Thomas Jones, writing about the Kazuo Ishiguro novel Klara and the Sun, says:

Ishiguro doesn’t get tangled up in the complexities of neural networks, machine learning, algorithms or the difficulties of getting computers to understand symbolic logic. But it doesn’t matter how Klara’s mind works, because she isn’t really a robot. She’s a much older form of artificial intelligence, a much older kind of artificial friend: she’s a fictional character. It may be inherently impossible to write a novel that openly poses such questions as whether robots can be said to have souls, or to be conscious, or capable of feeling love, or of inspiring and reciprocating sympathy in people. By making them characters in a story, you aren’t asking the question: you’ve already answered it.

It's an interesting argument, with many confirmatory examples: from The Golem, to Pygmalion, to Rossum's Universal Robots, to 2001: A Space Odyssey, to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (though not all of those are novels). One counter-example is enough to disprove the claim, and the origin of this counter-genre is also interesting: why hasn't it caught on?

So, what's the earliest novel including an artificial intelligence as a character, which poses the question of whether it has a soul (or so on), and answers it in the negative?

One of the closest attempts I can think of is Jo Walton's The Just City, where non-humanoid cleaning robots obviate the need for slaves in an (alternative) classical era city. They are minor background characters. But as (minor spoilers) they are revealed to not be that dumb, it ultimately confirms Jones' assertion.

  • Not sure whether SF or lit is a better place for this, as it's at the more lit end of SF: somewhat about AI, somewhat about theory of the novel. – Adam Burke Mar 16 at 4:54
  • Have you a reason for rejecting Frankenstein? – DJClayworth Mar 18 at 19:35
  • Possibly Spencer Olham in Philip Dicks "Impostor". All his attempts to prove he is human only serve to bring the android close to a bomb that destroys mankind (which could be interpreted as just an illusion of free will. But then, in the course of the story neither he nor the reader is aware he is a robot/android, so this probably does not count). – Eike Pierstorff Mar 18 at 20:48
  • @DJClayworth I think it's worth considering Frankenstein, but because Frankenstein's monster is built from human parts, even a human brain, I didn't think of it as a robot. Though it's true Descartes and others thought animals didn't have souls, and maybe F's monster too, he seemed very firmly in the "had a soul, can love other people" side of the genre. The monster's yearning for an Eve to his Adam is a major plot point, as I recall. – Adam Burke Mar 19 at 2:14
  • @Eike Pierstorff Something Phil Dickian seems to sneak closer. "Abe Lincoln, Simulacrum", is a curious edge case, where the robot Abe still has a very device-like nature, and is routinely switched off an on, for example. – Adam Burke Mar 19 at 2:15

Isaac Asimov's The Bicentennial Man is a novelette (later expanded into a novel) written for the US Bicentennial in 1976. (Warning: that linked article contains spoilers.)

It's one of his better and most memorable stories, about a robot that wants to become human. It ends with a happy (with underlying sadness) ending.

The significant aspect to the story, with respect to your question, is that there was never anything intrinsic to the robot that could ever allow it to be considered human. It was only something that happens near the end that grants this wish.

If you allow for wooden and somewhat magical robots, then Carlo Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio, published in 1881, is a very early example of an artificial creation that wanted to become human.

  • They are fair reference points, but to me both Pinocchio and Bicentenial Man are treated by the story as creatures who can think and love (for the reader) well before they get the magic fairy dust that makes them officially human by the classification of the society they are in. – Adam Burke Mar 19 at 2:17
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    Hmm, I just noticed that the question contains "and answers it in the negative". My answer completely misses this crucial condition. – Ray Butterworth Apr 20 at 12:37

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