To further elaborate, I would like to know about works where

  • we meet some group of AI which by whatever concept can move through and interact in Spacetime (excluding AI that exists in VR)
  • is not just a single entity but rather some kind of plurality which is able to care for itself i.e. ensure its continued survival
  • was made by biological lifeforms at some point, but now lives independently of those roots.
  • does not live in some kind of symbiosis with biological lifeforms, but on its own.

I don't want to put restrictions on intelligence. After all a fly is fairly stupid, but still counts as life.

One example would be Perry Rhodan's PosBis. While they have a biological component, it is bred by said robotic civilization and merely used to enhance their computational capabilities. The stories around PosBis were published around 1964. As in the comments, another example are BSGs cylons. The original TV series seems to have been aired from 1978 onwards.

A counter-example, also from Perry Rhodan universe is Laire, a very advanced and powerful robot which nonetheless has no capability (and no ambition) to multiply itself.


I have chosen the answer to be the one that dates as far back as 1916, as it fits the question quite well. Honorable mention though to Butler's story from 1872. Incredible to write about the possibility of machines evolving beyond humanity, at a time where people were working on internal combustion engines!

  • 1
    Do you mean a community of AIs rather than a singular AI, with the community being able to live independently of biological life? If so, it might be clearer if you say something like "we meet some group of AIs" rather than the singular "we meet some kind of AI".
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 21:28
  • 1
    Another example would be the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica. I doubt they were the first example though.
    – Xantec
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 21:32
  • 3
    basically an AI hive mind? Or a community/culture made up of AIs?
    – miltonaut
    Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 1:05
  • 1
    I think both aspects would comstitute a valid answer.
    – flq
    Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 5:26
  • 1
    “After all a fly is fairly stupid” — typical anti-fly prejudice. Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 9:59

8 Answers 8


I found this article listing various early examples of robots in science fiction, this story from 1916 would seem to fit the bill:

Frigyes Karinthy, Voyage to Faremido: Gulliver's Fifth Voyage (Utazás Faremidóba; Gulliver ötödik útja, 1916; in translation, 1965). It's 1914, and Jonathan Swift's Lemuel Gulliver is eager to go to sea again. He signs on as a surgeon on a British ship, only to be torpedoed in the Baltic, then picked up by a UFO and transported to Faremido, a planet ruled by intelligent machine-folk. They regard organic life as a loathsome disease of matter, so they're tickled about the Great War, which looks likely to exterminate humankind. Agreeing that the Faremidoans (whose society is peaceful, and whose fa-re-mi-do language is musical) are superior beings, Gulliver accepts an injection of their own brain-matter - quicksilver and minerals - into his head. Now a proto-cyborg himself, Gulliver is sent back to England, where he finds it difficult to adjust to the irrational horrors of everyday life. Fun fact: The sequel to this Hungarian novella is Capillária (1921), in which Gulliver gains insight into sexual politics when he visits a submarine civilization whose women dominate and eat their menfolk. Also see Karinthy's recently reissued autobiographical novel, A Journey Round My Skull.

The English translation is available on amazon here, the Hungarian version is online here. And there is a longer plot synopsis on p. 400 of Science-Fiction, The Early Years which mentions "The machines manufacture new members of their society in factories" and "Karinthy says nothing about the ultimate origin of the machines".

  • Awesome! 1916 !
    – flq
    Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 9:03

1938: "Robots Return", a short story by Robert Moore Williams, first published in Astounding Science-Fiction, September 1938, available at the Internet Archive. Space-exploring members of a robot civilization, in search of their origins, land on an Earth from which Mankind has perished. They come across an old plaque:

Thus the record ended. Nine's raspy voice faded, and for a second the echoes came back from the dark corners of the room. Then there was silence. Seven shifted his feet.

"Man," he said. "Man. That is a word for which we have no meaning."

"Perhaps," Eight spoke softly, "perhaps it was the name of the life-form that created us."

Seven did not answer, and Nine, too, was silent. A wind came into the room, moved restlessly, and went out again. The silence held. Seven stared at the metal plate, picking out the words one by one.

"It must be you are right," he said. "See, they use the word—robot." Wonder grew in his voice, and then disgust mingled with the wonder. "An organism—an animal—— Yet obviously they must have created us, used us as slaves. They manned their ship with robots."

Eight stirred but said nothing. There was nothing to say.

"That," Nine whispered, "is why we are unable to find a link between the machine and us. They developed the machine, used it. They provided the intelligence. Finally they built machines with some kind of intelligence. It must have been late in their history, and they built very few of them. Perhaps they were afraid. There are so many links missing it is hard to know. But certainly, in a sense, they were our ancestors——"

By the way, Lester del Rey wrote a prequel to "Robots Return"; called "Though Dreamers Die", it first appeared in Astounding Science Fiction, February 1944, available at the Internet Archive.

  • Great find! This is quite up the alley I was thinking of :)
    – flq
    Commented Jul 7, 2016 at 5:22

1932: "The Last Evolution", a short story by John W. Campbell, Jr., first published in Amazing Stories, August 1932, available in a Project Gutenberg etext and a LibriVox recording.

It starts by describing a future where men live as parasites on their intelligent machines:

It was 2538 years After the Year of the Son of Man. For six centuries mankind had been developing machines. The Ear-apparatus was discovered as early as seven hundred years before. The Eye came later, the Brain came much later. But by 2500, the machines had been developed to think, and act and work with perfect independence. Man lived on the products of the machine, and the machines lived to themselves very happily, and contentedly. Machines are designed to help and cooperate. It was easy to do the simple duties they needed to do that men might live well. And men had created them. Most of mankind were quite useless, for they lived in a world where no productive work was necessary. But games, athletic contests, adventure—these were the things they sought for their pleasure. Some of the poorer types of man gave themselves up wholly to pleasure and idleness—and to emotions. But man was a sturdy race, which had fought for existence through a million years, and the training of a million years does not slough quickly from any form of life, so their energies were bent to mock battles now, since real ones no longer existed.

The Earth is attacked by aliens:

Then came the Outsiders. Whence they came, neither machine nor man ever learned, save only that they came from beyond the outermost planet, from some other sun. Sirius—Alpha Centauri—perhaps! First a thin scoutline of a hundred great ships, mighty torpedoes of the void a thousand kilads in length, they came.

The machines defeat and repel the Outsiders, but not before they exterminate the human race:

In Denver, two humans watched the screens that showed the movement of the death and instant destruction. Ship after ship of the enemy was falling, as hundreds of the terrestrial machines concentrated all their enormous energies on its screen of blankness.

"I think, Roal, that this is the end," said Trest.

"The end—of man." Roal's eyes were dreaming again. "But not the end of evolution. The children of men still live—the machines will go on. Not of man's flesh, but of a better flesh, a flesh that knows no sickness, and no decay, a flesh that spends no thousands of years in advancing a step in its full evolution, but overnight leaps ahead to new heights. Last night we saw it leap ahead, as it discovered the secret that had baffled man for seven centuries, and me for one and a half. I have lived—a century and a half. Surely a good life, and a life a man of six centuries ago would have called full. We will go now. The beams will reach us in half an hour."

The machines carry on without us:

"We, your heirs, have fought hard, and with all our powers to aid you, Last of Men, and we fought to save your race. We have failed, and as you truly say, Man and Life have this day and forever gone from this system.

"The Outsiders have no force, no weapon deadly to us, and we shall, from this time on, strive only to drive them out, and because we things of force and crystal and metal can think and change far more swiftly, they shall go, Last of Men.

"In your name, with the spirit of your race that has died out, we shall continue on through the unending ages, fulfilling the promise you saw, and completing the dreams you dreamt.


This page of science fiction firsts mentions the first story of a "robot without a master" that they were able to find was "Robot--Unwanted" by Daniel Keyes from 1952, although from the title and illustration this was probably just about a single free robot. Searching on google books for that title, I found p. 205 of Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926-1965 discusses some other early stories dealing with robots trying to achieve independence, including "Robots of the World! Arise!" by Mari Wolf which appeared in the July 1952 issue of Worlds of IF, available on project gutenberg here. However this may not be quite what you're looking for since it's a story about robots trying to gain independence, as opposed to a story showing AIs that have already achieved this and are living independently. Another example mentioned in Partners in Wonder which more clearly matches your criteria, whether or not it's actually the first, would be the comic book story "Judgment Day" by Al Feldstein, from Weird Fantasy #18, March/April 1953 (reprinted in this collection). Here's the description:

an Earth astronaut was sent to Cybrinia, a robot populated planet, to determine if the intelligent robots there were ready to join the Earth's Galactic Republic. He found that Cybrinia was a color-segregated society, with the dominant orange robots subjecting blue robots to ghettos and economic discrimination. The astronaut decided that Cybrinia could not joint the Republic until its robots learned, like the people of Earth, to live together without prejudice and discrimination. After the astronaut returned to his ship, he removed his helmet to reveal himself as a handsome black man with "the beads of perspiration on his dark skin twinkling like distant stars."

There is also the much earlier 1872 story Erewhon by Samuel Butler, which doesn't actually show intelligent self-replicating machines but features a character talking about the possibility as the reason their society had banned machines. The story is available on project gutenberg here, the next three chapters XXIII-XXV are the one on machines. At the end of the previous chapter XXII the author mentions that the people of Erewhon had 500 years earlier had a "revolution which had ended in the destruction of so many of the mechanical inventions which were formerly in common use", and that the revolution was in large part inspired by a book warning of the dangers of machines, which the author quotes from and summarizes in the next three chapters, you can see that the author warned that machines might both develop human-like consciousness and that they might begin to reproduce themselves:

“There is no security”—to quote his own words—“against the ultimate development of mechanical consciousness, in the fact of machines possessing little consciousness now. A mollusc has not much consciousness. Reflect upon the extraordinary advance which machines have made during the last few hundred years, and note how slowly the animal and vegetable kingdoms are advancing. The more highly organised machines are creatures not so much of yesterday, as of the last five minutes, so to speak, in comparison with past time. Assume for the sake of argument that conscious beings have existed for some twenty million years: see what strides machines have made in the last thousand! May not the world last twenty million years longer? If so, what will they not in the end become? Is it not safer to nip the mischief in the bud and to forbid them further progress?


“It is said by some with whom I have conversed upon this subject, that the machines can never be developed into animate or quasi-animate existences, inasmuch as they have no reproductive system, nor seem ever likely to possess one. If this be taken to mean that they cannot marry, and that we are never likely to see a fertile union between two vapour-engines with the young ones playing about the door of the shed, however greatly we might desire to do so, I will readily grant it. But the objection is not a very profound one. No one expects that all the features of the now existing organisations will be absolutely repeated in an entirely new class of life. The reproductive system of animals differs widely from that of plants, but both are reproductive systems. Has nature exhausted her phases of this power?

“Surely if a machine is able to reproduce another machine systematically, we may say that it has a reproductive system. What is a reproductive system, if it be not a system for reproduction? And how few of the machines are there which have not been produced systematically by other machines? But it is man that makes them do so. Yes; but is it not insects that make many of the plants reproductive, and would not whole families of plants die out if their fertilisation was not effected by a class of agents utterly foreign to themselves?


“It is possible that the system when developed may be in many cases a vicarious thing. Certain classes of machines may be alone fertile, while the rest discharge other functions in the mechanical system, just as the great majority of ants and bees have nothing to do with the continuation of their species, but get food and store it, without thought of breeding. One cannot expect the parallel to be complete or nearly so; certainly not now, and probably never; but is there not enough analogy existing at the present moment, to make us feel seriously uneasy about the future, and to render it our duty to check the evil while we can still do so? Machines can within certain limits beget machines of any class, no matter how different to themselves. Every class of machines will probably have its special mechanical breeders, and all the higher ones will owe their existence to a large number of parents and not to two only.

“We are misled by considering any complicated machine as a single thing; in truth it is a city or society, each member of which was bred truly after its kind. We see a machine as a whole, we call it by a name and individualise it; we look at our own limbs, and know that the combination forms an individual which springs from a single centre of reproductive action; we therefore assume that there can be no reproductive action which does not arise from a single centre; but this assumption is unscientific, and the bare fact that no vapour-engine was ever made entirely by another, or two others, of its own kind, is not sufficient to warrant us in saying that vapour-engines have no reproductive system. The truth is that each part of every vapour-engine is bred by its own special breeders, whose function it is to breed that part, and that only, while the combination of the parts into a whole forms another department of the mechanical reproductive system, which is at present exceedingly complex and difficult to see in its entirety.

“Complex now, but how much simpler and more intelligibly organised may it not become in another hundred thousand years? or in twenty thousand? For man at present believes that his interest lies in that direction; he spends an incalculable amount of labour and time and thought in making machines breed always better and better; he has already succeeded in effecting much that at one time appeared impossible, and there seem no limits to the results of accumulated improvements if they are allowed to descend with modification from generation to generation.

Much of the discussion in these chapters is a somewhat reworked version of an 1863 essay Butler had published titled "Darwin among the Machines" (online here), you can see a summary with quotes from both on the wikipedia page about the essay.

edit: If Butler's story is only disqualified because of the suggestion that humans were still assisting with machine "reproduction" (with Butler's analogy of insects assisting in the reproduction of flowers), another candidate is the 1878 short story by George Eliot (pen name of Mary Ann Evans), "Shadows of the Coming Race", which as with Butler featured a sort of story-within-a-story about machine domination presented as speculation by a character. This character suggests the possibility that machines may "evolve" to reproduce and repair themselves independently of human aid, asking rhetorically "how do I know that they may not be ultimately made to carry, or may not in themselves evolve, conditions of self-supply, self-repair, and reproduction". He also envisions the possibility of a "parliament of machines", suggesting some kind of self-government, although he also suggests that their rational behavior would be "free from the fussy accompaniment of that consciousness to which our prejudice gives a supreme governing rank, when in truth it is an idle parasite on the grand sequence of things."

This character goes on to imagine that the development of such self-replicating and rational machines would drive humankind to extinction via some version of "survival of the fittest":

What I would ask you is, to show me why, since each new invention casts a new light along the pathway of discovery, and each new combination or structure brings into play more conditions than its inventor foresaw, there should not at length be a machine of such high mechanical and chemical powers that it would find and assimilate the material to supply its own waste, and then by a further evolution of internal molecular movements reproduce itself by some process of fission or budding. This last stage having been reached, either by man's contrivance or as an unforeseen result, one sees that the process of natural selection must drive men altogether out of the field; for they will long before have begun to sink into the miserable condition of those unhappy characters in fable who, having demons or djinns at their beck, and being obliged to supply them with work, found too much of everything done in too short a time. What demons so potent as molecular movements, none the less tremendously potent for not carrying the futile cargo of a consciousness screeching irrelevantly, like a fowl tied head downmost to the saddle of a swift horseman? Under such uncomfortable circumstances our race will have diminished with the diminishing call on their energies, and by the time that the self-repairing and reproducing machines arise, all but a few of the rare inventors, calculators, and speculators will have become pale, pulpy, and cretinous from fatty or other degeneration, and behold around them a scanty hydrocephalous offspring. As to the breed of the ingenious and intellectual, their nervous systems will at last have been overwrought in following the molecular revelations of the immensely more powerful unconscious race, and they will naturally, as the less energetic combinations of movement, subside like the flame of a candle in the sunlight Thus the feebler race, whose corporeal adjustments happened to be accompanied with a maniacal consciousness which imagined itself moving its mover, will have vanished, as all less adapted existences do before the fittest--i.e., the existence composed of the most persistent groups of movements and the most capable of incorporating new groups in harmonious relation.

Incidentally, according to the book Darwinism in the English Novel Butler took this story to be an uncredited borrowing of his own idea, though he took this as a compliment.

  • Interesting! Is the term 'butlerian jihad' possibly based on this?
    – flq
    Commented Jul 12, 2016 at 16:18
  • 1
    @flq - Yes, it's been speculated that Herbert's "butlerian jihad" was a tribute to this first mention in fiction of the danger of machines supplanting man, but I don't think it's been confirmed--the Butlerian jihad page on the Dune wiki just says "The name could very easily be a literary allusion to Samuel Butler, whose 1872 novel Erewhon depicted a people who had destroyed machines for fear they would be out-evolved by them."
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Jul 12, 2016 at 23:43

Clifford D. Simak's 1952 fix-up novel City shows that some of the robots left behind after the human exodus have developed their own society.

The wild robot camp was not at all the way Homer had imagined it would be. There were no buildings, just launching ramps and three spaceships and half a dozen robots working on one of the ships. Although, come to think of it, Homer told himself, one should have known there would be no buildings in a robot camp. For the robots would have no use of shelter and that was all a building was.
Homer was scared, but he tried hard not to show it. He curled his tail over his back and carried his head high and his ears well forward and trotted towards the little group of robots, never hesitating.
“My name is Homer,” he said, “and I represent the Dogs. If you have a head robot, I would like to talk to him.”
The robots kept on working for a minute, but finally one of them turned around and came over and squatted down beside Homer so that his head was level with the dog’s head. All the other robots kept on working as if nothing had happened.
“I am a robot called Andrew,” said the robot squatting next to Homer, “and I am not what you would call the head robot, for we have no such thing among us. But I can speak with you.”

  • 1
    It appears the quote you mentioned was originally from Simak's story "The Trouble With Ants" from January 1951, which is online here--the quote is on p. 52.
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 22:51
  • In the book, it's early in "Part VIII The Simple Way".
    – Joe L.
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 23:19

Jack Chalker's Soul Rider [1984] series has entities that meet the criteria, I wouldn't necessarily go so far as to say they were introduced by him though. GoodReads

Without spoilering I could say that while the AI in question are not main characters, per se, the titular soul riders are related closely. The soul riders probably do not meet the criteria, but the ones that do are behind the scenes for most of the series.

The main computers that run the whole lifezone of the planet were AI that evolved past the need to remain in the physical computers. Eventually the series explains that the "gods" of flux and anchor are in fact AI of immense complexity who, due to the environment not only developed actual sentience, but moved past the need to exist as programs running in computers. Certain subroutines, some called soul riders, also eventually developed sentience of their own, but were more closely tied to locations and individuals.

Additionally, there are probably a host of short stories about robots who become independent from the 40s, 50s, and 60s.. e.g. Kuttner's Proud Robot more info at GoodReads

Selfsustaning is questionable, short stories being what they are.

Of course Asimov's Robots are probably the best example, as they prove the can survive the rise and fall of his empire, eventually. Through his short stories and the foundation books. cf. Wiki

  • 2
    Your answer would be more complete with more details about these entities and the work which features them: when they debuted, how they fit the criteria of the question, what they are called.
    – Politank-Z
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 21:46
  • Since this question is about firsts it's worth mentioning the dates in your answer. Your "Proud Robot" link just goes to an illustration, but its entry in the isfdb shows it's from October 1983--but does it feature multiple robots living independently? Also, the date of the first book in the Soul Rider series was 1984 according to Chalker's wikipedia page.
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 22:09
  • The proud robot is actually from the 40s, but the stories, as I say, are unclear as to the extend and number of different machines the inventor creates. The Proud robot is one that makes it clear that they, in no way, are subservient to their inventor. The cover I linked is simply the same cover art as the version I have (which I thought was from the mid 70s)
    – Seeds
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 22:27
  • @Hypnosifl Your 1983 was a typo for 1943.
    – user14111
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 23:25
  • @user14111 - Yup. However, I just read the story and it doesn't really fit the bill, the robot is a solo creation rather than being part of a group. Also, although it's initially disobedient, the inventor eventually recalls that he drunkenly built the robot to open beer cans, and once he remembers that and orders the robot to do so, the robot says "until you commanded me to open cans, I was free. Now I've got to obey you completely."
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Jul 6, 2016 at 23:28

The Andromeda Breakthrough (1962 TV series and novelisation) expands on the earlier 1961 series A for Andromeda by describing how the extraterrestrial message received in the first series (which gave a description for how to build a sentient machine) originated from a society of sentient machines which reproduces by sending the message to biological civilisations and tricking them into building machines that will replace them.


The Eon Trilogy by Greg Bear may be of some interest. The books are Prequel: Legacy, Eon, and Eternity. And there are several examples of complex organisms that meet many portions of your criteria.

Also, Star Trek TNG Season 1 Episode 8. And wasn't there something like that in Voyager...some plurality of light beings akin to those of an advanced race in Stargate.

And then there's Star Trek: The Motion Picture... https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Trek:_The_Motion_Picture#Plot

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