Isaac Asimov, the Father of AI in Film and Fiction
With several impressive new sci-fi flicks already playing in theaters, 2015 might go down as one of the best years in recent history for films that focus on robots and the potential for artificial intelligence. The yet-to-be-released Avengers: Age of Ultron stands alongside Ex Machina and Chappie as a film that promises more than just entertainment. These pictures take a deeper look at our endless fascination with the future of robotic technology, as well as our natural fears and aversion to humanesque droids. However, they weren’t the first to dive into the uncharted waters of thinking, feeling, human-bots. Isaac Asimov and other authors are largely responsible for bringing the concept of intelligent robots to the forefront of popular culture, where they continue to dominate.
In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Tony Stark develops an artificial intelligence named “Ultron” that is designed to take the place of the Avengers when they retire. While Ultron is identifying and eliminating worldwide threats, the artificial intelligence decides that the conflict created by humans is detrimental the Earth’s continued existence. Ultron feels that humanity’s extinction would be eliminating the threat, which brings to life a fear that robots with artificial intelligence will turn on us.
Ex Machina is a film that touches on a slightly different variety of “automatonophobia.” The movie is about a coder that must spend time with an attractive android equipped with an artificial intelligence designed to simulate human behaviors. The android appears realistically human, and with its capacity to trigger human emotions, it could very well pass for a person. This concept makes viewers question their own humanity. If a robot programming that is identical to a human consciousness, what is the identifying factor that makes us different from a machine?
Chappie, on the other hand, explores our innate desire to control anything that has an artificial intelligence. In the future, the droids on the police force can be fully controlled. Once a police droid is stolen and reprogrammed to think and feel for himself, the way people react to him is completely different from the controllable droids. “Chappie” having a consciousness that defines who he is makes controlling him questionable, and that lack of control elicits fear.
Taking into account the various “technophobic” anxieties explored in the aforementioned films, we can trace similar themes back to literature from the Cold War Era. Isaac Asimov is one of the authors to conceptualize human-like machines that could complete complicated tasks. In “I, Robot” his collection of short stories, he envisioned the day when droids would become part of society, albeit with some type of safeguard in place to control their capacity for artificial intelligence. He designed a “three law system” that gave his characters the illusion of power. They are as follows:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the first law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second laws.
In “Bicentennial Man”, Asimov took these concepts even further. “Andrew”, the protagonist, is a robot that seems more human that android. He expresses emotions that are unique to humans; in fact, the only thing that really sets him apart is the fact that he’s immortal. Being able to live forever is something that humans strive for, but have not been able to accomplish. When an artificial intelligence droid with extremely human traits threatens human characters with this perceived advantage, he becomes a target. Andrew would never be accepted as a “man” by society as long as he remained immune to death.
In films and in literature, our relationship with automated beings is fraught with complications. Metropolis, one of the first pictures to examine human:machine binaries, revealed the “heartless” nature of our automated creations, telling a cautionary tale. In the film, human-created machines are capable of turning real humans to mindless drones. Today, automated machines exist in some form almost everywhere. In recent years, home automation has given life to home security systems and appliances, self-driving cars have taken to the road, and automated drones have taken to the skies. So why do we continue to second-guess our relationship to the robots that help us live out our daily lives?
Asimov’s robots typically behave in uncharacteristic or erratic ways – much as they may do in our imaginations. In film, as in fiction, AI run amok is a popular theme. It might seem then, that what separates us from our robotic contemporaries is the desire for chaos as opposed to the automated goal of complete order. To be human is to be messy, unpredictable, and perhaps a little wild. Today, where technology dominates much of our waking hours, it’s important to remember that robots are only as scary as we make them ourselves.
Kate Voss is a blogger and entertainment writer based in Chicago.