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New this Fall!

Buy 2 or more classes at the same time and save 25% off the total.

Artificial Intelligence in Science Fiction

Save 25% when purchasing this with other classes from this Fall's semester.


Instructor: Warren Wiscombe
Mondays, September 18 – October 23, (no class on September25)  3:00 – 5:00 PM, Berger Center
5-week session, Cost: $80

Course Description:
Is Artificial Intelligence (AI) a threat or a boon? Learn how science fiction has argued both sides of the question in literature and movies and contrast that to what is actually known. Explore the deeper social and philosophical questions surrounding AI by looking at movies and books and the actual science behind it. with the goal of understanding how much of AI in sci-fi is realistic now or in the future.

Course Details:
The web-based ChatGPT, which can write credible text on any subject, has sparked a deluge of media attention on Artificial Intelligence (AI)—and concern that we will not only be deluged by AI writing but that AI will take away many kinds of jobs. But science fiction can give us deep perspective on AI; it has imagined AI in all sorts of subtle and sophisticated ways for decades, including intelligent robots and androids, cyborgs, synthetic biology, augmented reality, and the metaverse—all of which we loosely call “AI”. Robots and AI are enduringly popular themes in sci-fi, as judged by the sheer number of books, movies, and TV series with such themes.

More recent examples include “The Matrix” movies, the “Terminator” movies, the “Battlestar Galactica” series, and “Ex Machina”. In the 1980s and 1990s, some of the most popular characters in the Star Trek universe were Data, an android; The Borg, cyborgs with a hive mind; and Seven of Nine, an ex-Borg. The legendary 1982 movie “Blade Runner” followed Harrison Ford as he hunted and killed androids called “replicants” who were needed on other planets but banned from Earth.

While artificial beings date back to ancient history, they were always just dumb machines obeying their programming. Robots with independent intelligence first appeared in a 1920 play by Czech writer Karel Čapek called “Rossum’s Universal Robots” in which the robots revolted and killed all humans. In 1942 Isaac Asimov formulated the famous “Three Laws of Robotics: A moral code to keep our machines in check” to help forestall just such a revolution.

By the 1950s, Robbie the Robot was welcoming children to Tomorrowland in Disneyland, somewhat softening the image of robots. But robots, even in sci-fi and much more so in reality, remained fairly dumb machines until digital computers were invented and miniaturized in the 1980s. This small-computer revolution sparked the cyberpunk branch of sci-fi pioneered by William Gibson’s 1984 book “Neuromancer” where people “jack” their brains into the internet using direct neural implants.

It is inevitable that we will keep improving robots and AI, for many reasons including space travel. The series of books “We Are Bob” posits the transference of a person’s complete consciousness into an AI which can then control a spaceship, clone itself, and prepare the way for humans to follow; this is well beyond today’s science, since we don’t fully understand how the brain stores data, but it may be possible in the future. Finally, we will explore sci-fi works which address the nature of reality in an AI context, beginning with the literary invention of the metaverse in Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” (1992) and continuing to “The Matrix” in the late 1990s.

This course will alternate between sci-fi in books and movies (with short clips from the best or most historically important movies) and the actual science behind AI, with the goal of understanding how much of AI in sci-fi is realistic now or in the future. Our goal will also be to enjoy the science fiction for its flights of imagination, independent of how realistic it is.

Instructor Biography:
Dr. Warren Wiscombe helped found the climate science field in the 1970s, doing research in the newly-formed Climate Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. He retired in 2013 from a 30-year career in the Climate & Radiation Branch of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. He taught climate science at New York University, NASA, University of Maryland, Weizmann Institute in Israel, and in Italy. He turned his focus to exoplanets in his final years at NASA. Since 2014, he has lectured and taught at many North Bay venues on subjects as wide- ranging as science fiction, the solar system, exoplanets, the dangers of electromagnetic radiation, paleoclimate, climate solutions, climate science, and even hiking and kayaking.

Course Outline:
Week 1: An overview of the history of the various branches of AI, and its ups and downs.

Why AI didn’t seem to be going anywhere until about 2010, and how the deep-learning revolution kicked AI into high gear. Interspersed will be the best and/or most important historical examples of AI in literature and film, starting with Frankenstein in 1820, and ranging up to the 1950s when digital computers were invented and made real AI possible.

Week 2: Robots and androids in reality and in sci-fi.

Sci-fi robots, which need not take humanoid form, range from gigantic, as in “The Iron Giant” or the Transformers, to microscopic, as in the nanobots which form Gort in the new version of the movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still”

We shall look at classic robots and androids in movies like the Terminator series, “Blade Runner”, Spielberg and Kubrick’s “AI: Artificial Intelligence” “Ex Machina”; and TV series like “Battlestar Galactica”, “Doctor Who” and “Lost in Space”; as well as Isaac Asimov’s robot stories where he puts forward his Three Laws of Robotics. We shall see how Commander Data in “Star Trek Next Generation” became one of the most popular examples of androids, and watch part of the trial where he sued to be declared a person.

Week 3: AI existing just inside computers.

We will look at the many applications of AI today, beginning with ChatGPT and how it works, and continuing to the algorithms used in social media to manipulate us cleverly and individually. On the sci-fi side, we will look at depictions of both bad and good AI-human relationships in the movies “2001”, “Colossus The Forbin Project”, “Her” and “Transcendence”, and in the trendsetting 1984 book “Neuromancer” where hackers plug their brains into AI’s using direct neural implants. The series of books “We Are Bob” posits the transference of a person’s complete consciousness into an AI which can then control a spaceship, clone itself, and prepare the way for humans; this is well beyond today’s science, but once we fully understand how the brain stores data, it may be possible.

Week 4: Cyborgs and synthetic biology.

Cyborgs are human inside, but enhanced by technology. Examples include “The Stepford Wives”, “Robocop” and The Borg in Star Trek Next Generation. (In reality, we are all beginning to walk down the Borg road, with our artificial body parts.) We will look at how synthetic biology is building up organisms entirely artificially, from scratch, as well as modifying humans through gene replacement, CRISPR, and other novel techniques. Synthetic biology is now building “xenobots” from frog cells which can self-replicate and perform useful functions in medicine.

Week 5: The metaverse, Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality.

The metaverse was invented in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 sci-fi novel “Snow Crash” and is becoming a buzzword, albeit a poorly understood one which will be elucidated here. Many works, notably “The Matrix” movies, raise the question of what is real and what is not. Do you take the blue pill or the red one? The movie “Total Recall”, filmed twice, raises the same question. Virtual reality puts a human in an entirely computer-generated world and is mainly known because of computer games, although it has many other more serious applications. Augmented reality is a step up, by inserting computer-generated elements into the real world. We shall see how this translates to sci-fi in movies like “Ready Player One”. We shall finish with some sci-fi movies that span more than one AI category. It seems inevitable that we will keep improving robots and AI, for space travel and for many other reasons as well. Hopefully this course will help prepare you for the world of tomorrow.

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