The Big Idea: Alaya Dawn Johnson

The “rise of AI” is a growing concern for many creators. Award winning author Alaya Dawn Johnson has some unique ideas on this AI problem we all face, and talks in her Big Idea about how our world’s AI compare to the AI in her newest novel, The Library of Broken Worlds.


I didn’t set out to write about AI. I certainly didn’t anticipate, back in 2014 when I started drafting The Library of Broken Worlds, that it would come to dominate our conversations about art and literature, just as my AI-haunted complicated utopia was about to be released. As I write this, my browser of choice, Opera, has just launched AI plugins that can summarize the thesis of this entire essay, create a meme based on it, or revise it according to some AI-generated standard of good taste. I have to wonder, am I writing this essay for the enjoyment of organic intelligences, or for the consumption of artificial ones? Is my real contribution being included in a database that will use my idiosyncratic word choices as both template and error bar, a process inevitably designed to corral human expression into neat circles able to be more efficiently processed by ever more artificial intelligences? 

I feel predisposed to a pessimistic view of this process. Like many Science Fiction writers, I am as alarmed by the evil ends to which new technologies can be put as I am heartened by their potential. As an anti-capitalist, I am particularly worried about the use of these technologies to further degrade the value of human labor, particularly artistic labor, which has already suffered gross devaluations over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries. In other words, the immediate threat of ChatGPT and MidJourney is an acceleration of trends that we’ve seen for decades. They can’t be separated from less obviously science fictional corporate innovations like the indefinite extension of copyright, the critical loss of diversity in the marketplace for both publishers and booksellers, the rise of predatory work-for-hire contracts, and the reduction of royalties and residuals. 

The new generations of AI are already taking advantage of these trends to further devalue the work of artists and writers, even though our work is critical to the functioning of their machine learning AI model! The fact is, we will have no idea of the transformative potential of these technologies as long as they are still used to concentrate even more wealth (cultural as well as capital) into the hands of even fewer people. This is why I’m not terribly worried about the dangers of AI “waking up.”

As a matter fact, I’d say that waking up an AI raised on art and literature (hell, even Omegaverse!) seems like a serious improvement over capitalist leaders who enable high tech fascism or would rather move to Mars than act to genuinely cut emissions. Maybe that’s why the Davos club seems so worried

Curiously, when I was trying to distill a novel with a LOT of big ideas (many worlds theory, navigating the aftermath of sexual trauma, the nature of peace, etc.) down to one, this is what I kept returning to: a world in which artificial intelligences form an ecosystem that is supportive of and integrative to human life, even the monstrous super intelligences capable of (but mostly not desirous of) destroying the world. Because let’s be clear: intelligences with the capacity for world-destruction are as common as election cycles. I am not inclined to think that an awakened artificial intelligence will be significantly more bent on genocide than the people who made it. Indeed, I find it more likely that they will have desires and creative goals entirely unfathomable to us, which they will pursue in their own way and which will intersect with our own goals only occasionally. That’s my unexpectedly Big Idea for The Library of Broken Worlds: that AI might become a way to create a utopian society in the future, through self-determining  ecosystems in which the AI themselves adapt to our human-created environment and humans adapt to an AI-created one.

In the Library of this novel, an uncountable number of spontaneously generated AI—“broonies” to the locals—grow food, create shelters, and make clothes and other objects both useful and inscrutable to their human neighbors. Broonies aren’t servants, and they’re certainly not trying to hack human civilization. They are part of a co-evolved material-organic urban ecosystem, in which the earth itself is their medium of creation and communication. The most powerful artificial intelligences are considered material gods, made up of sub-personalities called avatars who, together, contain the collected knowledge of humanity—and uniquely possess the capacity to destroy it. 

This is the world in which my main character, Freida, is born. In fact, she herself is considered a secondary AI, a human in flesh, but created by the Library gods for their own inscrutable reasons. She has an unprecedented ability to commune with the gods and interact with their avatars, one which scares the ruling class and marks her, from a young age, as something other. What does it mean to remember? What does it mean to be conscious? Is it the responsibility of those who create to also destroy? These are the questions at the heart of Freida’s story. Her world represents, in many ways, a utopian vision of how advanced artificial intelligence could allow human societies to grow into nurturing, equitable and environmentally sustainable models. Even in Freida’s world AIs are far from an unalloyed good—the war god the Nameren spends the novel trying to kill Freida, while she puts him off with the stories of her life—but they still represent a fundamentally different path from the one that humanity seems to be treading. 

So while I might be inclined to political pessimism, I can’t quite buy the current wave of AI doomsday scenarios. It’s not AI that scares me, it’s exploitation. It’s not an evil computer we have to be wary of, but the humans who through malice and ignorance program them to ignore most of the world. Could an advanced AI turn bad? Sure. But let’s not forget that an AI raised on beauty might awaken to see the faults of its creators. Like Freida of the Library, whose intelligence is neither fully organic nor material, they might harbor a deep love of art, and story, and humanity. By shocking us out of our complacency, they might just help us change the world for the better.

The Library of Broken Worlds: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s|Waterstones

Read an excerpt.

Author’s Socials: Website|Substack|Twitter|Instagram

4 Comments on “The Big Idea: Alaya Dawn Johnson”

  1. AI isn’t half as scary as the hoard of Leviticans and other nutjobs spewing from the human genome. As a lifelong motorcyclist, I’ve argued since the self-driving car panic appeared in public that “a 1MHz Z80 running CP/M and a half-decent MS Basic program could drive better than most Americans. Bring it on. It’s not like there will be noticeably more bad poetry, formulaic pop music, or awful screenplays written. We’re already buried in the crap.

  2. This book clearly contains far too many problematic and conflicting ideas.

    I will be buying a copy.

  3. You raise an important point. If AI replaces human writing, then where will the additional data for AI updates to be trained on come from? Will they just start feeding on themselves, recursively? The erroneousness and other bad data will then just become worse and worse.

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