Artificial Intelligence (AI): The pathway to immortality or extinction?

A still from Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1927)
Often the biggest challenge for any filmmaker trying to tell a story with an AI character as its central focus is to endow that character with basic human traits, whether good or evil. This is important to essentially make the character relatable to a human audience. Just think of the best known AI characters in movies and the human traits pretty much speak out: be it the robot Futura invented by Rotwang in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) or the Tin Man in Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz(1939) or the supercomputer HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey(1968) or C-3PO in George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) or the replicant Roy Batty in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) or T-800 in James Cameron’s Terminator 2 (1991) or the NDR android servant Andrew in Chris Columbus’ Bicentennial Man (1999) or Chitti in S. Shankar’s Enthiran (2010) or David8 in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) or Ultron in Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) or Ava in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015) or the cyborg Alita in Robert Rodriguez’ Alita: Battle Angel (2019). But probably the AI character that appears to be more human than all these is the Mecha child David, essayed by Haley Joel Osment, in Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001).
A still from Chris Columbus’ Bicentennial Man (1999) featuring Robin Williams as Andrew, an android servant

While A.I. was directed by Steven Spielberg it was originally conceived by none other than Stanley Kubrick himself in the late ’70s. Based on a short story titled “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, as envisaged by Kubrick, was meant to be a robot version of Pinocchio. But Kubrick had to drop the idea when he realized that computer animation was not advanced enough to create the character of David, the Mecha child who dreams of becoming a real boy for his mommy who has adopted him to fill the void created by her real son’s rare medical condition that has indefinitely placed him in a state of suspended animation. The underlying trouble was that Kubrick was hooked to the idea of building a robot boy using computer graphics instead of casting a boy actor for the part of David as he feared that a human actor might look too human. Also since Kubrick took time to shoot his films, there was a risk that the boy would age and therefore change considerably during the time. Finally in the year 1995, he decided to handover the project to his longtime friend and fellow filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

Kubrick was somehow convinced that only Spielberg, known for meeting tight deadlines, could do justice to the story both emotionally (having already made a film like E. T.) as well as on the technical front (having just made Jurassic Park). For some reason or the other the project kept on getting delayed but after Kubrick’s sudden death in 1999, Spielberg took it up on a priority basis, even getting Tom Cruise’s consent before postponing the shooting schedule of Minority Report (2002) in order to realize his friend’s dream project. Spielberg, the most commercially successful filmmaker of all time, often gets lauded for his ability to deliver humongous blockbusters that are often loaded with cutting-edge computer graphics. But people often forget that what really makes these films tick is how well Spielberg handles the human emotions: be it the alien in E.T. or the Mecha child in A.I. or the giant in The BFG. Also, Spielberg is often accused of selling escapism in the name of cinema but those who understand his work well are aware that even his most commercial films endeavor to ask moral questions about the way the human society operates.

Now, A.I. despite all its fanfare is not one of his typical commercial films. A lot of questions that A.I. asks have actually become the basis of not only how cinema looks at AI characters but also how the human society may look at artificial intelligence in the times to come. The question that’s central to A.I. Artificial Intelligence is that if a robot could genuinely love a human being, what responsibility does that person hold towards that robot in return? While the idea of human beings loving back robots, or for that matter, artificial intelligence based programs in the real world may seem a bit farfetched at this point in time, films such as Blade Runner, Her, Ex Machina, Blade Runner 2049, and even Enthiran to some extent have already taken us in that direction as far as cinematic possibilities are concerned. But the human societies in none of these films talk about robot rights.

A still from a short film by Sujoy Ghosh titled Anukul (2017).
Also, when Isaac Asimov devised his “Three Laws of Robotics” he was primarily interested in the wellbeing of the humans as evident from the first two laws. While the third law does talk about robot protecting its own existence, the first two laws supersede it completely. That’s precisely where a short story by the legendary Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray stands out. Titled “Anukul”, it was written by Ray in the year 1976. Sujoy Ghosh adapted it into a short film of the same name in 2017.The story is set in a world where the android robots have rights and human beings aren’t allowed to ill-treat them. But if a human still hits a robot or tries to harm it physically the robot is legally entitled to give a high voltage electric shock to that person. Meanwhile, in the real world, Sophia, a modern marvel of artificial intelligence, developed by a Hong Kong-based company, has already been granted the right of citizenship of a country. Also, it has been named the United Nations Development Programme’s first ever Innovation Champion—the first non-human to be given any United Nation’s title.
Humanoid robot Sophia, popularly dubbed as the “citizen robot”, was named United Nations Development Programme’s first ever “Innovation Champion” in 2017
Now, the comparison between what Ray depicts in his Sci-Fi short story and the dystopian societies that we usually come across in the films of the West is a reminder of the egalitarian ideas that the Oriental writings try and propagate. While Ray himself was greatly influenced by Western science fiction writers like Jules Verne, HG Wells, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C Clarke, his Sci-Fi writings are deeply rooted in the Indian values of inclusivity, compassion, nonviolence, forgiveness, and humanism. Ray wrote extensively for leading science fiction magazines and journals, leaving an indelible influence on the science fiction literature. Also, speaking of Ray’s legacy to Sci-Fi cinema, it has been widely speculated over the years that ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), one of the early successes in Spielberg’s career, wouldn’t have been possible without the ill-fated screenplay that Ray wrote for his science fiction dream project The Alien, inspired by his own short story titled “Bankubabur Bandhu” published in the children’s magazine Sandesh in the year 1962. During the late-60s, Ray made a series of trips to the US, UK, and France in a bid to realize the project with the backing of a major Hollywood studio. Unfortunately, the film was never made. About fifteen years later, Ray got the shock of his life when he watched ET. He was convinced that the Spielberg film couldn’t have been made without his script of The Alien. A recently released book titled Travails with the Alien – The Film that was Never Made and Other Adventures with Science Fiction documents the series of events revolving around the controversy.
A still from the HBO television series Westworld (2016)

In the context of sentient robots gaining rights and becoming capable of loving other beings, an important question about their changing status in the futuristic societies also arises. Will they continue to serve the mankind or will they ever challenge their authority? Popular film series like The Terminator and The Matrixhave already introduced us to dystopian worlds dominated by the machines. On the other hand, the HBO series Westworld, inspired by a 1973 film of the same name written and directed by the noted Sci-Fi author Michael Crichton, depicts a struggle between the humans and the android hosts in technologically advanced Wild-West-themed amusement park originally built to gratify its wealthy patrons. Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 too pit the human race against the bio-engineered synthetic humans called replicants.

Even as Sophia continues to improve in terms of its outwardly similarities to the human beings in the real world, the humanoid robots in the aforementioned films and series have become so good that passing the Turing Test is no longer a concern for them. The real test, just as a character in Ex Machina says while referring to an AI named Ava with a human-looking face but a robotic body, is “to show you that she’s a robot and then see if you still feel she has consciousness”. In the film, Ava slowly transforms into a beautiful girl and is able to escape to the outside world and merge with the human population. Perhaps, the day is not too far when the likes of Sophia would be freely walking amongst us. And then perhaps there will also come a time when the AI, bestowed with the gift of immortality, will mock the ephemerality of the human life à la David8in Alien: Covenant.

Alicia Vikander as Ava in Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina (2014)

Perfecting the AI is perhaps the biggest challenge that’s ever been presented to mankind. But the day it is perfected, the human race is certainly set to lose its supremacy to a superior race. The likes of Black Mirror, Love, Death & Robots, Ex Machina, and Westworld have already prepared us for the worst. But not all future possibilities look so grim. With AI already entering our lives there are endless benefits that await us. Now, the Steven Spielberg blockbuster Minority Report, based on the short story by the noted Sci-Fi author Philip K. Dick, talks about a futuristic world wherein PreCrime, a specialized police department, stops murderers ever before they commit the heinous act. On similar lines, the UK is trying to develop an AI-based system that will analyze police records and assign individuals with a risk factor for committing future crimes.

A publicity still featuring Tom Cruise from Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002).

The Netflix series Altered Carbon, based on a 2002 novel by Richard K Morgan, is set in a futuristic world wherein human consciousness can be stored digitally and downloaded into new bodies. Already a startup called Humai working in the field of artificial intelligence and nanotechnology is trying to develop a technology to transfer human consciousness to a robot’s body. If such a breakthrough is made, the human life wouldn’t be so ephemeral after all. The animated film WALL·E set in the distant future tells the story of a waste-collecting robot. Mankind can certainly do with an army of such robots. Today, the biggest problems that the world is facing have environmental origins. Perhaps, AI can offer some solutions. Only recently at an Amazon event, actor Robert Downey Jr. shared his plans to launch a foundation that would use AI and nanotechnology to clean up the environment.

So, as we look at the future, even as the dark, dystopian, and diabolical threats of artificial intelligence continue to lurk in the remotest crevices of our minds, the human race looks set to embrace the rise of AI and the new revolution that it will usher in the field of medicine, genetics, architecture, biotechnology, travel and transportation, VR, surveillance, food production and preservation, prosthetics, cryogenics, and plastic surgery, among others. What was earlier only possible in the world of science fiction has today become a reality. There is little doubt that the thought leaders of science fiction, now more than ever will continue to be at the forefront of scientific innovation. All we can hope for is that while riding this unstoppable juggernaut of technological advancement we also succeed in rubbing off our humanity on the sentient beings that we may end up creating one day. Perhaps then we can rightfully claim to have perfected the AI.

Header Image: Caption: Feature above: Haley Joel Osment as the mecha child David in Steven Speilberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

About The Author

Murtaza Ali Khan is a film critic / journalist based out of Delhi, India. He is the Films Editor at Café Dissensus (New York) and is a regular contributor to The Hindu, The Sunday Guardian, and The Patriot. He has also contributed to Newslaundry, The Huffington Post, The Quint, DailyO, etc. Murtaza regularly appears as a guest panelist on various television channels and is also associated with radio. He teaches digital filmmaking to media students and regularly conducts workshops and seminars on film appreciation and screenwriting.