Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Book Review: "Knight Rider" by Glen A. Larson and Roger Hill

Knight Rider by Glen A. Larson and Roger Hill (Pinnacle, 1983)

While recovering after a medical procedure earlier this year, I began to rewatch early episodes of the 1982 television series Knight Rider. A passing mention of artificial intelligence while discussing the Knight Industries Two Thousand vehicle and the pilot’s setting in Silicon Valley made me realize that perhaps Knight Rider was… science fiction—something that had eluded my preteen self when originally watching the program. Now that we’re more firmly in a time of smart cars, collision detection, and other technological developments, I thought it’d be worth learning more about the science behind the TV show.

So I read the first Knight Rider tie-in novel, credited to the series’ creator and producer Larson—who also had a hand in Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries—but written by Hill, a former journalist from Los Angeles and author of three previous novels.

The novelization is largely a straight-forward retelling of the pilot episode, though the book does include additional detail on the science fiction elements of Knight Rider. Knight Industries had previously perfected a use of plastics. There’s a reference to Burke and Hare, as well as a mention of Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. Hill also expands on Wilton Knight’s political viewpoints, which are downright Randian.

And the car itself? The “most expensive car in the world” has a “finish bonded into the molecular structure of the car body itself.” It’s not fiberglass, but a “new substance altogether. An alloy only space technology could produce.” KITT is faster, safer, and stronger than any other car. The car is virtually indestructible. “It is hydrogen-fueled and totally fuel efficient. The microprocessors that control its functions make it impossible for the vehicle to be involved in any sort of mishap or collision … unless specifically ordered to by its pilot.”

But most importantly, the car thinks. “Dr. Miles and I took pains to program KITT’s machine personality for maximum interface value with the pilot-program driver… . As the seat and dashboard are customized to your physical shape, so is the ‘personality’ of the microprocessor in conformity to your psychological profile.” The car learns.

The book is an interesting expansion on the ideas behind the show. Michael Haenlein and Andreas Kaplan’s “A Brief History of Artificial Intelligence” (https://tinyurl.com/bddc8zc5) suggests that early AI efforts date back to the 1940s and Asimov’s story “Runaround.” ELIZA was created in the mid-’60s, and investment waned in the 1970s and 1980s, not to reemerge seriously until the ’90s and more recently.

Pretty progressive ideas for the early 1980s! (This review was previously published in slightly different form in the LASFAPA apazine Faculae & Filigree #11.)

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