AI: Really as Scary as They Seem

From Terminator to Ex Machina, our pop culture teaches us that artificial intelligence (AI) is an unrelenting force that we should hate and fear. There is a certain human tendency to be wary of things that are smarter or more capable than us, but the fact of the matter is that there is ample evidence to suggest that the rise of AI wouldn’t necessarily be a terrifying and deadly walk through the Uncanny Valley. Rather, it has the potential to become a partnership built on mutual respect and benefit. In fact, even where there are depictions of robots taking over the human race, there are significant examples of AI that suggest a positive relationship with this advanced technology.

Perhaps the most well-known examples of friendly and lovable AI are the adventurous pair R2D2 and C3PO from the Star Wars franchise. Not only are they incredibly helpful in their primary functions as technician and translator respectfully, they also have no problem with ownership rights being bandied about regarding them and they are willing to do what it takes to help free the galaxy from the Empire. The first trilogy is largely focused on them as viewpoint characters for the audience.

In the cult classic television show, Mystery Science Theater 3000, we also are introduced to a host of helpful robots in the persons of Crow T. Robot, Tom Servo, and the less well-known but equally important Gypsy and CamBot. These four AIs created by imprisoned experiment-subject Joel Robinson are played by puppets, but are designed in-show to be friends and psychological crutches that help Joel stave off madness while being forced to watch bad film after bad film. CamBot does little but show what’s going on and Gypsy runs the higher functions of the ship more often than not, but Crow and Tom are silhouetted right there along with Joel – and later Mike – making fun of terrible B movies and getting into hilarious hijinx on the Satellite of Love.

One other significant example is Pixar’s Wall-E in which we are introduced to one of the most helpful and lovable AIs on screen. The titular character is a robot literally designed to remain on an Earth destroyed by human consumption and clean up our mess for us. This is a task he continues to do diligently and without question for generations before meeting Eve and going on his space adventure. When introduced to humans, he is in no way threatening and continues to be helpful, even risking life and limb to find the evidence needed to help them get back to Earth.

The endearing aspect of these particular robots stems from the fact that they are extremely human in their actions and intentions. R2D2’s bravery and cunning, C3PO’s humor and fatalism, the Satellite of Love ‘bots’ sense of fun, and even Wall-E’s curiosity and love are things that we see in ourselves, making it easy to identify with them and see them as non-threatening. Further, rather than fulfilling huge tasks like global defense in the case of Skynet or space exploration like HAL 9000, they are generally tasked with simple, low-impact tasks. Even Wall-E, who is to clean up the entire planet by himself, is doing so on the world abandoned by humanity with no timeline for completion.

In fact, the immediate future of AI will likely be in smaller appliances and developmental steps in technology. Day-to-day tasks are already made easier with advancements in this type of technology, including wearables, smart appliances in cooking and home automation, such as the Crock-Pot with WeMo, remotely controlled security systems, and robot vacuums. Although not true AI, these helpful technologies could be the basis of the future of robots. Perhaps it won’t be long until we develop a robot that will be able to cook for us and protect us from burglars.

The more malevolent variety has probably taught us at least a little about how to develop our AI. We have to be able to teach it not only to value life, but to struggle with questions of morality. Remember, Skynet destroyed humanity because it was tasked with ending war. Both Ultron and the Cybermen are dedicated to the perfection of the human race. These stories show us that we must be careful in how we teach AI morality and design with the idea in mind that they are both intelligent and don’t have a lifetime of socialization and moral instruction like humans have.

Ultimately, the future of AI is likely to be positive. While our culture will always have terrifying examples to remind us of our own hubris, our world is more reliant on technology than ever before and stories where our cellphones are our friends rather than spies in our pockets will continue to thrive.

the author

Maria Ramos