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Hollywood and AI

What the advent of robotics means for our cultural world

In our innovation-obsessed society, there’s a lot of talk about automation, about robots, about the end of jobs and of supercomputers. This is the adoption of technology as corporate tools. Elon Musk has been in the news recently saying the same thing he said a few months ago, talking darkly about Terminator and the dangers of artificial intelligence. This is the science fiction of human disaster films.

A year of robots

At the end of this month in London, the BFI will screen the showpiece to its Sci-fi season, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick’s masterpiece is probably the most iconic exploration of the human perils of developing artificial intelligence. It is a pertinent choice for this season, given the coverage afforded the issue in mainstream cinema.

The first half of 2014 welcomed Her and Transcendence. The coming months will see Alex Garland’s Ex Machina and Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie. All, in different ways, explore our relationship with AI. The conventional understanding of Her is a romantic tale of a man who falls in love with his OS (although it’s more a rebirth or overcoming the monster story, if you subscribe to Booker’s schema); Transcendence is a cautionary tale about Kurzweil-esque Singularity; Ex Machina and Chappie appear to examine our uneasy relationship with superintelligence, collectively and individually (Blomkamp’s, naturally, looks at our propensity to segregate what we fear). 

Having more supercomputers in film is not interesting in itself. Rather, it is interesting that Hollywood insists on the anthropomorphosis of their robot protagonists, choosing implausible portrayals of otherwise plausible storylines.

Are film robots made more human to warn us of the implications of AI, or to confuse us?

Moravec’s paradox asserts that when it comes to AI, the hard problems are easy and the easy problems hard. More specifically it states that, contrary to conventional assumptions about robotics and AI, “it is comparatively easy to make computers exhibit adult level performance on intelligence tests or playing checkers, and difficult or impossible to give them the skills of a one-year-old when it comes to perception and mobility.” In short, Google can now – extraordinarily- recognise pizzas, but C-3PO is still quite a way off, let alone Kubrick’s Hal or Spielberg’s David from AI.

It is understandable that films try to make machines seem more lifelike, more human. It allows us to look at man vs. machine, loneliness and segregation as part of a socio-technological discussion, of course very relevant to our lives today.

The real world does the opposite, and tries to make us more robotic. It does not take a particularly hard look to see that Apple is not about humanising technology, but automating humanity. Similarly, it isn’t the world’s information Google is organising to make accessible and useful, but us. We see the effects in the most mundane aspects of our lives in the real world, beautifully illustrated here by our homogenous, robotic, physical behaviours. We also see the effects in our personalised, predictable and hyperreal digital lives.

How film reflects our world

In a fascinating book, the film critic James Hoberman shows how the aftermath of 9/11 saw a huge surge in popularity in films with high body counts “to capitalize on the nation’s new bellicosity”(although, interestingly, just two weeks after 9/11, President Bush urged Americans in an act of defiance to “get down to Disney World”, the utopian hyperreality). Black Hawk Down was rushed into cinemas early, Collateral Damage, We Were Soldiers, The Sum of All Fears and Attack of the Clones all came out in spring 2002, to greater success and marketing than envisaged. The political, social and corporate context at the time forced a response in culture (normally this happens the other way around); but the story of war is a more straightforward one to tell on screen.

One might wonder whether the current swathe of films examining AI is performing a similar function. Rather than reflect a wounded and angry country in the aftermath of a shocking attack, films – like us - are grappling with the more complex ramifications of the information age. In a post-Snowden, post-Wikileaks, post-Matrix era of Facebook and drone delivery, these films are trying to create powerful human stories instead of the mundane, everyday deference we show to automation. It may be less cinematic, but is no less significant.

Dan Gavshon Brady (@DanGB88) is a strategist at Wolff Olins, London.