If a Robot Had a Soul,
What Would it Believe?
By Rick Pullen
“I try to write good stories that ask big questions,” says national bestselling author Steven James. And he’s certainly done that with his newest thriller, SYNAPSE.
In this story set 30 years in the future, James asks, “Could a robot powered by artificial intelligence have a soul and believe in God?” He weaves this premise into a fast-paced thriller whose protagonist, Kestrel Hathaway, is a pastor, single, and about to have a baby.
Well, you’ve got my attention.
James explores the possibility that robots of the future will feel pain, have a conscience, and experience love. And while this is a work of fiction, it’s not far-fetched. Scientists today are already expressing concern about the potential for artificial intelligence. James has done his homework and expands on the possibilities as he moves his plot in a world divided between “Naturals” and “Artificials.”
James, who’s also written inspirational fiction, does not shy away from writing gritty, dark thrillers. “Evil is glamourized or muted by writers,” he says. “[I] think in our world it shouldn’t be glamourized and it shouldn’t be muted, either. I want to be honest about what our world is like—so it’s dark at times, but also filled with hope.”
For those reasons, you’re likely to be drawn into SYNAPSE; but unlike your run-of-the-mill thriller (something James seems incapable of writing), this book explores the dark side of human emotions through a robot.
“I’ve always been interested in artificial intelligence and science fiction,” he says, “[but] I don’t know if anyone has ever delved into artificial belief. We are humans who build our lives around our beliefs. If you have a machine that is self-conscious, self-aware, and has free will, it would naturally have beliefs. What would it believe?”
Think about that for a moment. Maybe even scratch your head.
“I’m not trying to get any message across. I’m just trying to tell great stories,” he says. This great story—and it is a great story—delves deeper than most thrillers would dare go. And James admits he hasn’t explored these ideas this deeply in any of his 16 previous novels.
In SYNAPSE, tragedy strikes in chapter one and the protagonist, Kestrel, begins to question her own beliefs. Soon after, her brother, thinking he is easing her pain, gives her an “Artificial”—a very human-looking personal robot—which she initially despises but quickly comes to appreciate. So we have a struggling human questioning her beliefs and a robot wondering if he has any.
Like every other human, Kestrel must contemplate her eventual physical demise and death, but as a pastor she finds solace in her belief in eternity. Her Artificial, however, is trying to come to terms with both his own beginning and an inevitable end when he becomes an outdated machine that will eventually be replaced. And so the question: Is there a heaven for Artificials?
The collision of ideas and ideals will, no doubt, make you examine your own. This is not your typical thriller novel, which is putting it mildly.
“The book grew out of my interest in science fiction and some of these ideas of what makes us human,” James says. “I wanted it to be a very human story in contrast to this artificial machine, which is exploring these philosophical questions, while we have a woman who is dealing with her own very real personal grief.”
Even with today’s technology, the idea that a robot could know pain, have a soul, or believe in God seems a ridiculous notion. But we’re on the cusp of a technological revolution.
Artificially intelligent robots are limited today in what they can do partly due to a lack of computer capacity. They would need a computer the size of a house to plug in all of the algorithms needed to experience the same thoughts as what Artificials experience in James’ novel. But when 5G Wifi becomes commonplace in the next few years, not only will people experience faster upload and download speeds on their phones, computers, and televisions, but so will robots.
Once artificial intelligences can access that capability, robots may be able to think and do exactly as James envisions. Not 30 years from now—more like five or ten. While James classifies his novel as a futuristic sci-fi thriller, it could be closer to reality than we may want to believe.
How did he come up with this novel idea? James is a pantser when he sits down to write. “For me, it’s always a journey of discovery. I start out with a premise, or the dilemma facing the character when the story begins.”
There’s a big advantage to being an organic writer, he says. “All of my best ideas have been when I write myself into a corner. So I always tell people to write yourself into a corner and find a way to get out of it.”
James graduated from the University of Wisconsin La Crosse and then sought out and found the only university in the nation—East Tennessee State—that had an advanced storytelling degree program. After earning his masters in 1997, he began his writing career penning magazine articles and inspirational and educational books.
“I didn’t want to just write books to inspire people. I wanted to draw people into a story.” So a decade later he switched to novels, all the while remaining in East Tennessee in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“For me, it’s always about moral dilemmas and interesting moral questions,” he says.
With SYNAPSE, he’s succeeded.