‘The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human’
Stephen Hawking’s quote in 2014 made headlines in the media, but in the realm of cinema, it was far from breaking news.
We’ve seen skulls crushed under the feet of machines in the opening of James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), and HAL 9000 sabotage a space mission in the name of self-preservation in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Becky Jones, consultant for Phoenix’s Sentient Film Festival, suggests that due to the malleability of artificial intelligence as a plot point or character in cinema, films featuring sentient robots or A.I will always be relevant: ‘A.I raises questions about workers rights, treatment of women, and what makes someone truly human’.
A.I has been a mainstay of cinema – particularly science fiction – for decades. Filmmakers have often utilised the genre as a vehicle to ask weightier questions about contemporary society. For example The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is an allegorical tale of nuclear disarmament, with the alien protagonist Klaatu warning the people of Earth that continuing armament would lead to the its destruction at the hands of a robotic interstellar police force, personified by the terrifying GORT.
But A.I in film is not always a threat, and perhaps Hawking’s comments play too easily into the oft-depicted ‘evil robot’ analogy. Contemporary cinema in particular has recently depicted more nuanced interpretations of AI – Ex Machina’s entire plot is predicated on robot Ava’s true intentions, and Her takes away any malevolence by having the artificial intelligence Samantha as one half of the film’s central romance.
The sheer number of films that feature A.I – from Disney animated fare such as Big Hero 6, to low budget indie dramas like Robot and Frank – make it difficult to find a recurrent trait in its depiction across cinema. More often than not films use A.I to pose questions about humanity itself. This can be in exploring what it means to be human or a more layered exploration of humanity’s relationships with machines. Becky Jones suggests that ‘humanity’s relationship with A.I in cinema is symbiotic – most evil robots are made that way by people, but the good ones are often a result of being around the best of us’.
With Hawking’s weighing in on the future of A.I, the British Academy launching a series of events ‘exploring how robotics and artificial intelligence could revolutionise society’ and the National Science Museum hosting an exhibition on robotics, it seems the Sentient Film Festival couldn’t be more relevant.
But as decades of cinema has shown, A.I will always be a part of the zeitgeist, adapting and changing to reflect the best, and worst, humanity has to offer.
The Sentient Film Festival runs from 21st-26th March 2017.