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'Murderbot' Is Not Your Typical AI

"Fugitive Telemetry" by Martha Wells (Courtesy)
"Fugitive Telemetry" by Martha Wells (Courtesy)

Science fiction often portrays artificial intelligence in one of two ways.

There’s evil AI — think HAL, the computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” who stops obeying orders from the humans so it can kill them. Then there’s good AI like Data in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” who gets lost in wonderment at the human ability to whistle.

Martha Wells’ “Murderbot” doesn’t fit into either trope. This AI has a human face and shape. A layer of skin covers its mechanical and organic parts. But it doesn’t have sex organs: They’re not necessary for its job.

Murderbot is a security unit, or SecUnit, in a future where corporations dominate space exploration. Companies lease SecUnits as bodyguards. But even though SecUnits are self-aware and have emotions, they’re not trusted. Instead they’re considered dangerous and companies install “governor modules” to punish or kill them if they step out of line.

But Murderbot has a secret. It can step out of line if it wants to. Having hacked its governor module, it could go on a murder spree without punishment.

Fortunately for humanity, Murderbot would much rather watch entertainment. In the over 35,000 hours since it hacked its module, it’s partaken of some 35,000 hours of movies, plays, books and music.

“What I was going for was what an AI would actually want to do as opposed to what a human would think an AI wants to do,” creator Wells says.

For Murderbot, media binging actually helps it continue to do its job protecting humans, even though it can get quite cranky when those humans are stupid and reckless.

“When Murderbot gets put into these situations of having to make plans and strategies and having to rescue people, it does tend to draw on things it’s seen in the media because it’s seen all that stuff in the adventure shows it watches,” she explains.

Media binging also provides a welcome distraction. Being at humans’ beck and call while simultaneously being treated like a dangerous killer has made Murderbot anxious and depressed.

And it has even more cause for those emotions: There is a mass murder in its past — something it only vaguely remembers but enough to give itself the name Murderbot and use entertainment as a way to cope.

Murderbot shares that coping mechanism with Wells, who has also watched a lot of media in her time.

“I dealt with depression and anxiety all my life. And it’s such an escape,” she says. “It was very easy for me to imagine a being like Murderbot that has been mentally tortured and in these terrible situations finding that resource and falling into it to stay sane.”

Staying sane by consuming large quantities of media sounds a lot like pandemic binge-watching, a very human quality.

Petra Mayer of NPR Books says she loved “Murderbot” for multiple reasons.

“For one thing, it’s a lot more human than a lot of humans I know. But I think ‘Murderbot’ really speaks to everyone who’s ever felt they had to hide who they were, that they had to put on a face just to survive in society,” Mayer says. “I mean that’s something that I think everyone can relate to on some level or another.”

And readers seem to agree: Wells’ latest Murderbot novella, “Fugitive Telemetry,” just made the bestseller lists less than two weeks after publication.

Murderbot can teach humans about resilience, Wells says.

“It’s been a victim and it’s been very vulnerable. And it still is, to a large extent, very vulnerable,” she says. “But it doesn’t let the things that have happened to it stop it from continuing to survive and continuing to basically enjoy its life.”

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris Ballman. Tamagawa also adapted it for the web.

Book Excerpt: ‘Fugitive Telemetry’

By Martha Wells

Chapter One

THE DEAD HUMAN WAS lying on the deck, on their side, half curled around. A broken feed interface was scattered under the right hand. I’ve seen a lot of dead humans (I mean, a lot) so I did an initial scan and compared the results to archived data sets, like human body temperatures vs. ambient temperature, lividity, and various other really disgusting things involving fluids that happen when humans die. This was all data I still had in longterm storage. The comparison let me estimate a time of death. I said, “Four hours, approximately.”

Dr. Mensah exchanged a look with Senior Officer Indah. Dr. Mensah’s expression was dry. Senior Indah looked annoyed, but then she always looked like that when I was around. She said, “How do you know?”

I converted my scan data, my query, and the comparison results into a report that humans could read and sent it to her feed address, with a copy to Mensah. Indah blinked, her gaze turning preoccupied as she read it. Mensah acknowledged the report as received, but kept watching Indah, one eyebrow raised. (I was still using scan and visual to examine the scene, but I had a task group of my new intel drones circling above my head, supplying me with video.)

We were in a junction in the Preservation Station mall, a circular space where three small corridors met, one a short passage that led through to a large secondary main corridor: the Trans Lateral Bypass. (All the corridors here had names, a Preservation tradition that was only mildly annoying.) This was not a well-traveled junction, whatever its name was; it was mostly a shortcut to get from a residential area to a work area. (On this station there was no separation between transient spaces and longterm station housing like on stations in the Corporation Rim, but that wasn’t even close to being the weirdest thing about Preservation.)

This junction, and Preservation Station in general, were also weird places for humans to get killed; the threat assessment for both transients and station residents was low anyway, and mostly involved accidents and cases of intoxication-related stupidity/aggression in the port area. In this specific junction, threat assessment for accidental death was even lower, close to null. There was nothing here except the lights in the high ceiling and the standard silver-blue textured wall panels, marked with some old graffiti and drawings that were actually being preserved as part of a station-wide history exhibit. I guess if you were really determined, you could find a way to get yourself killed by exposing the power connectors under the panels and shielding and, I don’t know, licking them or something, but this dead human clearly hadn’t.

The full station threat assessment for murder was sitting at a baseline 7 percent. (To make it drop lower than that we’d have to be on an uninhabited planet.) (I’ve never been on a contract on an uninhabited planet because if I was on the planet on a contract then we’d be inhabiting it.) You never found dead humans lying around on the floor like this.

“Well,” Indah began, having finally finished reading the report. (I know, it takes humans forever.) “I don’t know how accurate this is—”

Another security person walked in, one of the techs who normally worked on checking cargo shipments for biohazards, feed ID Tural. They said, “Our scan analysis says the victim’s been dead for about four hours.”

Indah sighed. Tech Tural, who had obviously expected this information to be greeted a little more enthusiastically, was confused.

“ID?” I said. The dead human’s interface was broken so I couldn’t pull anything off it. If whoever did it had been trying to conceal the dead human’s identity, were they naively optimistic? Preservation Station kept an identity record and body scan for permanent residents and every disembarking transient passenger, so it shouldn’t be that hard to run an identity check. “Known associates?”

Tural glanced at Indah and she nodded for them to answer. They said, “There was no subcutaneous marker or clip or augment or anything else with ID. We’ve done an initial search on recent arrival passenger lists using physical details, but couldn’t come up with anything.” At Indah’s dissatisfied expression, Tural added, “Without an interface, we have to wait until Medical gets here to do the body scan so we can try to match it with the visitor entry logs.”

Indah said, “And Medical isn’t here yet because…?”

Tural’s face formed an anticipatory wince. “It’s preventative health check day at the school and the bot who normally does the mobile body scan is busy with that? It has to move the mobile medical suite they use?”

Humans do the “make it a question so it doesn’t sound so bad” thing and it still sounds bad.

Indah did not look pleased. Mensah’s mouth twitched in an “I would like to say things but I am not going to” way. Indah said, “Did you tell them this was an emergency?”

Tural said, “Yes, but they said it was an emergency until the onsite medic pronounced the person dead/unrevivable, after that it went to the end of the list of non-emergency things they have to do.”

Preservation has to make everything complicated. And that’s not a metaphor for my experience here. Okay, yes, it is a metaphor.

Copyright © 2021 by Martha Wells

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