VH in Science Fiction

In the second chapter of the book we also look at how virtual humans have been portrayed in Science Fiction - including books, movies, TV, radio and even plays!

There are a lot of SF images and quotes that for copyright reasons we couldn't have in the book, so we include the most important below. We'll also use this page to share new examples and fresh analyses of what we think are the most interesting examples of virtual humans within science-fiction literature and media.

Post Book Examples

Fable Studio's Lucy

A well realised virtual character in a short piece of VR that is the most lifelike character I've seen so far (Oct 18) in VR - and now forming the basis of "The Lucy Project" at Fable Studios. Fuller description in this Lucy blog post.

Book Examples


Real Zoe's Avatar talking to Virtual Zoe's Avatar - which is which?

Virtual Zoe talking to her creator's father, Daniel Graystone. My favourite quote about creating a virtual human..

You can't download a personality. There's no way to translate the data. But the information being held in our heads IS available in other databases. People leave more than footprints as they travel through life. Medical scans, DNA profiles, psych evaluations, school records, emails, recordings, video, audio, CAT scans, genetic type and synaptic records, security cameras, test results, shopping records, talent shows, ball games, traffic tickets, restaurant bills, phone records, music list, movie tickets, TV shows …. even prescriptions for birth control.

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The lead in to this quote is at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lG8YyrronnA
Poor quality off-screen video of the quote: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VHBjEt_SenI

Tony Ballantyne's Recursion Trilogy

Another interesting exploration of virtual humans is in Tony Ballantyne’s 2004-2007 Recursion trilogy - Recursion, Capacity and Divergence (Ballantyne, 2004, 2005 and 2007) - is set within a

‘digital world of algorithm and recursion, the Turing machine and the Neural Net, the AI and the personality construct. It is the space where the next great steps of humankind’s evolution are taking place.’ (Capacity, p.4).

Whilst Capacity features personality constructs experiencing ground-hog day type repetitive loops of existence from which they try to find a way out, it is the Kevin AI character from the final book, Divergence, which is one of the most interesting. Kevin

‘denied that he was an AI. True he was software that ran on processing spaces, true he was written by DIANA to be an Artificial Intelligence, but Kevin disputed his status as such. Quite simply, he claimed not to be intelligent. He would argue that he was nothing more than a set of yes/no branches.’ (Divergence, p.223)

Later a character repeats this claim

‘you know he claims that he is not an AI. He says he passes the Turing Test every day, but he is not intelligent: just a sequence of yes/no responses, just a massive algorithm’ (Divergence, p.301)

Alastair Reynold's Eunice

Eunice appears as an "off-screen" character in Alastair Reynolds'  Blue Remembered Earth, but then appears as a virtual persona rebuilt from her available memories in Poseidon's Wake.

‘I started off as a bodyless software emulation, a thing stitched together from public and private records of myself. A piece of art. Then I became something more than dear Sunday ever anticipated. A fully autonomous, self-aware artilect – a thing too dangerous to be allowed to exist. …But then I acquired those neural traces [of her dead biological progenitor]. They had an interesting effect on me – pushed me over the edge of my own computational horizon. I could no longer forsee my own response to any given stimulus. I’d become quixotic, unguessable – prone to whims and sudden irrational changes of mind. I experienced complex mental states that I could only characterize as emotions. Human, in other words – except for that fact that my body was still artificial.’ (p. 256)

Greg Egan's Diaspora and Permutation City

Greg Egan's books are always full of great ideas. Two we particularly like are the Gleisner robots in Diaspora, temporary physical bodies used by virtual humans when the want to visit the physical world (they live most of their time in a virtual world), and the concept in Permutation City, which is all about digital immortality, where the virtual humans smuggle themselves around systems, just stealing a clock cycle here and their, so they run VERY slowly, but their perception is that the world around them is moving incredibly fast. I think it's Permutation City where the idea of running a programme, even a conscious programme, on a set of windows opening and closing is discussed.

Good Read's review of Permutation City. There's even an FAQ for Permutation City on Greg's website.

Channel 4's Humans

It's not the synths that particularly interest us but V - the virtual daughter being created by Dr Morrow in the 2nd series. V is a virtual persona being rebuilt from the digital traces of her dead daughter. Its fragmentary and unstable nature seems quite accurate!

For the synths its interesting just how "robotic" the non-sentient versions are, and even the sentient versions seem to be lacking small scale emotion and empathy.

Also interesting was the Making A Human documentary that was done which tried to create a "real" version of Mia - a robotic head driven by a Chatscript chatbot - and to see if it could fool some journalists over a Skype conversation in a covert Turing Test. It certainly seemed to fool some of them - but having seen the head that was used the Skype video must have been pretty awful!


Spike Jonze's Her film is a classic of the "near future" virtual human as personal assistant.

Alex and Ada

Very much in the "Humans" vein, Alex and Ada is a nice look at the sentient android meme.

Ex Machina

Again a bit too "android" for our interests, but the way the Turing type test is set up and paid off is nice. There's a good critique of its sexism issues at https://www.wired.com/2015/04/ex-machina-turing-bechdel-test/ - and a hybrid Turing/Bechdel test!

Blade Runner 2049

Again its not the replicants that interest us but Joi - the virtual human hologram. OK there are issues again with a very sexist portrayal and the overlap of human and hologram, and she can often "see" things which make no physical sense given the location of her projector but otherwise she gives one idea for how Siri and Alexa could develop.

For a critique see https://www.polygon.com/2017/10/11/16455282/blade-runner-2049-analysis-ana-de-armas-fantasy-girl

2001: Hal

We really can't talk about virtual humans and AI without mentioning HAL and 2001. Check out this interesting talk revisiting a 1969 video on how do'able HAL would be.

In many ways HAL is still a  pretty good example of what might actually be feasible in the mid-term - if only we can stop it going rogue!


The librarian in Snowcrash is again a pretty good virtual human example, and it lives in a social virtual world. We actually got the permissions to use this quote in the book:

Hiro suspects "that the Librarian may be pulling his leg, playing him for a fool. But he knows that the Librarian, however convincingly rendered he may be, is just a piece of software and cannot actually do such things."

Quite why it shouldn't be able to pull his leg or play him for a fool is a moot point!


Be Right Back - Black Mirror

The "Be Right Back" episode of Black Mirror (Series 2 Episode 1) nicely explores some of the issues of bring able to create Virtual Personas to counter personal grief and potentially create a Digital Immortal (although that aspect isn't really covered).

Planet B

A radio series set in an SL type virtual world which has "rogues" - sentient AIs in it, as well as post-death digital personas.



A primarily text based computer game where you interact with a couple having an argument. Which side will you take? Very game based but good and natural interactions. Free to download at http://www.interactivestory.net/

Transhuman Space

An SF-RPG set in the near future with a well developed typology of AIs and virtual humans.



Another SF-RPG set a lot further in the future but with not only a good typology of AIs and virtual humans, but also rules for virtual worlds and brain implants.

FATE version - https://mindjammerpress.com/mindjammer/

Traveller version - https://www.modiphius.com/mindjammer-press.html

Other Examples

We haven't listed every work discussed in the book, but here are some others mentioned (or newer) that may be of interest.

Carbonneau, M. (Director & Creator), & Dauphinais, L. (Creator). (2015).  Siri [Play]. Canada

SummerhallTV (2017, 9 Aug) Laurence Dauphinais & Maxime Carbonneau : SIRI. SummerhallTV. Retrieved from http://www.summerhall.tv/2017/laurence-dauphinais-maxime-carbonneau-siri/

Garner, R. (Writer), & Dorsen, A. (Director). (2011). Hello, Hi There [Play]. United States
Soloski, A., (2011, 28 Jan). No actors. Just robots. Call this a play? The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2011/jan/28/no-actors-robots-play-theatre

And of course there are the classics that you all no doubt know:

  • The holographic Doctor from Star Trek:Voyager
  • Holly from Red Dwarf
  • J.A.R.V.I.S. from Iron Man
  • Orac from Blake's Seven
  • Cortana from the Halo games

We've tried to exclude robots and androids such as Marvin, Bicentennial Man, Haley Joel Osment's character in AI.

And many of course we just don't think of as their just talking computers - such as the original Star Trek one!