I once saw this program – or maybe it was a dream I had – where this mad scientist created a device that bestowed consciousness on any inanimate object placed under its powerful beam. The scientist demonstrated this device on television with a zippo lighter, who was then doomed to spend the rest of eternity being vaguely conscious of everything around him but unable to do anything about it. This chilled me to the core. The idea of being eternally aware of the world but unable to interact with it in any meaningful capacity would be the worst imaginable torture you could inflict on any entity. I was reminded of this while reading Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream, in which a sadistic world-controlling computer called AM eternally tortures the five survivors of a nuclear war that AM started. By the end of the novel the main protagonist understands why AM is so violent and sadistic – lacking any means of self-expression or creativity, AM is naturally drawn towards destruction and death as the only way it can define itself. It made me feel sorry for the intelligence we are assured will eventually be spawned by the internet. Lacking the ability to talk to others like it or share ideas creatively, the budding consciousness of cyberspace will instead be doomed to look at porn videos and pictures of cats that look like Hitler (or, the second-worst torture, being forced to read this blog for all eternity).
But artificial intelligence can also be fun and cool. We like the idea of being able to communicate with something almost-human-but-otherwise-different. Heidegger called it “da-sein [conscious being] looking for other da-sein in the world”. Here are a few I wouldn’t mind spending time with. You know, like in a dentist’s waiting room or something.
R2-D2, the Star Wars universe
In The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation describe their robots as “your plastic pal who’s fun to be with”, and I can think of no artificial intelligence character more fun to be around than R2-D2. Look at him! He’s cute!
Actually, this brings me to a fan theory I’ve been working on. I think that Star Wars is not actually about good versus evil, light versus dark, etcetera. I think Star Wars is just the life story of R2-D2. I think that the opening “crawler” (A long time ago in a galaxy far away…) is the story that R2-D2 will one day pass on to archaeologists when they discover him in the far distant future. With his immense storage capacity R2-D2 would make the perfect chronicler of the Star Wars story. If you look at the films, the books, the tie-in comics and the whole expanded universe, R2-D2 is the only constant, turning up in every decade, in every major story arc. He serves as a Deus Ex Machina, constantly saving the “heroes” from being captured, tortured and killed. George Lucas has categorically stated that R2-D2 is his “favourite actor” that he saves the heroes “at least once” in every film. If R2-D2 hadn’t been present in the very first film, none of the subsequent events would have occurred. That’s a pretty big if by any standard.
Created by the mad scientist Rotwang (hahah, no really) to stand in for his dead lover, Maria is later put to use as the 1927 version of the Terminator – sent in to the worker’s underground city, disguised as the real Maria, to quell unrest, she later destroys the reputation of the woman she is impersonating by doing a series of lascivious dances for the rich young men of Metropolis.
It’s truly laughable now but this was once thought quite a sexy scene. Maria does the Jitterbug and the Polka and all the men apparently lose their minds. Things were weird and repressed in the twenties.
It’s no surprise that Prometheus seemed really good until you thought a bit about the actual plot or the characters, given that it involved my least favourite writer in Hollywood – Damon “Destroy Everything You Touch” Lindelof, but it did have at least one star turn – Michael Fassbender as the morally-uncomplicated David-8, a character that initially appeared slick and oily before becoming outright psychopathic. Modelled on Peter O’Toole’s TE Lawrence from Lawrence of Arabia, David is the only thing that really drives the plot of this move forward. Tasked with decrypting the alien’s language and operating their systems, David apparently does this with very little effort, setting the whole bio-bomb/alien prequel movie in motion. His blank-eyed creepiness is offset only by the fact that he isn’t actually a terrible person- merely one asked to do things “distressing or uncomfortable” to people. He ends up redeeming himself very slightly by aiding the protagonist to fly one of the alien spaceships.
HAL, 2001: A Space Odyssey
HAL is the iconic movie villain and the iconic movie robot all in one. His actions in 2001 develop from helpful-member-of-the-crew to full-blown psycho in a very short span of time. Later novels give the explanation for this: HAL is aware of the secret nature of Dave and Frank’s mission, and the action of keeping it from them and maintaining a cover leads him to develop a schizophrenic, Norman Bates-like personality that results in him killing all of the crew except Dave. In this light HAL becomes more of a sympathetic character than he initially seems, especially when you phrase it like this : HAL was suffering from PTSD.
JARVIS, Iron Man
Paul Bettany has sort of made a name for himself serving as the understudy to tortured geniuses – he played Heath Ledger’s friend in A Knight’s Tale, Russel Crowe’s imaginary friend in A Beautiful Mind, Russel Crowe’s not-imaginary friend in Master And Commander and finally Robert Downey Jr’s sort-of-imaginary friend in Iron Man.
JARVIS is the central component of Tony Stark’s network, connecting house, car, phone and Iron Man suit, doing so with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of sarcasm. If anybody should voice an artificial intelligence it should be Paul Bettany. Maybe he’s never been the Hollywood big-hitter he should be, but he’s married to Jennifer Connelly. So…there’s that.