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Our robot future, according to sci-fi

Our robot future, according to sci-fi

Words: 5

Photos: Various

Fictional visions of the future often end up being scarily close to the real thing. Can they offer us a glimpse of what to expect from a future dominated by AI and robotics? We watched 5 movies about robots to see what we could learn – and whether we should be excited or afraid.

Blade Runner: Identifying and killing humanoid robots is a tough job.
Photo: A.F. ARCHIVE / Alamy Stock Photo

Blade Runner

What if we couldn’t tell robots from people?

Technically, Blade Runner doesn’t count as a vision of the future anymore, because it’s set last year, in 2019. But it still feels as fresh as it did when it was made.

Ridley Scott’s hugely influential film portrays a bleak, polluted and very rainy world where humans live alongside ‘synthetic’ people, built to perform various tasks. When the robots turn violent, it’s Harrison Ford’s job to put them out of action.

It’s not an easy task given the robots’ heightened strength and intellect, combined with their lifelike appearance. Investigators must use lengthy psychological interrogation to distinguish humans from ‘skin jobs’, and to make matters even harder, some of them don’t even realise that they’re not real people.

Blade Runner has a clever way of making you root for the robots and the guy trying to execute them at the same time. It’s a film that makes us question what’s real, and how we can ever know the true nature of those around us, or even ourselves. The sequel, Blade Runner 2049, picks up the story 30 years later, further exploring a world where we’re not sure who’s real, who’s synthetic, and who our memories really belong to.

How close to reality is it? Relax, it’ll be a while before robots look this real.
How worried should we be? For now the bigger concern is your robot vacuum running over a cat poo.

I, Robot: Is this robot a villain or a victim?
Photo: A.F. ARCHIVE / Alamy Stock Photo

I, Robot

What if robots thought they knew better than us?

This 2004 action adventure starring Will Smith is inspired by Isaac Asimov’s 1950 story collection of the same name, which introduced the Three Laws of Robotics.

The laws state that robots can’t hurt people, that robots must follow orders (unless it means hurting people) and that robots must protect themselves (unless it means hurting people or disobeying orders).

I, Robot weaves these laws into a whodunnit story where the robot is the prime suspect. It delves into the gaps and uncertainties in the laws, asking how robots might interpret them, if they got just a bit too smart. The idea of intelligent machines behaving unpredictably may have sounded fanciful in 2004, but in 2020 it is an all-too-real concern.

Unfortunately, this fascinating premise doesn’t quite last the duration of the movie, which instead descends into action movie cliches and over-the-top stunts, fuelled by CGI special effects that haven’t aged well.

Even so, it’s a reminder that ethics are never as clear cut as we’d like them to be, and for fans of car chases and explosions, there’s plenty to enjoy.

How close to reality is it? Miles away, but the underlying concerns about automated decision-making are already here.
How worried should we be? Read our article on bias in AI and decide for yourself.

Ex Machina: What does it really mean to be human?
Photo: All Star Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

Ex Machina

What if robots passed the Turing test?

This haunting sci-fi thriller stars Alicia Vikander as Ava, the highly intelligent female robot who just might be the first to pass the Turing test – convincing people that she’s human. The person she has to win over is Caleb, a young programmer who is honoured with the chance to be a part of this groundbreaking experiment.

As Caleb, Ava and her playboy-genius creator Nathan circle round each other in Nathan’s isolated futuristic home, our deepest anxieties about the nature of robots – and humans – come to the fore. As Caleb begins to fall in love with the beguiling, intelligent Ava, he begins to question his own sanity, and is angered by the way Nathan treats her.

As the claustrophobic days pass, it becomes less and less clear who is pulling the strings and whose motives are more cynical. After all, if robots can convince us that they’re human, what else might they be able to convince us of?

How close to reality is it? Closer than you think.
How worried should we be? We’d like to say not very, but… have you seen the film?

Her: In love with a disembodied voice.
Photo: Moviestore Collection / Alamy Stock Photo


What if we fell in love with robots?

Strictly speaking Her is about an AI rather than a robot, but it’s still one of the most fully realised technological characters portrayed on celluloid. The movie follows Theodor Twombly, a lonely tech geek (Joaquin Phoenix) living in a near-future Los Angeles, spending his days at the office and his evenings playing video games. A recent divorcee, there is a gap in his life to be filled. When this finally comes along, it’s in a shape he didn’t expect: Sam, the world’s first AI operating system. Not unlike Siri or Alexa, Theo communicates with Sam by voice chat (Scarlett Johansson provides a masterful voice performance) and quickly finds that she is his perfect woman.

Soon enough, Theo is skipping through the streets of LA chatting to Sam, becoming an unrecognisably playful, almost insane version of himself. Is it love?

In his relationship with Sam, Theo faces both the taboo associated with AI-human relationships and the difficulties with intimacy that naturally follow. In the age of sex robots and AI chatrooms, Her is a highly relevant musing on whether feelings and bots will be able to stay separate in the future (and whether they should). Certainly, it makes one thing clear: the question of whether we can love robots is one thing, but the question of whether they can love humans back is a whole different story.

How close to reality is it? Closer by the second.
How worried should we be? Depends how you feel about sex with machines.

Big Hero 6: Are you satisfied with your care?
Photo: PictureLux / Alamy Stock Photo

Big Hero 6

What if a robot could help us cope with bereavement?

This 2014 Disney animation, based on a Marvel Comics series, is a colourful and fast-paced adventure about a team of superheroes trying to stop a masked villain. At the same time, it’s a story about how we come to terms with bereavement.

The hero, named Hiro, is a child tech genius who loses his older brother in a mysterious accident. But when he switches on Baymax, the teddy-bear-like nursing robot that his brother had been building, he uncovers saved recordings of his lost sibling, and sees a way to continue his work – and perhaps honour his memory.

The film’s real heart comes through in one line that Baymax keeps repeating: ‘Are you satisfied with your care?’ It sounds like the kind of bland user feedback survey that our devices present us with every day, yet it ends up carrying great pathos, as Baymax not only helps Hiro uncover the truth about his brother’s death, but also to come to terms with the loss.

How close to reality is it? Right on the doorstep.
How worried should we be? Not at all! For once, it’s good news.


The Terminator
What if robots turned against us?

The Terminator, and its sequel Terminator 2 (don’t bother with any of the subsequent films), paint a vivid picture of the unbreakable resolve of a machine programmed to kill. The more Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg gets maimed and dismembered, the more terrifying it becomes. As the robot’s target is memorably warned: “It absolutely will not stop. Ever. Until you are dead.”

What if robots sowed the seeds of class warfare?

In Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece, a robot seeks to foment uprising among the workers of a dystopian future city. Given their dire circumstances, this doesn’t seem like too bad an idea, but for some reason Metropolis’ robot is cast as the villain. Still, the living, breathing world of Metropolis is beautifully realised, and way ahead of its time – just compare Lang’s robot to C3P0 from Star Wars, which was released half a century later.

What if robots could fulfil our darkest desires?

Michael Crichton’s novel was made into a film in 1973, and a more recent HBO series. In the near-future, high-paying guests live out their fantasies in a huge theme park called Westworld, which is populated by robot ‘hosts’. Just like in the old west, there’s no law, and the hosts are programmed to never harm humans, so guests can indulge in drink, sex and violence to their hearts’ content. What could possibly go wrong?


Header photo: AA Film Archive / Alamy Stock Photo