How Science Fiction Explores the Autonomy of Bodies that Are Also Machines

As a human being, it is odd to try and calculate where you “exist.” There are philosophers who argue about this very issue constantly. But if you’re an artificial intelligence, there is a verifiable place where you are. And that place, be it a positronic brain or a handful of code or a weird red box, is likely capable of being transferred to another location. Which means that your “body”—your physical casing—is not necessarily a limitation. But what does it mean to be able to exchange, renew, or even completely alter your body?

The real question becomes whether or not you have a say in that change… and why.


When it comes to science fiction, robots and artificial intelligence are often fixed entities. They are bound to a specific place (like a computer) or they have a body that belongs to them (or belongs to the organic being that owns them… which is a conversation for another time). But being bound in such a way is not a guaranteed permanent state of being for many A.I.s, and when that is the case, it often becomes a question of will and autonomy.

Battlestar Galatica, Cavil

One of the more complex iterations of this idea can be found in the reboot of Battlestar Galactica and its prequel series, Caprica. The Cylons developed on Caprica were initially used to do work for humans, even fight their wars. But the sentient Cylons were tired of doing humanity’s work and had developed a taste for war, and also wanted organic forms of their own, so they decided to go to war with their creators. As the war raged, the Cylons managed to develop a Cylon/human hybrid, but they couldn’t manage to create a completely organic Cylon. That’s when the Final Five Cylons (created on the ancient Kobol and colonists of the Thirteenth Colony, Earth) found their Centurion kin and offered to help them create organic bodies in exchange for an Armistice with humanity. The Cylons agreed.

That peace did not turn out to be lasting, but it highlights many questions of bodily autonomy where artificial life is concerned. The robotic Cylons wanted organic bodies as a way of usurping their creators; they wanted the ability to decide what form they could take and how they would interact with the outside world. The Final Five offered them that ability and more; Cylons had the ability to “download” into another body if the one they were occupying was destroyed. But that’s not the only thing that makes the Cylon system fascinating. The truth is that most of the Cylons—including the Final Five—are manipulated by the first Centurion given an organic form, called John or Cavil. He erased the Final Five’s memories of their origins, and planted them among humans in hopes of convincing them that the species deserved to be wiped out. Then he planted many of his own brother and sister Cylons among humans as sleeper agents.

So here we have an example of an A.I. abusing the system by which he and others like him are kept alive for the purpose of fulfilling his own agenda. He does not permit other Cylons the will to control their own bodies, instead deciding for himself how he would prefer them to run. This includes the ability to “box” and “unbox” Cylons who are giving him trouble, like switching off a crock pot and sticking it in a cupboard.

Autonomous by Annalee Newitz also considers the role of bodily autonomy as it applies to robotic life. The title of the book itself is the term for a robot that has been freed of their indentured servitude contract by the company that paid for their creation. But until they achieve that autonomous stature, a robot’s body is not their own. Paladin, who has a form reminiscent of a bird, has a conversation with a friend named Fang, and finds out that Fang has had several bodies; one like a flying bug, one like a tank, one like a snake, and finally a mantis. When Paladin asks what happened to those bodies, Fang explains that it is easier for the Federation that they both work for to port an existing robot into a different body for special uses.

In this instance, it is humanity that gets to decide what body a robot should have. We also decide when we get to change that body. It makes sense to pose this question in a science fiction narrative as it pertains to A.I., as it is a question that we often have a hard time parsing out on a human level as well; parents frequently assert control over the bodily autonomy of their children by deciding what they can do with their hair and clothes; plenty of jobs have rules about tattoos and piercings and footwear and hemlines; people can lose rights over what they are allowed to do to their bodies with one simple vote. In the world of Autonomous, humans have extended that control to robots, and that control is so absolute that we can dump a consciousness in a different body without a second thought.

Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy has another way of dealing with the personification of artificial intelligence, as Radch military ships have a sort of hive intelligence with individual ancillaries that carry out their orders. Breq, the central character of Ancillary Justice, is just a piece of the hive mind of the starship Justice of Toren, originally known as ancillary One Esk Nineteen. When the ship itself is destroyed, Breq finds herself on her own and looking for vengeance. But she also has a deeper question to ask—who is she, exactly? Her memories are part of a whole that no longer exists, and she was accustomed to being piece of a greater consciousness. While a body has uses, Breq is now cut off from her larger sense of self, and must now exist in her current body alone. She doesn’t get a say in that change either, similar to what the A.I. in Autonomous are subject to.

But what about the ones who do get a say? A wonderfully layered example of that can be found in an unlikely place—Jeph Jacques’s Questionable Content webcomic series. From the start, the QC world always contained a variety of A.I. lifeforms in just as many shapes and sizes. But later on it was revealed that these robot pals have the ability to change their physical forms completely through a set of updated “chassis”—provided they have the funds to do so. Martin’s buddy Pintsize never bothers to change his form, simple as it is, because he prefers it. But there are several A.I.s who have updated their bodies, or asked for upgrades. The first to make a change was Marigold’s companion Momo, who starts off in a body that resembled a cute child’s doll. She later makes it known that she would prefer a nicer body, and gets upgraded to a model that is surprisingly lifelike because Marigold wants to do something nice for her friend. Momo has a hard time accepting such an exorbitant gift, but works to pay for her own needs and help out.

Questionable Content, Momo

Art by Jeph Jacques

But the price is too dear for some—Dale first meets an A.I. named May because she’s working as a holographic interface for an early-release program from prison. It is later revealed that she was imprisoned for embezzling money so that she could download herself into a fighter jet. Later on, May receives a body that is provided by the government on her release, but it’s shoddy and continues to fall apart on her. Hannelore is responsible for her robot pal Winslow, and upgrades him to fancy new chassis as well, coming from a rich family that can do so easily. In this way, the QC universe makes economic status a barrier to robots having what they want and need, the same way it’s a barrier for humans.

In Star Trek, some of the artificial lifeforms also get their say, such as when Data makes the choice to integrate his emotion chip; after he is given autonomous rights in “The Measure of a Man,” the android’s ongoing journey is one of self-discovery. It culminates in the choice to install an emotion chip that was left to him by his creator Noonian Soong, after many years of keeping it tucked away. The experience is briefly overwhelming for Data, but he finally learns to manage his emotions (via the ability to turn the chip off and on at will, in fact) and is able to complete that step toward human experience that had long been his goal.

Star Trek: TNG
The concept of bodily autonomy for robots is an interesting and expansive topic that ends up covering a lot of philosophical ground about identity, servitude, perception, and equality. It is a deeply relevant topic these days too, as we move farther into a future where we rely on technology and must ask questions about autonomy and personal freedom. Robots and artificial intelligence are an excellent prism for the myriad of questions piling up on our collective doorstep.

Emily Asher-Perrin would also like to be able to upgrade her chassis. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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