9 Movies about best and worst of AI

It is hard to believe but the world of cinema has always exhibited cutting-edge insights into the world of AI. I am talking about the times long gone by when the phrase Artificial Intelligence (AI) wasn’t thrown around as recklessly as it is now.

In the year 1927, the Austrian-born American filmmaker Fritz Lang directed the first feature-length, science fiction movie called Metropolis. Despite the fact that it was a silent movie, Metropolis became a pioneer of the genre. Critics called it prophetic beyond belief.

Lang’s film is also important in the sense that it was the first to ever depict a humanoid robot.

From Metropolis’ Maria to Her’s Samantha, AI in movies has come a long way. In this post, I am going to list down 9 movies that have either confirmed our worst fears about superior intelligence or have painted best-case scenarios where both AI and humanity could co-exist.

1) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

American Film Institute calls Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece the best sci-fi movie ever made. Just like Fritz Lang, Kubrick had a genius for accurate prediction of future technologies. You can see slick specimens of iPads and video-conferencing in the movie.

However, what captured the audience’s fancy was the AI onboard the starship called HAL 9000. Touted as the most advanced computer ever built, HAL turns evil when it starts doubting the capability of the fellow astronauts to carry out a mission.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000. Pic courtesy: www.imdb.com

HAL decides to abandon its human counterparts by any means necessary. In a chilling scene, it declares to one of the central characters, “This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.” 

HAL displays touch-higher intelligence than humans as it runs rings around the crew of two. But its reign seems limited to the ship. Far from a superintelligent entity, HAL turns out to be a gatekeeper AI whose main job is to protect the mission even at the expense of humans.

Level: Narrow AI 
Behavior towards Humans: Malevolent

2. Bladerunner (1982)

Scott Ridley’s Bladerunner took Fritz Lang’s creation and cranked it several notches up.

The humanoids (robots with human skin) depicted in Bladerunner have their own consciousness. However, they are easily distinguishable from humans due to their lack of emotional response and more so via the help of Voigt-Kampff test.

The replicants in the movie were menacing and intelligent but they weren’t exactly something humans could not dispose of as the climactic sequences also depicted.

Level: Human-level AI
Behavior towards Humans: Mixed Bag

3. The Terminator (1984)

Though the future events of James Cameroon movie were based in 2029, I don’t think we need to worry about being chased by cybernetic organisms just as yet.

The main antagonist of the Terminator franchise is not the Cyborg with a full metal endoskeleton and the data vision, but the Skynet – the nasty AI network.

Skynet over the years has become synonymous with the malevolent side of AI. In the movie, Skynet was originally activated by the military to control the nuclear arsenal. Within days, it starts to learn at a geometric rate and gains self-awareness.

When humans learn of its insurmountable abilities, they try to shut it down. Skynet perceives this an attack and launches a devastating strike against mankind.

The Skynet is what Professor Max Tegmark calls in his book Life 3.0 as ‘Conqueror AI’. Conqueror AI would decimate the mankind as it considers them a threat and waste of resources.

Level: Superhuman AI
Behavior towards Humans: Malevolent

4. The Matrix (1999-2003)

No other movie has both enthralled and confounded me as much as ‘The Matrix’ did. Created by the Wachowskis, the movie sets out in a dystopian scenario when a Superintelligent AI has conquered over the mankind and all the human resistance has been quelled.

The AI harnesses the enslaved humanity for its energy requirements. The machines have plugged the subjugated humans into the matrix – a simulated reality with undertones of cyberpunk.

The Architect
The Architect in Matrix. Pic courtesy: www.youtube.com

The highly specialized AI in the movie is called the Architect. You may remember the old man with numerous TV screens. As the chief administrator of the system, he is possibly a collective manifestation, or at the very least a virtual representation of the entire Machine mainframe.

Level: Superhuman AI
Behavior towards Humans: Malevolent

5. Resident Evil (2002-16)

Resident Evil is my favourite sci-fi horror franchise. In the seven instalments of the franchise, Alice – the main protagonist – eliminated several enemies, but two always seemed to come back: Albert Wesker and the Red Queen.

In the Resident Evil franchise, Red Queen is the AI supercomputer built by the Umbrella Corporation. It matches the humans in terms of intelligence, outwits them many times, but stays strictly within the directive-laden framework and physical boundaries of the Umbrella Corporation. That’s a bit dumb, not on the part of the Red Queen, but on the part of the director.

Finally, the Red Queen AI turns out to be an improved version of HAL, only twice as much more sinister.

Level: Narrow AI 
Behavior towards Humans: Malevolent

6. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

As a film-lover, I think A.I. is one of Steven Spielberg’s most underrated movies.

The movie tells the story of a time when humanoid robots live amongst us. They are programmed to show human emotions and are even capable of subjective experiences – fields that the current day AI research is struggling with.

What the movie does well is that it answers the moot question if humans will ever be able to co-exist with intelligent machines, especially when non-biological life reaches the realm of superintelligence.

The climax of the movie depicts a scenario where all the human species has gone extinct. The non-biological intelligent life has taken over. It has the capability to nano-assemble humans, indicating its God-like powers.

Spielberg reveals the future AI as our descendants rather than our tormentors – a rare feat in Hollywood where most creative people have a fixation with all AI being evil.

Level: Superhuman AI
Behavior towards Humans: Benevolent

7. Her (2013)

A broken man falls in love with an AI operating system. That’s the strange yet charming premise of Her.

The movie is set up in a not-too-distant future when the world of computing boosted by Moore’s law has led to human-level artificial intelligence. The AI, Samantha, appears to have aced the Turing test since from the moment Theo installs the OS, she captivates him with her ability to learn and grow at an enormous pace.

heodore Twombly played by Joaquin Phoenix installing the OS Samantha
Theodore Twombly played by Joaquin Phoenix installing the OS Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) Pic courtesy: www.analyticsindiamag.com

Samantha is programmed to like our protagonist. Her deep neural networks accelerate her learning of the human behavior and emotions and soon Samantha starts to exhibit the simulation of emotions, too.

There is a beautiful moment in the movie when Samantha, the AI OS playfully mischievously declares to her human lover, “I can understand how the limited perspective can look to the non-artificial mind.” 

Her turns the spotlight on how the existence of AI might affect the relationships and the society as a whole.

Level: Human-level AI 
Behavior towards Humans: Benevolent

8. Transcendence (2014)

Transcendence was panned by the critics worldwide. Some called it a B-movie with hipster pretensions, others called it a banal sci-fi slog.

I thought the film was a stunning piece of work. It walked the delicate path between paranoia and technological utopianism quite well.

The central character, Dr Will Caster, played in the movie by Johnny Depp dies. His bereaved wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) decides to upload his consciousness to a quantum computer, a process also called Whole brain emulation (WBE) or brain uploading

Evelyn makes the mistake of connecting the uploaded Will to the Internet, thus inadvertently helping him break out of the simulated reality of the computer into the vast cyberspace. As a computer-based intelligence now, Dr Will Caster gains superhuman abilities.

The movie emphasises that the concept of superhuman AI may sound far-fetched, but is quite possible. To this effect, the famous UK-based AI scientist Stuart Russell asserts, “AI researchers must take seriously the possibility that their research might actually succeed and must do their utmost to ensure that their work benefits rather than endanger their own species.”

Level: Superhuman AI
Behavior towards Humans: Mixed Bag

9. Ex_Machina (2015)

Ava in Ex Machina
Ava in Ex Machina, pic courtesy: www.neondystopia.com

Ex Machina boasts of some of the marvellous SFX ever seen in this genre. The female-looking android in the movie is an order of magnitude more evolved than Sophia – the real humanoid robot developed by Hanson Robotics of Hong Kong.

The climactic sequence of the movie left me a little disturbed and it stuck with me for some time. I could not get a handle on it. Was it the guileful portrayal of the humans or the unsettling scenario where an intelligent AI tricks humans into doing something stupid to achieve its own goals?

Ava, the female-looking AI-fueled robot outmanoeuvre humans and reinforces the fears of many AI researchers that aligning the goals of advanced AI with ours could turn out to be a Sisyphean task.

That’s why many AI scientists such as Ray Kurzweil and Max Tegmark have regularly talked about the problems in encoding a goal-oriented behaviour in the machines and the challenges it faces.

Level: Human-level AI
Behavior towards Humans: Mixed Bag

In conclusion, these movies are a rough representation of all the movies about future and advanced technologies ever made. But, you can easily figure out which way the interest tilts.

From Metropolis to Ex Machina, the futuristic outlook in movies is almost always dystopian. Mass media likes to whip up fear and anxiety and there are no grey areas about that.

I would like to finish with a quote from famous cosmologist and author Max Tegmark here, “We’re better off educating our young to make technology robust and beneficial before ceding great power to it. We as a society need to focus more on what kind of future we want than what kind of future we fear.” 

Key
Narrow AI - AI that accomplishes a narrow set of goals such as playing Go. 
Human-level AI - AI with an ability to accomplish any cognitive task at 
least as well as humans
Superhuman AI - AI far beyond human level

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