Painting humanity by numbers

'Sentience' by Courtney P. Hunter

3 minute read
Courtney P. Hunter's debut novel explores the relationship between humanity and AI. (Image courtesy of the author.)
Courtney P. Hunter's debut novel explores the relationship between humanity and AI. (Image courtesy of the author.)

The year is 2024, and 24 participants join a group experiment conducted by tech corporation AlgorithmOS. In a contained wilderness called Eden, the group must work together through various challenges to survive and figure out which four of the 24 are artificially intelligent humanoids. In Philly writer Courtney P. Hunter's debut novel, Sentience, even the AI don't know their true identities.

What it means to be human

The story takes this Turing test as a starting point to spin a thoughtful science-fiction thriller that explores ethics, bigotry, and what it means to be human—and a machine—in a world creeping closer to singularity.

The Eden denizens are a motley crew; many have joined the experiment not only for the compensation but to escape mistakes and traumatic pasts. Points of view shift among them, but we mainly follow Leo Knox, who enters Eden fleeing a dangerous life as a member of a motorcycle gang. Though tough and mistrustful, she takes on the role of protector of the more vulnerable members of the group, as other participants reveal that they will stop at nothing to find the AI. Lines are drawn, betrayal and power plays ensue, and lives—both human and AI—are at risk with no sign of help from AlgorithmOS.

Hunter has stated that her artistic influences are film and television, citing Ex Machina and Westworld. Sentience is fast-paced but sometimes episodic, driven by plot and action more than by character development. The number of characters is too vast for them all to be fully given their due. Only a handful resurface after their initial introductions to have any impact on the story, and of those who do, only a few are given a backstory or development.

However, Sentience is steeped in cinematic imagery, and Hunter’s descriptions of fights and accidents in the wilderness are graphic and visceral. The first telling of this story was a dance piece Hunter choreographed and presented at the Philadelphia Fringe in 2017. The way that her characters live in and are affected by their bodies is palpable.

The other side of the algorithm

Sentience takes a welcome turn when Hunter widens her scope to include the AlgorithmOS scientists who have been observing and manipulating the proceedings in Eden. Some AI participants are revealed, casting the previous events in a new light, and creating greater urgency and mystery around who the remaining AI are. This environment also allows the author to more deeply explore themes of capitalism and scientific ethics as AlgorithmOS actively pushes for government contracts before the AI are ready and fully tested.

Hunter has said in interviews that she was drawn to relationships between humans and AI, asking, “Does knowing they’re not a person invalidate your feelings, or change how you think about them? About yourself?” Though these questions do drive the novel, Sentience’s depiction of the treatment of the abused and dehumanized AI resonates in 2020, when actual humans are still denied their humanity based on their ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, and the color of their skin. The test to determine humanity applies not only to robots, but to humans too.

Image description: The cover of Sentience, a science fiction novel by Courtney P. Hunter with the tag line, Who can you trust if you can’t trust yourself? The silhouettes of four people are in a dark forest with lines of code superimposed over the trees. The text is white.

What, When, Where

Sentience. By Courtney P. Hunter. Independently published on October 17, 2020. 296 pages, paperback. $12.00. Get it here.

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