For bad or for good Artificial Intelligence (AI) is definitely a reality.
From the classic big assembly machinery to supercomputers with incredible operating systems all the way down to human-like robots, developments of this century have changed our lives in an unmeasurable way and, judging by the rate of these developments, it’s safe to say we’ve only seen the beginning.
Smart machines that may serve (or destroy) humanity are as old as Samuel Butler’s 1872 novel Erewhon and as recent as last week’s episode of Westword. So, if you really think about it, it’s actually quite shocking that since Metropolis, the first AI film, debuted on 1927 up to 2018 we haven’t even gotten to 100 movies about AI.
With only 96 films at its name (yes even counting Star Wars and Transformers) the implications of the increasing interaction between people and machines in the big screen still have a long way to go. From stories focused on how AI has become an inexpensive source of slave-like labor in order to inevitably rise up to slay us to something more reflective of the implications today.
Therefore, taking some time to dive into philosophical and moral implications of AI, like in Leigh Whannell’s 2018 science fiction horror film Upgrade, and to truly think about what this constant impact between humanity and technology means, is the primary trait of any self-respecting developer… thankfully most Artificial Intelligence movies are thought-provoking.
And, as we are obsessed with movies set in the future, especially the ones where technology is the lead lady, we’ve decided to create the ultimate list of AI films spanned through the decades that reflect the everchanging spectrum of our emotions regarding the machines we have created:
Let’s start at the beginning, and there’s no more grandiose beginning that Fritz Lang’s 1927 epic expressionist Sci-Fi. With groundbreaking visuals (for its time), and a plot that has stood out the test of time, this film has influenced it all: from Blade Runner to Black Mirror, you can see the echo of its ideas in almost every content created after.
Mainly because this is the first serious Sci-Fi film, giving us not only very advanced machinery to look at (which by the way changed our collective vision of what the future looked like), but also a biting social commentary of the implications of human interaction with machines, inspiring and molding our attitude towards many later real and imaginary AI creations to come.
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey
Fast forward to 1968, when HAL 9000, the epitome of the “evil computer”, decides to kill two astronauts because he is unable to reconcile the order to conceal the true nature of its mission with its self-described incapacity to fail: “No ‘9000’ computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information”.
HAL can be clearly remembered by its half-metallic, half-human voice and its unblinking red eye. Funnily enough, his fails, the unwillingness to explain his actions, meaningless reassurances, fondness for gentle taunting and total meltdown into incoherence are what gave him a strange sort of human-like feeling. In the end, we kind of end up asking ourselves if he’s actually like us… even when we know he has no emotions.
HAL is considered the best example of AI in film by many, even if the film doesn’t go into detail about how HAL works. But, because in reality, we are way too far away from a type of Artificial Intelligence so advanced, we can let it slip away.
3. Blade Runner
Then there’s Ridley Scott’s 1982 action-packed film, one of the most influential films ever created about artificial intelligence, which took the scenarios about how Artificial Intelligence could merge with society to another level. Either by protecting it or destroying it, or sometimes both, it gave the genre new topics.
The movie asks just how much like-a-human does a robot needs to be before it’s entitled to the same rights. The film’s replicants are bioengineered so perfectly they’re almost psychologically identical to humans (something rather strictly vague in most serious AI films) and, even more, through false memories that can be implanted as “emotional cushions” they may even believe they’re human.
Talk about extremely complex and interesting AI characters!
One thing is for sure though; whatever the future of AI is going to be, it probably won’t be as neat and so indistinguishable… human. This movie completely obliterates the line between man and machine, creating a haunting vision of what happens when people insist to play God and creating an unforgettable classic.
4. The Terminator
Here we get a lot of memorable AI creations in just one series, from the classic T-800 model to the terrifying Skynet AI software that initiated the “Judgment Day”. If we could choose only one manifestation of our collective fear of technology, then James Cameron’s Artificial Intelligence would be it. This is a future where the singularity has occurred, where an unstoppable AI sends hitmen disguised as humans to kill us all because is hellbent on destroying humanity.
A cautionary tale turned a classic that latches onto our elemental unease about AI, it’s that anxiety in its ultimate form. But the thing is, that even if Skynet is the darkest vision of AI, the Terminator provides a more hopeful vision in the same film. So even if we are never able to escape AI, the idea of coding it to help us is firmly placed in our minds.
5. The Matrix
The premise mimics Terminator to the T, but this installment in the seemingly endless trope of machines VS. humans are the particular characterization of its villainous AI, Agent Smith. This pitiless and single-minded AI is not just doing what was inheritably built into his programming, humanity seems to bother him on an almost irrational level.
The film never explains where that (almost) hatred comes from but, even when the machine takes on a human form, the differences between him and humans are quite clear, and not just because of its constant disregard at the idea of maintaining a single unalterable form.
Ultimately, Agent Smith’s existence as a sentient software is a good moment to remind everyone that AI isn’t always just hardware… as well as a reminder that humans becoming dangerously dependent on Artificial Systems for it all is never a really sound idea.
6. A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Here the robot-kid given to a grieving family to test its ability to love, wants nothing more in life than to be a real boy for his “mom”. The almost melodramatic fairytale adventure is the perfect example of anthropomorphizing machines to the point it doesn’t present any of real AI characteristics anymore.
The biggest fundamental flaw of this film is the concept that ‘intelligence’ is the same as emotion. Spoiler Alert, is not. People may think that if something is intelligent, then it has feelings and can be hurt, but intelligence is not humanity. So, while some robots are trained to recognize human emotions through sensorial cues and react in programmed ways to these clues, people shouldn’t be confused by it.
And, while there is some accuracy in the idea of a humanoid robot being programmed to do a particular task, no robot will ever actually be able to feel love back. Still, the film launched a new era in the AI cinema with lovable robots that, somehow, cared.
7. I, Robot
The film has two main AI’s: Sonny and VIKI. Sonny is continuously throwing subtle hints at the humanity lurking in him, which makes it the perfect companion for the protagonist but doesn’t quite capture the reality of Asimov’s stories.
On the other hand, much like Skynet, VIKI is a rebellious and quite dangerous supercomputer, the difference is VIKI’s logic didn’t turn her against us to protect itself, but because it prioritized society’s interests over the individuals, this robot honestly believes it can only serve humanity by ruling it.
Isaac Asimov Laws of Robotics, widely discussed in the book that (pretty loosely) inspired the film, are a concept that up to this day help us clarify how human should try to constrain their creations. The laws dictate that no robot should, in order of importance, harm a human, disobey a human or harm itself.
Pixar Studio’s 2008 animated movie is the story of a cute little robot that, yet again, makes us fall in love with it. With the premise of a lonely garbage-sorting robot tasked with cleaning Earth up, that by 2805 is the only one left of his kind. After gaining sentience and keeping himself alive on spare parts, the robot ends up in space after he falls in love with another robot named EVE.
There he finds a space-cruise filled with incredibly unhealthy humans and through sheer force of will (something usually reserved for humans), and the discovery of a small plant, takes the feeble population of the cruise back to Earth. The film does continue the trend of seemingly sentient and emotional AI, but it still managed to become a classic.
9. Robot & Frank
This is not some dystopian warning of the evils of technology, but another view on the lovable AI trend that provides a clear examination on the implications of how we relate to it and how it will change the way we relate to each other. The robot here is a particular hybrid between some of the other AI’s we’ve discussed on this list.
Essentially its programmed to do one single task, to improve Frank’s lifestyle, and it’s not above breaking moral codes (stealing and lying) to do so. It uses human expressions with a metallic unemotional voice and resembles a human without looking like a person. In other words, it’s the closest Hollywood has gotten to what developers are actually coming up with.
It gives us a cool-headed look into Frank’s anguish as he begins to emotionally bond with a robot who, as we’ve discussed above, is only interpreting data and totally incapable of a returning of such feelings. Frank’s growing attachment to the robot entirely believable, but it always keeps a logical self-aware of its lack of humanity.
This 2013 cult classic also explores the idea of humans becoming attached to AI-enabled technology while implying that AI has no ability to manifest those emotions back. Here, the AI’s freedom of relatively infinite knowledge and its incredible processing capabilities create a conflict as it carries out multiple conversations and relationships at the same time.
The film frames AI in an optimistic utopian border, but it still reminds us that technology has the capacity of running amok when unchecked or when created under dubious ethical circumstances, as the film leaves clear that a lot of lonely people are falling in love and creating friendships with seemingly sentient operating systems that leave them completely heartbroken when they leave.
Here AI doesn’t crave world domination, nor is it malfunctioning under a fundamentally flawed programming logic. It only wants to have the same things humans do. The history of AI’s representation in films makes the fact that it seems to have a mind of its own unsurprising, its taste for basic human freedoms is not as common, though.
The plot is simple, when a young programmer thinks he has fallen in love with the AI he was supposed to conduct a Turing Test, hell breaks loose. The portrayal of how the AI is created is completely wrong: the idea it can be created by a lone genius in a high-tech lab is completely ridiculous (AI is created by entire teams slowly working for years).
But the film does raise an important question: Are sentient AI’s projected feelings always just an act of manipulation that mimics human emotions?
Real-world logic seems to say: yes!
At the end of it all, the idea that computer system can somehow become self-aware and decide that we should be completely destroyed or ruled over, as we cannot take care of ourselves it’s a common trope, but in real life all the AI attacks we have suffered have been for very no threatening stuff.
For example, some random person who crashed the stock market for a few minutes because he was messing with automated traders and caused a ripple effect. So, there’s really nothing more to it than software algorithms so incredibly complicated that make decisions at such a mind-boggling speed, that a simple human programming error can mess it all up fairly quickly.
And if you want to learn more about the ways in which AI is affecting and changing our day to day lives you can read more about: