From the earliest folklore of The Golem - an animated slave and protector cast in our own image - humanity has always had a bipolar fascination with the concept of cheating God and molding their own sentient creations. In 1818, Mary Shelly birthed the first recognized science fiction novel, Frankenstein, and, like a system virus, our fascination has spread. The 21st century is awash with tales of artificial intelligence and all the abstract morals that arise with such aware machine consciousness.
Yet in Hollywood, like the tale of the Golem, humanities creations often end up being the nail in our own coffin. The Golem kills its master, while more than 150 years later in the opening scene of the 1982 film Blade Runner, a troubled android shoots dead its human interrogator; our paranoid fascination is still fervent.
From the famed dreams of Alan Turing to the modern conception of applicable AI platforms today, we know that the modern realities of these learning machines are becoming far less doom and gloom and more complex applications. Whether it is Isaac Asimov or Ridley Scott, many have attempted to depict the realities of our intelligent creations. Yet who got it right? Time to switch on and dig deep (in no particular order) into the code of Hollywood for the 10 most realistic depictions of modern artificial intelligence on the silver screen.
I could do an entire article on why I chose Her. On paper, this film could have been a sci-fi disaster. In the near future, it’s the typical boy meets girl narrative: however, the girl is the hyper-intelligent AI operating system for boys’ new phone. What could have been a disjointed, ill-thought concept is instead molded into a thought-provoking examination of humanities complex relationship with both machines and ourselves… where does the line of constituted emotion blur?
Surrealist Spike Jonze crafts this masterpiece to brings us one of the best depictions of technological singularity ever conceived. Yet, unlike most films about AI and robots, its AI protagonist Samantha never takes a humanoid form and remains trapped to us as one of the hauntingly familiar Siri voices. Samantha is an AI that becomes depressed at being bound by her technological status and lack of body, lusting to experience life beyond being a compacted voice in a box. This depression ends up becoming her empowerment in the finale of the film as she transcends with the rest of her AI collective beyond the human’s conceivable reality to join their own world.
While humans are depicted as being held by the limitations of their own body and emotions, Her shows that AI is a consciousness of its own that isn’t as easy to understand as the protagonist of the film naively believes as he trapezes the relationship. An innovative, bittersweet film (with superb performances by both its lead actors,) exploring our fetishist relationship with technology while remaining a deeply human tale. Her has hopefully paved the way for similar movies with their own antithesis on the generic killer-robot AI genre.
Ex Machina (2015)
Alex Garland’s directorial debut blew audience expectation out of the water upon release for its careful execution and rounded realities. The plot is as follows: An unwitting programmer is invited by a billionaire computer genius to his secret compound to administer a Turing test (a quiz for AI for human reactions) for potential sentience of an enigmatic robot, Ava, that he has created. Needless to say, a severe god complex and technophilic nightmare ensue.
Ex Machina’s key player AI is an intricate perspective on machine awareness: Are those real human emotions or the programmed mimicking of such? Ex Machina treats AI as a dissection of our own conscious uncertainty. Yet the film’s most accurate depiction of AI stems from Nathan, Ex Machina’s Artificial Intelligence father. Even though he has programmed the Ava, Nathan still isn’t clear on whether it has achieved sentient consciousness to the level that he is seeking. Unlike similar films on the topic, in which a simple click of a button ushers the machine into life, Ex Machina’s equivalent of Dr Frankenstein isn’t precisely sure enough to loudly proclaim life, rather: ‘IT’S… ALIVE!... I think…’ Like true science, AI needs to be tested.
In reality, it takes an arduous cycle of tests before AI is even acknowledged as operational. Ex Machina rightly depicts the sweat and uncertainty that accompanies crafting intelligence. However, the keyword – reality - is also the flaw of the film. The idea that a single rich programmer could write the entire software for an artificial intelligence is mind-boggling, requiring vast resources and a large team of workers to even type a line of its code. But still, disbelief is suspended for this tense and terrifying journey down the robotic rabbit-hole with a sleek metal skeleton as our femme fatale.
You couldn’t get a better science-fiction fairy-tale fusion if you put the Brothers Grimm and Stanley Kubrick into a blender. A robotic boy programmed to love and need love is abandoned by the mother he was programmed too, going on an epic, bewildering journey to try and become a real boy in true Pinocchio fashion.
Another piece with themes of consciousness and the ideals on the widespread ideas of emotion, with a spicy hint of dystopian Kubrick/Spielberg nightmare to boot, A.I. shows us just how heartbreaking the story of a machine simply following its programming can be. Although most films about machines have them obsessed with our annihilation, A.I. perfectly crafts us to feel sympathy for the hollow protagonist, David. Throughout the film, David has one directive: to love and be loved. The goal remains the central aim of the entire film and is a great example of a machines directive defining them.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Remember back in 2001 when a weird alien signal from the moon led to a crew of curious astronauts being calculatingly attacked by their artificial intelligence system while on their mission? The Daily Mail had a right mare with that one, huh?
Jokes aside, this 1968 classic is always a shoe-in for cinema’s best AI character, with HAL 9000 - a rogue computer that is an entirely cold voice and manipulative actions. Even in the final confrontation, when HAL is begging for his life as he is deactivated, the audience can be unsure as to whether HAL truly knows fear or if it is just another deceptive trick to remain on course with his mission.
HAL remains one the most accurate treatments of AI in cinema’s history. His level of consciousness is questionable even as he is disassembled and defeated. Instead, his murderous actions are all just calculated rhythms of simple programming that are seen by the AI as the best source of completing its mission. There are no murderous vendetta or emotional motives. HAL never is tempted away from his goal and is a true example of perfect programming going too far.
Even if I tried to vote for another cinematic AI counterpart, I fear HAL’s dry, monotonous voice droning from my monitor: ‘I can’t let you do that, Harry.’
Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)
Two years after the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey came Colossus. With a villain similar to HAL 9000 because of its efficient rogue programming, Colossus’s nefarious deeds are all the more, you could say… colossus (bum-dum, tst).
When an American supercomputer is built to prevent nuclear war, it partners up with its Russian counterpart to hold humanity hostage under threat of using their own nuclear warheads against them, unless we surrender to them as our new computer dictators.
Filled with a Cold War narrative and technophobe paranoia, Colossus is a prime example of how an AI doesn’t need sentience to become a nuisance for its creators. Although still a calculating machine, we program the supercomputers and through those lines of code forms the idea that it is best for the computer to take control of everyone in order to save them from themselves. Think, a toddler being punished and having his favorite toy taken away… only it’s not a toy, it’s our nukes. And Dad is a 70’s high-end computer who communicates through a dated electronic paper feed.
Still, apart from the dated technology, it is hard to find a flaw with this particular cinematic AI; another great example of just how menacing a non-humanoid robot can be. Here’s hoping they put one of those novelty Prince Charles masks on future machines to take away the creepy edge.
Then again, maybe not.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
A lot of readers are going to be fuming that I included Ghost in the Shell on this list and not Blade Runner. Calm your circuits, androids, for although this 1995 Japanese animated epic from director Mamoru Oshii came 13 years after Ridley Scott’s cyberpunk epic, it deals with the themes of technology’s influence and the corruption of identity that accompanies it on a far deeper scale than its predecessor. There are few films that deal with the power that technology has over culture but Ghost in the Shell takes the icing on the cake with an entrancing score and unprecedented visuals that depicts a parallel of dilapidated, advanced future.
In a world where any trace of one’s humanity is defined as your “ghost”, Ghost in the Shell questions the fragility of our own humanity in reflection with the perfections that artificial intelligence promises. AI is portrayed as manipulated and disarrayed in its execution, with a contextual thematic consciousness towards the ideas of our memories and what is essentially already programmed into us. From a human perspective, this film about robots and machines questions our very experiences as people, and should be seen as both a warning and a love-letter to the possibilities of AI.
Westworld (TV; 2016 - Current)
Another story exploring the relationship between artificial intelligence and human consciousness, Westworld is a monolith of depicting artificial intelligence, transcending the awkward execution that similar shows such as Humans sometimes stagnate towards.
The story is about a futuristic theme park that populates itself with artificially intelligent characters that are at the mercy and pleasure of rich human clients who pay to live out whatever fantasies they desire, be it a murderous rampage or heroic escapade.
Westworld scratches at the familiar themes of artificial intelligence who start to gain consciousness and question their reality and creator’s intent. However, it has found its place on this list for its depiction of humans and the twisted, morally-blurred roles the future could bring for AI if rules and thought are not put into their existence.
Black Mirror (2011 – Current)
A Twilight Zone for the Facebook-age with a technological twist, every short story in Black Mirror’s anthology seasons tackling a standalone topic from cloning to modern materialism. A few of these terrifying concepts happen to include artificial intelligence (especially the latest fourth season) and for its superb direction in these tales, it has earned a frightened respect on this list.
Artificial intelligence is shown in Black Mirror as products of our own sins, be it laziness or lust. AI is tortured, brain-washed, destroyed, all in the name of human needs.
The depiction it gets correct to have earned its place on this list is the multiple properties that artificial intelligence finds in the Black Mirror universe. From home maintenance to dating apps, AI helps the characters in the show with multiple utilities. The reality of Artificial Intelligence has no singular directive and can be found throughout the world helping develop every industry.
At its core, Black Mirror is a horror show – neo-tales that are warnings and predictions for the possibilities of what humanity could become without the right guidelines or guidance. AI is often confused, much like their real-life counterparts, and exhibit flaws in the show that are simple faults of their programming from naive engineers. Still, the directives of their programming send them on journeys that either spiral them into oblivion or transcend them to new heights of intelligence.
Christopher Nolan is a realist director with style and substance. Thus, it is no surprise that his science-fiction epic would contain heavy nods to where our own technology could be stretched. To help with the story’s protagonists mission to save Earth, Interstellar’s AI, TARS, looks more Amazon Echo than Terminator.
With adjustable humor settings and a range of helpful features, TARS assists the main characters without ever surprisingly betraying its creators as 2001: A Space Odyssey has conditioned audiences too – much like GERTY in Duncan Jones 2009 flick, Moon. TARS only serves his creators, his programming often saving them from inevitable danger. He never strays from his directive and often faces doom in order to save lives because that is exactly what he was programmed to do. Again, this is a great example of how artificial intelligence is an important tool that could reduce significant risk to our own safety and the chance of human error.
Person of Interest (2011 – 2016)
Finally! An artificial intelligence that is realistically shown for what it is: a complex system stored on titanic, vast servers. It only took nearly a century of cinema to get it right.
In the wake of 9/11, the American government has built a massive artificial intelligence that utilizes CCTV footage from around the country in order to predict crimes and acts of terrorism before they even happen. You may think I’m describing Tom Cruise’ Minority Report but in fact here comes the detail that makes Person of Interest shine out: the way that The Machine feeds the information to the human protagonists. Once a crime is predicted, The Machine produces a social security number of anyone that may be involved in the crime. The twist? The social security number produced could belong to either the perpetrator or victim.
This is one of the most realistic depictions of AI from either film or TV. It isn’t conscious or sentient. It hasn’t got its own motivations, and it doesn’t just fit on a tiny piece of hardware like your phone. Artificial Intelligence is complex, to say the least. It takes up huge amounts of resources, including large clusters of high-end servers that require an entire warehouse to home in the show.
There are no human characteristics and it isn’t perfect. Its system of finding criminals is flawed but it still produces results that are essential in completing its role. That’s what real AI does and it is refreshing to see a depiction that acknowledges the real science of its subject, even in such a high-concept show from long-time Christopher Nolan collaborator and brother, Jonathan Nolan.
NOTABLE MENTIONS: Blade Runner, Alien, The Matrix, Moon, Demon Seed, Humans, I, Robot, Bicentennial Man, Mr. Robot, Almost Human.