Requiem for the friendly robot

 

Where have all the good robots gone? Hollywood seems to have drawn the line and turned its back on the sentient robot. Through artificial intelligence (AI) films, we have been given the chance to play God: creating something in our vision and our likeness. The problem is that the picture isn’t very pretty.

The generic plot lines surrounding these films are often crass. We are left with heavy-handed depictions of bionic Frankensteins intent on world domination, a vision that leaves little room for science. The benevolent robot is a trophy of yesteryear, as the genre has progressed to something far more menacing. The Wall-Es and C-3POs that graced our childhoods have been shelved and we now face robots that no longer look like robots but rather AI that have human features. This has lead us into a new territory, one in which a light has been shone bright on the shortcomings of human nature rather than that of machines.

Certainly, there is a very real debate behind the advancement of artificial intelligence. These issues range from concerns of technologically-caused unemployment to a fear of the unknown, as scientists question what self-determining AI would even be like. What can be said is that the debate is far from one-sided. The potential benefits – perhaps the end of poverty and disease – are rarely given due consideration. The point is not that film must meet science, it is what we can learn from the fact it doesn’t.

On a generous reading it may be seen that these films tackle the existential issues surrounding the topic; but it still seems to fall short of the mark. One of the most contentious issues is that if consciousness can be created through computation then where does it leave us: as mere meat machines? This is not the anxiety these films are usually grounded in, however. Often it is not the fear that the value of our own consciousness is somehow invalidated; we are forced to realize that humanity is neither particularly special nor unique. The genre seems to have found its footing in our deep-rooted concern that we may abruptly tumble from the top of the pecking order.

These films usually follow a plot line involving a robot mutiny that leads to a battle for control, as seen in Blade Runner (1982), The Matrix (1999), I, Robot (2004) and even Westworld (both the 1973 film and ongoing television series). It requires little strain on our imaginations to see how they mirror our own societal problems. On a fundamental level there seems to be an underlying ideology that is this – if something is in a position to exploit then it will.

The problem with attaching these traits to robots is that exploitation is reliant on human demands, wants and needs. It more aptly reflects the guilt that surrounds one of our species worst inclinations. Similarly, attributing revenge to AI in films makes sense if we view these robots as mere extension of our own mentality. It is only natural that those who are unjustly exploited would want to rebel against their oppressors. It’s easy to sympathies with Eva in Ex Machina (2015), a film in which we are confronted with a conscious robot – or at least what seems to be a conscious robot – that is abused and objectified by her creator, leading her on a mission of violent retribution. It can be said that she only plays into the hands of human emotion to achieve her freedom, but that her desire for freedom is in itself anthropocentric.

These transparent analogies are right under our nose. In fact they are staring us in the face. These films offer a platform of self-reflection; beneath the shroud of conspiracy, they turn a stark mirror on our own conscience.

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