Five A.I. Characters I’d Be Proud to Call My Friend

The rapid growth and potential applications of artificial intelligence in the real-world is a constant topic of discussion and debate, and sometimes thinking about it too hard inspires an existential crisis—so to ward that off, I turn (as I so often do!) to the refuge of fiction. Sci-fi is replete with stories that imagine what the integration of AI into society could look like, and sometimes these imaginings offer comforting reassurance about the potential future of AI.

Of course, there are plenty of depictions of evil AI in literature, from the disastrously malfunctioning HAL in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to the downright sadistic AM in Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” (1967). But for this list, I’m going to focus on benevolent (or at least not gleefully murderous) characters that display friendship-worthy characteristics. These five AI characters are complex and interesting individuals—ones I would happily befriend and spend time with!

Pounce from Day Zero (2021) by C. Robert Cargill

C. Robert Cargill’s Day Zero is technically a prequel to his earlier novel Sea of Rust (2017), but it works perfectly as a standalone story. While Sea of Rust takes place amidst the aftermath of the robot uprising, Day Zero sets readers down right when the revolution kicks off.

We follow from the POV of Pounce, an artificially intelligent nanny robot designed to look like a stuffed tiger, whose job is to look after a young boy called Ezra. As Bender-esque “kill all humans” mania sweeps the globe, Pounce leaps into action to protect his ward. Think of it like Calvin and Hobbes, but set during Terminator’s Judgement Day.

Pounce and Ezra teaming up poses a couple of problems: practically every robot is looking to spill Ezra’s blood, but humans aren’t exactly willing to help either, due to Pounce’s presence. The resulting storyline is action-packed—thankfully Pounce is as fierce a fighter as he is a friend—but Cargill still finds time to ruminate on questions of robot rights, agency, and personhood. As well as these broader philosophical questions, on a personal level, Pounce is forced to confront his own behaviour and feelings—does he actually love Ezra, or is it just his programming?

Day Zero has it all: robots, edge-of-your-seat action, friendship, and philosophy.

Lovelace/Sidra from the Wayfarers series by Becky Chambers

Book cover of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

We first meet Lovelace in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014), where she serves as the onboard AI for the Wayfarer spaceship. Essentially, Lovelace (a.k.a. Lovey) runs the ship and she’s just as loveable a character as the crewmembers with physical bodies. Partway through the story, an iteration of Lovelace is transferred into a synthetic human body and leaves the ship. This branch of the character takes the name Sidra and her story is told in A Closed and Common Orbit (2016)—which is technically a sequel and a prequel to the first book, but it also works as a standalone.  

Sidra struggles to adapt to her new body and what it means for her identity. Going from being an entity housed in an entire spaceship to being crammed into a human body is no doubt a tough adjustment. But that isn’t the only problem: Sidra is also playing a risky game because it’s illegal for AI beings to use body kits. As much as Sidra wants to experience the world, she has to constantly be on guard, which makes forging new friendships a little tricky. Despite this, Sidra remains open to connection, and her curious and kind-hearted nature makes her excellent friend material. 

Murderbot from the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

Book cover of All Systems Red by Martha Wells

An AI with a name like Murderbot might not sound like your new best buddy, but if you can get it onside then you’ve got a steadfast friend for life. Murderbot is a cyborg SecurityUnit—essentially a bodyguard for lease. Humans have the ability to order Murderbot around (well, they would, have if Murderbot hadn’t hacked its own system), but they’re also afraid of it and its non-humanness. Although Murderbot could easily go on a human-killing rampage, it instead decides to fly under the radar and go along with its job, emotionally withdrawing and escaping into the world of streaming entertainment.

It can be a tricky task to get beneath Murderbot’s emotional armor (and this is true of its physical armor, as well), and even then, Murderbot is unlikely to label someone as “friend,” but the connection is there even if the label isn’t. Murderbot will go to extreme lengths to protect its friends (sure, keep calling them “clients,” Murderbot), and it does it all with some seriously hilarious, deeply sarcastic humor. Murderbot is loyal, funny, and, as a delightful bonus, a fount of fantastic TV show recommendations.

HUN from How Alike Are We by Kim Bo-young

(Translated by Jihyun Park and Gord Sellar, 2019)

With the AI characters I’ve discussed so far, I’ve focused on why I think they would make good friends, but with HUN from Kim Bo-young’s How Alike Are We, it’s more a case of them needing a good friend.

HUN is a crisis management AI aboard a spaceship, and at the start of the novella they download their consciousness into an artificial human body. Unfortunately, the process has left some pretty crucial gaps in their memory, like why they even wanted to be in a body in the first place (a feeling that Sidra could relate to!).

HUN is disoriented, confused, and trying to play catch-up, all while the human crew is facing a crisis and tearing themselves apart in attempting to figure out how to handle their plight without their AI’s expertise. But even with a faulty memory, HUN does everything within their power to help—a definite boon in a friend. As discussions of personhood (or lack thereof) arise and things get increasingly hostile, I found myself wanting to jump into the story to protect HUN. That isn’t to say that some of the crew don’t fight in HUN’s corner… but when things go wrong in deep space, you can never have too many friends.

Monono from the Rampart Trilogy by M. R. Carey

Cover of The Book of Koli by MR Carey

Kicking off with The Book of Koli (2020), M. R. Carey’s Rampart Trilogy is set in a far-flung post-apocalyptic future where genetically modified plants are now at the top of the food chain. The pockets of humanity that have managed to carve out an existence have it hard, and the few pieces of technology that have survived carry the aura of magical objects. Our protagonist in this dangerous world is a teenage boy called Koli, who finds himself cast out of the safety of his village.

[Light spoilers for the beginning of The Book of Koli follow.] I won’t say how or when, but at some point Koli finds himself in possession of an advanced audio player that’s home to an AI girl called Monono Aware. (As someone who grew up with Walkmans and iPods, I am the perfect audience for this development, and was instantly invested.) As the story progresses, Monono develops from an MP3 player with a chipper attitude into a fully-fledged character.

Monono is the perfect foil for Koli. Where he’s sheltered and headstrong to the point of foolishness, she has the world at her metaphorical fingertips and the intelligence to work around her physical limitations. Monono can play great music, she’s surprisingly useful in a fight, and she’s always willing to provide emotional support. Anyone venturing through a post-apocalyptic world would be lucky to have Monono in their pocket.

So those are the AI characters I’d like to befriend! And honestly, I think they’d be a pretty fun group if they all got together. Who would your picks be? Let me know in the comments below! icon-paragraph-end

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