What AI Stories Aren’t We Telling (That We Should Be)?
Last fall I was invited with some other spectacular people to participate in a retreat about AI, happening at the Juvet Landscape Hotel in Ålstad, Norway. (A breathtaking opportunity, and thematically a perfect setting since it was the shooting location for Ex Machina. Thanks to Andy Budd for the whole idea, as well as Ellen de Vries, James Gilyead, and the team at Clearleft who helped organize.) The event was structured like an unconference, so participants could propose sessions and if anyone was interested, join up. One of the workshops I proposed was called “AI Narratives” and it sought to answer the question “What AI Stories Aren’t We Telling (That We Should Be)?” So, why this topic?
Sci-fi, my reasoning goes, plays an informal and largely unacknowledged role in setting public expectations and understanding about technology in general and AI in particular. That, in turn, affects public attitudes, conversations, behaviors at work, and votes. If we found that sci-fi was telling the public misleading stories over and over, we should make a giant call for the sci-fi creating community to consider telling new stories. It’s not that we want to change sci-fi from being entertainment to being propaganda, but rather to try and take its role as informal opinion-shaper more seriously.
In the workshop we were working with a very short timeframe, so we managed to do good work, but not get very far, even though we doubled our original time frame. I have taken time since to extend that work to get to this series of posts for scifiinterfaces.com.
My process to get to an answer will take six big steps.
- First I’ll do some term-setting and describe what we managed to get done in the short time we had at Juvet.
- Then I’ll share the set of sci-fi films and television shows I identified that deal with AI to consider as canon for the analysis. (Step one and two are today’s post)
- I’ll these properties’ aggregated “takeaways” that pertain to AI: What would an audience reasonably presume given the narrative about AI in the real world? These are the stories we are telling ourselves.
- Next I’ll look at the handful of manifestos and books dealing with AI futurism to identify their imperatives.
- I’ll map the cinematic takeaways to the imperatives.
- Finally I’ll run the “diff” to identify find out what stories we aren’t telling ourselves, and hypothesize a bit about why.
Along the way, we’ll get some fun side-analyses, like:
- What categories of AI appear in screen sci-fi?
- Do more robots or software AI appear?
- Are our stories about AI more positive or negative, and how has that changed over time?
- What takeaways tend to correlate with other takeaways?
- What takeaways appear in mostly well-rated movies (and poorly-rated movies)?
- Which movies are most aligned with computer science’s concerns? Which are least?
- These will come up in the analysis when they make sense.
Longtime readers of this blog may sense something familiar in this approach, and that’s because I am basing the methodology partly on the thinking I did last year for working through the Fermi Paradox and Sci-Fi question. Also, I should note that, like the Fermi analysis, this isn’t about the interfaces for AI, so it’s technically a little off-topic for the blog. Return later if you’re disinterested in this bit.
Since AI is a big conceptual space, let me establish some terms of art to frame the discussion.
- Narrow AI is the AI of today, in which algorithms enact decisions and learn in narrow domains. They are unable to generalize knowledge and adapt to new domains. The Roomba, the Nest Thermostat, and self-driving cars are real-world examples of this kind of AI. Karen from Spider-Man: Homecoming, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s car AIs (also from the MCU), and even the ZF-1 weapon in The Fifth Element are sci-fi examples.
- General AI is the as-yet speculative AI that thinks kind of like a human thinks, able to generalize knowledge and adapt readily to new domains. HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Replicants in Blade Runner, and the robots in Star Wars like C3PO and BB-8 are examples of this kind of AI.
- Super AI is the speculative AI that is orders of magnitude smarter than general AI, and thereby orders of magnitude smarter than us. It’s arguable that we’ve really ever seen a proper Super AI in screen sci-fi (because characters keep outthinking it and wut?), but Deep Thought from The Hitchhiker Guide to the Galaxy, the big AI in The Matrix diegesis, and the titular AI from Colossus: The Forbin Project come close.
There are fine arguments to be made that these are insufficient for the likely breadth of AI that we’re going to be facing, but for now, let’s accept these as working categories, because the strategies (and thereby what stories we should be telling ourselves) for each is different.
- Narrow AI is the AI of now. It’s in the world. (As long as it’s not autonomous weapons,…) It gets safer as it gets more intelligent. It will enable efficiencies, for some domains, never before seen. It will disrupt our businesses and our civics. It, like any technology, can be misused, but the AI won’t have any ulterior motives of its own.
- General AI is what lots of big players are gunning for. It doesn’t exist yet. It gets more dangerous as it gets smarter, largely because it will begin to approach a semblance of sentience and approach the evolutionary threshold to superintelligence. We will restructure society to accomodate it, and it will restructure society. It could come to pass in a number of ways: a willing worker class, a revolt, new world citizenry. It/they will have a convincing consciousness, by definition, so their motives and actions become a factor.
- Super AI is the most risky scenario. If we have seeded it poorly, it presents the existential risk that big names like Gates and Musk are worried about. If seeded poorly, it could wipe us out as a side-effect of pursuing its goals. If seeded well, it might help us solve some of the vexing problems plaguing humanity. (c.f. Climate change, inequality, war, disease, overpopulation, maybe even senescence and death.) It’s very hard to really imagine what life will be like in a world with something approaching godlike intelligence. It could conceivably restructure the planet, the solar system, and us to accomplish whatever its goals are.
Since these things are related but categorically so different, we should take care so speak about them differently when talking about our media strategy toward them.
Also I should clarify that I included AI that was embodied in a mobile form, like C-3PO or cylons, and call them robots in the analysis when its pertinent. Other non-embodied AI is just called AI or unembodied.
Those terms established, let me also talk a bit about the foundational work done with a smart group of thinkers at Juvet.
Juvet was an amazing experience generally (we saw the effing northern lights, y’all) and if you’re interested, there was a group write up afterwards, called the Juvet Agenda. Check that out.
My workshop for “AI Narratives” attracted 8 participants. Shouts out to them follows. Many are doing great work in other domains, so give them a look up sometime.
- Kate Devlin
- Dan Hon
- Andy Budd
- Benjamin Remington
- Dan Harvey
- Matt Webb
- Josh Clark
- And of course, me, Christopher Noessel
To pursue an answer, this team first wrote up every example of an AI in screen-based sci-fi that we could think of on red Post-It Notes. (A few of us referenced some online sources so it wasn’t just from memory.) Next we clustered those thematically. This was the bulk of the work done there.
I also took time to try and simultaneously put together on yellow Post-It Notes a set of Dire Warnings from the AI community, and even started to use Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! story frameworks to try and categorize the examples, but we ran out of time before we could begin to pursue any of this. It’s as well. I realized later the Save The Cat! Framework was not useful to this analysis.
Still, a lot of what came out there is baked into the following posts, so let this serve as a general shout-out and thanks to those awesome participants. Can’t wait to meet you at the next one.
But when I got home and began thinking of posting this to scifiinterfaces, I wanted to make sure I was including everything I could. So, I sought out some other sources to check the list against.
What AI Stories Are We Telling in Sci-Fi?
This sounds simple, but it’s not. What counts as AI in sci-fi movies and TV shows? Do Robots? Do automatons? What about magic that acts like technology? What about superhero movies that are on the “edge” of sci-fi? Spy shows? Are we sticking to narrow AI, strong AI, or super AI, or all of the above? At Juvet and since, I’ve eschewed trying to work out some formal definition, and instead go with loose, English language definitions, something like the ones I shared above. We’re looking at the big picture. Because of this, trying to hairsplit the details won’t serve us.
How did you come up with the survey of AI shows?
So, I wound up taking the shows identified at Juvet and then adding in shows in this list from Wikipedia and a few stragglers tagged on IMDB with AI as a keyword. That processes resulted in the following list.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Big Hero 6
Black Mirror “Be Right Back”
Black Mirror “Black Museum”
Black Mirror “Hang the DJ”
Black Mirror “Hated in the Nation”
Black Mirror “Metalhead”
Black Mirror “San Junipero”
Black Mirror “USS Callister”
Black Mirror “White Christmas”
Blade Runner 2049
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century
Buffy the Vampire Slayer Intervention
Colossus: The Forbin Project
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Der Herr der Welt (i.e. Master of the World)
Ghost in the Shell
Ghost in the Shell (2017 film)
Hide and Seek
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The Invisible Boy
The Iron Giant
Iron Man 3
Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie
The Matrix Reloaded
The Matrix Revolutions
Passengers (2016 film)
Person of Interest
Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams (Series) “Autofac”
Psycho-pass: The Movie
Resident Evil: Extinction
Resident Evil: Retribution
Resident Evil: The Final Chapter
Rick & Morty “The Ricks Must be Crazy”
Robocop (2014 film)
Robot & Frank
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Short Circuit 2
Star Trek First Contact
Star Trek Generations
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
Terminator Genisys, aka Terminator 5
Transformers: Age of Extinction
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Transformers: The Last Knight
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Now sci-fi is vast, and more is being created all the time. Even accounting for the subset that has been committed to television and movie screens, it’s unlikely that this list contains every possible example. If you want to suggest more, feel free to add them in the comments. I am especially interested in examples that would suggest a tweak to the strategic conclusions at the end of this series of posts.
Did anything not make the cut?
A “greedy” definition of narrow AI would include some fairly mundane automatic technologies. The doors found in the Star Trek diegesis, for example, detect many forms of life (including synthetic) and even gauge the intentions of its users to determine whether or not they should activate. That’s more sophisticated than it first seems. (There was a chapter all about sci-fi doors that wound up on the cutting room floor of the book. Maybe I’ll pick that up and post it someday.) But when you think about this example in terms of cultural imperatives, the benefits of the door are so mundane, and the risks near nil (in the Star Trek universe they work perfectly, even if on set they didn’t), it doesn’t really help us answer the ultimate question driving these posts. Let’s call those smart, utilitarian, low-risk technologies mundane, and exclude those.
That’s not to say workaday, real-world narrow AI is out. IBM’s Watson for Oncology (full disclosure: I’ve worked there the past year and a half) reads X-rays to help identify tumors faster and more accurately than human doctors can keep up with. (Fuller disclosure: It is not without its criticisms.)…(Fullest disclosure: I do not speak on behalf of IBM anywhere on this blog.)
Watson for Oncology winds up being workaday, but still really valuable. It would be great to see such benefits to humanity writ in sci-fi. It would remind us of why we might pursue it even though it presents risk. On the flip side, mundane examples can have pernicious, hard-to-see consequences when implemented at a social scale, and if it’s clear a sci-fi narrow AI illustrates those kind of risks, it would be very valuable to include.
Also comedy may have AI examples, but for the same reason those examples are very difficult to review, they’re also difficult to include in this analysis. What belongs to the joke and what should be considered actually part of the diegesis? So, say, the Fembots from Austin Powers aren’t included.
Why not rate individual AIs?
You’ll note that I put The Avengers: Age of Ultron on one line, rather than listing Ultron, JARVIS, Friday, and Vision as separate things to consider. I did this because the takeaways (detailed in the next post) are tied to the whole story, not just the AI. If a story only has evil AIs, the implied imperative is to steer clear of AI. If a story only has good AIs, it implies we should step on the gas. But when a story has both, the takeaway is more complicated. Maybe it is that we should avoid the thing that made the evil AI evil, or to ensure that AI has human welfare baked into its goals and easy ways to unplug it if it’s become clear that it doesn’t. These examples show that it is the story that is the profitable chunk to examine.
TV shows are more complicated than movies because long-running ones, like Dr. Who or Star Trek, have lots of stories and the strategic takeaways may have changed over episodes much less the decades. For these shows, I’ve had to cheat a little and talk just about Daleks, say, or Data. My one-line coverage does them a bit of a disservice. But to keep this on track and not become a months-long analysis, I’ve gone with the very high level summary.
Similarly, franchises (like the overweighted Terminator series) can get more weight because there are many movies. But without dipping down into counting the actual minutes of time for each show and somehow noting which of those minutes are dedicated, conceptually, to AI, it’s practical simply to note the bias of the selected research strategy and move on.
OMFG you forgot [insert show here]!
If you want to suggest additions, awesome. Look at the Google Sheet (link below), specifically page named “properties”, and comment on this post with all the information that would be necessary to fill in a new row with the new show. Please also be aware a refresh of the subsequent analysis will happen only after some time and/or it becomes apparent that the conclusions would be significantly affected by new examples. Remember that since we’re looking for effects at a social level, the blockbusters and popular shows have more weight than obscure ones. More people see them. And I think the blockbusters and popular shows are all there.
So, that’s the survey from which the rest of this was built.
A first, tiny analysis
Once I had the list, I started working with the shows in the survey. Much of the process was managed in a “Sheets” (Google Docs) spreadsheet, which you can see at the link below.
Not wanting to have such a major post without at least some analysis, I did a quick breakdown of this data is how many of these shows each year involve AI. As you might guess, that number has been increasing a little over time, but has significantly spiked after 2010.
Looking at the data, there’s not really many surprises there. We see one or two at the beginning of the prior century. Things picked up following real-world AI hype between 1970–1990. There was a tiny lull before AI became a mainstay in 1999 and ramped up as of 2011.
There’s a bit of statistical weirdness that the years ending in 0 tend not to have shows, but I think that’s just noise.
What isn’t apparent in the chart itself is that cinematic interest in AI did not show a tight mapping to the real-world “AI Winter” (a period of hype-exhaustion that sharply reduced funding and publishing) that computer science suffered in 1974–80 and again 1987–93. It seems that, as audiences, we’re still interested in the narrative issues even when the actual computer science has quieted down.
It’s no sursprise that we’ve been telling ourselves more stories about AI over time. But things get more interesting when we look at the tone of those shows, as discussed in the next post.