The Evil Machine: Sci-Fi and the Fear of Technology

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I don’t read a lot of sci-fi, so I can’t comment on the mechanics of the literature. But, over the years, I have watched a number of movies that revolve around the idea of AI. Movies that utilize this storyline typically involve a man versus machine plot line. Man has overstepped his boundary and decided to play God. This, of course, backfires on him. The machine gets out of hand and begins to assert his own autonomy. War, death, struggle and suffering ensue. Someone comes out on top.

Depending on the movie that you are watching, the issue of man deciding to play God is either of prime importance or a moot point. Regardless on man’s position, he is nearly always the victim. This makes sense though because man is making the movie and selling it to other humans. He is unlikely to make a film where he is the oppressor. It functions almost like basic propaganda. Machines are bad. They deprive us of our humanity and our basic, inalienable rights and freedoms. They will overtake us unless a hero comes along who sees the light and can lead us to freedom.

You can trace the beginnings of these sorts of films back to 1999 with the release of The Matrix. And you can absolutely go further back than that as well to other films like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1984 film, The Terminator. You can probably go back further than that too, but I think I’ve made my point. So, with the obvious popularity of these movies, what message is Hollywood propagating? Do AI stories play on the natural fear that many human beings have of the power of artificial intelligence? Or do they instead express a fear that will one day affect the way that humans respond to the existence of AI when it reaches the proportions and the capabilities that are often expressed in such plots? Let’s take a closer look at a couple of examples.

I’ll start with the movie that inspired this post, Transcendence. I watched this new Johnny Depp movie with my mechanically minded boyfriend. Somehow, AI movies seem to have become our thing. I think it’s because this genre of film has the mechanical aspect that appeals to his engineering brain and the fiction aspect that appeals to me. Plus, the movies allow for some great discussion afterwards which makes the lit major in me very happy. Anyway, Transcendence is an interesting film that supposes that humanity can merge its consciousness with a machine, thereby creating an AI figure modeled after a real person. This film offers a number of big questions including: Is the uploaded version of JD’s professor character really the same guy or has he become a power-hungry machine bent on world domination?; Is the goal of creating a sentient machine equivalent to playing God?; Where is the boundary of science? These questions (and there are others you can divulge from watching the film) create points of conflict and tension throughout the film, even among individuals who were originally allies.

Transcendence expresses a particular fear of AI to the audience. It is easy to compare it to genetic experiments such as Dolly the sheep and more due to the connection the film makes to AI and playing God and I think that is exactly what the script writer wants us to think about as it is the one of the most notorious contemporary examples of science toe-ing the line of godliness. These ethical concerns have been expressed by numerous parties throughout the decades and centuries of technological and scientific advancements, so it’s not as if the movie is really bringing something new to our attention. In contrast, it is really just giving us another lens with which to assess these same issues. As to the question whether or not the film propagates this fear or is simply playing it up is hard to tell. My tendency would not be to have fear of AI in the real world. But there are a lot of people out there who have fears of the new or unknown.

Another recent film that the boyfriend and I have experienced is Her, directed by Spike Jonze. Her does not necessarily express an overt or hostile fear of artificial intelligence. Instead, it seems to express a bias or a prejudice against people who date AI figures. This could be reduced down to people who adopt this technology as the center of their life. We do have examples of this occurring now in our society. People have online relationships, they have alternate identities, they game and sometimes seem to become the character that they utilize in the game (kind of like Avatar—it’s not coincidental that the name of the movie is the same as the word that is used to describe a person’s character in an RPG). In some ways, technology has taken over our lives. But it seems that through stories that talk about characters who are romantically involved with AI figures goes too far because, as I say in my original post about this film prior to seeing it (which you can read here), people who fall in love with robots or various forms of artificial intelligence often are viewed negatively by their peers. You see numerous instances of people who will not accept Theodore and his relationship with Samantha. Former friends do not understand the experience he is having and they are uncomfortable with the path he has chosen because it is not the typical path or the one that is deemed by the masses to be acceptable or “right.”

The lack of acceptance of a relationship between a human being and a figure of AI is prevalent in both literature and film. Futurama is a famous example that expresses the taboo of such a relationship. Fry falls in love with a robot and even his robot best friend is disgusted by the antics. I have also read some steampunk-like stories that border on the sci-fi genre that do the same thing. Cloud Atlas is another good example. Of course, instead of AI figures, you have these clones who are marginalized by society. But the principle is the same.

The taboo nature of the human-AI relationship is another way of expressing a fear of something that is perceived as new and unknown. It puts forth a fear of AI. But what I wonder about most is why the relationship is feared? Is it our natural tendency to fear new things? The reaction to human-AI relationships reminds me of the reactions that some portions of our population still have to homosexual relationships. They are viewed as unnatural or wrong (despite the fact that there is evidence of homosexual leanings in nature and in the realms of Ancient Greece where such preferences were seen as natural and legitimate.) Perhaps the scriptwriter takes this tendency for hate and fear and express it against a new dynamic.

To get back to my original question, what is it that Hollywood is propagating in these stories? They are taking a fear that already exists concerning technology and science and against small and specific groups of people. These fears are re-imagined in the context of the future when even smaller groups of individuals with different tastes and preferences will begin to occupy a space in our world and technology will have grown. Perhaps these stories are meant to get the audience to reevaluate the way they are judging people and other things in our own time and environment or perhaps they are suggesting that personal preferences will only continue to expand as our world, our experiences and our choices continue to grow. Playing off of a discomfort or fear is one way of engaging an audience and it is a prevalent choice in this particular genre.

Theoretically, the movies that are prominent today are unlikely to be watched by the masses in the future when it is more likely that AI capabilities will be at the level we imagine they will one day be. But, if we intake this fear that we observe in the films, will we continue to pass on this fear to our offspring, thus affecting their interpretation of the technology that is contemporary to them? I like to think that although there will always be people who hesitate in the face of the unknown, the majority of humanity will be open-minded and ready to adapt or accept whatever the future holds in store.


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