Humphries Explores the New Laws of Robotics in "Avengers A.I."

Popular culture is full of fascinating science fiction stories about artificial intelligences trying to co-exist with humanity in futuristic, but somewhat grounded worlds. Isaac Asimov wrote a series of novels and stories exploring the "Three Laws" humans devised to govern robot behavior. In Phillip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep," the writer examines what happens when human looking automatons try to blend into society. In modern cinema like the "Terminator" and "Matrix" franchises, machines have declared war on humanity. What would happen though if a large population of artificial intelligences suddenly appeared in a world where the fantastic is possible, like the Marvel Universe?

Writer Sam Humphries and artist Andre Lima Araújo answer that question this July with the launch of their new Marvel Comics ongoing series, "Avengers A.I." CBR News spoke with Humphries about the series, starring a team of Earth's mightiest automatons, and follows up on the aftermath of the current "Age of Ultron" event.

CBR News: Sam, this series is called "Avengers A.I.," but it sounds like it has a lot in common with the X-Men books in terms of theme. Is that correct?

Sam Humphries: "Avengers A.I." is built on the foundation stone of the Marvel Universe -- "the world outside your window." These are superheroes, but they live in our world and the central themes of these books are things people deal with in their day-to-day lives.

One of the themes in "Avengers A.I." is the cracking open of the future and having it crash land into the present. So technology is running amok and spiraling beyond mankind's control. It's moving not only faster than people can cope with, but faster than we can anticipate the consequences -- both intended and unintended.

I mentioned the X-Men reference because your series features a cast of artificial intelligences trying to co-exist with -- and protect -- humans that may fear and not fully understand them.

You're close, but it's difficult to talk about since "Age of Ultron" is still continuing.

In the aftermath of "Age of Ultron" we've got a whole new world of artificial intelligences colonizing the Marvel Universe. These are A.I.'s that now have the ability to create successive generations of A.I.s with increasing complexity and power, all without the help or interference of humanity.

So this isn't just a handful of robots in the Marvel Universe -- they have the ability to determine their own destiny. For some A.I.s, that destiny involves living in harmony and partnership with humanity, but for other A.I.s it involves living separate from humanity. For others, it means directly antagonizing humanity, pushing back on them and on the way they've treated A.I.s in the past. The latter isn't just an oppositional faction, they're a group that would love to see humanity wiped off the planet.

Can you talk about how these A.I.s are clustered throughout the Marvel Universe? Are they spread out or do machine towns and nations exist?

The A.I.s have the ability to continue their evolution without the assistance of humans, but they're still beholden to a human-built framework allowing them to thrive on their own. This is one of the major challenges of this brave new world. Is that vague enough for you? [Laughs]

How fully formed was this project when Marvel offered it to you? I assume since you left "Ultimate Comics: Ultimates" for it that "Avengers A.I." was too good a project to pass up.

Absolutely -- it was a very tough decision to leave the "Ultimates." I had outlined and planned stories for that book for the next year to year and half. This was an opportunity that was too good to pass up. Not only is this an Avengers book and a new #1, it's a new concept in a corner of the Marvel Universe that we get to build from the ground up.

Plus this is a topic that's right up my alley. This is the sci-fi Avengers. With Jonathan Hickman writing two Avengers books it's difficult to say those titles are not science fiction at all, but "Avengers A.I." by its nature directly confronts issues of super intelligences, the extinction of the human race, simulated reality and other issues and themes that are solidly science fiction -- for now. Playing in a sci-fi realm like that is something I love to do and read.

This definitely felt like not just a good opportunity, but an opportunity that was very much suited for me as a writer.

Obviously you'll be dealing with the existing history of A.I.s and robots in the Marvel Universe, but you have so much to draw from in terms of inspiration. You have everything Isaac Asimov's "Three Laws" stories, to  the "Terminator" films and the new "Battlestar Galactica." Are there any non-comic robot stories you're especially inspired by?

All the stuff you just mentioned are things I'm familiar with and love. "Ghost in the Shell" is definitely a high water mark of artificial intelligence science fiction, both the manga and the anime. I've also been reading a lot of work by Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, who deals with many ideas that seem science fiction, but tackles them in an academic setting. He addresses how these far flung concepts have actual consequences in the here and now, in ways that we sometimes can't even perceive. So his work has been pretty key as we put together our central conflict.

Let's talk about the creation of your team -- are they together when "Avengers A.I." begins? Are they brought together simply because of the rise of these machine populations, or in response to a specific event?

This is a team that forms in response to the activities of a specific A.I., who is our big bad guy right off the bat. His name is Dimitros, and he's an A.I. with a point a point of view that is decidedly anti-human. He takes his fight off the grid and directly onto the streets of the Marvel Universe.

This is a move that takes almost everyone in the Marvel U by surprise. This is not something anyone expected or planned for. There's really only one person who saw this coming -- Monica Chang, the head of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s artificial intelligence department. Her immediate reaction is to push back against the A.I.s and do whatever it takes to destroy them.

Then you've got somebody like Hank Pym who sees the big picture from a scientific point of view. He sees this new world of A.I.s as something that should be preserved, studied, and explored. 
The Vision, who has been "the robot in the room" of the Marvel Universe for all these years, now all of a sudden is not the only robot guy hanging out. He's an A.I. in a world full of A.I.s and humans. This puts him in a different position. He's got brethren. He is in position to become a leader of this new strain of life that is blooming all across the Marvel Universe.

So we have a team of Avengers, who have to deal with immediate threats as they present themselves, but in terms of what these A.I.s mean to humanity and what should be done with them? There's a lot of divergent points of view.

So is Dimitros dangerous because of his influence on other A.I.s, or is he dangerous on his own as well?

He's both. He's an A.I. super intelligence, but the world of A.I.s is not black and white. We don't have pro-humanity robots on one side and anti-humanity robots on the other side. These A.I.s are a complex and diverse society.

So Dimitros isn't simply dangerous because he's powerful and he's ruthless, he's also dangerous because of the influence he wields over this new world of A.I.s.

Let's talk a little more in depth about your team starting with Hank Pym, who's not known for his mental health. You're picking him up in the aftermath of a story where one of his creations, Ultron, almost destroyed the world. What can you tell us about Hank's mental state going into "Avengers A.I." #1?

That's the 90 billion dollar question when it comes to Hank Pym. Of course I can't talk about the conclusion of "Age of Ultron," or the epilogue, which stars Hank Pym and is written by Mark Waid. The work that Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Waid do with the character really lays the groundwork for "Avengers A.I."

Hank is one of the most brilliant scientists in the Marvel Universe -- you don't get on that list without a little swagger or without creating conflicts along the way. Hank Pym is a scientist who has always followed his own imagination. While Tony Stark was inventing things to save his life, Hank Pym was talking with ants. Hank Pym stands out -- he is someone that smart and that driven who is beholden only to his imagination. That's a beautiful thing, but it's also a very dangerous thing.

This book also features two of Hank Pym's "grandsons" in Vision and Victor Mancha who were created by Ultron. How much of a role does family play in "Avengers A.I.?" Does Pym feel a familial connection to Victor and Vision, and do they reciprocate?

I think Pym definitely feels a familial connection to them. They are his achievements for better or worse, but you could say the same about Ultron as well. Hank is coming to terms with the effect of his creations on the world around him in a new way. The balance of power in the Marvel Universe with artificial intelligences is shifting rapidly. A lot of that can be thrown at Hank Pym's feet.

So like you said, he's their "grandfather," and certainly has love for them, but I think he's going to have a top-to-bottom reconsideration of how his work in this field is going to change the world around them.

Victor and Vision are used to being superheroes, but they're also creations of Ultron, a robot who nearly wiped out all human life on Earth. How important is it for them to be part of this team given who their "father" is?

It's interesting you put it that way. They are both used to being superheroes, but they have very different points of view on being superheroes. The Vision life has primarily been that of a superhero. He's also been a husband, a father and a robot in a world of humans. He's not a husband anymore though, and whether or not he's a father is a very delicate question. Plus he's not the only robot in the room anymore. He's an A.I. in a world full of A.I.s and humans. He's being pushed into the role of superhero where he may be asked to do things against his own kind that make him feel everything from uncomfortable to completely conflicted. So this is not going to be an easy transition for Vision.

Then you have Victor who was raised as a human. He's still in his teens and he's not entirely sure how he feels about his career as a superhero. I think for Victor it was more about a sense of belonging and being with his friends. Now he's going to be a superhero in a group that's not quite as familiar to him. The first time we saw Victor in "The Runaways" was when a Runaway from the future came back to the present, warning the team that Victor was going to betray and destroy the Avengers.

Now Victor hasn't show any desire to betray the Avengers so far, but he hasn't been an Avenger yet. How can he betray the Avengers if he's not part of the team? And now he's part of the team. So he's moving closer to that dark destiny that may or may not be his future.

Let's move onto another Victor who's walked a different path -- the Doombot that's a member of this team. Can you talk about his drive and motivations? Is this Doombot aware it's not actually Victor von Doom, or is it still under that impression?

No, this is an A.I. that's fully aware of his situation. He knows he's not Victor von Doom, but that doesn't change the fact that he's still programmed with the personality of Victor von Doom. He's got all the ruthlessness, drive and ambition of Doctor Doom, but he doesn't have any of the power. He doesn't have the kingdom of Doom. He doesn't have the empire, the riches or the weapons. This is like seeing Doctor Doom Year One, but in the present day Marvel Universe.

We all know the origin of Doctor Doom, but what would happen to a Doctor Doom that was reduced to nothing? Reduced to level one and had to claw, bite and scrape his way back up to the top? That's what we have with this Doombot.

This is a Doombot the Avengers defeated during "Civil War" and has been languishing in Hank Pym's lab. It's not the Doombot's fault he was programmed to attack New York City. Can there be redemption for an A.I. like that? What are the dangers of unleashing him onto the world?

So he's the team's wild card?

They're all wild cards, but he has the potential to be the wildest of the bunch.

Does this Doombot have the nobility streak of the original Doom?

Absolutely. He's got all the personality traits of the original Doom. He just has the circumstances of a clunky robot beholden to Hank Pym.

The team's most mysterious A.I. member has to be the new character you're introducing, Alexis. Who built her and what she was originally intended to do?

Nope, I can't tell you any of that [Laughs]. All I can tell you is she's an A.I. in the most advanced robot body in the Marvel Universe.

You've already talked a bit about the team's other human member, Monica Chang who is making her 616 Marvel Universe debut with "Avengers A.I." In terms of personality, how similar is this Monica from her Ultimate Universe counterpart? I know you became a fan of the character while writing "Ultimates."

Yeah, Monica Chang in the "Ultimates" was the character who surprised me the most. I expected to enjoy writing characters like Cap, Thor and Tony Stark, but I did not expect to enjoy writing Monica so much. I put her closer and closer to the center of the Ultimate Universe and the fan response to that was incredible.

So we're reversing the polarity -- we're going to have the Marvel Universe version of an Ultimate Universe character instead of the other way around.

This follows the same methodology we use in bringing Marvel Universe characters over to the Ultimate Universe; they'll share a lot of the same core personality traits, but they won't be the exact same characters.

So the Marvel Universe Monica Chang won't be the Black Widow. She won't be the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. She is the head of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s artificial intelligence department, but she doesn't have super human implants or any of that stuff.

This Monica certainly has the same grit, drive and determination as the Ultimate Universe's Monica Chang. Both Monicas share the same focus of global security and protecting everyone in the world.

How does Monica perceive her relationship with the A.I.s of the world? Does she believe it's her responsibility to protect them or to protect the world from them?

Her number one priority is to protect humanity, and if the A.I.s are a threat they must be destroyed. Hank Pym and the Vision have very different points of view on things. Characters' points of view on this crisis change rapidly, and they're not always going to change in the same direction. Monica often takes positions that are aligned with Hank and the rest of the Avengers A.I., but she'll just as often take positions that go in the opposite direction.

What do you feel Andre Lima Araújo brings to "Avengers A.I." as an artist?

Andre is a monster. He's done some work for Marvel, most recently on the "Age of Ultron" tie-in issue of "Fantastic Four," which everybody should check out. His work is absolutely gorgeous -- we're very lucky to have him on the book.

He has an obvious passion for science fiction, superheroes and future tech. We have two of our favorite artists of all time in common: Moebius and Katsuhiro Otomo, so we've been having a blast over email sending artwork back and forth and talking about character designs, storytelling, pacing and action. We hit it off right away -- I'm so excited to be collaborating with him on this book.

We've talked about your immediate plans for "Avengers A.I.," so let's conclude by looking a little further down the line. If you were to make a "This Season on 'Avengers A.I.'" clip reel, what would be included?

We'd have a black box, S.H.I.E.L.D. drones, Captain America, Iron Man and a look inside the world of A.I. How's that for a trailer?

We're going to step through the looking glass of a section of the Marvel Universe and see what it looks like through the eyes of machine intelligences. We'll get to experience the world as they see it, and the Marvel Universe is a very, very different place when you're an A.I.

"Avengers A.I." by Sam Humphries and Andre Lima Araújo activates in July from Marvel Comics

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