What it means to be human…

(There needs to be an error code that means “I received your request but decided to ignore you.”)

Ok, so I confess I binged listened to the entire Murderbot Diaries series by Martha Wells last week – all five after last weeks review of All Systems Red. I could probably just stop there. Declaring that fact is review enough, but stopping would leave a lot of white space in this blog post…

So the plan wasn’t a clusterfuck, it was just circling the clusterfuck target zone, getting ready to come in for a landing.

At their heart, the Murderbot Diaries are about a machine coming to understand what it means to be human. Murderbot is a construct, part-human part-robot, designed to be owned, used and discarded by humans. The novellas are simple stories with complex themes and characterisation. I could draw parallels to issues of slavery, racism, gender and sexuality, as well as the role of artificial intelligence.

As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.

The Murderbot Diaries are also bubbling over with brilliant one liners delivered from the SecUnits point of view. I have included some of my favourites scattered through this post.

I hate caring about stuff. But apparently once you start, you can’t just stop.

The series reminds me of studying transhumanism and the likes of Turing, Huxley, Putnam and Searle in philosophy at university. Philosophers who made us grapple with the idea that we could create a being that is equal to human, even replace humans, using artificial intelligence.

Yes, talk to Murderbot about its feelings. The idea was so painful I dropped to 97 percent efficiency. I’d rather climb back into Hostile One’s mouth.

Could a convergence of human and machine consciousness result in a superior being? AI that could think and therefore by definition reduce humans to nothing more than machines. It was mind bending stuff but I fell squarely in the camp of AI being a tool for humans, not being capable of replacing us.

It was very dramatic, like something out of a historical adventure serial. Also correct in every aspect except for all the facts, like something out of a historical adventure serial.

As a decision making tool AI and the use of data have myriad benefits, including the capacity to remove human biases from decision making in some circumstances. But in many respects I believe the essence of our humanity is our fallibility. That we can become overcome and driven by our fears and anxieties, anger, sadness or elation is a unique characteristic of organic sentient beings. Perhaps even more important is our capacity for creativity. Our emotional worlds and imaginations are at the essence of being human, characteristics I do not believe can be replicated by AI.

Disinformation, which is the same as lying but for some reason has a different name, is the top tactic in corporate negotiation/warfare.

That central question in the Murderbot Diaries of what it means to be human is something that all of us actual humans must grapple with throughout life – either consciously or unconsciously. We do this every time we make judgements and decisions because those acts determine the kind of person we want to be, in relation to both ourselves and others.

They were all annoying and deeply inadequate humans, but I didn’t want to kill them. Okay, maybe a little.

Murderbot expresses an irresistible blend of deep love for its humans and angry, pessimistic, exhausted cynicism because he believes the world is a terrible place and humans are hopeless. Part-robot, part-organic beings such as Murderbot were built after all to have superior performance and prevent stupid humans from making stupid decisions and getting themselves killed. Yet Murderbot is driven by a passionate sentimental commitment to do the right thing by them. No wonder he’d rather zone out binging on his favourite show Sanctuary Moon than engage with the world.

I hate having emotions about reality; I’d much rather have them about Sanctuary Moon.

Book Review: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Whenever I visit my GP we talk about books and writing. She once filled an entire appointment telling me about the crime fiction novel she was writing about a GP who murders people. Lucky I’m a crime writer as well or I might have been reticent to accept any more scripts from her. On my last visit she got very animated about Martha Wells’s The Murderbot Diaries so I borrowed the first one to find out what her excitement was about.

All Systems Red is a 2017 science fiction novella and the first in The Murderbot Diaries series. For a simple story, it packs a powerful punch – I listened to the audiobook in one sitting whilst gardening, giggling to myself as I pulled weeds. The premise is simple: Two groups of scientists on an alien plant; something terrible happens to one lot and the others have to work out what, before the terrible thing happens to them as well. So what’s so good about it? …Murderbot…

I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.

Murderbot is a part organic-part robot SecUnit – a security guard of unspecified gender for hire to protect explorers of the universe. Murderbot is a little bit different to the other SecUnits because they have disabled their governing programming unit, giving them agency. The sulky Murderbot keeps this secret, along with their addiction to binge-watching soap operas. They just want to be left alone.

Murderbot is a kind of coming out story because this SecUnit feels like they need to hide an essential part of themselves from everyone else – those who are more powerful than Murderbot and wouldn’t understand.

Wells has given Murderbot, who is essentially a killing machine, extraordinary vulnerability as they struggle with their fears about their robot and human parts. They are trying to work out how to be comfortable in their own skin, and their efforts to hide this from those around them are touchingly hilarious.

The best part? There are five more books in the series.