March 23 2018
My virtual butler is awfully smart
05 September 2017

Artificial Intelligence has been depicted in many ways in pop culture over the years, and now the real and reel versions are more similar than ever before

Anyone following recent events in the tech world would have noticed that most of the news coming out of the industry revolves around two things — digital currency and artificial intelligence. While the former is a relatively new concept, artificial intelligence — or man’s quest to make machines sentient — has been depicted in pop culture for years, in various forms.

One of the early occurrences of AI, which is quite commonplace in film, television and literature now, was in Stanley Kubrick’s weird and wonderful 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), based on Arthur C Clarke’s eponymous book. In the film, HAL 9000, an AI responsible for controlling the systems on board the Discovery One spacecraft, ends up killing the crew members of the ship as a result of malfunction, and programmed directives to keep information from the team on board the ship, acting surprisingly like a real, human villain — committing dastardly deeds for a cause it believes to be right. AI’s unpredictability is also addressed in the Terminator series, where the very same T-800 robot, portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger as the antagonist in the first movie, turns saviour in subsequent instalments.



Today, many decades after these movies released, this gives rise to a fascinating discussion about what a robot is and what constitutes sentience. Robots, at one point thought to be beefy Austrian body builders with metal skeletons, have since gone on to become transforming vehicles and rolling bots, while in real life, they have taken on many shapes and forms, with self-driving cars, also said to fall under this bracket. Isaac Asimov even put down three laws of robotics, which are decimated by HAL 9000, the Terminator, and probably most of the Transformers.

In the era of smartphones and the cloud, the corporeal form housing an AI has become less important, almost non-existent. Just ask Tony Stark, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) Iron Man is almost entirely dependent on his virtual helper, Jarvis (who, interestingly, was a real physical butler in the comics). Even the hit Mass Effect video games see the Normandy spacecraft piloted by EDI, an AI that, thankfully for the player character and supporting crew, does not share HAL 9000’s murderous intentions.

Another interesting parallel here is our need to attach a physical form to sentience. In the MCU, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner’s idea of a hyper-aware, intelligent watchdog, takes on a physical manifestation in the form of the murderous Ultron, and Jarvis himself finds his consciousness contributing to the sentient android Vision. Mass Effect takes a similar approach with EDI, whose budding relationship with Normandy’s pilot Joker is explored further once she adopts a sleek, android body of her own.



This analysis of the bonds between man and machine have been done by Spike Jonze in Her, where Joaquin Phoenix can’t help but fall for Scarlett Johansson’s warm voice. Here, the exploration is more from the side of Johansson’s AI character Sam, as she discovers herself and the world she has been created in, and goes on to find her own path in life, leaving Phoenix, and the audience, with a bittersweet after-taste.

Beyond the MCU’s wisecracking, always helpful sidekicks, the exploration of the purpose of AI has been a subject filmmakers have been tackling, with more nuance of late. Domhnall Gleeson has seen this from both sides, as the victim to Ava’s (Alicia Vikander) pursuit for freedom from a lab in Ex Machina, and in his emotionless portrayal of a dead man resurrected using the remains of his online existence in the Black Mirror episode, ‘Be Right Back’. Westworld also delved into the psyche of beings powered by man-made intelligence on their quest to find their true selves, once again leaving poor Asimov’s laws of robotics by the wayside in the process.



While we’re a little way off from creating a Dolores or a T-800, the Jarvises and EDIs are firmly within our grasp. Machine learning is making the smartphone assistants on our phone smarter with each passing day — and this may be too much Black Mirror talking — but the push by phone manufacturers to encourage people to take better portraits with dual cameras and record clearer voice commands with advanced microphones is all speeding up how fast the AIs of the world learn to recognise things.

In some ways, the virtual is bleeding over into the real too. Cortana, who started off as a computer-generated character in Microsoft’s Halo series of games, is now the name of the assistant that comes on modern builds of Windows. AI has long been an interesting storytelling angle for creators of virtual worlds, and now our own existence is beginning to reflect its many page and screen counterparts. Just hope they strike the right balance between the conflicted, existential crisis-suffering Sams and the lip-reading, murderous intent-harbouring HALs.



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