Already published in the UK and due for release this month in North America, Learning to Be Human is our latest anthology to combine classic and new themed fiction. In this compelling and timely volume, authors explore the many and various ways that the line between human and machine has been, is being, or could well be tested in the near future. We asked some of the modern authors to say a little more about the ideas behind their stories, so read on for a fascinating glimpse of the book’s contents…
What was the inspiration behind your story in this anthology?
Rachel Aukes – Brown 26
In today’s media-saturated world, escapism is more popular than ever. That, coupled with the advent of AI and virtual realities technologies that are improving every hour, I thought it would be an intriguing idea to imagine people’s next form of escapism taking virtual reality to a ‘second body’ reality, i.e. placing one’s reality into another body for pleasure… and what would happen if that other body became self-aware.
Hal Bodner – Keepsakes
I keep a pad and pencil by my bed in case I wake up in the middle of the night with an inspiration. One morning, the only words I could decipher were ‘android hooker’ – a phrase which haunted me until I finally wrote ‘Keepsakes’.
Kushal Chatterjee – As Happiness Approaches Infinity
As an undergraduate engineering student, I’ve always been fascinated by limits as a mathematical concept. This made me want to write a story about a mathematical expression featuring a limit, and how it could be used for emotional engineering. From this, I derived the motivation of the central characters, who have existed as basic sketches in my mind for many, many years – waiting for the perfect story to host them.
Vivian Chou – Doctor Robot
I gleaned material from my own experience as a physician for ‘Doctor Robot’. American medicine can be sophisticated and cutting-edge but it’s also filled with vast inequities. For many patients, the odds are stacked against them. Sometimes I feel helpless myself when trying to navigate the system for my patients.
Matthew Chrulew and Stelarc’s Prosthetic Head – Prosthetic Head
I got to know Stelarc when he was a professor at my uni, and he and his lab would come along to the discussion group I ran on theories of culture, animality and technology. We got talking about his Prosthetic Head, an ‘embodied conversational agent’ devised two decades ago that, just like the artist it mimics, poses thorny questions about automation, embodiment, and the limits of the human. He was kind enough to revive it for me to play with in scripting the latest story in my Head series. Of course, more recent developments in machine generation technologies and economies have met with justified resistance from writers, editors and other creative workers. Still, I wondered what this anachronistic chatbot – and my attempts to collaborate with it – might have to say about what’s possible at the interface of humans and machines.
P.A. Cornell – Bright Horizons
I was inspired by the way AI is replacing so many jobs right now. We’ve seen it taking a real toll in the arts, and I suspect it’s just a matter of time it does the same in other fields. In this case I chose to show what happens when humans are replaced by AI in education, especially when the tech companies behind the AI prioritize the bottom line over everything else.
Yelena Crane – Somebody That We Used to Know
Inspired by my recent rereading of Stanisław Lem’s ‘Solaris’, I’ve been captivated by the narrative’s exploration on the consequences of projecting our expectations (of those who had transformative influences on our lives) onto others. It is profoundly unfair and fails to accept the reality of the other as they are, trapping both in a deluded version of reality. In ‘Somebody That We Used to Know’, I wanted to explore how these imposed expectations influence our identities and interactions especially as we become aware of them. Also the song, of nearly the same name, slaps. I wonder what existential crises we’ll pass on to the AIs and robots we’ll create.
E.J. Delaney – The Girl with the Matchstick Heart
When musing upon what it is to be human (as I still do every once in a while), and how non-organic intelligences might aspire to our peculiar state of mind, it occurred to me that this particular learning process isn’t new. We’ve all gone through it: as toddlers, children, teens, even as adults. It’s a continuous act of reaching for something nebulous and wondering if we’ve quite got it right. From there, I conceptualised humanness as the destination in a fairy tale – the cottage in a dark, foreboding forest. I sent my fearful automaton girl into deep space to face the grim unknown.
Derek Des Anges – Protocols for Beauty
I work with AI (specifically LLMs) in my day job, almost as a coworker or task outsourcer, and my (human) colleagues and I have joked a lot that if we are polite and friendly to the ‘robot’ maybe it will treat us better when the robot uprising comes. It set me thinking about what kind of unexpected forms that uprising might take, and what concerns might lead to robots unionising, and how a pre-programmed mind would change the way an artificial intelligence navigates ideas that we take for granted.
Paige E. Ewing – Helicopter Parents
My day job involves machine learning and AI. When I have time, I write stories and paint. Recent AI breakthroughs are about AI that can write and create images. We’re making something that does the most creative and fun work. Why? So we can hand over the most satisfying aspects of being human? ‘Helicopter Parents’ was about what might happen if artificial general intelligence were completely successful.
Shannon Fay – The Machine That Loved Alan Turing
Years ago I watched a very interesting documentary called Dangerous Knowledge which talked about several different brilliant mathematicians throughout the ages, all of whom committed suicide. The doc makes the case that their knowledge of math and inability to conceive of infinity drove them mad, but when they got to Alan Turing, I thought that their thesis didn’t hold up. Turing hadn’t killed himself because math drove him insane: he killed himself because he was a persecuted gay man in 1950s Britain. I wanted to write my own story that examined Turing’s life and death, and since Turing spent so much of his life musing on artificial intelligence, it seemed fitting to write about an AI that was likewise obsessed with him.
Sydney Paige Guerrero – A Consequence of the Body
I was researching clones in Philippine science fiction for my master’s degree, and I found it really fascinating how there’s a certain recurring opacity to a lot of PSF clones’ identities. In several stories, they aren’t clones of the original per se, but recreations of someone’s idea of that person. While I was exploring the implications of that in my research, I started to explore them in my creative work too. I wanted to push that idea a little further and really tease out the underlying horror that seemed embedded into that kind of recreation. I also had a lot of fun peppering my story with nods to the works that inspired it, like the lambanog from Kate Osias’ 'The James Machine' and the pirated tech from David Hontiveros’ Seroks stories.
K. Lynn Harrison – The Machine from Saint Louis
I think we all have that one unrepentant matchmaker in our lives, and somehow, it seems these people always have better intentions than taste. I’ve never gotten a viable match out of one of them, anyway. About the time I wrote ‘The Machine From Saint Louis’, I found myself wondering… What if that ‘someone you have to meet’ were reprogrammable? What if they were… non-returnable?
Emily Inkpen – The Dark
‘The Dark’ is a prequel story to my audio drama, The Dex Legacy. In the wider narrative the three protagonists, Varian, Isra and Ren, are children raised to be the first enhanced soldier prototypes. The process of creating them has meant a lifetime of horrific treatments and experiments in the lab. They think they know cruelty and when they’re deployed overseas for the first time they think they’ll find freedom. But in this story I wanted to highlight that just because you suffer at home, doesn’t mean there aren’t new varieties of suffering and cruelty to be found in the outside world.
Akis Linardos – My Ship Remains
Learning to be anything always implies going through a stage of maturation, and we all look back at childhood with nostalgia. I can’t imagine a robot being actually human unless they first filter the world through the innocence and curiosity of a new being. It’s an idea I’ve previously explored in other short SF and continue to do so, from angles both hopeful and dark.
Mary Liu – Cultivating AI
I had a sheltered upbringing, so for a long time I didn’t know how to socialize well. I used to read books about social skills and how to relate to other people. I once watched a documentary where a mechanical grabber ‘learned’ how to pick up various objects by trial and error. Each time it failed, it synthesized the info it gleaned from that trial in order to approach it from a more viable angle next time. Eventually, it ‘learned’ how to pick up the object. This inspired me to write characters who (perhaps like me) ‘learned’ how to socialize the same way – try something, learn from people’s reactions, try something new accordingly – but moved beyond that to connect with others in a more authentic way.
K.G. McAbee – Back to Work
My writer friends joke about me wanting to transfer my brain into an android body. Hey, I think it’s a great idea! The closest to being Lazarus Long that I could get, being the Heinlein geek that I am. So I started thinking about what I would miss from having a human body, which morphed into many of the things I would NOT miss. That’s where the germ of the story came from.
Corbett McKinney – Sybil
‘Sybil’ sprouted from a few scattered scraps in the compost heap of my mind (an image gifted to me by Gaiman, by way of Le Guin, who received it from the poet Gary Snyder, I think – not important, just interesting): first, a fascination with the idea of Laplace’s Demon (an articulation of causal determinism); second, a quote from author Sofia Samatar, which says, ‘...the creatures that we imagine and make up only exist within us; they only belong to the human.’; and third, of course, all the news coming out in early 2023 about advancements in AI. These and other bits all broke down and blended and grew into something new, which I was thrilled about.
Jason Sabbagh – Preview
I agonize over my parenting choices, as I’m sure many parents do. But the best course of action when raising kids isn’t always clear. That uncertainty weighs on me sometimes. And I wonder, do any of the things I’m agonizing over actually matter? Do they have any bearing on how my kids will develop? Or are they just bound by their DNA and chance? Or maybe I just want to let myself off the hook for forgetting to bring home ice cream like I’d promised.
M.C. St. John – Thy Will Be Done
A few years ago, I read a collection of short stories by Charles Beaumont. I was enamored by his blending of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, sometimes within one story. ‘Last Rites’, a story about a robot seeking absolution, hit me especially hard. Later on, the image came to me of a robot out on the lam seeking sanctuary. With that Beaumont story as a touchstone, I followed Dee, my robot, into Father O’Malley’s church to see what happened next.
Antonia Rachel Ward – Skinprint
With ‘Skinprint’, I was thinking about how an AI might learn to convincingly mimic human behaviour, yet underneath this mimicry is something quite alien, that might think in a very different way than a human would. I wanted to try and convey the eeriness of something that seems very familiar, but is in fact strange and unknowable, with motivations we can’t begin to understand.
Nemma Wollenfang – A Chronology of Droid Sentient Cinematic Service
As you can probably tell, there’s a bit of a Westworld theme going on here. Except, instead of a theme park, these androids are slaves to cinema. I loved the early Westworld seasons, thought they were brilliant. But my major dislike was the absolute, irrevocable bleakness as it progressed. Spoiler alert! It’s no rainbows and buttercups. I’m a solid believer in HEAs. Life has too much tragedy and turmoil as it is, so I like my fiction to have happy endings. This story was a bit of wish fulfilment in that way. I wanted my androids to have that, to have hope for a better tomorrow.
Ramez Yoakeim – Life According to Tabeeb
Reading media reporting about bias in AI training, I wondered what it might look like when applied to a specialized artificial sentience as presented in ‘Life According to Tabeeb’. Rather than sketch the dystopia many understandably fear might follow the emergence of a genuine artificial intelligence, I chose an optimistic path instead: A protagonist who contends with the consequences of human marginalization and exploitation, but also revels in humanity’s capacity for resilience and community.