5 times Hollywood has taken on AI

Artificial intelligence is a staple of many movie plots – and those thrilling stories often revolve around the potential dangers of AI, rather than the good it can do.

Since popular culture plays a part in shaping attitudes about technology, it’s not surprising that questions surrounding AI are informed by what we see in the movies.

People are asking whether we are creating a future that we’ll be able to control, and whether computers will remain accountable to people. This, too, has been the stuff of science fiction in popular films. Here are five times Hollywood has taken on AI.

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2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

HAL 9000 is a super-intelligent computer in charge of the operations of Discovery One, a spaceship undertaking a journey to Jupiter. Hal, as he’s known, has a personality and a human-sounding voice. However, he experiences a severe malfunction and stops listening to the humans he’s assisting in order defend the mission’s programmed directives.

Blade Runner (1982)

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Replicants – humanoid robots that are almost indistinguishable from people – are used for dangerous jobs in this movie. They have a short lifespan, and some have started to rebel in a bid to live longer – no matter what. Blade Runner culminates in a standoff, where the leader of a band of rogue replicants delivers an impassioned monologue on the meaning of life.

Ghost in the Shell (1995 & 2017)

The French philosopher René Descartes believed the human mind was separate from the body – like a ghost in a shell. In this story, people can upgrade their bodies with cybernetic implants. Imagine a smart hearing aid or a prosthetic limb that’s integrated with the nervous system.

But when a scientist embeds an upgraded mind in the form of AI implanted into another person’s body, a conflict emerges. Memories of an unknown life begin to trouble the cyborg. Which internal monologue is the real one?

I, Robot (2004)

It is 2035 and robots are common, acting as servants to people. These robots are guided by the three laws of robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws

Those three laws of robotics were drawn up by Isaac Asimov, who wrote Robot series of short stories and novels in the middle of the 20th century. The first in the series – “I, Robot” – was the inspiration for the movie.

The movie considers what happens when a robot is suspected of committing murder, and what it means when a robot claims to have its own thoughts and dreams.

Ex Machina (2014)

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This is another movie where robots can be hard to differentiate from humans and have developed their own sense of self.

A computer programmer, Caleb Smith, spends time with a sociopathic robot creator, Nathan, and a robot, Ava. Nathan wants Caleb to help conduct a live Turing test – he wants to know if Caleb can be fooled by Ava.

Caleb and Ava form an emotional attachment. Not only does she resemble a human in form, but in her speech and mannerisms, too. After convincing himself that Nathan is a malevolent presence, Caleb plots to help Ava escape.

While all these movies are set as fiction, the questions they raise are real. We should be asking hard questions about the technology we create. Can we control it? Who will it impact and how?  And perhaps instead of asking what technology can do, asking what technology should do. For example, AI can benefit the world in many ways including enhancing efficiency in the workplace, assisting in saving languages, preserving history and helping save the environment.

When it comes to AI, the benefits are real, but so are the risks. Tech companies have a responsibility to ensure products are developed responsibly, employ transparency and be guided by a principled approach. However, governments and civil society have an important role to play as well. It’s critical that we all work together to ask the hard questions and develop the right answers.

The New York Times Best Seller “Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age” by Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne looks at the impact of AI, the rise of cyberattacks, threats to digital privacy and more. Order it here.