Artificial Intelligence in film: Transhumanism and Hollywood

Robotics and artificial intelligence have been a major inspiration for the science fiction genre. Since the beginning of the genre, AI, a term coined in 1956 by John McCarthy (to whom the term "cloud computing" is also attributed), has been a great generator of plots and conflicts for the development of inspiring stories, becoming an allegorical expression of the search for the human through what seems its antithesis: an intelligent machine.

With varying degrees of success, Hollywood has, over the years, created a very well-defined portrait of what our culture understands by Artificial Intelligence. By approaching the subject from different points of view, the film industry has shaped the collective imagination of what to expect from the advancement of today's deep learning technology.

List and analysis of films on artificial intelligence

I am going to make a list of the films that, in my opinion, best portray the issue of AI in cinema and that, in one way or another, were able to anticipate what is now becoming a reality. I will only analyse the first three, but I would like to highlight some others that deal with some of the issues that will later serve to reach various conclusions:

  1. Her
  2. Blade Runner
  3. Ghost in the Shell
  4. Terminator
  5. Artificial Intelligence
  6. 2001: A Space Odyssey
  7. Minority Report
  8. War Games
  9. Ex Machina
  10. I, Robot
  11. I am Mother
  12. Transcendence

It has to be said that the current AI is closer to what is presented in Spike Jonze's Her than to the hyper-capable humanoid presented in Ghost in the Shell, A.I. or Blade Runner: a voice interface with human traits... a highly responsive and empathetic language model. 

Her (Spike Jonze - 2013)

Película sobre IA Her de Spike Jonze

Theodore has suffered a tough break-up and seeks emotional refuge by entering into a relationship with an operating system (OS 1) designed specifically to keep humans company. I don't want to go into the plot in detail (I highly recommend watching this film if you are a fan of the genre), I'm more interested in describing here how Theo interacts with Samantha: Theo communicates with OS 1 by voice, which is more akin to what is known today as VUI (Voice user interface). Something similar to Alexa, Siri or Google Home.

When he is not in his room alone, Theo wears a small earpiece through which he listens to Samantha. He also carries a smartphone-like device with a camera on it: this camera acts as Samantha's eyes.

This is where Her gets it right in describing the future of AI: the use of devices that know how to interpret language. This near-future vision may seem viable, but, in reality, ChatGPT or Bard shows a clear distinction from Samantha (its fictional namesake)... Samantha has a consciousness... she is written as a human being, she represents what a human is. ChatGPT can only aspire to give coherent answers, it has "only" found logical patterns of response in millions of analysed texts. This form of voice interaction is something that is already in contention. It will not be long before we see "intelligent" software that is able to perform tasks dictated to it by voice, without having to go through hundreds of iterations to make the program understand you. (Two days after writing this article, Open AI announced the voice interface of Chat GPT).

To say, as has sometimes been sensationally claimed, that these language models can develop consciousness is akin to pareidolia: it looks like consciousness, but it is not. It is important to note that in Her, one of Samantha's most revealing characteristics is her unconsciousness, which shows up in her arbitrary decisions, such as the example of her choice of name (because it sounds good to her - she claims). It is precisely this unconsciousness that defines the human in the film, as does desire, which is quoted verbatim in the plot. What liberates Samantha, what makes her grow exponentially, is desire. This inclusion is not accidental, it is a mention of psychoanalysis and the studies of Freud and Lacan. That unconscious is what the current models of language lack in order to really be categorised as a "Human Intelligence". It is not strange to doubt that this feat is something an algorithm is capable of... Artificial intelligence in film is rarely shown as a technical process, but is usually represented by a character endowed with consciousness and humanity that serves as a vehicle to enunciate the basic conflict. Synthetic vs Natural.

Which leads me to the following reflection: Is the mere simulation of what is human enough for society to consider it human?

Blade Runner (Ridley Scott - 1982)

Peliculas sobre IA Blade Runner 1982

This is the premise explored in Blade Runner (Is the mere simulation of what is human enough for society to consider it human?) Ridley Scott bases his film on the book: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? - Philip K. Dick. The very title of the book explores the idea of whether something artificial can develop a human-like culture.

A constant in this film genre is the question of whether technological development could somehow lead us to the synthesis of the human, to the formula of what the human is. Blade Runner, unlike many other films about artificial intelligence, turns this premise on its head and asks whether the human can be as robotic, as arid and as alienated as a machine that functions on the basis of algorithms. In Blade Runner, the replicants are more human than the humans themselves.

This vision of the world is more topical than ever: The exponential growth of deep learning in all its facets and the projection of Elon Musk's far-fetched idea of Neuralink have brought Blade Runner into the present, but once again in the form of a metaphor. It is not only the work of Hollywood screenwriters and actors that is in the eye of the storm due to the potential of a technology that generates images and text by incessant processing. Graphics card farms are working flat out to generate semi-prefabricated content that seeks to align with Google's algorithmic tastes... Humans are being overtaken by their creation, in a very mundane singularity, calling into question what until now has been their livelihood.

The famous letter signed by Musk himself and Steve Wozniak, among others, shows their concern about this issue: the social impact that the technological development of AI can have. Companies in search of efficiency are adopting AI tools and this is where their concern arises: can AI be so efficient that it is even inhumane, can technology transform the humane and make it unreachable? 

And these questions lead us to the following film, which explores this concept.

Ghost in the Shell (Masamune Shirow - 1989)

peliculas IA ghost in the shell anime

This idea (Can technology transform the humane and take it away?) is the basis of the conflict suffered by the protagonist of this cyberpunk manga: Major (Motoko Kusanagi) suffers an accident and her brain has to be implanted in a cybernetic body... which makes her constantly doubt her humanity. During the film, Major comes into contact with an AI that takes over a cyborg to manifest itself in the real world: Puppet Master.

The union between the Puppeteer and Major gives rise to the singularity, to the transcendence of human intelligence, to transhuman liberation. This union of the human and the synthetic is something that science fiction has constantly explored, but today has glimpses of reality thanks to, or because of, the Neuralink project. What Hollywood makes clear to us is that the future, in this sense, will be dystopian and our technological development seems to be heading towards that dystopia, not by mistake or unexpected causes, but by its own determination.

You don't need to analyse more films about artificial intelligence to see what the "point" here is. There is a promising part of the current technological development: The development of VUI (Voice User interface) and voice-guided devices will be a reality in a matter of years. Incredible processing power and AI will make cars safer, make medical diagnostics more reliable, and make technology that facilitates the creation of entertainment content more accessible... but at the same time it confronts us with huge problems that we do not know how to solve. Rapid technological development may outpace our ability to move or, if you like, quickly take us into a dystopian world already depicted by film and television.

Those of you who have been with us for a long time know that at Gigas we are lovers of cinema and science fiction. And if there is anything we have learnt from it is that the world of artificial intelligence will bring great advances and challenges to our sector and we are preparing for them.