A.I.’s Depiction in the Movies: from foe to family member

Martin Pahulje
Storyworld
Published in
4 min readApr 27, 2018

--

The majority of the depictions of artificial intelligence throughout Hollywood history haven’t been all that reassuring. Story after story warns us that anything we artificially create will eventually turn on us and be our ultimate undoing as an act of hubris and morality.

Starting with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927, movies have seeded fear and caution regarding artificial beings and their limitless intelligence and abilities. This was the first time an AI being was represented on screen and any subsequent examples of these beings were also represented as threats to the film’s protagonists, and by extension, all of humanity. The unknown potential of an artificial life reflects our fears and inadequacies, because we’ve placed ourselves in direct conflict with them.

All these memes will be lost in time, like tears in rain.

This plot device placing AI as the antagonist and ultimate failure/fate of humanity in films such as Terminator, Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey, demonstrates the perils of playing God and trying to push the limits of humanity.

The fear that we’ll be deemed dispensable by machines — emotionlessly calculating ones and zeros — was a sentiment reflected through some of these movies. This was most represented in the two predominant depictions of malevolent AI on screen; the type that has a secret mission at the cost of humanity and/or to save humanity from ourselves through a selected culling (2001, The Terminator, Alien, I, Robot), or the kind that retaliates against our abuse towards them with violence (Blade Runner).

What muddies the water, however, is that these depictions were never 100% black or white. For example, HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, isn’t simply a homicidal AI, but a program stuck in an endless loop. Logically, he has to eliminate the variables to ensure his mission isn’t compromised and yet, when he’s in danger of being shut down by a human, he pleads, expresses fear then sings a song as he’s dying. In that moment, we can’t help but feel some pangs of remorse for his demise.

The same goes for the Terminator in T2 with his thumbs up gesture as he destroys himself for the greater good, and Roy Batty’s poetic speech before he dies in Blade Runner. We’re meant to both fear and empathize with these doomed machines, creating a sense of confusion.

Hey Alexa, How’s the future of the job market looking?

Today, the science fiction of AI has become science fact. We have artificially created intelligence behind Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant and even Netflix. We’ve invited them into our phones, our offices, our cars and even our homes. They have human names and tell adorable jokes. Far from the murderous machines of yesteryear, this AI is helpful and quirky and part of our daily lives.

Our growing ease with AI over the recent decades has seeped it’s way into modern narratives where we see more humanized machines that are less foreboding and more docile robot companions. Think Her’s Samantha, A.I.’s David and Moon’s GERTY. Amazon’s Alexa even comforts a character in the series Mr. Robot as she grapples with her loneliness due to being married to her work.

Instead of placing us in conflict with the machines, we’ve been slowly lulled towards a sense of synchronicity with them. Rather than threatening to render humans extinct, we are using them to help us. Of course, the anxiety over AI taking our jobs is still omnipresent, but that’s a far cry better than mass extinction.

Google suggestions when you start typing “will robots..”

Who knows what the future will bring as AI advances and we advance with it, but if today’s pop culture depictions are any indication of how we are faring with this change we are likely to see more Wall-E-types of harmonious interactions rather than hostile Terminator-type ones.

--

--

Martin Pahulje
Storyworld

A film-theory loving McLuhanist who writes about movies, tech and the funny sides of life.