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Karin Lowachee on how humanity can peacefully coexist with AI

Our Q&A with the author of “A Sun Will Always Sing” from Better Worlds, The Verge’s sci-fi project about hope

Illustration by Yeah Haus

I first discovered Karin Lowachee’s stories when a friend shoved a copy of her debut novel, Warchild, into my hands, telling me that I had to read it and its sequels. Her story followed a human child who was snatched up by an alien civilization and trained as an assassin, and it’s stuck with me for years. I’ve followed her short stories over the years (and even published one called “Enemy States” in an anthology I edited).

When it came to Better Worlds, Lowachee was at the top of my list, and her story of a distant future in which humans and AI coexist peacefully alongside one another knocked me over with its powerful, empathetic overtones. I spoke with her about how she developed this future and how she thinks AI and humanity can not only get along, but complement one another.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

What inspired this story, and how did you construct this future?

I’d seen on YouTube a discussion from scientists about if an AI possessed an exact neural map of the human brain that it would not be out of the realm of possibility to believe that they would also be imbued with curiosity and maybe even a sense of responsibility for the Earth because now they, too, were a part of its systems. Around the same time, I stumbled on articles written by social scientists who believed that in taking care of certain economic necessities, humanity ideally could free up resources for creative problem-solving on the world scale and exploration.

These points of reference were really the general jumping-off points for me to try to logically extrapolate a human society that accommodated AIs (though not without some implied struggle) because the AIs were not, in fact, seeking a judgment day. They wanted to live and progress just as humans, and though their consciousness was not exact to humans, they were their own kind and just as worthy to be respected. We recognize this in intelligent animals, or even animals as a whole, so my thinking was it could be possible for AIs as well.

Author Karin Lowachee.

Also, recognizing that humans themselves were melding tech into their bodies so the lines were blurred when it came to defining what was strictly human anyway. I’m fascinated by AI stories. It’s been a theme in some of my fiction lately, and this was a way to further explore the different possibilities but through the experience of someone like Benjamin who began as one “type” of AI but was able to “upstart” himself, change his lot in life, and become something more, which is a human story to me.

What are the seimei, and how different do you imagine them to be from humanity? How do they avoid the types of AIs that we see in films that are bent on our destruction?

The seimei are AIs that virtually appear exactly as human, but they’re completely synthetic. They were built first in Japan and possess what they and humans call an “adjacent consciousness,” which means though they might not think / feel in the exact manner as humans, they are no less sentient or important.

In my mind, they have created their own culture and language separate from what humans might have programmed. For every human that is bent on destroying another human, there are humans who are not, so no less are the seimei. In this future, they see no real need to destroy humanity when they can live much better coexisting. Some of them even have a sense of respect, even love, for the Earth, and humanity is a part of that biosphere.

If anything, they are perhaps more conscious of humans’ connection to the Earth and possess a desire to preserve that. Why not? We get fed in the media about how horrible humanity is — and we are — but at the same time, we also have a lot of good qualities. There are good people the world over, and why wouldn’t an AI recognize that?

One of the things that struck me while reading this is how you mash up things that feel un-futuristic, like stonework and stained glass, and put them alongside things that are, like an artificial person and futuristic cities. How do you see these two fitting together?

I think they fit quite naturally together. In today’s world, we see cathedrals or churches built decades or centuries ago standing side by side with modern buildings. The past, history, is important to society, and regardless of how technologically advanced we become, I’d like to believe that history would still be respected in some way, aesthetically or otherwise. I also enjoy the idea of various eras coexisting, and thematically there is that: the human and the seimei.

A common trope in science fiction is humanity spreading out into the cosmos because of a need to expand and escape from an Earth that we ruined. This story presents a slightly different take on that. Do you think humanity can save itself without outside help?

I’d like to believe we can, but it’s like an ongoing battle with myself, considering world leadership and the cumulative effect of the damage we have done and are doing to the environment — not to mention to each other. I want to have hope and to positively contribute, but it’s intensely frustrating to see the carelessness or outright sociopathic behavior of people and how we seem to have put industry and the bottom line above basic human rights and the well-being of our planet, of which we have only one.

If we can’t fix ourselves, we have nobody else to blame and one consolation is that the Earth will recover given time. Humanity might not survive, but the Earth will. I know this doesn’t sound optimistic, but I do love writing science fiction because it allows me to dream and hope and offer alternatives.

Benjamin and Jasmina have a particular relationship. How important is that to Benjamin as he embarks on a journey to essentially set up a new world?

It’s extremely important to Benjamin for a few reasons. Jasmina and Rafael were the ones who believed in him for the program, and there’s a part of him that wants to make them proud. He also understands that he’s carrying their legacy — not just humanity’s in general, but on a personal basis, it is their child. He loves them, he loves Jasmina, and he will love the child. His expression of doubt and fear in the end is emblematic of how important he takes his responsibility, both as a parent of sorts and as a caretaker of the new world. The two roles go hand in hand, as I believe they do for humans, too, or at least they should: love of one another and love for the biosphere in which we are a part are indelibly connected to me.