Episode 16: A Conversation with Robert J. Sawyer

In this episode, Byron and Robert talk about human life extension, conscious computers, the future of jobs and more.



Robert J. Sawyer is a science fiction author who has published 23 titles, exploring the themes of human consciousness, science, and religion. He has won various awards, including the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Sawyer has also taught science fiction writing courses, and is a frequent keynote speaker.


Byron Reese: This is voices in AI, brought to you by Gigaom. I’m Byron Reese. Our guest today is Robert Sawyer. Robert is a science fiction author, is both a Hugo and a Nebula winner. He’s the author of twenty-three books, many of which explore themes we talk about on this show. Robert, welcome to the show.

Tell me a little bit about your past, how you got into science fiction, and how you choose the themes that you write about?

Robert Sawyer: Well, I think apropos of this particular podcast, the most salient thing to mention is that when I was eight years old, 2001: A Space Odyssey was in theaters, and my father took me to see that film.

I happen to have been born in 1960, so the math was easy. I was obviously eight in ’68, but I would be 41 in 2001, and my dad, when he took me to see the film, was already older than that… which meant that before I was my dad’s age, talking computers [and] intelligent machines would be a part of my life. This was promised. It was in the title, 2001, and that really caught my imagination.

I had already been exposed to science fiction through Star Trek, which obviously premiered two years earlier, [in] ’66. But I was a little young to really absorb it. Heck, I may be a little young right now, at 57, to really absorb all that in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it was definitely the visual world of science fiction, as opposed to the books… I came to them later.

But again, apropos of this podcast, the first real science fiction books I read… My dad packed me off to summer camp, and he got me two: one was just a space adventure, and the other was a collection of Isaac Asimov’s Robot Stories. Actually the second one [was] The Rest of the Robots, as it was titled in Britain, and I didn’t understand that title at all.

I thought it was about exhausted mechanical men having a nap—the rest of the robots—because I didn’t know there was an earlier volume when I first read it. But right from the very beginning, one of the things that fascinated me most was artificial intelligence, and my first novel, Golden Fleece, is very much my response to 2001… after having mulled it over from the time I was eight years old until the time my first novel came out.

I started writing it when I was twenty-eight, and it came out when I was thirty. So twenty years of mulling over, “What’s the psychology behind an artificial intelligence, HAL, actually deciding to commit murder?” So psychology of non-human beings, whether it’s aliens or AIs—and certainly the whole theme of artificial intelligence—has been right core in my work from the very beginning, and 2001 was definitely what sparked that.

The Fourth Age

Although many of your books are set in Canada, they are not all in the same fictional universe, correct?