“For our policemen, we created a race of robots,” the Alien Klaatu tells a crowd of fear-stricken earthlings in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Robots like “Gort,” we are told, were made to patrol the galaxy to preserve civility. “Your choice is simple,” Klaatu tells us. “Join us, and live in peace…or pursue your present course, and face obliteration.”
Perhaps some readers would be quick to dismiss this as ham-fisted Cold War genre pulp. The reality, though, is that paranoia surrounding the misuse of technology is at all an time high, and popular fiction reflects this today as much as it did in 1951. Robots have been around for a while now. Movies like Ex Machina confirm that they’re just as creepy as ever. Movies like Chappie also help confirm that the robots still provide a useful foil for exposing what makes people creepy.
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It’s interesting to note how these sci-fi films have evolved since the early days of cinema. One iconic sci-fi film, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, is cited as a perfect example of Cold War attitudes towards artificial intelligence, technology, and the fear of the unknown that comes with it. Most science fiction movies of the 1950s and 1960s focused on the negative impacts that technology, especially artificial intelligence, would bring to the world, due in large part to looming nuclear threats. Fear of the unknown capabilities of technology also resonates in the 1951 classic The Day The Earth Stood Still as well as it’s 2008 remake.
Part of what is so interesting now is that technology has never felt like more of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, life has never been easier thanks to home automation, digital resources for conducting research, Facebook, and apps that let you order cheeseburgers late at night. On the other hand, you have data leaks, governmental agencies mining said data leaks, drones, device hacking…are iPhones, in essence, merely the “telescreens” foretold by George Orwell in 1984? We are increasingly becoming aware of how artificial intelligence has revamped society as a whole. Perhaps the scariest part of these films is that some of them don’t seem too far fetched.
One of the upcoming films that is, however, a bit far fetched is Avengers: Age of Ultron. The latest in Marvel’s franchise blends heroes and heroines from old comic books and makes them battle a robot with incredibly advanced artificial intelligence bent on destroying humanity. For a summer blockbuster, the film makes an interesting, and incredibly timely argument about the great responsibilities that comes along with the creation and use of AI. What’s more, it muses about the dangers of equipping machinery to be entirely autonomous. In contrast, another film soon to be released in the US (details here), Ex Machina explores the inner workings of one artificially intelligent being and answers the question of what could happen if an AI became self aware and capable of feeling emotions, such as love and scorn. So in the case of Ultron, you’ve got the robot externalizing his anger, and with Machina, the robots are internalizing it. In both cases, attention is called to the cruelty of people.
And then you’ve got Chappie, which goes a bit further in emphasizing the fact that an AI could have the same emotions that a human being has and could be taught to protect and respect all life forms. It is interesting to note that this movie’s premise, much like a foreigner in a strange land, involves Chappie learning that some people are afraid of him. Director Neill Blomkamp’s premise feels like an on-the-nose, timely message considering the ongoing immigration battles here in the U.S., and the fact that what makes humans more interesting than robots, is that human behavior and human emotions are informed largely by the environments that we grow up in.
This fear drives people to reject and try to stop the changes from coming. 2001: A Space Odyssey is often referenced as a warning of what could happen if an artificially intelligent being became self aware. But even more than that, it’s about duality: is innovation ultimately our salvation as a species, or will it prove to be our undoing?
It goes without saying at this point that there are definitely negative aspects to artificial intelligence. Jobs have been lost due to the prevalence of machines and operating systems that can do the tasks humans used to do, and do them quicker and more efficiently. However, this is only part of the problem. Improvements in regular tasks have been going on since the turn of the last century and even earlier. The industrial revolution, which served as the basis for Fritz Lang’s famous 1927 film Metropolis, redefined the way products are made; from cars to clothes to food, all with technology, putting jobs on the line as machines took over. And there are many aspects about the film that we could learn from today: namely, that we need to be conscientious about how we, as a species, use technology. And perhaps there is a nugget of wisdom from Lang’s abysmal vision-of-the-future-from-the-past: “the mediator between the head and hands must be the heart.”