Artificial intelligence has gained new technological and cultural relevance in the past year, to the excitement (we assume) of some and the fear of pretty much anyone who’s ever seen a sci-fi movie. Indeed, one of the major reasons for the dual writers and actors strike is concern that studios will use AI to replace them without fair compensation.
But since long before AI became a threat to anyone in the real world, Hollywood has been grappling with how it could help us, harm us … or destroy our entire race. A common thread joining these films and TV shows is that they all explore the implications of what it means that artificial intelligence, by definition, has a mind of its own. No matter what purpose it was created for, self-aware AI — at least at the level envisioned by sci-fi writers, which granted is miles beyond what exists in the real world — is going to make its own unpredictable decisions, and that may or may not be in the best interests of humanity.
So, while the workers of Hollywood might be worried that AI is coming for their jobs, at least they can be relieved that it’s nowhere near as dangerous as the writers’ wildest dreams … yet.
Here, we round up some of the most memorable AI in film and television, ranging from friendly helper robots to murderous destroyers of mankind.
‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’
First appearing on Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987, the android Data has long been played by Brent Spiner alongside Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard. Through he was built, not born, in the likeness of his creator, Data is an officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise and is an essential member of the crew. He’s able to compute with efficiency but struggles to understand human emotion and idiosyncrasies. On a never-ending quest for self-improvement, he is constantly striving to become more human, including by adopting a pet cat and eventually implanting an “emotion chip.” In the end, he proves capable of self-sacrifice to save his friends. He was even inducted into Carnegie Mellon’s prestigious Robot Hall of Fame (yes, really).
The Abbott & Costello of a galaxy far, far away, C-3PO and R2-D2 are always helping their owner Luke Skywalker and the Rebel forces in their fight against the Empire. R2-D2 (originally portrayed by Kenny Baker) can co-pilot a small fighter ship, convey holographic messages and shoot electricity in self-defense. Meanwhile, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), a protocol droid, provides helpful calculations — such as the odds of surviving a flight through an asteroid field (whether or not Han wants to hear it) — and can translate 6 million forms of communication. Just don’t ask him to do anything particularly brave, unless the fearless R2-D2 is leading the way. These droids, and fellow Robot Hall of Famers, can also be sent on missions that might be dangerous for humans, such presenting a list of demands to Jabba the Hutt. Honorable Mention: BB-8
If AI television news presenters ever become mainstream, they’ll owe a lot to the original: Max Headroom. Matt Frewer starred in several incarnations, including a 1985 British TV movie (Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future) and a 1987-88 ABC series, as a computer-generated TV journalist (with help from some prosthetics and fancy film editing) whose technological nature is highlighted to comic effect with lots of stuttering glitches — it was the ‘80s, remember? Created in the likeness of human journalist Edison Carter after he’s almost killed, Max investigates with his three-dimensional counterpart and colleagues to uncover the truth in a dystopian future. Even if the show only ran for two seasons, it made its mark on the culture: Headroom was interviewed by David Letterman and starred in Ridley Scott-directed New Coke commercials.
‘Robot & Frank’
Though lesser known than some of the other androids on this list, the nameless robot in 2012’s Robot & Frank evokes an interesting argument: Maybe artificial intelligence is neither good nor evil, but it can mirror the morality of the person using it. In the not-too-distant future, retired jewel thief Frank (Frank Langella) lives alone and has been experiencing memory problems when his son (James Marsden) buys him a medical helper robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard). When Frank realizes the robot doesn’t have laws integrated into its core programming, he uses it to help execute a couple of high-value, white-collar heists. (“The only people who get hurt are the insurance companies,” it says at one point, repeating Frank’s mantra.) The robot is adamant that it doesn’t have feelings about its own existence, but the one thing it does seem to care about is Frank’s welfare — whether that means cooking him healthy meals or keeping him out of jail. Are they friends, or is that all just programming?
Marvel Cinematic Universe
First appearing on the big screen in 2008’s Iron Man as voiced by Paul Bettany, JARVIS (Just a Rather Very Intelligent System) begins its existence as a somewhat lowly disembodied AI created by Tony Stark to help run computations and act as a kind of electronic butler or smart home device, which also augments the Iron Man suit.
But the much more dangerous potential of AI is explored in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) when Tony’s new (accidental) creation, Ultron, decides the best way to achieve world peace is the obliteration of mankind. In that film, JARVIS is nearly destroyed, but is saved by his own quick thinking — with help from Tony, Bruce Banner and Thor, who give him android form as Vision. His powers grow with the addition of an Infinity Stone, and he shows how human he has become when he falls in love with the witch Wanda Maximoff.
In a future where AI robots have become ubiquitous, bound by Three Laws meant to keep them from harming humans, only Will Smith (as Chicago police detective Del Spooner) recognizes that they could, in fact, be deadly. His beef with the machines may be noble — he doesn’t trust them after a robot chose to save him from drowning instead of a child based on their odds of survival — but his personal grudge is so well known that he gets blamed when a battalion of rogue robots swarm his vehicle and cause a car accident. (At least, that’s the mild description given by a robot that has just punched a hole through Del’s windshield.) The lesson of this film seems to be that no matter how many safeguards you have in place, never trust AI to choose wisely when making life-and-death decisions.
‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’
Sunnydale has seen more than its share of electronic mayhem, from an ancient demon trapped in a computer in season one to the time nerdy Warren built himself a robot girlfriend — and later a Buffybot for Spike. But in season four of the WB series, Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) goes to college and discovers the morally dubious military unit The Initiative, of which her boyfriend Riley (Marc Blucas) is an agent. The clandestine group is run by Dr. Maggie Walsh (Lindsay Crouse), and it soon comes to light that she has been playing Dr. Frankenstein, building a creature known as Adam (George Hertzberg). Made from a jumble of robotic and monster parts The Initiative has gathered, the first thing Adam does is kill his creator. He has a philosophical side, too, and is interested in discovering the reason behind his existence. But he comes to the wrong conclusions, and eventually attempts to create an army of human-demon-machine hybrids like himself with dreams of forging a new, superior race.
“As soon as we started thinking for you, it really became our civilization,” Agent Smith (played by Hugo Weaving) taunts a captive Morpheus in one of the most haunting monologues of The Matrix (1999). An AI super-soldier disguised as a guy in a black suit and sunglasses, Agent Smith and his ilk can dodge bullets, land punches at nearly the speed of light and take over the bodies of unsuspecting humans trapped in the Matrix’s program.
While some of the evil AI on this list tries to destroy the world, the agents instead tend the garden that is the Matrix. Their goal is to keep the humans inside docile and powerless so that they can be used as a fuel source for the robots out in the real (extremely dystopian) world — and, to extend the metaphor, pull weeds like Neo and his friends.
The James Cameron/Gale Ann Hurd franchise birthed a couple of the most iconic catchphrases of the ‘80s and ‘90s (Arnold Schwarzenegger recently told THR about the origins of “I’ll be back”), and it explored the possibility of multiple timelines long before the MCU was conceived of as a big-screen phenomenon. Schwarzenegger stars in most of the film iterations as various incarnations of the Terminator, but even though he can rip out a street thug’s heart with his bare hands (why does he need guns, anyway?), this cyborg can also be programmed to protect Sarah Connor and her savior son (see: Judgment Day, Rise of the Machines, Genisys) just as easily as kill them. The true brains of the operation is Skynet, the self-aware military tech that, in the future, comes to see humanity as a threat and launches a nuclear war.
‘2001: A Space Odyssey’
Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece starts out innocently enough: After a prehistoric vignette that hints at the existence of alien life, a time jump occurs and a group of astronauts set off on a deep-space mission. Their ship is equipped with the latest in technology, H.A.L. 9000, which is renowned because it has never made a mistake.
On the trip, two crewmembers, Dave and Frank, suspect H.A.L. has made an error regarding a malfunctioning piece of equipment, and for the mission’s safety they hatch a plan to deactivate the AI program. This leads H.A.L. — which thinks the humans are the ones compromising the mission — to become murderous, killing the helpless members of the crew who have been kept in suspended animation during the long journey, and turning the ship against Dave and Frank.
After a power struggle, Dave successfully deactivates H.A.L., which regresses intellectually as it’s being unplugged and endearingly sings “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two)” before it loses function entirely. That’s not the end of the film, which has philosophical aspirations way beyond artificial intelligence, but it still offers the iconic cinematic warning on the subject.
What separates man from machine? In this mind-bending film, the question is posed in multiple different contexts. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is asked to determine whether he believes Ava (Alicia Vikander), the AI woman his boss created, has consciousness. Then another character, initially presented as human, turns out to be a robot. And if these machines have consciousness, why is Caleb so sure that he is, in fact, human? This is an AI thriller for adults, filled with intrigue, manipulation and thorny ethical questions about survival, freedom and what we owe one another — whether human or machine.
In one episode of The Big Bang Theory, girl-shy Raj has a romance with his iPhone’s Siri in a dream. That might be similar in concept to Her — the 2013 film in which Joaquin Phoenix’s recently divorced Theodore finds a second chance at love with an operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson — but it couldn’t be further from the tone of the Spike Jonze movie. This existential film asks about the nature of love and happiness, and its release provoked loads of thought-pieces on concepts like owning one’s lover and focusing on technology to the exclusion of real people, as well as why storytellers seem so focused on humanizing (and sexualizing) AI that presents as female. Is it a good idea to date your phone? We can probably all guess the answer, but Theodore’s journey shows the question is more complicated than it might seem.
Originally an ABC series that ran for just over 20 episodes in 1978-79, Battlestar Galactica was followed by a sequel series (Galactica 1980, set in the present day and with a mostly new cast) and other adaptations including a 2003 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries that spawned another popular show that went on for four seasons. The setup (said to have roots in Mormon theology, as creator Glen A. Larson was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) involves a war between the Twelve Colonies of humanity and the Cylons: robots created by humans as servants and laborers that now seek to destroy our race. After the Cylons wipe out most of mankind in a surprise attack, the few survivors — on the starship Galactica and a few other vessels — set out to find the lost 13th colony. Their destination: Earth.
In the original series, the Cylons appeared in several models, most with a vague resemblance to Star Wars’ Stormtroopers. Among them are the Imperious leader (voiced by Patrick Macnee of The Avengers fame), which has three brains; IL-Series Cylons, or commanders; and Centurions, the military foot soldiers that are heavily armored and carry blaster rifles. The Sci-Fi series features an ancient model of Cylons that have humanoid form, enabling them to embed themselves in our civilization as spies. Their digital consciousness gives Cylons many capabilities, including the ability to “download” an individual into a new body, and to change their perceived surroundings in their mind through “projection.” For a space drama, the show is unique in that there are no aliens, with the primary antagonists created by humans; and it explores themes including cycles of violence, and the importance of faith versus science.