• Fri. Jul 19th, 2024

What 70 years of AI on film can tell us about the human relationship with artificial intelligence

In 2024, AI is making headlines daily. We may be aware of the science, but how do we imagine AI and our relationship to it both now and in the future? Fortunately, film may provide us with some insights.

Probably the best-known AI in film is HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). HAL is an artificially intelligent computer housed on board a spacecraft capable of interstellar travel. The film was released less than a year before humans landed on the moon. And yet, even in this optimism about a new era of space travel, HAL’s portrayal sounded a note of caution about artificial intelligence. His motivations are ambiguous, and he shows himself capable of turning against his human crew.

This 1960s classic demonstrates fears that are common throughout AI film history – that AIs cannot be trusted, that they will rebel against their human creators, and seek to overpower or overthrow us.

These fears are contextualised in different ways during different historical eras – in the 1950s they are associated with the cold war followed by the space race in the 1960s and 1970s. Then in the 1980s it was videogaming, and in the 1990s the internet. Despite these differing preoccupations, fear of AI remains remarkably consistent.

My latest research, which forms the backbone of my new book AI in the Movies, explores how “strong” or “human-level” AI is depicted in film. I examined more than 50 films to see how they shed light on human attitudes to AI – how we interpret it and understand it through characters and stories, and how attitudes have changed since AI’s beginnings.

Types of AIs

The idea of AI was born in 1956 at an American summer research project workshop at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, where a group of academics gathered to brainstorm ideas around “thinking machines”.

A mathematician called John McCarthy coined the name “artificial intelligence” and just as soon as the new scientific field had a name, filmmakers were already imagining a human-like AI and what our relationship with it might be. In the same year an AI, Robby the Robot, appeared in the film Forbidden Planet, and returned the following year in 1957 in the film The Invisible Boy to defeat another type of AI, this time an evil supercomputer.

The AI as malevolent computer appeared again in 1965 as Alpha 60, in the chilling dystopia of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, and then in 1968 with Kubrick’s memorable HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

These early AI films set the template for what was to follow. There were AIs that had robot bodies and later robot bodies that looked human – the first of these appearing in Westworld in 1973, where a robot malfunction at a futuristic amusement park for adults creates chaos and terror. Then there were AIs that were digital like the evil Joshua in the 1977 horror Demon Seed, where a woman is impregnated by a supercomputer.

In the 1980s, digital AIs started to become connected to network computing – where computers “talked” to one another in an early incarnation of what would become the internet – like the one stumbled upon by Matthew Broderick’s high-school student in War Games (1983), who almost accidentally starts a nuclear conflict.

From the 1990s, an AI could move between digital and material realms. In Japanese animation Ghost in the Shell (1995), the Puppet Master exists in the ebb and flow of the internet, but can inhabit “shell” bodies. Agent Smith in The Matrix Revolutions (2003), takes over a human body and materialises in the real world. In Her (2013), the AI operating system Samantha eventually moves beyond matter, beyond the “stuff” of human existence, becoming a post-material being.

Mirrors, doubles and hybrids

In the first few decades of AI film, AI characters mirrored the human characters. In Collosus: The Forbin Project (1970), the AI supercomputer reflects and amplifies the inventor’s own arrogant overreaching ambition. In Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), Sarah Connor has become like the AI Skynet’s Terminators herself: her strength is her armour and she hunts to kill.

By the 2000s, human-AI doubles began to overlap and merge into each other. In Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001), the AI “son” David looks just like a real boy, whereas the real son Martin comes home from hospital connected to tubes and wires that make him look like a cyborg.

In Ex Machina (2014), the human Caleb tests the AI robot Ava, but ends up questioning his own humanness, examining his eyeball for digital traces and cutting his skin to ensure that he bleeds.

In the past 25 years of AI film, the borders between human and AI, digital and material have become porous, emphasising the fluid and hybrid nature of AI creations. And in the films In The Machine (2013), Transcendence (2014) and Chappie (2015), the boundary between human and AI is eroded almost to the point of non-existence. These films present scenarios of transhumanism – in which humans can evolve beyond their current physical and mental constraints by harnessing the power of artificial intelligence to upload the human mind.

Although these stories are imaginary and their characters fictional, they vividly depict our fascinations and fears. We are afraid of artificial intelligence and that fear never goes away in film, although it has been questioned more in recent decades, and more positive portrayals can be observed, such as the little trash-collecting robot in WALL-E. But mostly we are afraid that they will become too powerful, and will seek to become our masters. Or we fear they may hiding among us, and that we might not recognise them.

But at times, too, we feel sympathy towards them: AI characters in films can be pitiful figures who wish to be accepted by humans but never will be. We are also jealous of them – of their intellectual capacity, their physical robustness and the fact that they do not experience human death.

Surrounding this fear and envy is a fascination with AIs that is present throughout film history – we see ourselves in AI creations and project our emotions onto them. At times enemies of humans, at times uncanny mirrors, and sometimes even human-AI hybrids, the past 70 years of films about AI demonstrate the inextricably intertwined nature of human-AI relationships.

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