Anyone who follows recent developments in the world of technology would have noticed that most of the news coming out of the industry revolves around two things: digital currency and artificial intelligence. While the former is a relatively new concept, artificial intelligence – or man’s quest to make sensitive machines – has been represented in pop culture for years in various forms.
One of the earliest events of AI, which is quite common in film, television, and literature now, was in Stanley Kubrick’s Weird and Wonderful 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), based on the eponymous book by Arthur C Clarke. In the film, HAL 9000, an AI responsible for controlling the systems aboard the Discovery One spacecraft, ends up killing the crew members of the ship as a result of a malfunction, and the directives programmed to maintain the information of the equipment aboard the ship, acting surprisingly like a real, human villain – committing cowardly actions for a cause that he believes to be correct. The unpredictability of AI is also addressed in the Terminator series, where the same T-800 robot, portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger as the antagonist in the first film, becomes a savior in the next installments.
Today, many decades after these films launched, this gives rise to a fascinating discussion about what a robot is and what constitutes sensitivity. Robots, at one time, thought to be robust Austrian bodybuilders with metal skeletons, have gone on to become transforming vehicles and rolling robots, while in real life they have adopted in many forms and forms, with driving automobiles own, also said to fall under this support. Isaac Asimov even puts down three laws of robotics, which are decimated by HAL 9000, the Terminator, and probably most of the Transformers.
In the era of smartphones and the cloud, the body shape that houses an AI has become less important, almost non-existent. Ask Tony Stark, the Marvel Universe Filmmaker (MCU) Iron Man is almost entirely dependent on his virtual assistant, Jarvis (who, curiously, was a true physical butler in comics). Even Mass Effect video games see the Normandy spacecraft piloted by EDI, an AI that, fortunately for the player’s character and supporting crew, does not share the murderous intentions of HAL 9000.
Another interesting parallel here is our need to attach a physical form to sensitivity. In MCU, the idea of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner of a hyper-conscious and intelligent surveillance dog acquires a physical manifestation in the form of Ultron killer, and Jarvis himself finds his consciousness contributing to the Sensory android Vision. Mass Effect takes a similar approach with EDI, whose fledgling relationship with the Joker pilot of Normandy is further explored once it adopts an elegant android body of its own.
This analysis of the links between the man and the machine has been made by Spike Jonze in Her, where Joaquin Phoenix can not help but fall by the warm voice of Scarlett Johansson. Here, the exploration is more on the side of Johansson’s AI character, Sam, discovering herself and the world in which she has been created, and goes her own way in life, leaving Phoenix and the public with a bittersweet aftertaste.
Beyond the jokes of the MCU, always useful helpers, exploring the purpose of AI has been an issue that filmmakers have been tackling, with more nuances lately. Domhnall Gleeson has seen this from both sides, as the victim of Ava (Alicia Vikander) seeking the freedom of a laboratory in Ex Machina, and in his emotionless portrait of a dead man resurrected with the remains of his online existence in the Black Mirror episode, ‘I’ll be right back.’ Westworld also penetrated into the psyche of beings driven by man-made intelligence in their quest to find their true self, leaving once again the robotic laws of Asimov poor by the way in the process.
While we are a bit far from creating a Dolores or a T-800, the Jarvises and EDIs are firmly within our reach. Learning the machine is making smartphone wizards on our smartest phone with every passing day – and this may be too much Black Mirror talk – but the push by phone makers to encourage people to take better portraits with dual cameras and recording clearer voice commands with advanced microphones is accelerating the speed with which AIs in the world learn to recognize things.
Somehow, the virtual is bleeding into the real thing as well. Cortana, who began as a computer-generated character and the series of Microsoft Halo games, is now the name of the wizard that comes in modern versions of Windows. AI has long been an interesting narrative angle for creators of virtual worlds, and now our very existence is beginning to reflect its many pages and screens. I just hope they find the right balance between the conflictive existential crisis, the suffering of Sams and the reading of lips, the murderous intention of harboring HAL.happy wheels
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