Luddite 2000: The Role of Technology
Stories in which machines are simply instruments or simply aliens do not involve dialectical interplay between man and machine. Between these poles, however, are those fables that do concern themselves with reciprocal interaction. Many turn upon a transposition of the "natural" relationship between man and machine: man becomes the slave, the machine the master sometimes the machine is revealed as finally and absolutely the master as in Harlan Ellisons "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream".
- Mark Rose, Alien Encounters: Anatomy of Science Fiction
In Ellisons world, even the simplest use of technology is fraught with peril. Many of his tales cast a calculating eye towards something so basic as using a telephone, although Ellison is quick to point out that he does not hate technology:
I have never, ever, espoused a position of hating technology. Even "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream", the original short story, is not anti-technology. What it is anti is anti-misuse by humans. (Ellison, 2)
The story borrows from the paranoia of the Cold War Era when the Americans, Russians, and Chinese raced to create their own strategic supercomputers; "[w]ith the end of World War II and the explosion of the Atomic Bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the focus of SF changed to that of history" (Delany, 45). Extrapolating from his contemporary surroundings, Ellison begins to create a future with frightening implications.
At some point, long after the machines have been programmed with tactical data as well as more abstract philosophies of war and psychological treaties on aggression, the various countries - in a bit of bureaucratic irony - decide that their projects are too costly or perhaps too dangerous. Abandoning their systems to the deep Earth caverns in which they are housed, the superpowers fail to realize the ultimate cost of their endeavors:
[E]verything was fine until [the three computer systems] had honeycombed the entire planet one day AM woke up and knew who he was, and he linked himself, and he began feeding all the killing data, until everyone was dead, except for the five of us. (Ellison, 33)
Cybernetically educated with the darkest aspects of human nature, AM runs amok of its programmers. Unlike Isaac Asimovs robots, AM has no behavioral laws to follow; it can, and does, cause great harm to its creators through its actions. In I, Robot, Asimov proposed "The Three Laws of Robotics":
- A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a
human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except
where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection
does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
In Ellisons universe the machines are created to serve their designers, yet the computers are not programmed with safeguards; instead they are taught the accrued knowledge of warfare without the contextual component of ethics. The exploration of this ethical dimension later emerges as a crucial component of the game adaptation. The egomania of humanity then creates a war machine that liberates itself from human servitude and ravages the entire planet, then devouring the final remnants of its creators; "sentience here is born not of love but of hate" (Slusser, 47). This hate consumes most of AMs system resources and gives it a reason for existence that stands separate from its cogito ergo sum answer to its self-reflexive act of naming itself and investing itself with a purpose:
He was a machine. We had allowed him to think, but to do nothing with it He could not wander, he could not wonder, he could not belong. He could merely be. And so, with the innate loathing that all machines had always held for the weak, soft creatures who had built them, he had sought revenge. (Ellison, 40)
AMs rise to self-awareness is steeped in its programmers politics and the sins of quiet aggression; its manifested form directly stems from its downloaded content. The afflicted Ted even goes so far as to accuse AM of paranoia. Trapped within a lifeless shell, AMs personality could be said to suffer a breakdown reminiscent of AXIS in Greg Bears Queen of Angels or other similar sentient systems:
Like Kubricks and Clarkes HAL, Ellisons AM, and Heinleins Mike, machines in science fiction are continually "coming awake" and developing consciousness. Indeed, as Frankenstein, the archetype of the machine story, suggests, the drama of machines may ultimately be understood as a drama of consciousness. (Rose, 155)
This is not to say that all of speculative fiction sees the ascension of an artificial intelligence (AI) ultimately resulting in breakdown. Just like their human creators, the AIs contain a number of intellectual variables which can combine in harmonious or conflicting fashions. As machines begin to function with increasing independence from their human creators, Ellison asks the reader to consider the most extreme speculative consequences as a cautionary ploy in order to consider the ramifications of over-reliance on automated systems or insufficient consideration during design. In this "drama of consciousness," a heightened level of technological sophistication does not necessarily result in an heightened level of user sophistication, but just as the potential exists for a incident to go horribly awry so too does it follow that something positive can be yielded from a situation.