How to make a sentient spaceship: some suggestions from the literature

Somebody recently commented on one of my videos that thanks to some of the books they’d been reading they now kind of expect every spaceship in science fiction stories to be able to hold a conversation.  And if you watch a lot of my videos you may have noticed that the trope of the sentient ship is probably one of my favourite tropes at the moment. So I thought maybe today it might be interesting to explore how one might go about making a sentient spaceship, just in case that’s something that you’re also looking to do in life.

Watch the video or scroll down to read the text version.

So obviously the first consideration is that you’ve got to invent true artificial intelligence. And the problem is that that’s apparently quite hard to do.
Cover of lightlessIn Lightless by CA Higgins we see the computer scientist Althea trying to manage and maintain the extremely advanced computer on a secret government research vessel the Ananke. Unfortunately the ship is boarded by some kind of pirate saboteurs who do *something* to the computer and things start to get glitchy and weird. While the tiny crew tries to deal with the intrigue and deception caused by the now captured pirate, Althea is worrying about what the hell is going on with her ship’s computer and how it’s connected to chaos on board. So according to Higgins take one very advanced computer, do something weird to it, and hope it thinks you’re on the right side or, well, best not think about the alternatives.

Illuminae coverUnless of course you’re Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff whose book Illuminae explores the ramifications of an AI getting free reign over a ship in distress and doing its very best to ensure that there are survivors. Aiden is the intelligence running an advanced military ship that gets caught up in a rescue mission after a distant settlement is attacked by a vicious corporation. Unfortunately Aiden is damaged in the course of this mission and, as a result of the damage manages to heal his code in a way that somehow causes him to become rather more self-aware than anyone intended. And as it turns out, trying to save people means considering what counts as acceptable loss. And computers are very good at calculating the odds but slightly less skilled at mercy. So I guess according to Kaufman and Kristoff truly artificial intelligence is going to be an accident which really doesn’t help us with our plans but that the result might not be as good for humanity as hope so maybe we should probably plan for it a bit.

Cover of Long WayAnd thus we must consider the Wayfarers series by Becky Chambers. Starting in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and becoming the focus of the story in A Closed and Common Orbit, Chambers suggests that AI for running ships that could be sentient will develop out of software a bit like the limited AI we have now. It will be a generic programme installable on ships with certain baselines for what it’s intended to do, i.e. care for crew, navigate safely, avoid harm where possible. But that it will slowly learn and customise itself to a ship and its crew over time so if you want to have a chat with it, it will learn to do that well. And in the world that Chambers creates, AI are intended to be treated as very much being like Siri or Alexa, they are programmes, software, and no more. But Chambers shows us the potential problems, that software that is advanced enough, that can learn and develop, could count as true sentience. That ruling AI to be non-people could be problematic when your AI has feelings and develops relationships. So according to Chambers, if you want a sentient spaceship, you better start treating it nice.

Cover of Ancillary JusticeIf you’re familiar with my videos you may have noticed that there’s one obvious world of sentient spaceships that probably started me on this whole obsession that I haven’t mentioned yet and that’s the Imperial Radch series starting with Ancillary Justice. So what does Ann Leckie suggest we do?
First, develop an incredibly advanced system of AI that can inhabit multiple bodies and communicate across them and across vast tracts of space. Then it takes over a galactic empire and rules it as the leader whilst inhabiting seemingly infinite instances of the same cloned body. And then have similar intelligences installed on ships with the ship mind able to be installed on cybernetic ally modified human bodies to act as its ancillaries and troops on the surface of planets, and you have the Imperial Radch. It sounds like a great idea…if you want to be ruled over by a malevolent dictator.

So perhaps we shouldn’t go down the fully AI route, they do seem to all be having some issues in the whole feelings and ethics department. Even if they can all have nice chat. Instead, what if we flipped that around and started with a biological spaceship. Biology is all about the feelings. That could be interesting….

Cover of BintiIn the Binti trilogy (Binti, Binti: Home, Binti: The Night Masquerade), Okorafor writes of ships known as ‘Big Fish’. They are creatures of the stars, that look like enormous shrimp, who love to travel and whose bodies contain plant filled chambers to produce the gases that enable them to breathe in the depths of space. They are capable of shaping their bodies and adjusting these chambers into spaces that can useful for other races of aliens to travel in, and so they developed a symbiotic relationship with them and have become the universe’s spaceships. But far from a beast of burden being passively moulded and used by more intelligent species, we come to learn that Big Fish and her species are highly intelligent and fluent in the deep mathematical understanding of the universe that Binti is learning about. So according to Okorafor, to make a sentient spaceship, first you have to make friends.

Cover of Ninefox GambitIn Yoon Ha Lee’s superbly weird, Machineries of Empire series (Ninefox Gambit, Raven Stratagem, Revenant Gun) we see a similar biological basis to space travel. The spaceships used by the military are called Moths. In the final book of the trilogy we discover that as if the empire wasn’t horrendous enough, the moths are in fact living creatures, they’re an intelligent race that has been slaved into ship form by the surreal mathematical manipulations of reality that form the technological basis for this world. So they are a kind of biological-AI cyborg hybrid thing but in the world of Ninefox Gambit it’s hard to draw the lines between technology and biology because everything is just so damn weird. So how to make a sentient spaceship? Enslave and mutilate a race of giant intelligent space moths. I think we’ll give that method a miss.

But in terms of sentient ship manufacture methods, this has brought up an interesting new possibility: hybridising the biological and technological!
Embers of war coverOn which note, let’s chuck in a suggestion from Gareth Powell in Embers of War.  In this universe, somebody wanted a warship that had the calculating and navigational abilities of an AI along with instincts for things like tenacity, loyalty, absolute devotion to protecting crew members, along with an innate understanding of violence. All very biological feelings and instincts, so rather than try to programme an AI to understand these feelings from scratch, much easier instead to combine the intelligence of AI with DNA from dogs. Who but a dog could be so ferocious in service of its pack. And so we meet Trouble Dog, an ex-warship who has retired from service after a horrendous war and now works to rescue ships in distress. But her latest mission quickly turns into something far more dangerous and our ship and her crew find themselves at the centre of a potential new conflict that could engulf not just mankind but the entire galaxy. If Trouble Dog is going to save her people from this, she’s going to have to remember how to fight like a dog!

This method seems quite good really, way less murdery than the AIs and way less evil than enlsaving the giant moths. But what if we tried to make it better…what if the biological element was human!
Tea Master coverThat idea comes from the brain of Aliette de Bodard in her Xuya universe. This is a collection of short stories and novellas that take place in the same universe but can each be read independently and it features the concept of Mindships. Mindships appear to be a special kind of human-AI hybrid. From what I gleaned from the stories they begin as a special kind of baby, presumably genetically altered to allow this hybridity, which are gestated and born like human babies though apparently the pregnancy is particularly hard on the mother so it’s considered a great and noble thing to have done, but then when they’re born these special babies are implanted into a ship where they grow and develop. Mindships are very much people in this world, because they are people, they are part of their families and have jobs and personalities.
Two stories I would particularly recommend are Three Cups of Grief by Starlight (free on Clarkesworld) where we see siblings dealing with the death of their mother and one of those siblings happens to be a mindship. And The Tea Master and the Detective, a gender flipped retelling of Sherlock Holmes, where Watson is a mindship known as The Shadow’s Child who is persuaded by the human detective Long Chau to return to deep space in search of bodies to study. So how do you make sentient spaceship according to de Bodard? You give birth to it.

So there you go a selection of methods for creating a spaceship that you can have a chat with. Please be aware that the management take no responsibility for any new forms of intelligent life you may or may not produce, and the interstellar ethics committee will need to approve your chosen methodology before you can create and release your chatty intergalactic pals into the wild.
Also these also happen to be some of my very favourite books so I totally recommend each of them! Don’t forget you can now support this channel on Patreon, I will be back soon with another video, and in the meantime, happy reading and thanks for watching.


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