With the advancement of artificial intelligence in such tools as ChatGPT, it is beginning to feel like we are living in sci-fi times. When a computer program can write an essay or doctor images, the line between human and machine can seem a bit blurred. The rise of AI has especially called for ways to identify something artificial as opposed to something created by a human. Although we only have to deal with artificial text, pictures, and videos, science fiction writers have long pondered a future where androids walk among us undetectable, at least until they can be tested.
Welcome to the inaugural edition of The Breadcrumb Trail, the Freeman/Lozier Library’s Media Advisory Blog, where we will lead you down the trail of artificial intelligence in science fiction.
One of the most famous sci-fi films of all time, Blade Runner, takes a look into the essence of what it means to have “artificial” intelligence. Set in the future year 2019, (the film was released in 1982), the film follows a bounty hunter, or Blade Runner, for the San Francisco Police Department whose job is to find and retire six androids. The only problem is technology has advanced so far that these robots, originally used as workers on colonies on Mars, are so humanistic it is impossible to identify them based on sight. Instead, a test has been developed that measures unconscious facial reactions to emotional stimuli. Even though the androids are designed to display these minute reactions such as blushing and eye dilation in order to make them more lifelike, they are fractions of a second slower than humans, making them perceptible with proper equipment and a well-trained interrogator – enter Rick Deckard, Blade Runner.
To complicate matters, the newest androids have been given another software upgrade that helps them be indistinguishable from humans – memories. An even bigger complication arises when Deckard falls for an android he tests to familiarize himself with the newest model. Throughout the film, the question continues – what makes a human? If it walks, talks, thinks, and even remembers like one, the difference can be hard to spot. What about it if it is capable of love? Just as with AI, the closer it gets to being human, the more we are able to determine just what it is that makes a human. Theories have even been made claiming Deckard himself is an android, the only ones cold-blooded enough to eliminate others.
Fans of the film looking for a similar read should look to the novel it was based on, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick. In addition to the human themes explored in the film, the novel discusses artificial animals as well. While being briefly mentioned in the film, robotic animals are a large part of the novel. After a nuclear war that has destroyed most of nature, animals are a rare and pricey commodity. Those who can’t afford a genuine animal opt for robots which are nearly identical to the real deal. Animals are so important to this future society because they provide humans an opportunity to express empathy, the only feeling left that proves their humanity. Just as androids are tested based on emotional responses, humans are judged based on their levels of empathy, even developing a virtual reality-based religion which injures users to elicit collective empathy. This empathy leads Deckard to question the ethics of retiring androids, especially after falling in love with one.
Falling in love with a computer may seem silly, but with the right computer it can be downright dangerous. Similar to Blade Runner, the 2014 film Ex Machina tells the story of a computer programmer selected by a wealthy technician to test his latest line of androids using the Turing test. This test was developed in 1950 to establish rudimentary AI. The test’s basic premise is that if a human interacting with a robot can’t tell it is a robot, the machine passes the test and has artificial intelligence. Ex Machina follows Caleb Smith, a lonely programmer who wins a contest to the home of the reclusive CEO of the search engine company he works at. The CEO, Nathan Bateman, introduces Caleb to Ava, a highly developed android with the hopes that Caleb will test Ava’s AI. What begins as a meet cute story between Caleb and Ava turns into a dark mystery as she asks for his help to escape the controlling hands of Nathan. Caleb even comes to question his own existence. Is he also an android, nothing more than a puppet for domineering Nathan? The mystery turns into horror as the film dissects just what it is to be a human, which it ultimately answers with something as ingrained as a computer code – survival.
For those who empathize with Ava’s struggle for freedom, HBO’s series Westworld, based on a 1972 film by Michael Crichton, gives a more extended treatment on artificial intelligence and self-realization. Set in a future theme park inhabited by robots and modeled after the wild West, human players choose good or bad and live as free as the old West claimed to be, without the ramifications of hurting actual people. Season one follows a quiet man, William, as he traverses the illusory landscape alongside a female android who begins equally as docile. But as time goes on, strange mysteries built into the system of the park reveal themselves to the players and computers alike. Themes of morality are mixed with those of free will, as the androids come to realize their programmed state, built upon memory implants that largely determine their actions. The more they learn, however, the more they see themselves as free from their past and free to decide their own futures.
Humor is often used as a litmus test for determining AI, but with a wealth of input from films, television, and social media, computers can craft jokes that sound eerily human. Most shows and books about AI tend to focus on other emotions than humor to portray their robot’s humanity, but Martha Wells gives her android a sense of humor as well as a few other humane quirks. Her series The Murderbot Diaries comes from the point of view of a Murderbot, a name which is a bit of a joke in itself when we first meet it. Assisting scientists on a new planet, Murderbot is bored and passes the time by watching TV after hacking its control settings, making it free from the basic controls it was supposed to be under. It is also admittedly awkward around people, as it was mainly designed for action. But when the crew is attacked by a large-toothed, crater-dwelling creature, they discover that their assignment on the planet has certain areas omitted by the corporation that hired them. When contact with another team on the other side of the planet ceases, the team sets out to investigate, suspecting sabotage by their hiring company. Wells’ quick stories are unusually crafted, making Murderbot the narrator and showing its human emotions – especially its desire for solitude as it feels so different from the genuine articles, going so far as hiding behind its opaque helmet to cover its human appearance. Murderbot is so self-aware of its artificial existence it is embarrassed by its feelings, giving its thoughts a comical twist on AI that make it appear very human.
Those looking for music with similar half-human/half-computer vibes will find a wealth of sounds in electronic music. One can start with classics such as Daft Punk or Vangelis, who did the soundtrack for Blade Runner and several other films. Another genre which may pique your interest is IDM, or Intelligent Dance Music. Related to EDM, or Electronic Dance Music, IDM is more experimental and just a bit less conducive to dancing. Often filled with vocal samples used like drumbeats, this genre sounds like a hybrid between human and machine, something an android would listen to.
If you are looking for a lighter mood, check out Music Has the Right to Children by Boards of Canada. Released in 1998 to critical acclaim, this album is part electronic, part hip-hop, with sound collages from Sesame Street, Vangelis, and field recordings. Consistently ranked among the best electronic albums, as well as best albums of the 90s, it combines warm feelings with open spaces for easy listening or fun dancing.
Those wanting something darker should look to electronic musician Jlin, who creates intense drum tracks, often used splices of human voices to make a beat. Her debut album Dark Energy was released with high marks and contains complex rhythms with futuristic vibes. The overall effect feels cold, claustrophobic, and relentless, with dense textures that fly by at electric speeds. The album could be a soundtrack to a disjointed AI horror film much like Ex Machina where the real hero is a feminine computer trapped in a black box.
While practical ways of identifying AI-produced materials is necessary to ensure humans are still doing a bit of original thinking, scientists, philosophers, and artists will always argue the realities of artificial consciousness, a debate which ultimately rests in identifying just what is unique about the human mind and its seemingly separate place in nature. These movies, books, and albums blur the line between computer and human, showing real artificial consciousness possessing flawed human traits, and displaying human tendencies toward cold, calculating, robot-like behavior, all the while wondering at how closely related the human mind is to a computer, running on subconscious programs so ingrained they disappear beneath the surface of free will.