Science Fiction and horror make it partly their job to help humanity deal with its anxieties. Every time we invent some new gizmo, here comes a string of movies to tell us why that’s the bad idea that will doom humanity. We say nuclear power, they say Godzilla. We say genetic engineering, they say Jurassic Park. We say mobile phones and social media, they make a whole TV series called Black Mirror. Speculative fiction has been pulling this tap dance since Frankenstein.
Just as soon as we started developing computers, bet your bottom dollar that genre fiction immediately ran to the drawing board to depict this shiny new technology as an inhuman menace from our most strung-out loopy nightmares. Indeed, the word “robot” comes from a 1920 science fiction play called “R. U. R.,” about a robot rebellion which leads to the extinction of the human race. The acronym stands for “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” where author Karel Čapek is credited with coining the word.
On the sci-fi front, it’s pretty much been the AI apocalypse ever since. Even without that, it’s been the robot apocalypse in regular old newspaper editorials for just as long.
I Got Over My Nerd Rage Over Misconceptions About A.I.
Your humble author was once a major programming geek. I’ve since set that interest aside for the most part – save my moniker, “Penguin Pete,” where the “penguin” refers to Tux, the penguin mascot of the Linux operating system.
But for years, I made a career out of blowing my top at every single forecast of robots taking over. And the media constantly guarantees us that this is going to happen any second now:
Will artificial intelligence take over the world? – February 2020
Will artificial intelligence take over the world? – December 2019
Will Artificial Intelligence Take Over the World? – March 2018
Will AI take over humans one day? – July 2017
Will Artificial Intelligence take over the world? – March 2016
Are computers taking over the world? – January 2015
I, For One, Welcome Our AI Overlords – August 2014
Better Than Human: Why Robots Will – And Must – Take Our Jobs – December 2012
The Problem with ‘Friendly’ Artificial Intelligence – November 2011
That’s a full decade of panic headlines right there. Ray Kurzweil alone has turned his life’s mission towards propagating a silicon doomsday cult. Peter Thiel has his own cult too. AI-assisted transhumanism is a pervasive superstition in the highest ranks of technology. I’ve been shouting these loony moonies down until I can shout no more. Look people, please take somebody’s word for it that computers just do not work that way and never will.
No, it isn’t a matter of hooking enough computers together to make a neural net. No, we can’t just write a program that tells the computer to make itself smarter. No, computers are science, not magic. No, computers won’t be infected by an intelligence virus. No, deep learning won’t do it. No, black box AI won’t do it. No, quantum computing won’t do it. No, it doesn’t work like in the movies.
Literally every question asked by every headline about every prediction for computer technology can be answered by simply screaming “NOOOOO!!!” Whenever you see “Will AI take over…?” just assume it’s a fluff piece pushed out by an editor on a Friday afternoon before a 3-day weekend with a hot date, drivel intended to be read by nobody.
I, uh, digress…
No, really, I “get” it now
There are certainly some valid concerns in computing and technology science and the way we adopt its innovations into our society. Much of the popular conceptions about “The Attack of the Killer AI” stems from anxieties about our dependence on technology, the damage from technology failures, new attacks on society using technology as a vector, toxic hate being spread over the Internet, and of course, the pace at which new technology does make old jobs obsolete.
Recently “deep learning” AI (if my buzzword bingo card is up to date) has made some surprising strides: AI-powered contract management is now powered by a deep learning algorithm that can actually “read” a legal document and parse clauses and terms into a database. Self-driving cars are gradually catching on. We’re getting there.
When most people worry about computers taking over, what they really mean is this:
That’s great for the consumer; not so great for the person who used to have a job at the Betamax factory. That’s what science fiction and horror are trying to do: express our deepest fears in ways a whole audience can understand. The fear of nuclear technology isn’t literally about Godzilla stomping around on Toyotas; Godzilla is just a stand-in for “all this nuclear and atomic stuff is scary, even if I lack the science literacy to vocalize my concerns!”
Isn’t that a sweet realization? So pass this along to any other raging nerds you encounter. You may save one from cracking up like I almost did.
The Top AI Villains
Let’s instead look over all fictional media for the most iconic villainous AIs, cyborgs, androids, and yes, clanking old robots too. Which ones made us believe in the AI apocalypse the most? This isn’t about science now, it’s about art. Which computer running amok has sent the most convincing shivers down our collective spines?
The HAL 9000
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was thrown together almost accidentally, brewed up from an Arthur C. Clarke short story, The Sentinel, that barely covered the part about the moon monolith. But one lucky innovation of this process was perhaps speculative fiction’s most convincing silicon antagonist, the HAL 9000. It makes every top list for scary computers. Voiced by stage actor Douglas Rain, HAL 9000 embodies the cold, dispassionate attitude of a thinking machine that regards humans as superfluous baggage to be shut down if they jeopardize its goals. It’s lines have been memed ever since.
Call her the walking plot device from Ex Machina (2014). She’s a worthy successor to HAL 9000. Without spoiling too much, let’s just say that Ava is not all that she seems, which is hardly surprising in this film where nobody is playing with their cards on the table. The scientist who made Ava hires this junior programmer to interact with Ava as an experiment. Unlike HAL 9000, Ava makes it all too obvious that she understands and empathizes with human emotions. And yet she still coldly manipulates the people around her to get what she wants, making her ultimate actions many times more chilling.
The movie Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) is severely dated now. It managed to come out a year after 2001 : A Space Odyssey and yet looks and sounds decades older. The annoying Cylon voice grates on the nerves. So we’ll spare you and cut to the spoilers: Humanity invents the perfect Cold War intelligence machine and then finds out the Soviets (on the other side of the Cold War) have invented the same thing. The two computers get in touch and have a discussion, deciding to merge into Colossus, which grimly announces to the world that we are all its slaves now. Mission accomplished: World peace! Colossus: The Forbin Project is important because it crystallizes what other movies of its type are reaching for. People are flawed, so we invent perfect technology to fix things, but we’re still not happy – because people are flawed. An early cyberpunk story!
From the video game series System Shock, Shodan is the classic “A.I. gone rogue” which the player has to shut down. After that, there isn’t much unique to say about Shodan’s character, but there’s a lot to say about the voice talent! Voiced by the ethereal Terri Brosius, who is a developer as well as a voice actor, Shodan is not only an A.I. bent on world domination, but gloats like a megalomaniac Batman villain every chance she gets. Combining this with with the Max-Headroom-like glitch effects makes her that much creepier. Shodan also has a major software project named after it, to show how influential it is.
From the smash hit game franchise Portal, itself a spin-off from the Half-Life franchise, GLaDOS doesn’t raise that many hackles in the fear department. She does, however, have just enough menace to make an interesting antagonist, along with the subtle suggestion that she’s deliberately screwing with our heads on multiple levels. GLaDOS is the AI in charge of a science lab which the player must navigate intact, but increasingly as the challenges become more deadly we figure out that this is no mere test. Voiced by opera singer Ellen McLain, GLaDOS is a post-modern cyberpunk parody, snarking us with deadpan zingers as it toys with us.
Welcome to the wild card selection of the list! This movie is likewise very dated, and yet it takes an idea so original, one that sounds corny on paper, and turns it into something a little more gut-wrenching than it sounds. The movie is Demon Seed (1977), in which a scientist’s AI takes over his home and imprisons just his wife, with… (stay with me here)… the intention of reproducing with her. Forcibly. To make an AI / human hybrid baby. She’s not willing, so Proteus IV isn’t above using torture to get her to give in. The budget was way too low to live up to what this movie wanted to do, which is a pity, because it is a very chilling horror story that deserves a remake with a vengeance.
AM is the AI that really did take over the world in Harlan Ellison’s short story I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream. The story was adapted into what is perhaps the most bleak video game ever made, of the same title. In this story, the computer has literally replaced Earth as a planet-size machine which has killed off all humanity save for five mortals, whom AM keeps alive with its reality-bending power in an eternal virtual hell just for the kicks. Harlan Ellison, of whom I’ve written about an unhealthy amount by now, was one heck of an angry bugger. As for scary AIs, when the subject is allowed to wander outside the film medium, Ellison’s AM is the one people report losing the most sleep over.
I give up, you all win: Computers will take over the world!
I mean, if you’re intimidated by your phones right now, the phones have won already. Just do me this one favor, will you? After you all surrender the world to Mega-Alexa or lose the big war to Skynet or whatever, just play this song as a requiem. For me?