2015 is being called “The Year of AI” and “The Year of the Robot” due to the abnormal number of high profile sci-fi movies, featuring robotic and AI characters, being released this year including Avengers: Age of Ultron, Chappie, and Ex Machina. All of these movies feature blockbuster casts and budgets, but their value lies far beyond that. More than ever, modern sci-fi films are personifying our underlying views and fears as a society of the capabilities, both benign and malicious, of AI technology. The sci-fi genre in general has shown a noticeable shift towards content involving AI and robotics.
Perhaps more than anything, these films are illuminating our growing anxiety regarding the current pace of AI innovation, and the fact that this progress may lead to AI technology having the ability to bring our worst fears into reality. But what about the films of 2015 is so special? And what do they say about our growing fear of AI?
Interestingly, the three aforementioned films each embody different aspects of our developing relationship with AI technology. The Avengers: Age of Ultron is probably the most straightforward case of this. The plot of the film centers around the Avengers battle against Ultron, which is an incredibly powerful robotic AI being created by character Tony Stark in order to replace the Avengers. However, rather than assuming its expected duty, Ultron’s AI cognitive abilities allow it to independently determine that the current status quo put in place by mankind and the Avengers has great inequity and puts much of the human population in danger. Thus, Ultron turns on the Avengers. This film is reminiscent of the Terminator series: A vastly powerful AI being determines that its very creators are the greatest flaw in the system it has been charged to protect. Such films embody our worst case fear of our entire species being eliminated by our own AI technology.
Compared to Age of Ultron, Chappie is less action oriented and more of a thoughtful narrative. The film details the creation of Chappie, an AI being that is essentially designed to mimic human development. Chappie stands out as an AI being because of his development aspect. At his creation, Chappie is as ignorant as an infant and must learn and develop just as we humans do. The result is the story of a very dynamic being who, much like the protagonist of any coming of age story, must learn from the world around him and create his own destiny, for he is neither inherently good or evil. While not as objectively threatening as Ultron, AI such as Chappie does present a possible threat as well as various ethical dilemmas. As AI is designed to be more human like, how long is it until the line between the organic and the AI is blurred? Furthermore, as AI creations become more independent and functional, will we reach a point at which AI beings of a certain capacity will be granted rights as autonomous beings? Dynamic beings such as Chappie do not threaten our well being so much as our identity.
Ex Machina takes the premise of Chappie and takes it a step further. Not only does the AI being in Ex Machina look fairly human, she acts fairly human. The basis is that the protagonist is to spend time with a new AI being as part of a modified Turing Test, a test to determine when AI can pass for being human from its interactions with a human observer. The AI featured in Ex Machina is not meant to “become” human, like Chappie as he develops, but rather to ostensibly “be” human. As a result, the AI in Ex Machina is completely capable of possessing its own agenda despite appearing rather human, unlike Chappie who is designed to actually develop and consider the world around him continuously like true human perception.
All of these films tackle different aspects of just what it is about AI and robotics that add to our fears surrounding technology. The concept of technophobia actually stems back more than a century to the industrial revolution. The term “luddite” originally came into the English lexicon to describe those who opposed the use of machinery in industry, either because it would take away their jobs, or due to an overwhelming fear of what could happen should technology run rampant. The first of these fears has already been realized with robotics replacing thousands of workers on assembly lines, as well as the development of new technologies that will displace workers in other professions such as teaching, cleaning personnel, and concierge services. Heck, we don’t even need to turn on our own lights and air conditioning anymore thanks to home security systems that automate everything and can be controlled with your cell phone. Thus, our societal technophobia stems mostly from the Industrial Revolution, but how has this set of principles developed into Ultron in 2015?
The Cold War Era featured numerous sci-fi films that also explored issues of technophobia. The Day the Earth Stood Still is a 1951 film that documents the landing of an extraterrestrial flying saucer, from which emerges a humanoid alien and his humanoid robot companion. The film investigates the scenario of mankind coming into contact with another highly intelligent species whose technological capabilities, including AI technology, far exceed our own. Them! is a 1954 film documenting monstrous ants that have been mutated via exposure to radiation from nuclear bomb testing. While both films allegorically address the Cold War and related political events, Them! successfully and directly addresses the issues of nuclear technology.
Overall, Cold War Era sci-fi films acted as a stepping stone to modern AI centered sci-fi. The Cold War films introduced a fear of the effects of technology into the public above and beyond the threat of losing a job. However, the Cold War films usually assumed that technology was created and then utilized by a malevolent organization or accidentally mishandled in order for catastrophe to occur. In contrast, modern sci-fi emphasizes the potential consciousness and autonomy of AI beings. Thus, modern sci-fi, starting with The Terminator, introduced the concept that technology can independently act against us.
In all, the upcoming sci-fi films of 2015 call attention to our society’s technophobia. Our technophobia stems from the machinery of the Industrial Revolution and its threat to our livelihood. But as technology progresses and AI becomes more advanced, we fear that the power balance, if not the innate differences, between humans and AI beings may become blurred or threatened.