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Robots in film, a vision of the future?
by Nick Rainey | 15th Feb 2015
Robots in film, a vision of the future?

Film has been an excellent medium to explore the debate on the sentience of robots, and the question of whether robots have a conscience has thrown up some excellent movies. Following a Guardian Film Club showing of Alex Garland’s excellent new Sci-Fi thriller Ex Machina, a panel of esteemed AI experts and Garland himself gave their thoughts on the topic, and it got me thinking about robots in film.

Ex Machina itself revolves around a young man (Domhnall Gleeson) being whisked away for a week with his reclusive CEO. Once there he is asked to perform a Turing Test (to determine whether or not the subject is human) on his boss’s newest invention, a flirtatious humanoid called Ava (Alicia Viskander). Does Ava have a conscience? When do the machines we create become so intelligent that they become self-aware? As with any argument about robot sentience, it soon becomes an argument about human sentience which, in a definitive manner, we know equally little about. It is a fantastic, thought-provoking film and an absolute must for anybody interested in sci-fi at all.

The subject is not a new one, this theme has been explored for years to varying degrees of success. The daddy of them all, and also the most intriguing is HAL in Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey. HAL cannot ratify his mission prerogative with his task to protect the crew and he (it?) reaches a quandary that literally tears himself apart. HAL is not a typical robot (he has no body to speak of apart from the ship) so is quite unlike most incarnations of the theme but the question remains the same. Does HAL feel? He certainly appears to, pleading with Bowman and begging not to be disconnected. 2001 also set the standard for our fear of robots gone wild, where they betray and destroy their creators.

Robots destroying us. The creation of supermachines that no longer require us and robots designed to help becoming murderous kill-bots is an idea that has dominated Sci-fi for years. From Bishop betraying Ripley in Alien to the murderous replicants of Blade Runner, evil robots have permeated the medium and consequently the conversation about A.I. Will our technological leaps become our downfall? Dr. Anders Sandberg (a researcher at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University) had an interesting analogy for this. Once we create machines more capable than ourselves, we must beware as “once the Elephants start to move the ants should watch out”. We have no idea what a robot with sentience would desire, it’s agenda would likely be very different from our own. And that is why we fear the idea of robots, we fear what we do not understand.

Ideas about robots become ideas about ourselves. Ex Machina, like Blade Runner, Spielberg’s A.I and even Pinocchio before it preaches that the things we create express desire to be human. This begs the question, what is it to be human? Sci-fi cinema is perfectly placed to tackle such monumental ideas and an excellent way to provoke your own thoughts on humanity’s future. Alex Garland (writer and director of Ex Machina) is of the opinion that AI may be the only way to explore new worlds, and that these inventions will outlive and outreach us all. He thinks the human race is doomed to become extinct here on earth with AI our only legacy, like the next stage of evolution. Depressing or uplifting.

It’s not all doom, gloom and betrayal though, the orbit of Earth’s films is littered with the bodies of friendly robots. I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t befriend Wall-E and two impending films (Big Hero 6 and Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie) also go this route. Star Wars is another example with distinctly human and likeable robots like C-3PO and R2-D2. Their love and loyalty is unquestionable and naturally we become attached. Take the excellent animation The Iron Giant which is a great example of how we can attach real emotion to machines in films, will the same be true when we reach the stage of being able to create ones that are aware enough to like us back? Then the real question would be, would they like us?

Lots of questions and speculation in this fascinating arena with only one thing for sure. Ex Machina is well worth a watch as it will have you asking yourself not just when will these robots be possible but if we ever want them around to begin with.