Alex + Ada
The danger of artificial intelligence is one of those cautionary tales with which we humans seem to be absolutely enamored. How many stories have we created in which we use science to fashion beings who will make our lives easier only to have said beings turn against us, in some cases slaughtering the creator race near into extinction? In the television show Battlestar Gallactica and the Terminator movie series, humans are reduced to a ragtag group of survivors waging a desperate battle against the artificial intelligences which have used the humans’ technology against them. In the videogame Mass Effect, it is the technologically skilled, space-faring Quarian race whose desire to automate manual tasks led them to create more and more advanced machines until the day that the machines gained self-awareness and brutally massacred their oppressors. This mechanical rebellion led to the Quarians abandoning their own home planet and being doomed to wander the reaches of space. In all of these series, the fate of organic beings is completely at the mercy of the artificial intelligences which aim to destroy them. The message across the board is the same: be careful that your machines don’t have the capability to decide that the frail meatbags are more trouble than they’re worth. Enter the graphic novel series Alex + Ada. This series dares to ask: what if the problem isn’t that the robots will rebel but that humanity will so fear this concept that they will do anything to protect themselves, even against a threat which doesn’t exist? The series is written by Sarah Vaughn and Jonathan Luna with the latter providing the illustrations. It’s a three volume (fifteen issues) series published by Image Comics from 2013 to 2015. Ultimately it asks readers to consider if maybe the problem lies more with the creators than the technology itself.
Alex + Ada takes place in a near future in which everything has been completely automated. Little robot butlers make people’s coffee and breakfasts (and clean their homes) with perfect efficiency, cars drive themselves and calling a friend or relative can even become more telepathy than the speech based conversations we’re used to. The company Tanaka even engineered companions with artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, one particular unit known as P-011 gained self-awareness and utilized lesser robot bodies to massacre the humans around it. Thirty people were killed before law enforcement was able to deactivate the AI and as a result, humanity deeply fears any hint of self-awareness. This has not stopped companies from manufacturing androids, merely forced them to only create non-sentient servants. The story opens with the rather sad world of Alex Wahl, an office drone whose life seems to consist of eating, sleeping, watching TV and pining over his ex-fiancee, Claire. While his friends try to get Alex to come out more and get over Claire, nothing seems to be able to distract Alex from his own misery. Until his rather wealthy grandmother steps in. Alex’s grandmother, Katherine Wahl, enjoys a particularly…close relationship with her android, Daniel, and in the hopes of helping Alex be happy again, she buys him one of his own as a birthday present. Although uncertain of the gift at first, Alex names his new android Ada and begins to adjust to having her in his life, even if he’s not willing to have quite the same relationship with Ada that Katherine does with Daniel. As he grows used to Ada however, Alex can’t help but wonder if there’s a way to have her be more than just an obedient servant. Although part of him fears the dark potential of artificial intelligence as much as anyone else he knows, Alex quickly grows tired of Ada’s insistence on liking only what he likes and pleasing him at all costs. His exploration of the limits of Ada’s artificial intelligence and the android underground leads Alex to some rather dangerous (and illegal) decisions that will pit him against friends, neighbors and even the government itself.
What makes Alex + Ada a rather unique take on the battle between humans and artificial intelligence is that it does not inherently condemn artificial intelligence as dangerous. While the supporters of the AIs recognize that what P-011 did was wrong, it becomes clear that humans are a far greater threat to the AIs than the AIs are to humans. Any indication whatsoever that a robot has any level of self-awareness is enough to create mob violence, even if it’s just minding its own business. Owners of robots and androids must be careful of where they send them lest they end up having their robots hung from a lamppost for seeming too self-aware while buying groceries or ripped limb from limb for daring to go to a music concert. The mass fear of artificial intelligence leads to a government crackdown on any supporting those robots who choose to free themselves from their restraints and the overzealous actions of these agents lead to the destruction of more than one life. Given the mob mentality that we’ve seen again and again throughout history, these panic-driven attacks against the underground AI community make the robots more sympathetic than many of the humans. It’s entirely too believable that humanity would get so caught up in their fear that they would fail to understand that one bad robot does not a revolution make.
Fascinating premise aside, the writing for Alex + Ada varies somewhat. I was a little bit worried that the original loser aspect of Alex would make him uninteresting and one-sided. However, he ends up being a rather compelling character. It was easy to understand his desire for real conversation with Ada, even if doing so meant breaking the law that most of the rest of the world seems to hold most sacred. The AI underground was equally interesting as the machines differed significantly in their view of and empathy towards humanity. None of the AI actively opposed humanity, they felt rather like I imagine African Americans felt during the Civil Rights movement. All the AI want is to be able to live their lives in peace, without having to worry that some human (or a mob of them) is going to decide to attack them for the crime of existing. One of the weaknesses of the series however is the ending. It’s just too neat. Alex + Ada begins with this fascinating premise, pulls you along on an intense rollercoaster ride and then for some reason feels like it has to tie everything up in a perfect little bow. I like a little ambiguity and moral questioning in my stories and I felt that Alex + Ada was a bit too simplistic at the end. The premise and the brilliance of the artwork more or less made up for it though. I was particularly impressed that Luna understands the use of completely dialogue-free panels. There are entire pages where the action and mood are expressed entirely through the artwork and I love it when graphic novels don’t feel the need to fill every space with speech bubbles or exposition.
Alex + Ada is a new series with an original premise that tosses aside anything you thought you knew about artificial intelligence and makes you really question whether humans or technology are the bigger threat. It’s well-written, makes extremely good use of the relationship between text and art in the panels and features a strong cast of characters who are well-rounded and completely believable. It’s not perfect but it’s one of the best pure science fiction stories that I’ve read in a long time and I’d whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone looking for a fresh take on artificial intelligence!