We have always been obsessed with movies set in the future, especially ones where technology plays a leading role. The list is endless when it comes to films that have in some way addressed Artificial Intelligence (AI).
From the good to the bad, we have created a list that shows which films got it right and which got it wrong.
1. The Obvious - A.I.
Let’s start with the obvious, A.I. Released in 2001, the plot centers around a child-robot called David played by Haley Joel Osment. The robot-kid is given to a grieving family to test its ability to love.
The family ultimately abandons him and David leaves to search for the Blue Fairy from the "Adventures of Pinocchio." David hopes that she'll turn him into a real boy and his adoptive family will take him back.
What stands out as fundamentally flawed in this film, is a concept that confuses a lot of people. That ‘intelligence’ isn’t the same as sentient thought or emotion.
Leading AI expert Joanna J. Bryson describes people’s unfounded ideas about intelligence being the same as feelings. “The major hurdle today is that people over-identify with the concept of intelligence”, she says.
“People think that if something is more intelligent, it must be more human-like and therefore you really can hurt it.They equate being intelligent with being alive and knowing suffering."
"There’s no memory of better or worse times, there’s no basis, space, or computation for suffering.” So while Hollywood continues to create images of AI robots that feel, this isn’t something AI engineers are doing.
The closest we have to a ‘David’ like character who was ‘programmed’ to love are robots who are trained to recognize human emotions through sensorial cues and react in programmed ways to these clues.
Bryson argues that humans shouldn’t ever get confused that just because we might make a robot look human-like, it is not going to feel the same way that we do.
She says, "The ideal with anthropomorphic robots is that you get utility from them, even emotional utility, but still be aware that it doesn’t do it any harm to abandon it while you go on vacation."
So while there is some accuracy in a humanoid robot being programmed to do a particular task, ie ‘love’ a family. These robots aren’t able to ‘feel’ the love back except as data which they then use to keep working towards their programmed goal.
2. The recent - Ex-Machina
Ex-Machina was released in 2014 as the directorial debut of Alex Garland. The plot follows the story of Taleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) a young programmer at a huge Internet company who wins the chance to visit the company's founder Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) at their remote headquarters.
It turns out the programming genius, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) needs Smith’s help to conduct a Turing Test on a humanoid AI-enabled robot called Ava.
While we could spend a lot of time talking through what isn’t quite right about the AI part of the film, what is most ‘wrong’ about this recent Sci-Fi flick is the portrayal of how the AI is actually made.
In the film, Ava is created by the lone genius figure of Bateman at his high-tech lab in the woods. In reality, AI is created by teams of researchers working slowly over years to develop and create software and algorithms that make up what we know as AI.
3. The Romantic - Her
Her quickly became a cult classic when it was released in 2013. The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as the recently divorced Theodore Twombly who falls in love with an intelligent computer operating system personified through a female voice called Samantha (Scarlett Johansson).
Her cleverly explores the ideas of humans becoming attached to AI-enabled technology while showing that AI has no ability to manifest the same emotions back.
While Twombly is stuck inside his human body with limited knowledge and a history of emotional trauma, Samantha has the ‘freedom’ of the relatively infinite knowledge of the internet and the processing capacity to carry out multiple conversations and ‘relationships’ at once.
The film might be a glimpse into the potential of current technology such as Amazon Echo and Google home some time into the future.
4. The Classic - 2001: A Space Odyssey
2001: A Space Odyssey tops the list as many tech fans as the best and most accurate film ever to be made. The 1968 classic tells the story of astronaut Dr. Dave Bowman’s (Keir Dullea) mission to locate mysterious black monoliths that act as connections between past and present time.
During the mission, the spacecraft’s computer system, HAL, begins to display odd behavior ultimately leading to a tense standoff between astronauts and the computer. HAL is seen by any AI experts as the best example of AI in film.
While at times HAL does seem to display some sentient behaviors, he consistently behaves according to his programming - which is to complete the mission. No matter what happens in the film, HAL remains steadfastly dedicated to his programmed task.
Even when HAL seems to express fear and starts to try to bargain with Dave as the distressed astronaut threatens to turn him off, this behavior could simply be the robot's choice of action given the necessity to continue the mission no matter what, rather than a display of ‘pure feeling’.
While the film doesn’t go into detail about how HAL works, we are pretty far away from a type of AI this advanced ourselves so we can forgive the oversight.
For a film made fifty years ago, it does a remarkable job of imagining a future even if it is well beyond 2001.
5. The Rules - I, Robot
I, Robot, released in 2004, is a pretty easy-to-love film - it’s got mystery, robots and lots of fun special effects. The film is set in 2035 in an age when highly intelligent robots hold public service positions throughout the world.
The robots operate under three rules designed to keep humans safe.
1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm;
2) A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law;
3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
These famous robot rules were introduced by Science fiction author Isaac Asimov in his 1942 short story, "Runaround", which was part of the collection of stories called 'I, Robot'.
These rules seem to set up a pretty peaceful coexistence for robots and humans until a rogue robot decides to introduce the Zeroth law which states “A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.”
Without giving too much away once this new rule is introduced, robot chaos ensues. While the idea of programming robots to a set of rules is pretty accurate, the fact that a single robot could spontaneously reprogram itself is laughable.
A robot programmed to do a task is incapable of suddenly developing a totally new mission for itself.
6. The Anthropocene - Bicentennial Man
Another sci-fi film based on an Asimov film is the 1999 creation Bicentennial Man. In a rare event for sci-fi films, the story depicts a non-violent robot working as a butler for a family.
The plot follows the robot as it yearns to become human and be a true member of its employees family.
While the depiction of a robot and a family living in harmony is not only a welcome relief to the overused trope of robot vs human war depicted in most mainstream films. The robot's desire to become human is not.
Robots programmed to perform tasks in a domestic environment are unlikely to yearn for the failings it can observe in the humans around them.
The film does play well into humankind's massive ego that we are the center of the universe and everything around us must desire us in some capacity.
7. The Indie - Frank and Robot
Frank and Robot received rave reviews when it debuted at Sundance in 2012, but fell into relative film obscurity afterward. The indie film tells the story of an aging ex-con Frank (Frank Langella) who is given a care robot by his son.
Despite his initial resistance to the latest technology, Frank soon sees an opportunity for the robot to help him pull off one last heist. The robot is programmed to improve Frank's lifestyle and in doing so completes tasks around the house.
Frank cleverly manipulates the robot into being his accomplice by framing the robbery as a healthy addition to his lifestyle. In this way, the robot's enthusiasm for the project is absolutely in line with its original programming.
The film goes on to cleverly unpack Frank’s anguish as he begins to emotionally bond with the robot who is totally incapable of a return of such feelings.
For a low budget indie film, the depiction of AI technology is remarkably sophisticated.
8. The Flop - Passengers
This blockbuster film, Passengers, was supposed to be a big hit, it had not one but both Hollywood 'it' stars, Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t live up to its much-hyped expectations.
But let’s get down to the AI. The film is full of futuristic stuff, ie. they are on a massive spaceship bound for another civilization but the main interaction the two characters have directly with AI is through a friendly bartender called Arthur played by Welsh actor Michael Sheen.
While the movie was bombed for its weak script, dull acting and overall lack of a plot, the role of Arthur was well received by critics and was praised for its relatively high accuracy of depicting AI. Again, success in this criteria means that the robot methodically continues to achieve it programmed goals.
Sheen was also praised for his performance, balancing the need for a humanoid robot to provide company and a level of emotional response with the coldness and rigidity expected of a complex algorithm. The idea of a robot bartender isn’t far-fetched either.
In fact, there are many bars all over the world that are already equipped with robots who can pour drinks like a pro. Though we are some way off from the realistic humanoid face and torso that Arthur inhabits.
9. The Debatable - Transcendence
Transcendence has been deeply interrogated by the AI community as it edges fairly close to some realistic portrayals of the industry.
The film presents the story of the talented and popular researcher, Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), who leads a team of researchers in an experiment to upload a human mind to a computer.
Anti-tech groups oppose the science and Caster is assassinated. Luckily with the help of Caster’s wife, his own mind is able to be uploaded to a computer so he can live on in some way.
The film portrays several aspects of AI with surprisingly detailed accuracy. The AIs in the film are able to recognize the faces of humans they interact with using recognition algorithms.
This technology is currently being used widely, although currently, the ability to find a ‘match’ only works if the subject is in the database.
Secondly, there are some major scenes in the film that show robotic surgery arms complete complex tasks. While we aren’t at a stage where we are recreating full humans with robotic surgery, using precise robotic arms controlled by a trained surgeon has become almost commonplace in minor surgeries.
And in China, a completely autonomous robot dental surgery was successfully completed for the first time last year.
Despite the film's success in its AI portrayals, the whole section of the film where a mind is uploaded to a computer and then connected to the internet is definitely still in the realms of sci-fi.
This badass action film from 1987 tells the story of Robocop, the part human, part robot policeperson, designed to clean up the mean streets of Detroit. Despite the film's campy clumsiness, there are some aspects of the film that have come to fruition, albeit in slightly different ways.
The technology used to create Robocop in the original film is never really explained. All we know is the humanoid robot has the memory of a hero street cop combined with the sharp reflexes of a robot.
Robocop's main idea of an autonomous law-enforcing robot has captured the imagination of engineers and governments and there are several examples already in operation. Dubai is reportedly adding some three-meter tall robots to its police force in the near future.
These featureless faced robots will be able to perform basic police tasks such as observation and police presence. Despite the intimidating look of the robots, it looks as though they won’t be armed.
A more terrifying version of Robocop is the SGR-A1 robot which patrols the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. The small, 120 high robots are equipped with a weapon and can shoot to targets at a range of up to 3.2 km.
11. Space Oddity - Moon
David Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, made his directorial debut with the 2009 release of Moon. Moon follows the story of astronaut Sam (Sam Rockwell) who is close to the end of his mission on the Moon mining Helium-3.
A personal crisis sets off a chain of events that sees a cat and mouse game begins to play out between Sam and the computer's onboard system called GERTY, voiced by Kevin Spacey.
GERTY is an obvious homage to the 2001: Space Odyssey's HAL computer system and is accurate for many of the same reasons. However, where HAL was scarily consistent in its ability to stay focused on its goals, GERTY lacks the same direction.
Often appearing to side with whatever the last human interacted with. While many experts believe this is a poor example of AI technology, the depiction gets points for its non-humanoid form and highly logical approach.