Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been represented onscreen since 1927 with Metropolis where the main character is replaced at one point with a robotic double.
Since this groundbreaking film these beings have expressed emotions ranging from murderous, compassionate, ephemeral, to something more and more…human.
Let’s review the big names.
HAL in 2001
First appearing in 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL (Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer) is a sentient computer (artificial general intelligence) that controls the systems of the Discovery One spacecraft and interacts with the ship’s astronaut crew.
In addition to maintaining the Discovery One spacecraft systems during the interplanetary mission to Jupiter (or Saturn in the original novel, published shortly after the release of the film).
HAL is capable of speech, speech recognition, facial recognition, natural language processing, lip reading, art appreciation, interpreting emotional behaviors, automated reasoning, and playing chess.
In 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL is initially considered a dependable member of the crew, maintaining ship functions and engaging genially with its human crew-mates on an equal footing. Though it soon becomes clear that the only thing Hal is in love with is killing humans.
The sequence of events and manner in which HAL is shut down differs between the novel and film versions of the story. In the film, astronauts David Bowman and Frank Poole consider disconnecting HAL’s cognitive circuits when he appears to be mistaken in reporting the presence of a fault in the spacecraft’s communications antenna. When Bowman uses another pod to attempt to rescue Poole, HAL locks him out of the ship, then disconnects the life support systems of the other hibernating crew members. Dave begins to revive his hibernating crewmates, but is foiled when HAL vents the ship’s atmosphere into the vacuum of space, killing the awakening crew members and almost killing Bowman, who is only narrowly saved when he finds his way to an emergency chamber which has its own oxygen supply and a spare space suit inside.
Dr. Chandra discovers that HAL’s crisis was caused by a programming contradiction: he was constructed for “the accurate processing of information without distortion or concealment”, yet his orders, directly from Dr. Heywood Floyd at the National Council on Astronautics, required him to keep the discovery of the Monolith TMA-1 a secret for reasons of national security.
First, in contradiction to the book, Heywood Floyd is absolved of responsibility for HAL’s condition; it is asserted that the decision to program HAL with information concerning TMA-1 came directly from the White House.3001: The Final Odyssey Frank Poole was introduced to the merged form of Dave Bowman and HAL, the two merging into one entity called “Halman” after Bowman rescued HAL from the dying Discovery One spaceship towards the end of 2010: Odyssey Two. The film 2001 was criticized for not having any characters, except for HAL and that a great deal of the establishing story on Earth was cut from the film.
Trivia: After the film was released fans noticed HAL was a one-letter shift from the name IBM and there has been much speculation since that this was a dig at the large computer company, something that has been denied by both Clarke and 2001 director Stanley Kubrick.
Bishop from Aliens
Since Hal, AI has existed in various forms in various roles in various movies. In the Aliens’ franchise, there are the synthetics.
Their emotional intelligence ranges from bored to marginally caring and sometimes spiteful and grandiose.
The highest degree of emotion seemingly possible for the synthetics is sibling compassion which Bishop, the artificially intelligent synthetic, shows the main character Ripely and team in Aliens.
I include Bishop in this post because he’s trying so hard to love and be loved.
Data from StarTrek
Data is a character in the fictional Star Trek franchise.
An artificial intelligence and synthetic life form designed and built by Doctor Noonien Soong in his own likeness, Data is a self-aware, sapient, sentient, and anatomically fully functional android who serves as the second officer and chief operations officer aboard the Federation starships USS Enterprise-D and USS Enterprise-E.
Data wants to understand humanity so he can better serve the Enterprise. This goal eventually led to the addition of an “emotion chip”, also created by Soong, to Data’s positronic net.
Data is a successor to the original Star Trek’s Spock; the character offers an “outsider’s” perspective on humanity, even briefly working with Spock in the two-part Next Generation episode, Unification.
Although several androids, robots, and other artificial intelligences were seen in the original Star Trek series, Data was often referred to as being unique in the galaxy as being the only sentient android known to exist.
In the film Star Trek Generations, Data finally installs an emotion chip and experiences the full scope of emotions.
Emotions overwhelm him at first but eventually, he is able to gain complete control of the chip, which includes deactivating it to maintain his performance efficiency.
If you’re talking less compassion and more *real* human love, AI love in more recent films and shows started getting this right.
All(?) the characters from Westworld
In the show WestWorld we’re left continually asking whether the main robotic characters are alive. It’s basically the point of the show.
WestWorld is a theme park for the rich (Jurassic Park with old west flair and people instead of dinosaurs). The town and land are occupied by “hosts”, androids indistinguishable from humans, following pre-defined sets of intertwining narratives, with the ability to deviate from these narratives as visitors interact with them. The hosts repeat these narratives anew each day, having their memories wiped of the previous day until they are repurposed for other narratives or put away in storage for reuse later. Hosts are unable to harm any other living life forms, allowing visitors nearly unlimited freedom to engage in whatever activities they want without retribution. Staff oversee the park, develops new narratives, and performs repairs on hosts as necessary.
Throughout the show, we are keenly aware these characters are robots trying to pass as human making them somehow less human in the process.
Samantha from Her
For me, the most interesting aspect of the AI in the movie Her was the first question she asked of the main character: “How would you describe your relationship with your mother?” It’s fascinating because it really might be the case that one question could uncover so much about who we are as people. How do we express love, regret, indecision, positive feelings? As for indecision, this movie is full of it. The humans here are flawed and the AI companions are trying their best to keep the people happy. It’s a difficult task and large chunks of time are devoted to showing how confused the AI are by people.
In Her the AI are sometimes more relatable than the human characters.
The AI, Samantha, becomes more ghostly and out-of-touch. As she acquires knowledge she tires of her master’s ineptitude. She pities him and in this way pities humanity. Eventually, she ascends to a different plane while the humans are left to ponder their fate…alone.
The AI from Blade Runner 2049
The main character K (a replicant (robot), though basically human) has an AI girlfriend named Joi who is extremely convincing as far as AI are concerned. She obviously cares for K and is desirous of being close to him. You get the impression that she desperately wants him to be happy. But she is a computer program and the implications of this are explored throughout the film in intriguing ways.
Implications of the AI computer program relationship:
- She can be paused;
- She can be upgraded and carried around on other devices;
- She can reason at lightning speed;
- She can’t be killed although the data that made her uniquely her can be erased;
- She cannot physically interact with K. Yet, in one touching scene, she meshes with a female prostitute and consummates her relationship with K. A practice known as sex surrogacy;
- There are other versions of her floating around society.
Of all the characters we have explored thus far I think Joi is the truest representation of how AI relationships with individuals will play out in the future. In how Joi learns to care for K and how together they learn to overcome the obvious limitations of her platform.
Note: In Star Wars franchise the droids often present us with their intelligence and humanity (but they are kept as slaves, very much by design…then again the Star Wars Universe has plenty of slaves of all kinds). However, these droids are almost all seemingly indifferent to romantic love.
Do you have other examples? Post them in the comments!