastly single-minded path of vicious revenge.
An influence on Shelley was contemporary scientific interest in Galvinism – the study of electricity and its role as a life force. The term Galvanism originates from the Italian scientist Luigi Galvani and was used to describe the contraction of muscles resulting from the application of electrical currents.
Boris Karloff as the monster complete with metal plates and electrodes in the neck.
It wasn’t until 1921 that intelligent machines next have a proper outing in the form of a play by Czech writer Karel Capech. Relatively unknown now, R.U.R. was highly successful in its time, being translated into thirty languages and having a Broadway run.
R.U.R., standing for ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’, introduced the word Robot into the English Language. In Czech, robota refers to the forced labour required from serfs on their owners' land and stems from rab, meaning ‘slave’.
The play depicts a future society which relies on roboti manufactured from synthetic organic material which are physically indistinguishable from humans. During the course of the play the roboti develop the capability to think and this leads to a worldwide revolution with the last remaining humans holed up in the office of their factory.
It is easy to spot the roboti in this production of R.U.R. from 1921, featuring an unknown Spenser Tracey in his Broadway debut. Despite being notionally set in the year 2000, the actor on the right in his sharp double-breasted suit and the actress on the left with her cloche hat and low-waist are totally 1920’s.
Undoubtedly at least partially inspired by R.U.R.’s success, Metropolis, the iconic German silent movie directed by Fritz Lang, was released in 1927.
The story is set in the now fast-approaching year of 2026. In it, a robot is used by the ‘bosses’ to imitate a social activist called Maria and is instructed to go around among the workers acting badly in order to discredit her and what she stands for. To achieve this deceit, the robot’s metallic exterior is transformed by an electronic process (conveniently unexplained and left to some blurry special effects) to replicate that of the young woman to be maligned.
The silent star Brigitte Helm plays both parts brilliantly – switching between Pickfordian innocence and brooding Dietrich intensity to depict Maria as both woman and her robotic nemesis.
It is a little-known fact that Metropolis was based on a novel of the same name, with book and film created in tandem in an early example of cross-media collaboration.
4. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
In 1968, Philip K. Dick published his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? continuing the concept of robots closely resembling humans. The book went onto spawn Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece Blade Runner.
The A.I. beings in the story, known as ‘replicants’, are so convincing as to be nearly indistinguishable from humans. Some of them are not even aware that they are not human. Their presence on earth is illegal and the novel is told from the point of view of a ‘blade runner’ – a bounty hunter whose job it is to hunt them and ‘terminate’ them. Because of their likeness to humans, the resulting showdowns come across as shocking cold-blooded assassinations.
Rachael, the ultimate sci-fi femme fatale portrayed by Sean Young in the film Blade Runner with sultry forties film noir panache: is she / isn’t she? … she doesn’t even know herself!
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey
1968 was undoubtedly a great year for science fiction with the release also of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film tells the story of the quest for extra-terrestrial life but its most haunting aspect and real star was HAL, the softly spoken but ultimately arrogant and overreaching, shipboard computer, voiced by Douglas Rain.
After killing four of the crew, the ship’s commander manages to decommission HAL.
As he removes its memory boards one by one, the scheming and murderous computer turns childlike and as its voice slows and fades, sings liltingly the song taught to it by its first programmer: ‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do…’
The eye of the machine: if its voice had been synthesised, or otherwise dehumanised, the tension in the battle of wills with the ship’s commander, would have been lost.