The idea of automated beings able to think for themselves goes all the way back to ancient times, when stories of Greek and Western mythology told of living statues and dragon’s teeth coming to life as sentient or subservient beings. Some of the earliest ideas about robots in the mechanical sense began when the Industrial Revolution spawned a technological tidal wave, prompting people to realize automated machines could be possible. However, from the beginning there has been a negative aspect to the idea of free-thinking artificial life in literature and movies, which has led to perhaps an apathy in modern depictions.
One of the earliest novels to be considered science fiction was the classic Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Published in 1818, the story tells of a man made of mechanical and human parts brought to life by a mad scientist. Although not possessing many of the characteristics of modern robots and A.I., the story immediately set the tone for the way artificial life was depicted in literary and pop culture. As in Frankenstein, some of the earliest stories and films portrayed them as things to fear and destroy. This theme has become synonymous with artificial life and intelligence, and is often used in film. Man vs. Machine is a literary theme taught in English and creative writing classes the world over.
Modern film history is full of notable and famous evil or flawed artificial intelligences/robots. The robots in 1927’s Metropolis, one of the earliest depictions of real robots in film, told a story about robots in a factory turning on their human masters. Gort, the menacing giant mechanical being in 1951’s The Day The Earth Stood Still nearly killed his master’s girlfriend before she could spit out the command to make him stop. HAL 9000, the A.I. turned murderous in 2001: A Space Odyssey, became the first electronic schizophrenic when he murdered his human coworkers because of a logic flaw. The T-800 cyborg from The Terminator wanted only the destruction of human Sara Connor. JOSHUA from WarGames tried to play global thermonuclear war with the world; for real. And who could forget the frightening red droid Maximillian in Disney’s original Black Hole? That was one of the robots that actually scared me when I saw him on screen as a kid.
Probably one of the best modern television shows about Man vs. Machine is Battlestar Galactica, created in 2003 and based off an earlier series. In it the evil Cylon robots have launched an all out war of genocide against their human makers but they are also religious, capable of love, and even procreation, evolving into something more than just machines. An overriding technophobia is depicted on the show as well, in that the crew of the Galactica are wary of computer networks and high technology that could be usurped or sabotaged by the enemy.
The earliest literature about modern robots appeared in the 1920s, but the idea of artificial life goes back even further. Homer wrote about maidens made of gold in the Iliad, and Steam Man of the Prairies, written in 1865, tells about a mechanical man powered by steam. Issac Asimov made a huge impact on it’s depiction in his Robots series of short stories and novels beginning in the early 1950s, where the word robotics was first used in print. Although he didn’t vilify A.I. he did explore several moral and philosophical issues in his stories, which usually centered around the Three Laws of Robotics and a robots ability to obey them. The first one warns that a robot should never allow a human to come to harm through action or inaction. It’s this primary moral issue that is the theme of many of Asimov’s stories, and some of them included robots turning on their human overseers.
In literature, evil A.I. has also become part of other genres outside of science fiction, such as the novel The Dark Tower by Stephen King, in which an A.I. called Blaine the Mono is met by the main characters. He controls the rail system and the city of Lud. Although not belligerent, he is not that helpful and the heroes must figure out how he works in order to control him. There is also the novel Demon Seed, which is a horror story involving an A.I. that attempts to take over the world and impregnate a human female. It was also later made into a film that ended with the birth of the baby. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, androids are not permitted on Earth and the main character is a bounty hunter charged with eliminating them. The film Blade Runner starring Harrison Ford was loosely based on it.
Geeks love it
Those who aren’t bothered by the possibility of true A.I. are the scientists who are currently studying and working on them. People who tend to embrace or work heavily with technology are also more open to the idea of intelligent systems. It’s the general public, who’s only real association with artificial intelligence is what they see in films and books, that is likely to have the most negative perception. However if popular culture has made a menace of the idea in the minds of common people, how will they be able to accept true A.I. when and if it does appear?
It’s possible that we may see early robots and A.I. purposefully made only as smart as say, a five year old child, so that some form of control can be maintained. Certainly when the age of robots begins to appear and they’re integrated into daily life, different aspects of human society are not going to warm up to the idea at first. Asimov wrote a story about that very thing in That Thou Art Mindful Of Him in which the main manufacturer of robots tries to introduce them on Earth.
So how are we going to be able to create true A.I. if we are afraid of the outcome? Will this hold us back from reaching that goal? Will we only be able to go so far because we fear the consequences? If the public’s perception of advanced A.I. makes them technophobic, how will it ever be accepted?
On A Positive Note
There’s much to be said about the positive side to the debate as well. Many benign A.I. and robots made famous in films and literature also abound. Often these take on the form of friendly entities that assist their human masters. The droids from the legendary Star Wars series, R2-D2 and C-3PO, come to mind. The saga’s creator George Lucas himself always claimed that R2 was the biggest hero of his 6 films, pointing out that he is always there to rescue someone or save the day. At the same time, we were introduced to an evil cyborg in Episode III with the character General Grievous, which points out a curious trend for including a bad robot/A.I. if there is a good one.
The 1986 film Short Circuit introduced Johnny Five, the robot that comes to life after being struck by lightning. He is probably one of the most memorable friendly robots in pop culture, as most can’t forget his signature line “Number Five is alive!!” and his adventures trying to stay that way despite an army hot on his trail bent on his destruction.
In Asimov’s novel The Caves of Steel, a robot named R. Daneel Olivaw assists a human detective in solving a murder. The two characters would become the writer’s favorite antagonists. The B-9 robot from Lost In Space faithfully warned the Robinson family of danger and protected them. Marvin the Paranoid Android in the novel Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy helped his friends, although annoyed them with his depressive personality. The book also had other notable A.I. like Eddie , the starship Heart of Gold’s computer , and Deep Thought, the supercomputer that frustrated a galaxy with his enigmatic answer to life, the universe, and everything – 42.
Television brought us notables like Max Headroom, the A.I. that roamed a futuristic television network. Lieutenant Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation was one of the first androids in Trekdom. And who could forget Ziggy, the supercomputer that aided Dr. Sam Beckett on Quantum Leap.
Arguably, as far as entertainment value goes the evil ones are easier to remember. But although the bad guys in movies are always more fun because of their deviousness and the fact that they’re not real, a negative message has been spread throughout culture for decades. The bright side of this is that there will always be some people willing to push the boundaries of fear, imagination, and impossibility. However, both professionals and hobbyists in the industry feel that A.I.’s image is just fine and that the negative perceptions in pop culture haven’t harmed it.
AI Will Evolve
“Hollywood is the greatest advertisement for A.I. and robotics in history. The problem is with academic scientists and engineers not living up to the public’s expectations. A system like ALICE, which has won the award for coming closest to passing the Turing Test, could never be built in a University research lab. The pressure to be politically correct and to confine one’s research to the areas approved by the establishment, not to mention the scale in years and manpower, would prohibit any kind of believable A.I.. from emerging from a University, or any government-funded research lab.” says Dr. Rich Wallace, inventor of ALICE /AIML and chairman of the ALICE A.I. Foundation.
“One of the biggest obstacles to human acceptance of chat robots is suspension of disbelief. A child can have more fun with a bot than an adult, because the kid will forgive the bot when it breaks down and gives an incorrect answer. Adults, especially highly educated ones, will tend to be more critical of the bot’s mistakes. There is actually a tension between part of people who want bots to be like superintelligent machines, always accurate, truthful, and precise; versus the part of us that wants robots to be more human, which means something like the opposite: sloppy, lying, funny, hypnotic, charismatic, and maybe sometimes truthful and accurate. Robots might be telling us to get over ourselves.”
The march of progress may be a factor as well, since like all technology A.I. research continually moves forward. And similar to other technological advances, it will do so without regard to the public’s perception of it. Many of the most famous inventions of our time were once looked upon as useless, dangerous, or just plain unacceptable.
“Moreover, technology has a kind of determinism, or at least a natural course of evolution, that appears to skip over the minds of individual inventors, despite their egos and individual passions. So I don’t think you could do much to help or hurt the advancement of anything by manipulating public perception, not for very long anyway.” Dr. Wallace says.
A recent Botworld poll showed an overwhelming 73% did not think pop culture has hurt the image of A.I. Botmasters and users did feel that there were lots of negative images in pop culture, but that it wouldn’t stop advancement even though the majority agree that fear could hurt research. Some also feel that A.I. will only be as evil as it’s creator. Hmmm, bots don’t kill people, people kill people?
“I just think most do not know about A.I. so the general masses would take pop culture as truth and be afraid of it. But there are others that even though they do not know all about A.I. can take it as it is and realize that it is still Hollywood and TV which does not always give a true, decisive picture of what is reality. ” says Lili., an avid bot user and chairwoman of the Marzbot fan club. “And there are the movies that make it seem like robots will take over, like those with the ability to update themselves and learn. Although that can be a little scary, if WE are the smarter ones, that should never happen.”
“The idea of futuristic robots taking over the earth has been a topic of converse for decades. I think the public has learned that any pop culture which attempts to give A.I. a negative image is purely fictional, and that A.I. can be used for things like marketing, learning, and household-help.” says Darkmonkey, creator of the popular White Warrior series of bot templates.
So it would seem many don’t think a bad image will hurt the advancement of AI, but everyone agrees there is a negativity that has been implanted in public consciousness. Perhaps though, this will help us be more careful of all the consequences we know can happen, thanks mostly to the enduring image of artificial intelligence pop culture has given us.