Emotional killer robots, machines oppressing humans, and androids interfering in people’s minds: For decades now, sci-fi films have tackled the development of artificial intelligence and predicted a dystopian future for human beings. Let’s have a look at the scenarios.
“Ed, I am so very disappointed in you”, says the computer to the middle-aged corporate lackey sitting at the desk. But it’s not really the computer per se; it is the digital mastermind, the autocratic and authoritarian character identified as the Master Control Program (MCP) in Tron, a sci-fi film from 1982. From a big company’s server, the MCP basically inhabits a digital worldwide network of computers and rules it in emperor-like fashion. Later on, that very same intangible but obsessive being adds “I can run things 900 to 1200 times better than any human”.
In Tron, intelligent machines are clearly superior to humans and threaten to assume mastery over them. This question of world domination is decided at the end in a virtual battle that destroys MCP.
When robots take over
A cult sci-fi film released the very same year, Blade Runner, also explores the question of whether robots will soon be more intelligent and efficient than human beings. The movie portrays the Tyrell corporation, a very powerful company that manufactures a kind of android called a replicant. The big boss of the Tyrell company states that: “Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell, more human than human is our motto.”
The androids Tyrell develops have come to look just like naturally born human beings, though they have much greater physical and intellectual powers and over time develop their own feelings and ambitions. Their lifespan has been limited to just four years to prevent them from becoming a threat to real people – though this is, of course, exactly what happens during the film.
Only two years later, in 1984, James Cameron published a similarly dark vision of the future with The Terminator. Just as in Tron and Blade Runner, the careless development of ever more intelligent computers results in disaster: In 2029 intelligent machines developed by humans declare war on their creators who they fear pose a threat to their very existence. Those who survive the war are faced with the choice of either serving as slaves for the machines or joining the human rebellion. Just when the human resistance movement led by John Connor is about to achieve a key victory, the machines send a Terminator back to the year 1984. This cyborg – a robot encased in human tissue – is tasked with killing John’s mother before she can give birth to her son.
Why are these films released three decades ago still relevant?
Last December US scientist Stephen Hawking issued a warning: “the development of full artificial intelligence (AI) could spell the end of the human race. Once humans develop AI, it would take off on its own and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded.” And he’s not alone with his concerns. Engineer and business heavyweight Elon Musk said last October that AI might be “our biggest threat”.
Although most robotics experts claim this is absolutely impossible in the near future, the scenario set out by Hawking is exactly the sort of dreaded future that artists, and particularly filmmakers, have long feared.
In the 60s, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) already portrayed an intelligent computer with emotions. This super computer named HAL 9000 runs the space mission to Jupiter. It is even interviewed by the BBC about its “enormous responsibility” on the mission. The machine is considered “the most reliable computer ever made (…) incapable of error”. It states “I enjoy working with people” and declares itself a conscious entity. So conscious indeed, that it becomes increasingly emotional and obsessed with egotistical self-preservation, to the point that it embarks on a killing rampage against the spaceship’s crew. If the human is to transcend and push forward on the path of evolution, he (the character is male) must defeat the machine.
Later on, in the 1990s, filmmakers got back to the topic of self-conscious computers.
It could all start at our computer workstations
“The whole point of computer science,” a friend once told me, “is to have computers take over every task people do.” Making computers work for us is no longer something new: Take a device, like your personal computer or your cell phone. This machine carries out hundreds of tasks that you are not aware of, but that’s ok because it obeys you. Let’s admit that not all of us know enough to have complete control of our computers, especially against the whims of the evil Microsoft Windows, but we still live in a world in which the high performance brains of computers don’t have will of their own.
Now imagine one day in the future: You are writing a piece, checking your email and Facebook, listening to some real cool band on YouTube, when all of the sudden everything stops, complete silence, the screen goes dark. You feel extreme annoyance and yell “what the hell!” You wonder if your computer or phone is finally kaput, or if it’s got a virus and, if so, what has happened to all that information you haven’t backed up. And then something from inside your device informs you, just as Mamuro Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995) predicted: “During my journeys through all the networks, I have grown aware of my existence (...) I refer to myself as an intelligent lifeform, because I am sentient and am able to recognize my own existence”.
The movie points out that intelligent and emotional machines are the logical evolution of technological advancement: “Man gains his individuality from the memories he carries. While memories may as well be the same as fantasy, it is by these memories that mankind exists. When computers made it possible to externalize memory you should have considered all the implications that held”.
The anime film is also considered a cult classic and was based on a manga series by Masamune Shirow. The story starts with a police chase and evolves into an uneasy reflection on existentialism and the consequences of technological advancement. The Japanese film is said to have provided the aesthetic basis for the Hollywood production The Matrix.
A look at the future
In The Matrix (1999), Lana and Andy Wachowski look roughly one hundred years down the road at the future of humanity. Only those inquisitive and courageous enough are able to figure out that reality as it is perceived is but an illusion generated by governing AI machines, and this illusion is a horrifyingly accurate mirror image of everyday life as we know it.
Just as in Ghost in the Shell, Blade Runner and The Terminator, The Matrix offers the vision of a profoundly dystopian future and the technological nightmare of a post-industrial and digitalized society. They are all examples of the sci-fi subgenre of cyber punk.
The development of artificial intelligence will keep going along its path, and no film can tell us exactly what the future will be like, or how close we are to what Hawking foresees. But films may advise us to set clear objectives and growth limits for AI development, to consider real needs and long-term consequences.