Untold AI: Tone over time

When we begin to look at AI stories over time, as we did in the prior post and will continue in this one, one of the basic changes we can track is how the stories seem to want us to feel about AI, or their tone. Are they more positive about AI, more negative, or neutral/balanced?



  1. Generally, sci-fi is slightly more negative than positive about AI in sci-fi.
  2. It started off very negative and has been slowly moving, on average, to slightly negative.
  3. The 1960s were the high point of positive AI.
  4. We tell lots more stories about general AI than super AI.
  5. We tell a lot more stories about robots than disembodied AI.
  6. Cinemaphiles (like readers of this blog) probably think more negatively about robots than the general population.

Now, details

The tone I have assigned to each show is arguable, of course, but I think I’ve covered my butt by having a very course scale. I looked at each film and decided on a scale of -2 to 2 how negative they were about AI. Very negative was -2. The Terminator series starts being very negative, because AI is evil and there is nothing to balance it. (It later creeps higher when Ahhnold becomes a “good” robot.) The Transformers series is 0 because the good AI is balanced by the bad AI. Star Trek: The Next Generation gets a 2 or very positive for the presence of Data, noting that the blip of Lore doesn’t complicate the deliberately crude metric.

Average tone

Given all that, here’s what the average for each year looks like. As of 2017, we are looking slightly askance at screen-sci-fi AI, though not nearly as badly as Fritz Lang did at the beginning, and its reputation has been improving. The trend line (that red line) shows that it’s been steadily increasing over the last 90 years or so. As always, the live chart may have updates.

Generally, we can see that things started off very negatively because of Metropolis, and Der Herr de Welt. Then there high points in the 1950s were because of robots in The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, and The Invisible Boy. Then from 1960–1980 was a period of neutral-to-bad. The 1980s introduced a period of “it’s complicated” with things trending towards balanced or neutral.

What this points out is that there has been a bit of AI dialog going on across the decades that goes something like this.


Continue reading

Untold AI

Hey readership. Sorry for the brief radio silence there. Was busy doing some stuff, like getting married. Back now to post some overdue content. But the good news is I’m back with some weighty posts, and in honor of the 50th anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey, they have to do with AI, science, and sci-fi.


So 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. Continue reading

Reader wish: More interviews with authors


[This is a one-off request from the most recent readership poll.]

This is a great idea! Many times my critiques pass the buck from the interface designers to the script writers, so in all fairness I should also interview them. I would very much want to have completed a review for them to respond to first, though it’s admittedly not a requirement. I do have a personal connection to the author of Arrival. Maybe I’ll get to that one.

One clarification, though, reader: Do you mean authors for the shows I’ve reviewed, any show, or authors of written sci-fi?

Also: Does anyone have connection to authors of sci-fi? Especially of any shows that I’ve reviewed already? (If you’re an RSS reader, there’s a list of shows on the right-hand side of the site.) If so, send me a private message at chris[at]scifiinterfaces.com and pass me the author name and how you know them. Then we can discuss your asking them if they’d be OK with an instruction to me for an interview.

Reader wish: More about the narrative side of things

[This is a one-off request from the most recent readership poll.]

I am actually quite interested in this. I have an outline for a book, tentatively titled Worldbuilding with Interfaces, and in my head this would include individual frameworks for common interfaces and what needed to be shown for several models of interaction, among other things.

While I’m dreaming, let me also put out that I have a daydream where I join the faculty down at Worldbuilding Institute to get deep into this with the pros. Hook a nerd up, will ya. Back to reality.

If I started to include posts as a lead-up to a full book on it, though, this would be a pretty major shift in the tone and content. Would that be worth starting a new blog for just that purpose? Or could it fit in here amongst the other reviews? Would the lines be too blurry? Would it isolate existing readers? It would certainly slow down my already pokey publishing pace.

Since this would be a major shift, I’m putting it out there to see if anyone wants to discuss it. In, of course, comments. Or chris[at]scifiinterfaces.com if you have secret, sage words of advice.

Reader wish: More diverse UI work

[This is a one-off request from the most recent readership poll.]

Reader wish: Most of the content is fixated on one type of FUI. It would be nice to see more diverse UI work.

This was really weird for me to read since Scout and I are currently reviewing magic items as if they were tech. In the past the blog has covered bizarre gestural, suicide kits, Krell technology, robot design, ectoplasmic containment units, NUI, AI, service design, and even panopticon teleporting matchmaking interfaces.

I have gone back to the beginning of sci-fi and thereafter spread new reviews out amongst the decades. I review every interface in any given movie or TV show, using a very broad definition of interfaces. The only type of sci-fi interface I won’t cover is weapons, torture devices, or work done by toxic people.

So if you can comment and help me understand more of what you mean I’d appreciate it. But if that doesn’t satisfy, HUDs and GUIs includes the occasional games and some lightweight analysis, too, so be sure to check them out. And of course anyone is welcome to offer to contribute to ensure there is more diversity of the sort you are seeking.

  • You could mean games, and here’s why not.
  • You could mean literature or illustration, and the intro to the book covers why that’s a non-starter.
  • You could mean more obscure sci-fi or subgenres, and that’s just a matter of my limited bandwidth.

I guess what I’m saying is I think the blog already covers a huge range of FUI, within the constraints of movie and TV sci-fi. If you’ve actually identified a blind spot I’ve had, please email me or comment on the site so I can have my eyes opened.

Reader wish: Talk to more creators

[This is a one-off request from the most recent readership poll.]

Reader wish: I wish there would be more interviews whenever you can get creators to talk about their interfaces, because I’d like to have more context about the story behind them.

Sounds good. I like that content, too.

I’ve been explicit about the virtues of a New Criticism approach to critique, which explicitly calls against including a creator’s intention in a critique. I still believe that to be true, despite modern trends toward ad hominem analysis.

But after a review gets completed, I don’t see any harm. Well, except that lots of sites are now featuring creator interviews, and it’s a time-intensive undertaking for—comparitively—not much pay off.

I’ll do my best. Let me know if you have any particular interfaces that you’re thinking of, or even any particular creators you already know about in the comments.

Reader comment: Sometimes the breakdowns are pretty abstract and pedantic or obscure

[This is a one-off request from the most recent readership poll.]

All true. I follow the analyses where they lead, and I won’t reject a line of inquiry because it’s abstract, pedantic, or obscure. My twitter description used to note that “I delight in finding truffles in oubliettes”, and that bit of poetry refers to exactly this.

If I was to flatter myself, I would love for this blog to be considered in a league with PBS Idea Channel. Insightful and unapologetically nerdy. Not there yet of course.

So I hadn’t considered this a bug but a feature.

I’d love to hear from other readers. Do you feel this same way? If a majority of readers feel that the abstraction, depth, and obscure places the blog goes to is off-putting, it might be a good moment to consider the future of the blog.

Reader complaint: Boring

[This is a one-off request from the most recent readership poll.]

This reader free-form comment has two parts.

1. All the analysis lately has just been of lo-res/boring/barely seen interfaces from old programs…

I presume you mean the Star Wars Holiday Special and perhaps Johnny Mnemonic, but Doctor Strange is from 2016, and that analysis began 30 MAY, five weeks before this reader poll. So…maybe check out those?

Also, note that I’m in this for the insight, and hi-res/explosion-filled/blockbusters have no monopoly on insightful ideas. In fact, if anything, I’d wager they’re most often the shallow ones. I hope to encourage readers to explore more sci-fi to learn the cool stuff that is out there, well beyond the most-hyped stuff at Comicon. So, reader, please join me in judging books by their contents, and looking across the whole library.

2. …and now every show is stretched thin over many separate articles.

If it helps to know, my writing style is quite the opposite. I tend to write things out as single posts to get the thinking right, and then yes, make a call as to how to divide it up. For instance, the readership poll posts started out as single post that scrolled for miles and I just couldn’t see asking anyone to set aside a vacation to read it as one post. Reader logs show me that people don’t read the longer posts, so I keep it cut down to digestible chunks. My mental model is something that someone can read in a short  break at work. My apologies if that feels thin rather than digestible.

I should do my due diligence though and just ask: Are people more interested in long-form posts, like I began the blog with (see Metropolis and The Cabin in the Woods) rather than the short-form posts adopted after then?

Reader free-form comment: Would be cool to know how (and if) do you apply these reviews to your design work

[This is a one-off request from the most recent readership poll.]

Short answer: Yes, through critique practice and design patterns. Longer answer follows.


Exactly like this.

Generally, improving my thinking

This is broad, but quite true. After making a practice of looking at interfaces systematically, and putting that critique into words that I can read, and vet, and feel comfortable posting on the frakking internet for anyone to read, I’ve gotten better at it. As a design manager, learning to quickly critique other’s work is invaluable. As a direct contributor, I can bring a more sophisticated real-time critique of my own ideas, which makes the design that much better, even doing pair design.


It would be easy to just rag on sci-fi interfaces. But having to put critiques of them out in the world, I have to understand that they’re created by talented (or at least well-meaning) people and I should seek to understand what they were doing, and even give an interface a thought pass, imagining that they’re not broken, but brilliant. That doesn’t always pay off, but when it does the results are golden. Deep insight that is shareable in fun memetic stories. So I’ve developed apologetics as part of my critiques, and it allows me to see the good in a design rather than just trashing them. Which is a lesson the whole Internet could take to heart, n’est-ce pas? Continue reading

Reader wish: I’d really like a better WordPress theme. This one is tricky to navigate at times

[This is a one-off request from the most recent readership poll.]

Yes, yes, yes! I agree. Way back when I started the blog, I modified a default WordPress theme and even I get frustrated with it sometimes. But I’m better at content than I am at WordPress design, and honestly would rather spend my time doing more writing and creating more reviews than selecting and modifying another template. Is there anyone who wants to volunteer to improve the template or suggest a new one? I’d love it. Email me at chrisat-symbol.pngscifiinterfaces.com if so.

Alternatively I might could run a kickstarter to see if we can raise the money for a professional WordPress developer to improve things. (This is an idea from another commenter, which I found awesome.) Until then, please comment with the particular problems you find frustrating, and I’ll see if I can incrementally improve those things in the meantime.