A.I. Chatbot, Will You Be My Friend? Seven Stories of Robot-Human Relationships


Smart robots have populated fiction for generations, but now with artificial intelligence exploding around us, we’re seeing more titles than ever that grapple with this technology.

In the following novels and stories, authors delve into personal relationships between humans and A.I. consciousnesses that may or may not inhabit bodies. Themes of loneliness, love, personhood, and power are inescapable.

At the heart of these works, we’re invited to consider what combination of attributes makes a person truly human, assuming that’s the bar. Compassion probably tops the list, but intelligence, a capacity to love, and the ability to suffer or enjoy life also come into play. When A.I. becomes another creature altogether, we run into our speciesist suspicions, but I would argue that the qualities we value in a person still hold.

From a craft perspective, writing about a robot feels fun and new, and it also provides a device—a strangeness or “almostness” (a term found in Powers’s Galetea 2.2)—that we can hold up to ourselves like a distorted mirror. Like Pygmalion, we long to see our own creations come alive, and in fiction, they do.

For instance, in my novel, Annie Bot, Annie is custom-designed to be the perfect girlfriend for her human owner, Doug. As her A.I. evolves and Annie becomes more human-like, her growing complexity upends her relationship with Doug and her relationship with the reader. We’re compelled to wonder what we would do in her shoes, and that makes for a neat little mind game.

If you dare to bring some A.I. home with you, check out these titles.

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I, Robot - Asimov, Isaac

Isaac Asimov, I, Robot

In “Robbie,” the introductory story in Isaac Asimov’s collection I, Robot (1950), eight-year-old Gloria is distraught when her parents dismiss her wordless robot playmate, Robbie. Asserting that Robbie is not a machine but a person and a friend, Gloria pinpoints the essential paradox of the robot conundrum.

If an entity is merely a machine, it can be dismissed as insignificant, but once we love this entity, it merits our respect, and in turn, this expands our hearts. In short, a machine can make us more human, if we let it. Asimov’s iconic story presages all the works that follow.

Galatea 2.2 - Powers, Richard

Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2

Richard Powers’ Galatea 2.2 is an intricate labyrinth of a novel about a novelist, Rick, who trains a nascent computer intelligence by reading aloud literature to it. The A.I. subsequently comes to life as Helen who is astute in some ways but clueless about practical things like shoelaces. When Rick is reading her Huck Finn, Helen interrupts to ask, “Which race am I?….What races do I hate? Who hates me?”

He does not know how to reply that her disembodiment alone would invite hatred. For fans of philosophical considerations of intelligence, personhood, and humanity this novel is a win. It also gets points for lovely scenes between Rick and the human women he falls for.

Lifecycle of Software Objects

Ted Chiang, The Lifecycle of Software Objects

In the near-future of The Lifecycle of Software Objects, a novella by Ted Chiang, Ana is effectively the parent of Jax, a pet-like AI “digient” whose virtual world becomes obsolete. With other parents, Ana debates the best way to port their adolescent digients to a new worldscape.

Ana, for instance, could take a high-paying job to defray the cost, but the job would require her to take InstantRapport, a drug that would manipulate her affections. Weighing sacrifices, she is torn. Mind-bending and richly imagined, the novella explores personhood, forms of love, and respect for a child’s right to find his own way.

The Perfect Wife by JP Delaney

JP Delaney, The Perfect Wife

The Perfect Wife by JP Delaney follows Abbie, a robot who is created to replace a human wife and mother who was killed in an accident five years earlier. Abbie’s AI gradually fills in the previous Abbie’s memories, including some unsavory facts about her husband Tim.

At stake here is the fate of Abbie’s autistic son Danny, who Tim has no problem sending to a school that shocks students for undesirable behavior. Abbie needs to find a way to save her child, even with her own immortality on the line. This novel is a dark and fast-paced thriller.

Klara and the Sun - Ishiguro, Kazuo

Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun

Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro’s tender, elegant masterpiece relates the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend who is selected by Josie, a gravely ill human girl to be her companion. As Josie declines, Klara makes a deal with the sun, whom she worships, trying to save Josie. An engaging unreliable narrator, Klara is keenly observant and idealistic. She seems doomed to be disappointed, but the losses and connections in this novel are impossible to predict correctly.

Understated and beautifully written, this dystopian novel explores loneliness, loyalty, and a transcendent form of innocence.

Uranians: Stories - McCombs, Theodore

Theodore McCombs, Uranians

“Talk to Talk to Your Children about Two-Tongued Jeremy” from the story collection Uranians by Theodore McCombs follows David Marzipan, an eighth-grader whose AI tutor first encourages and then bullies him. The competitive nature of David’s elite school and the deaths of his parents make David particularly vulnerable to manipulation. Meanwhile, the app’s owners are loath to take responsibility for any harm when profits are skyrocketing.

The A.I.’s complete, insidious control over David is disturbing precisely because it’s entirely believable.

Women! In! Peril! - Marshall, Jessie Ren

Jessie Ren Marshall, Women! In! Peril!

In a reverse form of bullying, “Annie 2,” the opening story in Jessie Ren Marshall’s forthcoming collection Women! In! Peril! (April 2024) tells of a robot maid presented to an angry young man as a birthday gift. (It’s a quirky coincidence that the protagonists in Annie Bot and “Annie 2” share the same name.) Annie’s innocent perspective and communion with her fellow Smart Objects serves to highlight the cruelty and schisms of the humans around her.

Both humorous and raw, the story is a concise snapshot of how A.I. could bring out the worst in us. It might even make you wonder who should be in charge.

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Annie Bot - Greer, Sierra

Annie Bot by Ted Chiang is available via Mariner.



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