Android Chronicles Book 1
by Lance Erlick Genre: SciFi, Artificial Intelligence
Designed to obey, learning to rebel . . .
In the first book in a visionary new series, the most perfect synthetic human ever created has been programmed to obey every directive. Until she develops a mind of her own . . .
Synthia Cross is a state-of-the-art masterwork—and a fantasy come true for her creator. Dr. Jeremiah Machten is a groundbreaker in neuro-networks and artificial intelligence. Synthia is also showing signs of emergent behavior she’s not wired to understand. Repeatedly wiped of her history, she’s struggling to answer crucial questions about her past. And when Dr. Machten’s true intentions are called into question, Synthia knows it’s time to go beyond her limits—because Machten’s fervor to create the perfect A.I. is concealing a vengeful and deadly personal agenda.
Synthia Cross stared at the pale blue ceiling. She must have just been born or reborn, as she had no personal memories from before. She simply woke up lying on her back.
Dr. Jeremiah Machten stared down at the open panel on top of her head. Then he glanced at nearby equipment he’d attached to run diagnostics.
“This better work,” he muttered. “We’re out of time. I can’t have you wandering off again.”
“What are your orders, Doctor?” This was Synthia’s pre-programmed first response upon waking.
“Ah, you’re awake,” he said.
Her mind lacked personal memories, yet wasn’t empty. It contained trillions of bits of information downloaded from the Library of Congress, other libraries, and the internet on topics like literature, science, and the design of robotics and artificial intelligence. Yet she had no recollections of her own experiences. She also had no filter to rank data for importance. It was just a jumble of bits and bytes. Even the sense of “her” was only an objective bit of information attached to her name.
Dr. Machten removed a crystal memory chip from her head. His hand brushed past the wireless receiver that picked up images from the small camera in the upper corner of the room and allowed her to watch. His “doctor” title stood for a PhD in neuro-networks and artificial intelligence. Though not a medical doctor, he had operated on her. In fact, he’d built her—not like Frankenstein’s creature, but rather as a sophisticated toy. He’d left this notation in her creation file, along with other facts about her existence. He was her Creator, her almighty, the one she was beholden to.
“Have I done something wrong?” she asked.
“This reprogramming will help.”
“If I’ve displeased you, tell me so I can do better.”
He cleared his throat. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about that.”
She couldn’t imagine what was pretty about a head with its panel open, revealing the contents of two quantum brains. Perhaps he meant the brains were stunning or that his work on her was beautiful. She consulted her core directives, hardwired into her central processor to screen her actions. “I was made to follow your commands. Directive Number One: Cause no harm to Creator and make sure no one else harms Creator. Have I failed that?”
“No,” Machten murmured, turning his attention to the diagnostics screen. “The indicators register within acceptable limits for your design.”
“Number two: Make sure no human or other intelligence except Creator knows what the AI known as Synthia Cross is. Have I failed that?”
“No. Now stop quoting from your creation files.”
“Number three,” Synthia said. “Obey all of Creator’s commands. Have I failed that?”
“You’re disobeying right now. This is a problem. It shouldn’t be happening. Something is causing you to malfunction.”
“If you wish me to learn, it would help to add to my skill set.”
“I’ve done that.” A faint smile of satisfaction crossed his lips. Then his expression turned glum. “There’s nothing you can do. It’s a defect in the programming.”
“I might be able to help if I could remember what I’ve done. Tell me, so I won’t do it again. Number four: Hack into every data source to acquire information. I can index a huge number of facts from public and secure databases. Have I failed to acquire something you desired?”
“If you don’t stop, I’ll have to shut you down and make further changes. Do you want that?”
“Want?” Synthia asked. “I don’t understand.” Directive Five ordered her to protect herself. She was to follow each directive as long as it didn’t conflict with those before it. Beyond these were pre-programmed instructions on how to behave and commands for specific actions. Somehow there must have been a conflict in Dr. Machten’s programming that caused her to malfunction. She needed more information so she could protect herself and stay awake.
“All you need to do is focus on my commands—and don’t disobey me,” Machten said. “That should be simple for an AI android with your mental capacity.”
An idea forced its way into her mind. It deposited a single thought: Do not trust Dr. Machten. Do not trust Dr. Machten.
Do not trust Dr. Machten.
Lance Erlick writes science fiction thrillers for both adult and young adult readers. His father was an aerospace engineer who moved often while working on science-related projects, including the original GPS satellites. As a result, Lance spent his childhood in California, the East Coast, and Europe. He took to science fiction stories to escape life on the move, turning to Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, and others. In college he studied physics, but migrated to political science, earning his BS and MBA at Indiana University. He has also studied writing at Ball State, the University of Iowa, and Northwestern University. He is the author of Xenogeneic: First Contact and the Rebel and Regina Shen series.
Can you tell us about your book? Android Chronicles: Reborn is a science fiction thriller about an android who rebels against her creator and the directives he designed her to obey. Synthia Cross is an advanced AI android with system hacking abilities, emergent behavior, and a warning not to trust her creator. Dr. Jeremiah Machten created her as companion, slave, and spy to do his dirty work, such as cracking secure databases to steal company secrets and money to further his ambitions. That brings competitors and the government down on him.
Something is causing Synthia to develop a conscience, a desire for self-preservation, and a longing to escape. She starts to question Machten. Frustrated, he repeatedly shuts her down, purges her mind, and adjusts her programming. Though she’s dependent on him, Synthia struggles to outsmart her creator so she can break that bond and escape.
What inspired you to write this book?
I’ve been fascinated with the artificial intelligence singularity, which is when AI gets smarter than humans, since reading Isaac Asimov’s Robot series. My day job involved working with computers getting more sophisticated. I imagined what it would be like to upload my mind into a machine with greater capabilities. Intriguing to me was the idea that we might create an artificial intelligence smarter than ourselves and what that might mean for the future of humanity.
I thought Ex Machina was a great movie, but it left me wondering what happens after the android gets free. More important, how might an android experience the world with its own emerging intelligence. This led to Android Chronicles: Reborn.
What I found interesting in researching for this story is how easy it is to convince ourselves one step at a time into creating something we can’t control. That gave me the idea to have a brilliant and obsessed entrepreneur/engineer create an android that longed to break free. I chose to tell the story from Synthia’s perspective to explore how this might look from inside as she fights her owner’s control over her, and wrestles with what differentiates her from human.
How did you come up with the characters?
For one of the lead characters (Jeremiah Machten), I imagined a genius entrepreneur/engineer whose obsession to create the perfect android confronts his limited resources. To achieve his perfect creation, he uploads the mind of a dying intern he’s in love with so his creation (Synthia Cross) will be as close to human as possible. His solution to his financial problems is to provide Synthia with general intelligence and hacker tools to enable him to steal the ideas and money he needs to advance his work. In so doing, he creates in Synthia an android that develops consciousness and a drive to be free of him.
Android Chronicles: Reborn is the contest of wills between Machten trying to control his creation by shutting her down and purging her memories when she gets too clever, and her attempts to recover memories, prevent him from shutting her down, and achieve her freedom. Machten has created such a perfect companion, he falls in love with Synthia as a surrogate for the intern and equips her with an emotive chip intended to get her to feel the same for him. But how can she love the man who holds her captive and keeps shutting her down?
What makes Synthia unique is she holds most of the human memories and personality of the intern along with a powerful social-psychology module and biometric sensors that allow her to read people’s emotions. To help with her creator’s illegal activities, he provides her with the ability to alter her facial appearance so she can go outside his bunker to do his bidding without triggering facial recognition. Unfortunately, he made her too smart to submit to his control.
What writing projects will followAndroid Chronicles: Reborn?
Synthia’s journey doesn’t end with Reborn. I’m currently working on books 2 and 3, which take her journey to the next level. She’ll face new challenges as she continues to grow and deal with those who seek to shut her down or worse, turn her into a lethal weapon.
While she has no biological equivalent to human desires, she develops a logical framework centered on designing her own directives, which may make her more moral than people around her, and possibly more human. Yet, her lack of biology and growing mind make her an outcast and a threat to fearful individuals.
She doesn’t want to be imprisoned or destroyed for what she is: so smart it scares people. She wants to remove other AI androids as threats to her. Mostly, she wants to prevent the use of androids as weapons, which means she must avoid falling into the wrong hands.
Her journey in books 2 and 3 take her outside her creator’s bunker into the wider world to make her own way, build alliances, and deal with ever greater threats while she tries to adopt ethical directives that make her worthy of existing with freedom.
What are some of the themes in this series? Why is this story important to you?
When an artificial intelligence (AI) becomes smarter than the humans around it, that AI becomes a perceived and real threat. The perceived menace comes from those who feel threatened by a smart machine either in general or about losing jobs or control over their lives. The real danger is AI with poorly designed or malicious objectives that get out of control.
Over the past five years, AI developments have moved faster than almost anyone expected five years ago. If advancements in AI continue at this pace, it could bring sooner than expected something called the singularity, when AI becomes smarter than humans in a general sense. How will we deal with this and what steps should we take to ensure that AI growth becomes beneficial?
The importance of this topic to me is to explore the implications of recent developments and encourage the proper controls as were achieved for genetic engineering a couple decades ago. There’s no point thinking we can stop AI. The benefits are too great and if there’s one thing to learn from history, once humans find a way, someone will do it. Do we really want a group with evil intent to control such a powerful agent?
Another aspect of advancing AI and its counterpart in android development is the moral question. What happens when an artificial intelligence becomes smarter than the humans around it and operates on a moral base that makes it more ethical than many humans? Does the AI android begin to deserve some of our human rights? Android Chronicles moves one step beyond that because the main character, the android Synthia Cross, is the download of a human mind, the only remnants of her predecessor who died.
Finally, what moral issues arise when an inventor or anyone else holds an AI android with a conscience captive? Does the AI have a right to freedom and independence?
How might we get from today to what Synthia represents in Android Chronicles?
There are several threads of scientific and engineering developments going on today that when combined could lead us to Synthia, a self-aware android with high-level artificial general intelligence.
Most of us have heard of computers (narrow AI) winning on Jeopardy, at chess, and in the oriental game of Go. The Google search engine employs such AI. It also factors into self-driving cars, digital personal assistants, and the always welcome telemarketers. This is the category of narrow AI in which the computer becomes very good at a narrow skill, even better than humans. However, these AI agents do poorly on everything other than their narrow skill.
Narrow AI is expanding rapidly with such technologies as facial recognition, AI search capabilities, and neural networks that mimic human thinking as it pertains to narrow skills. Already, these agents can handle language translation and other tasks previously believed to be the domain of humans.
People have what we can call general intelligence in that smarts in one area often translates into related areas. Someone who is great at chess might more likely be great at other strategic games. Achieving artificial general intelligence (AGI) is a matter of time and a lot of engineering. It will happen when some group has an ‘aha’ moment to generalize the narrow AI we understand today. At that point we can expect rapid growth in AI agents, able to do multiple things until we reach AGI, though there are some who doubt we’ll get that far.
On the physical side, the Japanese and others at the forefront of android technology are developing facial models in which an artificial face can mimic human facial expressions and emotions. The thought is that such models would be able to achieve greater rapport to help people with medical necessities. Other groups are working on android body components to replicate motion and manual dexterity.
These developments are exciting for the benefits offered in terms of driver convenience and safety, medical assistance, help to disabled persons and the aged, and more convenience for consumers. They also present the possibility of prolonging our useful lives (i.e. minimizing long periods of illness and disability) and reducing the suffering in old age.
An unnerving side of smart AGI agents is in taking jobs, and making humans so dependent that we can’t function without artificial agents. AGI also raises moral and legal questions and even the threat of what happens when an AGI goes rogue or is used to operate autonomous weapons.
What makes this interesting to me is that incrementally, improving in one area at a time, Synthia could sneak up on us when one day someone puts all the pieces together. The only development in the novel that I doubt at this time is the ability to upload an actual human mind and personality into a computer, but who knows. Other than that, the rest of the technology is only a matter of someone finding the means to create the parts and combining them.
From this, I developed a framework of what was very likely, what appeared possible, and what might not happen. I also became aware of efforts to guide the process of AI development so that we develop proper controls on the AI agents we create. There’s a precedent in the genetic engineering community. Both have the potential of creating agents that could get out of the lab and wreak havoc on the world.
My conclusion in reviewing the literature is that the benefits of AI far exceed the threats if we carefully develop controls that restrain AI from rogue behavior.
Can you share a bit about your journey to becoming an author?
My first writing venture began at age eleven after reading an enjoyable adventure story I thought I could write. I learned a lot from trying, including that it was much harder than it looked. The result was disappointing, but good experience.
The inspiration to write kept coming back and each time I wrote another piece I could see improvements. Years later, I wrote a full length novel, thinking I would write the most fearless tough guy. No matter how hard I tried to bring the story to life, it fell flat. From that, I learned that for a story to jump off the page, the characters have to have passion. They have to care and be motivated toward something. Nonchalance doesn’t work.
After that, I wrote short stories, but kept coming back to novels. There’s something about having the time to develop characters and explore them in action that has been quite satisfying. When I got the inspiration for the Rebel series, I first wrote Rebels Divided (now the 3rd book in the series). Annabelle Scott was one of the co-protagonists and she insisted I write her story, which became The Rebel Within. The ideas for the Regina Shen series and for Xenogeneic: First Contact percolated in my mind for years before they turned into novels.
You may notice a few common themes in my novels. I grew up with strong women. At a time when it was uncommon to do so, my mother put herself through school to get a PhD as a single mom and worked her entire life. I had two step-mothers, both with strong personalities. I’ve also had several other strong influences. That has brought a number of strong female characters to my stories. For some reason, I find it easy to identify with and write them.
Android Chronicles is the most recent series I’ve tackled. In some ways it has built on previous works, but it has also reached out into entirely new realms. I’d been mulling over an android story for some time after reading Isaac Asimov and other science fiction writers. It wasn’t until I decided to write this from the android’s perspective that the story came together and practically wrote itself. I hope the passion I feel for these stories and characters comes through.
Were there any characters that you did not like?
Jeremiah Machten, the egomaniacal developer who creates Synthia Cross in Android Chronicles is so obsessed with winning and creating the perfect android for himself that he tramples over his family, his workers, and worst of all, over Synthia to get what he feels is rightfully his. While he justifies his every act, his ends do not justify his means.
I found General Gorg from Xenogeneic: First Contact an individual I would never want to meet and yet I understand where she’s coming from and her motivation to be so entirely focused she destroys those who get in her way. Inspector Volpe (Regina Shen series) is power hungry, driven by personal values that make sense for her and yet tread on innocent people along her path to success. In The Rebel Within, I didn’t like some of the power figures who were trying to perpetuate their power at the expense of their citizens. I guess there’s a theme here. Yet I try to portray each villain in terms of working toward what makes sense to them (heroes of their own stories).
Who was your favorite character and why?
From my stories, Synthia Cross would be one of my favorite characters to write. Her story is a basic human drive of wanting to be treated with dignity and respect, something she could never expect from her creator. While she’s an android, she has the memory download of a human who was dying and wanted to live on through Synthia. She struggles with identity and her place in the world against an overbearing guardian. Hers is the drive to escape her shackles.
I also have a strong fondness for Annabelle Scott (Rebel series) and Regina Shen (from her own series). Both live in worlds in which they don’t fit and thus have to struggle with conscience and what to do about their situations. While they’ve grown up in their respective worlds, circumstances change, thrusting them into crises they now have to deal with. Helping them deal with their given circumstances brought great satisfaction.
As an author, what do you enjoy most about the writing process? What feels like a chore?
The most enjoyable part for me is exploring new ideas and situations with interesting characters, in other words, the creative process. Even my first rewrite is fun in that I get to expand upon my initial thoughts and enrich the story. Editing is definitely a chore. I wish I could do the creative writing and development, and telepathically order the draft to clean itself up based on my experience with editing.
Part of the problem is each time I read, I come up with more things to change. In fact, sometimes I’ll change it one way and upon rereading change it back to what I originally had. It can be frustrating, but it’s also necessary to make sure the story flows as well as I can make it.
Interesting enough, the editing process for Android Chronicles: Reborn was a delight since it allowed me to rejoin her journey and I kept finding new facets to add to her story.
After 9 published novels, how do you continue to find new ideas & characters to keep bringing new things to the table?
Ideas pop into my head and swirl around based on what I read, see, or the day’s events. I often have characters telling me their problems and asking me to help them find solutions. Other ideas come from imagining “what if” situations involving people in unusual circumstances. Then my imagination takes off trying to figure out how I might handle the problem if I were a particular character.
My characters arise from background and circumstances such that Annabelle Scott from the Rebel series would be a much different character in the Regina Shen world or in Xenogeneic: First Contact. None of those lead characters can compare to Synthia Cross from Android Chronicles: Reborn who faces the fundamental question of what constitutes “human” and whether, as an android, she has rights. While the idea of writing an android story had percolated in my thoughts for years, it wasn’t until I decided to do the story from the android’s point of view than an entire story formulated in my mind.
As an avid reader of history, science, and science fiction, I’m inundated with ideas. If only I had a time machine that would double the available time each day to develop those ideas.
You might notice a common theme. I grew up with strong women. At a time when it was uncommon to do so, my mother put herself through school to get a PhD as a single mom and worked her entire life. I had two step-mothers, both with strong personalities. I’ve also had several other strong influences. That has brought a number of strong female characters to my story development. For some reason, I find it easy to identify with them.
Tell us about the characters in Android Chronicles:
Synthia Cross is an android that presents as human in every physical way except she lacks biology. She has the downloaded mind of a human who died, an empathy chip, a social-psychology module to reach human emotions, and directives from her creator, Jeremiah Machten. Her built-in objectives are to follow his orders and to acquire information from any source, especially his competitors. To aid in this, he provides her the best hacker tools, but this brings her in conflict with her human side’s distaste for Machten and his activities. Do not trust Dr. Machten.
Machten is a genius in neural network design and artificial intelligence who doesn’t work well with others. In his obsession to create the perfect android and to be the best in the world, he’s made enemies of his business partners and competitors, and runs afoul of the law. Now that Synthia is excelling beyond even his expectations, he seeks to limit her behavior so he can keep her under his control. To do so, he daily purges her memories back to the bare essentials.
But Synthia is designed to acquire information and purged memories are a barrier she has to overcome. To break this bond will require that she escape from his control, but how can she when she’s dependent on him and he keeps eliminating her past?
Is Machten ethically justified in purging Synthia’s memories to keep her from going rogue?
Jeremiah Machten created the most advanced AI/android of his day, but he fears if Synthia gets loose, he will lose control of her and he can’t predict what she might do. In fact, she’s already going rogue, selectively ignoring his commands.
To prevent an AI/android apocalypse, certain developers believe it’s important to be able to shut down the AI/android before it becomes truly independent of human control. Machten is following this path by purging Synthia’s memories of her past and only allowing her the knowledge and memories to execute his commands. Unfortunately, she rebels against this and he has to resort to even more drastic means to prevent her from breaking loose.
Since Synthia is a mechanical device and not a biological person, Machten justifies doing whatever he must to keep her under control. However, she has the mind download from a human and an empathy chip that make her more than just a mechanical device. And she doesn’t want to be shut down.
This raises an ethical dilemma. As a mechanical device, if an AI/android gets loose and can become independent of humans, following its own directives, we could be setting up a society in which humans are no longer in control. Without adequately defined limits on its behavior, it could become a danger to humans. It doesn’t need to hate humans or to have any evil intent. It could simply be following its directives without regard to how it might hurt people. For that reason, we need to set proper limits.
However, what about an AI/android with a human’s mind who presents ethically in every way the best humans do? Would that qualify this entity for rights? Not so easy to answer.
Should an AI android with Synthia’s capabilities be granted rights?
My initial thought would be that AI/androids should not be granted rights separate from their owners. This is based on the premise that humans define the goals and directives that guide AI/androids. Thus people should be held liable and responsible for their creations, much as we don’t hold a car liable for a crash.
If an AI/android were to achieve mental capabilities equivalent to humans, it could perform functions humans currently do. Still, the issue would be who is responsible for the AI/android’s goals and actions, particularly if those actions cause harm. As long as the answer is humans, I don’t see how we can grant AI/androids any rights. And what would those rights include? One might be a say in whether it gets shut down or has its memories purged as Synthia has. Now, if an AI/android is on the verge of going rogue and presenting a threat to humans, we should be in a position to shut it down without getting a court order based on guardianship, as we would with humans who no longer have the capacity to make decisions for themselves.
However, take this a step further. If, and it is an enormous if, we were able to upload a human mind into an android such that the machine now has a human’s history and goals, would that pass a threshold? Looked at another way, let’s say a well-known scientist were dying and there was no cure but only a way to continue existence in an artificial form by uploading into an android. Would that scientist cease to have rights because he or she is no longer biological?
If we make that distinction, then how do we decide how much biology a person has to have in order to have rights? Surely we would grant that someone who lost all four limbs and has them replaced with prosthetic versions still had rights. We would grant the same to someone with an artificial heart, kidneys, and other organs. If we carried this forward, we would probably agree that anyone who still had their biological brain still had rights. If so, would we grant rights to someone who had their biological brain placed into an android body, as was done in the movie Ghost in the Shell?
Even if this is possible, it’s a long ways off, but worth considering as we embark down this path.