Artificial Intelligence Movie Reflection Essay

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Nowadays, artificial intelligence (AI) is present almost everywhere and helps us daily, for example in self-driving cars, in virtual assistants such as the well-known Siri or Google Home, or even in the film industry. However, when asking some of my close friends, family, and IB students from around the world if they trusted AI, the most common answer was that they did not; but those same people also had trouble correctly defining what is AI. So first of all, we should know what is AI and when was it first introduced. Following the Oxford Dictionary definition of artificial intelligence, it is “the theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages” (2018). In other words, artificial intelligence is the ability of a computer system to perform tasks that are usually performed by humans. Contrary to popular belief, AI is not new and was first introduced in 1950 as explained by Aggarwal A. (2018). Through this first misconception, we already understand that there is a degree of ignorance about artificial intelligence. The fact that there is some ignorance means that there is a lack of communication about what is AI exactly. We can, therefore, question one of the largest media that showed and made use of AI for quite a long time: Hollywood movies. Hollywood movies are seen by people from all around the world meaning that they might have a great influence on these viewers. A study performed in 2015 by Pautz M. even suggested that movies act as an influence, particularly towards the young public. And following this, we can ask ourselves: to what extent do Hollywood movies play on the ignorance of people to create an inaccurate picture of AI?

To answer my question, I looked at movies from 1968 to today to see how this degree of ignorance changed through time and then be able to understand how the Hollywood film industry changed its representation of AI. An interesting thought could also be to look and the effect of this representation of AI on American society. These movies include “2001: Space Odyssey” (1968), “Colossus: The Forbin Project” (1970), “Blade Runner” (1982), “Matrix” (1999), “I, Robot” (2004), “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” (2001) and “Her” (2013). This research question is worthy of investigation as it will clarify some of the misconceptions about artificial intelligence including what it is capable of or what it is used for. It is important to clarify these misconceptions as artificial intelligence is a fairly new field of study that is growing and developing quite fast and people seem to have trouble catching up on news about this subject. It will also help us understand how the degree of ignorance about artificial intelligence changed through time, the effect it had on American society, and the influence Hollywood movies have on shaping people’s perception about a particular subject, here, artificial intelligence.


When ignorance reigned:

A time when people weren’t informed

When artificial intelligence was first introduced in 1950, researchers were being very optimistic about what could be done with it. Five years later, the “first hype cycle” began as stated by Dr. Alok Aggarwal (2018) it was a period that lasted until 1983 during which the term “artificial intelligence” was introduced for the very first time. This “hype cycle” marked a long period of enthusiasm towards AI which caused great inventions such as machine learning which is still used and studied nowadays. AI was something very new and researchers soon began making very “audacious claims” about how artificial intelligence would reach human intelligence in “no more than a generation” as Dr. Agarwal explains. Some claims came out to be true but much later than expected such as Allen Newell’s claim citing that “within ten years a digital computer will be the world's chess champion,” (1958). Others were a bit too optimistic such as Marvin Minsky claiming that “within our lifetime machines may surpass us in general intelligence,” (1961).

All this hype around artificial intelligence even caught Hollywood’s attention and for the first time in 1968, Arthur Clarke and Stanley Kubrick realized the famous “2001: A Space Odyssey” movie which, at first sight, seems to picture AI in a very positive way; in the form of a machine, HAL 9000, capable of human intelligence and even humor, whose purpose is to help a crew to manage a spaceship. However, it soon turns out the machine tries to kill the entire crew only because they asked it questions it wasn’t allowed to answer which occurred to be a clear mistake in the way it was programmed.

All of these events pictured artificial intelligence in a very negative way. Moreover, we can see that the representation of the 2000s Hollywood presented back in 1968 is not accurate. In 2001 we were still quite far from having computers capable of humor or helping humans the way HAL 9000 was.

At the time, AI was something very new; not everyone knew about it and the few things people knew were coming from movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey. Some of the most common ways for people not studying artificial intelligence to learn about artificial intelligence were mainly through newspapers or movies. This means people not interested in artificial intelligence had quite limited knowledge about how it functioned. A Space Odyssey. To understand how people viewed artificial intelligence, we should analyze each movie and detect what was possible and what was fiction. This will allow us to see how significant the degree of ignorance about artificial intelligence was in American society between the 1960s and 1990s.

Fictional AIs and real AIs

I will start each movie analysis with a summary explaining the plot of the story and how the AI works. It will then be compared with real-life AIs to conclude whether what is represented in the movie is possible or not. Only movies between 1968 and 1999 will be analyzed.

    • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

As explained earlier, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, an artificially intelligent computer, HAL 9000, capable of intelligence, humor, and even creativity is used to help a spaceship crew.

However, after a crew member asks it a question that it is not allowed to answer, HAL judges it is better to kill the entire crew rather than lie to them. However, HAL is finally deactivated by the last surviving crew member. The whole story is set in 2001.

We can see at first sight that researchers and even filmmakers were very optimistic as they thought such a computer would be invented by the year 2000. However, even though a computer such as HAL did not exist in 2000, it partly does nowadays; excluding the humoristic and in a way which doesn’t allow for irrational decisions such as the one taken by HAL to kill the crew.

As said by Professor Gelernter D. (2017) “A machine must understand the full range and nuance of human emotion before it can be deemed capable of creative thought.”

Yet, a creative AI already exists under the acronym AIVA (Artificial Intelligence Virtual Artist) and is used to create original musical pieces. Moreover, the fact that a computer such as HAL already partly exists shows that 40 years ago, filmmakers were being pretty realistic in their representation of AI.

    • Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)

In this movie, an American artificially intelligent supercomputer, Colossus, is created to prevent nuclear war. However, Colossus soon discovers it has a counterpart created by the Soviet Union called Guardian. Both computers soon begin threatening humans to launch nukes if they do not obey their orders.

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Finally, Colossus takes over the world saying it will accomplish what it was designed to do: prevent nuclear wars.

What the AI is capable of in this movie is quite similar to what modern AIs are capable of. However as said by Shultz D. (2015) “the idea that a computer operating on punch cards would have enough computational power to outwit and subjugate humanity” is wrong, meaning it would be very unlikely that a computer such as Colossus would have enough memory and power to operate as Colossus does. However, the logical functioning of the supercomputers in this movie is pretty close to how an AI works. It will perform what it is designed to do, here, prevent nuclear war, and it does so by taking over the world. This shows once again that filmmakers were representing artificial intelligence in a very realistic way.

    • Blade Runner (1982)

In the future, humans have found a way to create organic life that exactly resembles humans called “replicants”. These replicants however only live for 4 years and aren’t allowed on Earth due to conflicts humans had with them in the past.

The major points this movie gets wrong are the fact that we aren’t capable of creating organic life which looks just like us humans and the fact that we cannot implement artificial intelligence into humans. The representation of AI in this movie is mostly negative as the whole story runs around a “blade runner” whose mission is to kill 4 “replicants” who came on Earth.

    • Matrix (1999)

In this movie, machines have already eliminated mankind and are using them as a source of power to function. The AIs have created a software called the “Matrix” which is a simulation of the real world in which all the humans who are harvested by the machines for their energy find themselves. However, without knowing it, they think they are in the real world.

It is hotly debated whether we live in a simulation or not. As Tegmark M. says, “Is it logically possible that we are in a simulation? Yes. Are we probably in a simulation? I would say no” (2016).

However, the scenario where AI takes over the Earth and, itself, creates a simulation is very unlikely (this misconception will be discussed in section 3.1.4.) In this movie, the view of artificial intelligence is negative from beginning to end just like in Blade Runner.

Overall, the views about artificial intelligence between 1968 and 1999 in Hollywood movies were quite negative, however apart from Blade Runner and The Matrix, the representation of AI at the time was very realistic meaning that, even if the degree of ignorance of people was quite high, movies were trying to picture artificial intelligence as accurately as possible to show people what AIs were capable of. Finally, this shows that Hollywood filmmakers were aware that people weren’t very informed about artificial intelligence and therefore used their films as ways to communicate about artificial intelligence in addition to the entertainment aspect. This is especially true as researcher Marvin Minsky was “used as an adviser” for the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey as explained by Aggarwal A.

Moreover, as artificial intelligence was something new and not many people knew about it, Hollywood filmmakers were free to create whatever story about AI they wanted to and they might wanted to be accurate in the way they represented AI at the time to “educate” people about this topic. Furthermore, we will see that through time, the representation of AI becomes less and less accurate which emphasizes this point as people started to know more and more about this topic.

A negative impact on society

As people didn’t know much about artificial intelligence at this time, their knowledge was quite limited and even if the representation of AI in movies was quite realistic, people weren’t necessarily aware of that. Moreover, even if the picture of AI reflected by movies was realistic, it was often pushed to extreme cases which, to this date, still haven’t occurred, the most obvious reason being to entertain viewers. Most AIs at the time and today aren’t used in the way they were in movies such as Colossus. In addition to that was the fact that most of these representations of AI were negative, even in other movies of the same time such as “Terminator” (1985). The problem is that the brain has a greater sensitivity to negative thoughts as explained by Murano H.E. (2016) which means that, during this period, people who mostly learn about artificial intelligence in Hollywood movies would have stronger memories about artificial intelligence as being negative which effectively distorted the views about AI, making them more negative.

Furthermore, it is widely believed that people tend to fear what they don’t understand or know. And, as it was said, people didn’t know much about artificial intelligence and we showed that the degree of ignorance about AI was quite important in the American society which emphasizes the inaccurate picture people had of artificial intelligence between the 1960s and 1990s. Nevertheless, even if American people had an inaccurate and negative picture of AI, the one transmitted by Hollywood movies at the time wasn’t necessarily inaccurate. All of these negative impacts might have led to people having a bad picture of artificial intelligence which would explain the mistrust people had in AI or machines in general and still have today. Hollywood films might have also contributed to all the misconceptions people had, misconceptions that are still, nowadays, anchored in the American culture and other cultures.

A misconception of A.I.

As explained above, all those negative thoughts and views about artificial intelligence could have led some people to create inaccurate pictures of it, eventually leading them to believe in misconceptions such as the fact that an AI can take over the world just like this.

Those misconceptions also include the fact that artificial intelligence could dominate the planet just like the one in Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970). However, Hollywood movies are fiction/stories and even though what the AIs are doing in this movie is logically and scientifically possible as discussed earlier, we still haven’t created an artificial intelligence equipped with the same level of intellect as those presented in Hollywood films between the 1960s and the 2000s.

Moreover, even though the representation of AIs at the time was pretty accurate scientifically, the representation of it in movies was negative when it was mostly used in positive ways. For this reason, people tended and still tend to think that artificial intelligence can be compared to something that will cause the human race to become extinct as Stephen Hawking or Elon Musk believe. However as explained by Tegmark M. (2017), every precaution is taken when experimenting with artificial intelligence.

And as AI started creeping into people’s daily lives, people understood it better and better and it soon became something less unknown and more appreciated as a tool to help us.

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