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Mind (The Culture)

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In Iain M. Banks's Culture series, most larger starships, some inhabited planets and all orbitals have their own Minds: sapient, hyperintelligent machines originally built by biological species, which have evolved, redesigned themselves, and become many times more intelligent than their original creators.[1] According to Consider Phlebas, a Mind is an ellipsoid object roughly the size of a bus and weighing around 15,000 tons. A Mind is in fact a 4-D entity, meaning that the ellipsoid is only the protrusion of the larger four dimensional device into our 3D 'real space'.

In the Culture universe, Minds have become an indispensable part of the prevailing society, enabling much of its post-scarcity amenities by planning and automating societal functions, and by handling day-to-day administration with mere fractions of their mental power.

The main difference between Minds and other extremely powerful artificial intelligences in fiction is that they are highly humanistic and benevolent. They are so both by design, and by their shared culture. They are often rather eccentric, even, yet by and large show no wish to supplant or dominate their erstwhile creators.

On the other hand, it can also be argued that to the Minds, the human-like members of the Culture amount to little more than pets, whose wants are followed on a Mind's whim. Within the Series, this dynamic is played on more than once. [2][3] In 'Excession', it is also played on to put a Mind in its place—in the mythology, a Mind is not thought to be a god, still, but an artificial intelligence capable of surprise, and even fear.


Although the Culture is a type of utopian anarchy, Minds most closely approach the status of leaders, and would likely be considered godlike in less rational societies. As independent, thinking beings, each has its own character, and indeed, legally (insofar as the Culture has a 'legal system'), each is a Culture citizen. Some Minds are more aggressive, some more calm; some don't mind mischief, others simply demonstrate intellectual curiosity. But above all they tend to behave rationally and benevolently in their decisions.

As mentioned before, Minds can serve several different purposes, but Culture ships and habitats have one special attribute: the Mind and the ship or habitat are perceived as one entity; in some ways the Mind is the ship, certainly from its passengers' point of view. It seems normal practice to address the ship's Mind as "Ship" (and an Orbital hub as "Hub"). However, a Mind can transfer its 'mind state' into and out of its ship 'body', and even switch roles entirely, becoming (for example) an Orbital Hub from a warship.

More often than not, the Mind's character defines the ship's purpose. Minds do not end up in roles unsuited to them; an antisocial Mind simply would not volunteer to organise the care of thousands of humans, for example. On occasion groupings of two or three Minds may run a ship. This seems normal practice for larger vehicles such as GSVs, though smaller ships only ever seem to have one Mind.

Banks also hints at a Mind's personality becoming defined at least partially before its creation or 'birth'. Warships, as an example, are designed to revel in controlled destruction; seeing a certain glory in achieving a 'worthwhile' death also seems characteristic. The presence of human crews on board warships may discourage such recklessness, since in the normal course of things, a Mind would not risk beings other than itself.

With their almost godlike powers of reasoning and action comes a temptation to bend (or break) Cultural norms of ethical behaviour, if deemed necessary for some greater good. In The Player of Games, a Culture citizen is blackmailed, apparently by Special Circumstances Minds, into assisting the overthrow of a barbaric empire, while in Excession, a conspiracy by some Minds to start a war against an oppressive alien race nearly comes to fruition. Yet even in these rare cases, the essentially benevolent intentions of Minds towards other Culture citizens is never in question. More than any other beings in the Culture, Minds are the ones faced with interesting ethical dilemmas.


Mental power[edit]

While Minds would likely have different capabilities, especially seeing their widely differing ages (and thus technological sophistication), this is not a theme of the books. It might be speculated that the older Minds are upgraded to keep in step with the advances in technology, thus making this point moot. It is also noted in Matter that every Culture Mind writes its own OS, thus continually improving itself and, as a side benefit, becoming much less vulnerable to outside takeover by electronic means and viruses, as every Mind's processing functions work differently.

The high computing power of the Mind is apparently enabled by thought processes (and electronics) being constantly in hyperspace (thus circumventing the light speed limit in computation).[4] Minds do have back-up capabilities functioning with light-speed if the hyperspace capabilities fail - however, this reduces their computational powers by several orders of magnitude (though they remain sentient).

The storage capability of a GSV Mind is described in Consider Phlebas as 1030 bytes (1 million yottabytes).

The Culture is a society undergoing slow (by present-day Earth standards) but constant technological change, so the stated capacity of Minds is open to change. In the last 3000 years the capacity of Minds has increased considerably. By the time of the events of the novel Excession in the mid 19th century, Minds from the first millennium BCE are referred to jocularly as minds, with a small 'm'. Their capacities only allows them to be considered equivalent to what are now known as AI Cores, small (in the literal physical sense) Artificial intelligences used in shuttles, trans-light modules, Drones, and other machines not large enough for a full scale Mind. While still considered sentient, a mind's power at this point is considered greatly inferior to a contemporary Mind. That said, It is possible for Minds to have upgrades, improvements and enhancements given to them since construction, to allow them to remain up to date.

Using the sensory equipment available to the Culture, Minds can see inside solid objects; in principle they can also read minds by examining the cellular processes inside a living brain, but Culture Minds regard such mindreading as taboo. The only known Mind to break this Taboo, the GCU Grey Area seen in Excession, is largely ostracized and shunned by other Minds as a result. In Look to Windward an example is cited of an attempt to destroy a Culture Mind by smuggling a minuscule antimatter bomb onto a Culture orbital inside the head of a Chelgrian agent. However the bomb ends up being spotted without the taboo being broken.


In Consider Phlebas, a typical Mind is described as a mirror-like ellipsoid of several dozen cubic metres, but weighing many thousands of tons, due to the fact that it is made up of hyper-dense matter. It is noted that most of its 'body' only exists in the real world at the outer shell, the inner workings staying constantly within hyperspace.


The Mind in Consider Phlebas is also described as having internal power sources which function as back-up shield generators and space propulsion, and seeing the rational, safety-conscious thinking of Minds, it would be reasonable to assume that all Minds have such features, as well as a complement of drones and other remote sensors as also described.

Other equipment available to them spans the whole range of the Culture's technological capabilities and its practically limitless resources. However, this equipment would more correctly be considered emplaced in the ship or orbital that the Mind is controlling, rather than being part of the Mind itself.[4]



Minds are constructed entities, which have general parameters fixed by their constructors (other Minds) before 'birth', not unlike biological beings. A wide variety of characteristics can be and are manipulated, such as introversion-extroversion, aggressiveness (for warships) or general disposition.

However, the character of a Mind evolves as well, and Minds often change over the course of centuries, sometimes changing personality entirely. This is often followed by them becoming eccentric or at least somewhat odd. Others drift from the Culture-accepted ethical norms, and may even start influencing their own society in subtle ways, selfishly furthering their own views of how the Culture should act.

Minds have also been known to commit suicide to escape punishment, or because of grief.


Minds are constructed with a personality typical of the Culture's interests, i.e. full of curiosity, general benevolence (expressed in the 'good works' actions of the Culture, or in the protectiveness regarding sentient beings) and respect for the Culture's customs.[5]

Nonetheless, Minds have their own interests in addition to what their peers expect them to do for the Culture, and may develop fascinations or hobbies like other sentient beings do.[6][5]

The mental capabilities of Minds are described in Excession to be vast enough to run entire universe-simulations inside their own imaginations, exploring metamathical (a fictional branch of metamathematics) scenarios, an activity addictive enough to cause some Minds to totally withdraw from caring about our own physical reality into "Infinite Fun Space", their own, ironic and understated term for this sort of activity.

Mind varieties[edit]

Ship Minds[edit]

One of the main activities of Ship Minds is the guidance of spaceships from a certain minimum size upwards. A culture spaceship is the Mind and vice versa; there are no different names for the two, and a spaceship without a Mind would be considered damaged or incomplete to the Culture.[4][7]

These ships provide a convenient 'body' for a Mind, which is too large and too important to be contained within smaller, more fragile shells. Following the 'body' analogy, it also provides the Mind with the capability of physical movement. As Minds are living beings with curiosity, emotion and wishes of their own, such mobility is likely very important to most.

Culture Minds (mostly also being ships) usually give themselves whimsical names, though these often hint at their function as well. Even the names of warships retain this humorous approach, though the implications are much darker.

Non-Ship Minds[edit]

Some Minds also take on functions which either preclude or discourage movement. These usually administer various types of Culture facilities:

  • Orbital Hubs – A Culture Orbital is a smaller version of a ringworld, with large numbers of people living on the inside surface of them, in a planet-like environment.[4][7]
  • Rocks – Minds in charge of planetoid-like structures, built/accreted, mostly from the earliest times of the Culture before it moved into space-built orbitals.
  • Stores – Minds of a quiet temperament run these asteroids, containing vast hangars, full of mothballed military ships or other equipment. Some 'Rocks' also act as 'Stores'.
  • University Sages – Minds that run Culture universities / schools, a very important function as every Culture citizen has an extensive education and further learning is considered one of the most important reasons for life in the Culture.

Atypical Minds[edit]

  • Eccentric – Culture Minds who have become "... a bit odd" (as compared to the very rational standards of other Culture Minds). Existing at the fringe of the Culture, they can be considered (and consider themselves) as somewhat, but not wholly part of the Culture.
  • Sabbaticaler – Culture Minds who have decided to abdicate from their peer-pressure based duties in the Culture for a time.
  • Ulterior – Minds of the Culture Ulterior, an umbrella term for all the no-longer-quite-Culture factions.
  • Converts – Minds (or sentient computers) from other societies who have chosen to join the Culture.
  • Absconder – Minds who have completely left the Culture, especially when in doing so having deserted some form of task.
  • Deranged – A more extreme version of Eccentric as implied in The Hydrogen Sonata

Minds' names[edit]

Minds (and, as a consequence, Culture starships) usually bear names that do a little more than just identify them. The Minds themselves choose their own names, and thus they usually express something about a particular Mind's attitude, character or aims in their personal life. They range from funny to just plain cryptic. Some examples are:

  • Sanctioned Parts List – a habitation / factory ship
  • So Much For Subtlety – a habitation / factory ship
  • All Through With This Niceness And Negotiation Stuff – a warship
  • Attitude Adjuster – a warship
  • Of Course I Still Love You – an ambassador ship
  • Funny, It Worked Last Time... – an ambassador ship

See also[edit]

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  1. Lippens, Ronnie (2002). "Imachinations of Peace: Scientifictions of Peace in Iain M. Banks's The Player of Games". Utopian Studies. 13 (1). [...] governed by a plurality of 'Minds' which, themselves, are the result of interactions between sentient machines and bio-engineered humans. Although these Minds are particular entities (each of them formed in and through particular interactions), they nevertheless interact with each other extremely intensively. These Minds, and the Culture as such, are the result of highly communicative interaction [...]
  2. Westfahl, Gary (2005). The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy. 3. p. 981. A splinter group of spaceship Minds seizes the opportunity to foment "just" war against the Affront, aliens in space who revel in outrageous acts. Other powerful Minds are concerned for the status quo. Human participation, though consistently entertaining, is chiefly in spectator roles. There is a sense that Culture Minds regard humanity as pets and indulge their whims, though one eccentric Mind-ship has the hobby of thoroughly punishing human war criminals [...]. Wisps of unease are almost lost in extravagant large-scale action and Banks's characteristic inventiveness. Search this book on
  3. Bould, Mark; Butler, Andrew M.; Roberts, Adam; et al., eds. (2009-09-01). Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction. Routledge. ISBN 978-0415439497. [...] it becomes increasingly clear that he is a pawn in the Culture's game, and that the A.I. Minds that govern the culture may not be as benign as they initially seem. Search this book on
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Newitz, Annalee (2011-02-11). "Welcome to the Culture, the Galactic Civilization That Iain M. Banks Built". One of the most fascinating elements of the Culture is its ruling group (or the closest thing to that) - the Minds. The Minds are AIs who live for hundreds (sometimes thousands) of years, and plunk themselves into many different bodies: ships, halo worlds called Orbitals, and cyborgs called Avatars. (Well, the Avatars are really just extensions of a Mind, but if you want to get really detailed, just read this book.) [...] Culture starships - that is all classes of ship above inter-planetary - are sentient; their Minds (sophisticated AIs working largely in hyperspace to take advantage of the higher lightspeed there) bear the same relation to the fabric of the ship as a human brain does to the human body [...]
  5. 5.0 5.1 Rumpala, Yannick (2012). "Artificial intelligences and political organization: An exploration based on the science fiction work of Iain M. Banks". Technology in Society. Elsevier. 34: 23–32. doi:10.1016/j.techsoc.2011.12.005. In the works of Iain M. Banks, we do not really know how the "Minds" are fabricated. He explains (very briefly) that "[the Culture's AIs] are designed (by other AIs, for virtually all of the Culture's history) within very broad parameters, but those parameters do exist".
  6. Blackmore, Tim (2010). "Save Now [Y/N]? Machine Memory at War in Iain Banks' Look to Windward". Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society. doi:10.1177/0270467610373816. The Culture Minds who take over their own creation (they "write their own individual OS [...]
  7. 7.0 7.1 Westfahl, Gary (2000-01-30). Space and Beyond: The Frontier Theme in Science Fiction. Praeger. ISBN 0313308462. Within this heterotopia, the Culture's guiding Minds (that is, the superintelligent machine sentiences that control the Culture's largest artifacts, such as ships as Orbitals) [...] Search this book on

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