Analysis: From Metropolis to WALL-E and beyond, AI has featured in films as a force for good - and bad

Movies are a powerful influence on our society both positively and negatively, and have been for decades. This art form impacts us by colouring our views of history and of our modern or even our future world.

An example of this influence is the romanticised view we have of cowboys, wagon trains and the Wild West in the 19th century. This was a world of gunslingers and saloons and other characteristics of the movie genre we call Westerns. It's only recently that Westerns have portrayed the more realistic, gritty and savage aspects of the Wild West. Movies like True Grit or the recent TV series 1883 are examples of this.

Artificial Intelligence refers to automatic systems which use data to make decisions, predictions or recommendations and provides great opportunities to improve many aspects of our lives in terms of how we work, learn, and live. Indeed, whether we realise it or not, AI has already had huge impact on aspects of our lives so it's interesting to look at how AI has been portrayed in the movies from the earliest to the most recent releases.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Claire Byrne, Prof Alan Smeaton and JOE.ie's Rory Cashin on AI in films

Across the decades, AI is usually portrayed in movies in a robotic or humanoid-like fashion, presumably because we can easily relate to humanoid and robotic forms. The first movie to portray such a form of AI was Metropolis, released in 1927 – yes 95 years ago – decades before anyone had even thought of artificial intelligence. That movie had a "false Maria", a robotic doppelganger set in a futuristic 2026 who wrecked havoc on society. There is a complete, restored version of this black and white silent movie on YouTube, which is interesting to dip into.

More recent movies which portrayed AI in human-like form include both the original Blade Runner (1982) and the 2017 remake Blade Runner 2049 and 2001: Space Odyssey (1968), which included HAL the computer taking control and killing the space crew on their journey to Jupiter. The Matrix (1999) and its various sequels had a simulation of reality showing the dark side of AI.

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The original Terminator (1984) and the franchised series, with Arnold Schwarzenegger fighting a robot cyborg killing machine, and Robocop (1987) had human-like representations of AI. I, Robot (2004) with Will Smith and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005), with Marvin the paranoid android, are other examples.

As technology for movie production became more sophisticated, we saw more movies portray AI in science-fiction and post-apocalyptic (imaginative) worlds, but still humanoid. Elysium (2013) with Matt Damon and Jodie Foster and Oblivion (2013) with Tom Cruise are examples of this. The movie Morgan (2016) had the first automatically generated movie trailer (of course, it used AI to generate that trailer) and was another movie about a humanoid form robot gone bad. Passengers (2016) with Jennifer Lawrence also had humanoid AI gone bad.

At the high end of using technology and special effects we still had most movies portray AI as bad including the X-Men and Avengers franchises. My own favourite is Ex Machina (2015) starring Domhnall Gleeson with the robot Ava being very human-like and convincing.

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Trailer for Ex Machina

However there are some exceptions to the AI-is-bad movie narrative. Interstellar (2014) with Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway has robots TARS and CASE which, although not humanoid, have endearing characteristics and are seen as good AI. Likewise, the C3-PO droid from Star Wars is also endearing and has good AI. The best example of good AI is WALL-E (2008), with the trash-cleaning robot cleaning up after the mess we humans make of our planet.

Despite the humanoid form, AI is almost always portrayed as the antagonist even though in our world, AI mostly operates in the background as part of some service we get. Examples of movies which include AI not in humanoid form include Moneyball (2011) with Brad Pitt using Jonah Hill's AI skills to turn the Oakland A's into a winning baseball team, and Margin Call (2011) made shortly after the 2008 financial crisis where AI in the money market led to the stock market crash.

Minority Report (2002) had lots of AI in the special effects, but the storyline was about how AI was used to predict crimes. Of course, we must include The Imitation Game (2014) about how Alan Turing cracked the Enigma code using what many of us believe to be the first real use of AI.

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The Imitation Game trailer

How movies of the future could use AI is limited by our creativity and imagination rather than what is technically possible. One scenario is based on deepfakes, the AI technology where a video of a person can have their face digitally altered and synthesised to make them look like somebody else. Deepfakes are really difficult to detect from real videos with the best techniques working at about a 80% detection rate.

We can imagine a movie made (cheaply) with unknown actors and the viewer choosing who s/he wants to play the characters, deepfaking the unknown actor to be whoever they want, with convincing realism. Whether we would want such a scenario of movie generation with actors of our choice is another question and should form the conversation between the technology push and the use case needs.

The same thing can be said about all uses of AI. Just because technology can do something does not mean we should do it and it is only through such conversations that we find that sweet spot between what is possible and what is needed. Oh and that idea of deepfaking actors? There is a movie about that with Robin Wright starring in The Congress (2013), so movies can shape our future.

Some of this article is based on conversation with Rory Cashin, Entertainment Editor for Joe.IE


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ