When Hollywood isn’t doing comic book franchises, it’s doing AI. Why? Because AI gives us a window into our own souls by challenging us to consider what it means to be human, what it means to think, and what our place in the world is.
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It’s a topic that’s ripe for philosophical discussion, and hard-hitting directors such as Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, and Spike Jonze have all used it as a platform to explore what a world of AI looks like — and what it might mean to live in it. There’s also a long history of villainous AI, perhaps because those “just a machine” antagonists make human leads seem all the more heroic, or perhaps because science fiction has become increasingly dystopian over time. But while Hollywood gets some of it right, there’s plenty of artistic license at work. Let’s take a look at some of the things that Hollywood gets wrong about AI, and why.
Intelligence vs. sentience vs. sapience
Hollywood is keen on “humanlike” intelligence because it makes it possible to skim over one of the deep philosophical roots of AI: defining intelligence and determining whether something exhibits intelligent behavior. These questions form an entire branch of philosophy, asking us to consider the nature of consciousness, intelligence, sentience, and sapience. These terms are all related but distinct in their own way — except where Hollywood is concerned.
Let’s all ignore our programming
In definitely one of the cuter outings in AI, the eponymous hero of Disney Pixar’s Wall-E takes service bots like the Roomba to a whole new level with its ability to level up its game from trash compactor to environmental activist. Wall-E’s transformation begins with its sudden gaining of sentience (and arguably sapience), but from where? Perhaps Wall-E was initially built as an AI so that it could learn to excel at collecting trash. This is a pretty narrow AI domain from which to develop feelings like love and nostalgia. The area around his docking station would certainly be clean, but it’s unclear how or why he would learn to collect fuzzy objects as a hobby. Yeah, this seems very nit-picky, and we loved the movie. But there were thousands of these robots, if not millions. Is Wall-E the only one that bootstrapped himself into intelligence through some magical process?
Stepping into the Uncanny Valley
Spielberg’s 2001 film A.I. gives us the story of a robotic child, David, who is programmed to be able to “love.” While the film gets some things right, such as David’s adherence to his programming, it misses a big one — the “uncanny valley.” Coined in 1970 by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, the term refers to the negative reaction people have to robots that are too human to look like robots, yet aren’t perfectly human. Humans are astonishingly good at spotting things that aren’t quite right, particularly in relation to body language and facial expressions. The most successful humanoid robots will necessarily have exaggerated features like those seen in anime. This approach gets around the uncanny valley by taking a humanoid design and piling enough extra cute on top that it’s obvious that the intent isn’t to be truly human.