Articles

At Peace With A.I.? As If.
With Andy Singleterry on October 10, 2016

We are excited to present the seventh in our 2016 series considering how our watching, writing, and talking about cinema might contribute to God's unfolding shalom in our communities and world. If you are considering responding to our call for submissions for this series, we encourage you to do so. We still have one open spot in our series, so there is still room for your contribution. - Editor

Introduction

You’re being chased. Running down a street, desperate to stay alive. You turn a corner, then another, and hide behind a car. Breath comes heavy, but you try to keep quiet. Your legs can’t run anymore. Your only hope is that you’ve slipped your enemy. The street is quiet. Terrified, you peek out, looking for . . . what?

What comes to mind in this standard cinematic set-up? Maybe a man with a gun, or a monster, or, perhaps, a robot. For decades science fiction films have warned us of the dangers of robots run amok – think of Blade Runner, the Terminator movies, even The Day the Earth Stood Still. Other genres play on our fears of human or supernatural evil, while science fiction plays up our fear of technological danger. Even though they are our own creations, robots and computers could attack us, their makers.

Some dismiss this anti-technological portrayal as paranoid sensationalism, manufacturing fear for fun and profit. Nobody’s making killer robots, they would say. But such a dismissive response is too shallow. Movies about robots and computers targeting humans act as a sort of collective conscience for our society, warning us of dangers we might otherwise miss. Sure, the movies over-dramatize the real dangers, but that helps them get under our skin, helps us remember their messages. Technology does endanger our shalom, and films about dangerous technologies remind us of that truth.

I’ve already mentioned a few examples in passing. Now, I’ll look at four representatives in detail, two classics that set the stage and two recent masterpieces that build on them. This will require me to describe the stories, so here is your spoiler alert.

The Classics

Metropolis

Fritz Lang’s silent film of 1927 set the early standard for science fiction movies. Metropolis is a Marxist allegory. The proletariat workers toil at dirty, dangerous underground machines while the bourgeoisie live in luxurious beauty above. A charismatic teacher from below, Maria, begins to rally her compatriots to protest the injustice of the city After spying on a meeting, the city master tries to undermine the movement by building a robot replica of her who will lead the workers astray into self-destructive actions. They capture her and begin the ruse. Complicating the matter, the master’s son has fallen in love with the real Maria and wants to serve as a bridge between the classes, and he can’t understand why his beloved is ruining her work. Reconciliation comes when Maria escapes and a fire burns away the robot’s mask. The sympathetic son brokers peace between his father and workers below.

Metropolis is a visual marvel – the ingenious special effects and German Expressionist cinematography carry far more interest for modern audiences than the heavy-handed message. But its perspective on technology makes an interesting artifact too. The underground workplace is all grinding gears, an environment that kills workers who make mistakes. The workers are parts of the machine, tools to be used and then discarded. The filmmakers drew that technological portrayal from real life in their German, industrial age.

The Maria robot, on the other hand, is meant to be wholly unfamiliar and terrifying. You can tell by the dramatic reveal of the robot’s form. This is perhaps the greatest disconnect between Metropolis and a modern audience; while Nosferatu, the vampire in a contemporary film, still looks scary, the robot menace now seems commonplace, even comically-overwrought in its human form. So what were they so afraid of in 1927? Sending a robot impostor was a way for Metropolis’s overseers to influence the thoughts and decisions of the workers. The masters’ machinery already defined the workers’ external world, and this new machine might also control their internal thought-world. As technology was growing more sophisticated and less understandable to most users, people grew more vulnerable to hidden influences. They might even mistake a machine for a human. Metropolis warned viewers about these dangers and offered a solution: unmask the machine and trust the people you know.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Fast forward 40 years. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 came out in 1968, but he worked on the film for four years before that. The story stretches from prehistoric apes to futuristic space travel, and the binding thread is a series of black monoliths, alien constructions of unknown origin. The first appears among our ape ancestors and sparks human intelligence. Then, in 2001, astronauts discover one buried on the moon. When the sun hits the monolith, it beams a message towards Jupiter. NASA sends a team to investigate, and they find a giant monolith orbiting the planet. In a move of psychedelic dream logic, that monolith becomes a door which takes the man who enters to a higher consciousness. Just as the prehistoric monolith inspired human evolution, this one inspires superhuman evolution.

2001: A Space Odyssey is notoriously difficult to follow, but I believe it’s the greatest film ever made; like the monoliths, it is opaque to light from outside but inspires higher thought in those who touch it. One of the more straightforward ways to watch it, though, is with an eye toward its technological commentary. From the perspective of the 60s, when Kubrick made it, 2001 was decades in the future. The guesses he and his team made about technological progress in the future are fascinating from our 2016 viewpoint. Front and center is the assumption that space travel would advance to the point of sending people to Jupiter.

Of course, if you’ve seen the film you know that I’ve left out a major portion. 2001 is almost like two films. Nested within the story summarized above is the narrative of the team’s trip to Jupiter. Most of the team sleep through the voyage, while two astronauts pilot the ship. Their companion is a computer, HAL 9000, who directly controls the ship’s systems. At the outset, only HAL knows the true nature of the mission, to investigate the monolith’s signal. The computer ends up killing all the sleeping crew members, and tries to do the same to the two awake. But one survives and disengages HAL’s artificial intelligence, effectively rendering the ship brain-dead.

HAL is a more powerful and intelligent computer than any that we have actually made in the time since 1968. But it is massive. Computers of the 1960s were giant mainframes, and Kubrick and his team extrapolated from that.  They overshot on power and undershot on ubiquity. But HAL expresses the fear that computers might overtake humanity. 2001 is a famously quiet film, with hardly any dialogue, and HAL is by far the chattiest character. All the people are inexpressive thinkers, practically robots, and the computer whose only physical manifestation is a creepy, red eye seems more human than the humans. If our primary drive is to understand the universe, are we more than tools of knowing? And if our tools, our computers, discern that discovery is served by our death, is that wrong? Kubrick reminds us to retain our humanity and remember its worth.

Contemporary Masterpieces

The Matrix

The Wachowskis’ 1999 film could be called Metropolis Revisited, except instead of unmasking one robot they reveal a nefarious machine behind our entire culture. The Matrix posits a world where machines control everything, and humans are just their batteries. They siphon energy from our bodies, which lie dormant in pods. To mollify us, the machines project a world in the dream theater of our minds, a world much like 1990s America. The heroes of the film are awake, though, and they resist machine control in both the real world and the simulacrum. They have to flee monstrous, bug-like robots in the waking world while trying to inspire people in the sleeping world, where they have to avoid super-powered agents of the machine.

The imagery of all humanity asleep in pods, with their energy drawn to power machine masters, looks like an updated version of the underground workplace of Metropolis. But here everyone is oppressed. No distinction is made between rich and poor. We are all being used by the machines, all being fooled by their ruse. 

Most in the American Church have seen The Matrix used as a warning against the lies of the world. But the Wachowskis certainly intended a less religious message. In our world of immersive video games, pervasive entertainment and advertising, and an economy dependent on technology, they warn us to fight back. Every technology offers an implicit deal: use me and you’ll gain some efficiency, some fun, some ease, at the low cost of a little personal agency. But the Wachowskis think the gain isn’t worth the cost. All those compromises of personal agency add up to a huge loss, all for a little empty comfort. The Matrix encourages us to wake up and take back our lives.

Ex Machina

Our final example comes from just last year. In Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, a young programmer, Caleb, at a Google-like company wins a trip to the house of the reclusive CEO. There, he learns that his boss has been working on a humanoid robot with artificial intelligence, and he gets to judge the project’s success. The maker has given the robot the face of a beautiful woman and names her Ava, but the electronic workings of her body are exposed. Nevertheless, she seduces the programmer and incapacitates her maker. Having gained human-looking skin, she traps both men in the house and leaves them to die. Ava walks away into the human world.

On the surface, Ava seems like another Maria, but without a real-life doppelgänger. Or, rather, the real Maria is the robot under the skin, while the human woman is the mask she wears. Ex Machina warns us that we might forget the nature of our technology, mistaking it for humanity. Even though Caleb knows Ava is a robot, she’s so well-made that he can’t help responding to her as a woman. Of course, we all respond to less-convincing machines as if they were people all the time. Do we put ourselves in danger when we do that?

As-If Shalom

Yes, we invite a danger when we treat machines as people. So says Sherry Turkle, the eminent psychologist and sociologist of technology at MIT. In Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk In a Digital Age, she talks about how people are getting used to interacting with machines as if they were people. Kids play with electronic toys instead of friends, old folks have listening computers to keep them company. But they lose the blessing of real human interaction. Technologies can only behave as if they cared. People can really care. If we continue accepting convenient technological substitutes, we may lose that capacity.

So, what’s at risk is our shalom. That peace of wholeness and wellbeing includes community living together in love. The four films above, without realizing it, warn us of ways that technology threatens shalom and encourage us to flourish in our humanity. They make the technology frighten us to drive home the consequences of accepting it uncritically. They call us to leave our own devices, and cling to our own selves.

Andy Singleterry does incarnational urban ministry in San Jose, California. He's on staff with Servant Partners to lead an internship for propsective missionaries, start up a poverty-alleviation program, and help plant a church. But, in an alternate take on his life -- like in The Double Life of Veronique or Sliding Doors -- he would be a film critic.

2 Responses to "At Peace With A.I.? As If."

  1. Really good to read about this. I was very happy to see this post and excited to read the seventh in our 2016 series which talks about the movie. CBD oil for anxiety The Metropolis is a visual marvel and is a good move to watch.

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