TEDxAUCollege | Artificial Intelligence in Popular Science Fiction
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Artificial Intelligence in Popular Science Fiction

-Ruyaam Khan

Fans and non-fans alike can agree that 2001: Space Odyssey is among the most iconic oeuvres of science fiction films. The opening theme song, “Also sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Straus, that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up (at least mine do); the ominous black monolith that brings rise to mankind; the surrealist “star gate” sequence that has the audience shooting through a kaleidoscopic tunnel; and the infamous red eye of Hal, the soulless, homicidal AI.

I can remember first reading the book and sitting at the edge of my seat as I read about Hal’s ruthless manhunt. Despite never having watched the film at the time, I could still hear Douglas Rain’s eerie voice whenever I read Hal’s dialogue. What was terrifying about Hal was that he had intentions, goals, and a mind of his own–and he was a machine. He didn’t even have a physical body, unless you counted Discovery, the space ship that embodied Hal. Hal was a computer, and a powerful one.

This portrayal of AI is not unique in the realm of science fiction. Other writers and other filmmakers have managed to paint a pretty bleak and daunting picture of the possibilities AI could bring about. The decimation of mankind is a popular one as seen in the Terminator franchise. Skynet, a self-aware AI hive mind, seeks to persecute humanity for fear of deactivation. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the ultimate depiction of AI as a killing machine, but he and Skynet are not unique in their quest for survival. Other films like Blade Runnerpaint a less harsh portrait of machines.

Replicants, bioengineered androids, are manufactured for slave labour on off world colonies. Yet these are intelligent humanoids that naturally possess hopes and dreams as humans do, so of course insurrection ensues. These androids are a lot easier to sympathize with, even more so than with the protagonist, Decker, whose job is to eliminate them. The androids in Blade Runnerpossess a kind of humanity that is unique to humans, yet, in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheepfrom which the film was adapted, it is stressed that they lack empathy, which is shown in their indifference to other life forms, such as animals. This is particularly evident in the book when Pris Stratton, a replicant who has fled an off world colony, encounters a spider at a time when other life forms on Earth are scarce. Pris attempts to trap the spider and torture it, horrifying Isidore, a human she has befriended. The outcast Isidore, who sympathizes with the persecuted replicants, realizes this is where he diverges from his bioengineered friends.

Other portrayals have grappled with the concept of AI having human characteristics, including emotions. One of the most terrifyingly dark films I had the fortune of watching in the middle of the night, alone, in pitch darkness, was Artificial Intelligence, directed by the legendary film wizard, Steven Spielberg. If you haven’t seen it, it is bittersweet and involves a cybernetic boy named David– a Pinocchio-like android who dreams of being a real boy so his human mother will love him. In this fictional universe, humans have managed to create machine in their own image, capable of expressing a full range of complex emotions–anger, frustration, desire. David, played by Haley Joel Osment, seeks the impossible–to become human. It’s an odd and terrifying concept–machines with hopes and dreams–nonetheless; the desire to be human is a lot less grim than the destruction of humankind, yet it is still harrowing.

Artificial Intelligenceis both a sinister yet fairytale-like story about a robot seeking boyhood in vain. Meanwhile, Ex Machinapossesses feminist undertones and takes on Ava’s tale. Ava resembles the stereotypical fembot, with a human man, Caleb, lusting after her. At first glance, Ex Machinaappears to be about Caleb, from whose point of view the story is told. This makes sense, as Ava remains confined in a glass room like a zoo animal while Caleb is mobile and uncovering truths about the prison that holds her. However, it is clear that Ava is the hero in this story as she seeks emancipation from her creator. Like Artificial Intelligence, Ex Machinacontains uncomfortable scenes. Concern can be expressed for the portrayal of the female androids­–they are depicted as objects that are discarded and put on display. Yet it is clear that the film speaks for the fembots rather than for the men who created them.

But my favourite portrayal of AI is in Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The Measure of Man”, Episode 9 of Season 2, in which Data, the android crew member of the starship Enterprise, is to be taken apart for study in order to create replicas of him. Data refuses and attempts to leave Starfleet despite being deemed its property, and a trial follows suit. Data is intelligent and arguably sentient, yet, unlike many of the aforementioned AI, he is emotionless.

This Star Trekepisode was by far one of the most complex explorations of the concept of AI in science fiction. It makes one contemplate the future of humanity, especially the prospects of coexistence with synthetic intelligent beings. AI could walk among us in human shaped vessels, indistinguishable from us. They might take our jobs, care for children and the elderly, and perhaps aid us in establishing extraterrestrial colonies. They will be human property and a massive labor force, but will they be slaves? Will they develop a conscience? Will they seek autonomy from their creators? Right now it’s too soon to tell.

If the subject of AI interests you then please join us for our next Salon Event, 12 December. The event is free, but be sure to get a ticket in order to reserve a spot as there’s limited space. Be at Eetcafé Oerknal at 19:00 to listen to speakers Janine Khuc and Roeland van Oers talk about the possibilities AI has to offer. Hope to see you there!