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AI in the Movies

05 May 2017

Here is a brief discussion on the depiction of AI in movies:

Below is the transcript:

Hello and welcome to episode one of the Ethics in Computing Podcast. I’m your host, Will Badart. Joining me in the studio today are me, myself, and I. That’s right, I’m as alone as humanity is in the club of sentient automata. But how long will this last?

Today’s discussion will focus on AI and its portrayal in Hollywood.

Science fiction movies like I, Robot seek to inspire awe at futures could be, but also to speculate about the risks associated with such technological might.

I, Robot features two primary AI characters, Sonny, a custom-built NS-5 android, and the Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence (or, “VIKI”), the disembodied super computer behind the US Robots and Mechanical Men company.

The movie avoids taking an objective stance on the good of AI to society (which many movies do by casting AI characters as strictly good or strictly bad guys). Instead, the movie establishes an interesting subversion: the truly “bad” AI is the one we feel more inclined to trust at first: VIKI is much more similar to the AI programs already in the world (a bodiless female voice that gives us information when we ask for it). Meanwhile the AI who ends up being “good” is the one we may be less inclined to trust at first: Sonny and the other NS-5 robots undeniably occupy the uncanny valley (the hypothesis that human replicas that appear almost, but not exactly like real humans, invoke feelings of eeriness and revulsion among observers). Not to mention, Sonny is basically framed for murder early in the movie, which doesn’t help his case.

Considering this movie was based on a book published in 1950 (which itself was compiled from a series of short stories written by Isaac Asimov in 1940), I think many aspects of the AI depicted were quite plausible or even realistic. I think VIKI in particular represents a very real possibility regarding the way AI will support companies in the near future, providing support to building management, finance, and even assisting (or heck, making) business decisions. I don’t think Sonny and the other NS-5s are too far over the horizon either. The whole dreaming thing was a little bit out there, but the concept of life-like androids becoming commercially available as butlers seems like it could be very real.

In general, robots were integrated harmoniously with the movie’s society, and their presence was accepted by most everyone with just a couple key exceptions (where it drove plot). To characterize humanity’s reception of robots and AI in this movie in a word, I’d say “unconcerned” is pretty accurate (at least, until their eyes turn red and try to kill everyone when a rogue AI misconstrues the three laws to destroy humanity). On the flip side, robots in general accepted their rung in the social ladder just under humans. To quote an AI character in another of Asimov’s works (the robot surgeon in Bicentennial Man) “It is my pleasure to please you, sir. If your orders were to interfere with my functioning with respect to you or to any other human being, I would not obey you. The First Law, concerning my duty to human safety, would take precedence over the Second Law relating to obedience. Otherwise, obedience is my pleasure.” This line pretty well summarizes the attitude of almost all the robots in I Robot. It’s only Sonny, who has been programmed not to consider the three laws, and VIKI, who thinks she’s cracked them, who do not seem to hold this attitude.

At the end of the day, I think I Robot paints an optimistic picture of AI’s future role in society. Simultaneously, it comments on human nature (specifically, the atrocities perpetrated and accepted by its members), and in a way, encourages us to do better. Overall, I give this movie a thumbs up: it has great pacing, high action, and just the right amount of philosophy for a Will Smith movie.

That’s all for this episode of the Ethics in Computing podcast. Join me again soon for Project 5!

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