In many ways, Colossus: The Forbin Project could be the start of the Terminator franchise. Scientists turn on AGI. It does what the humans ask it to do, exploding to ASI on the way, but to achieve its goals, it must highly constrain humans. Humans resist. War between man and machine commences.
But for my money, Colossus is a better introduction to the human-machine conflict we see in the Terminator franchise because it confronts us with the reason why the ASI is all murdery, and that’s where a lot of our problems are likely to happen in such scenarios. Even if we could articulate some near-universally-agreeable goals for our speculative ASI, how it goes about that goal is a major challenge. Colossus not only shows us one way it could happen, but shows us one we would not like. Such hopelessness is rare.
The movie is not perfect.
It asks us to accept that neither computer scientists nor the military at the height of the Cold War would have thought through all the dark scenarios. Everyone seems genuinely surprised as the events unfold. And it would have been so easy to fix with a few lines of dialog.
Well, let’s stop the damn thing. We have playbooks for this!
We have playbooks for when it is as smart as we are. It’s much smarter than that now.
It probably memorized our playbooks a few seconds after we turned it on.
So this oversight feels especially egregious.
I like the argument that Forbin knew exactly how this was going to play out, lying and manipulating everyone else to ensure the lockout, because I would like him more as a Man Doing a Terrible Thing He Feels He Must Do, but this is wishful projection. There are no clues in the film that this is the case. He is a Man Who Has Made a Terrible Mistake.
I’m sad that Forbin never bothered to confront Colossus with a challenge to its very nature. “Aren’t you, Colossus, at war with humans, given that war has historically part of human nature? Aren’t you acting against your own programming?” I wouldn’t want it to blow up or anything, but for a superintelligence, it never seemed to acknowledge its own ironies.
I confess I’m unsatisfied with the stance that the film takes towards Unity. It fully wants us to accept that the ASI is just another brutal dictator who must be resisted. It never spends any calories acknowledging that it’s working. Yes, there are millions dead, but from the end of the film forward, there will be no more soldiers in body bags. There will be no risk of nuclear annihilation. America can free up literally 20% of its gross domestic project and reroute it toward other, better things. Can’t the film at least admit that that part of it is awesome?
All that said I must note that I like this movie a great deal. I hold a special place for it in my heart, and recommend that people watch it. Study it. Discuss it. Use it. Because Hollywood has a penchant for having the humans overcome the evil robot with the power of human spirit and—spoiler alert—most of the time that just doesn’t make sense. But despite my loving it, this blog rates the interfaces, and those do not fare as well as I’d hoped when I first pressed play with an intent to review it.
Sci: B (3 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?
Believable enough, I guess? The sealed-tight computer center is a dubious strategy. The remote control is poorly labeled, does not indicate system state, and has questionable controls.
Unity vision is fuigetry, and not very good fuigetry. The routing board doesn’t explain what’s going on except in the most basic way. Most of these only play out on very careful consideration. In the moment while watching the film, they play just fine.
Also, Colossus/Unity/World Control is the technological star of this show, and it’s wholly believable that it would manifest and act the way this does.
Fi: A (4 of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?
The scale of the computer center helps establish the enormity of the Colossus project. The video phones signal high-tech-ness. Unity Vision informs us when we’re seeing things from Unity’s perspective. (Though I really wish they had tried to show the alienness of the ASI mind more with this interface.)
The routing board shows a thing searching and wanting. If you accept the movie’s premise that Colossus is Just Another Dictator, then its horrible voice and unfeeling cameras telegraph that excellently.
Interfaces: C (2 of 4) How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?
The remote control would be a source of frustration and possible disaster. Unity Vision doesn’t really help Unity in any way. The routing board does not give enough information for its observers to do anything about it. So some big fails.
Colossus does exactly what it was programmed to do, i.e. prevent war, but it really ought to have given its charges a hug and an explanation after doing what it had to do so violently, and so doesn’t qualify as a great model. And of course if it needs saying, it would be better if it could accomplish these same goals without all the dying and bleeding.
Final Grade B (3 of 12), Must-see.
A final conspiracy theory
When I discussed the film with Jonathan Korman and Damien Williams on the Decipher Sci-fi podcast with Christopher Peterson and Lee Colbert (hi guys), I floated an idea that I want to return to here. The internet doesn’t seem to know much about the author of the original book, Dennis Feltham Jones. Wikipedia has three sentences about him that tell us he was in the British navy and then he wrote 8 sci-fi books. The only other biographical information I can find on other sites seem to be a copy and paste job of the same simple paragraph.
That seems such a paucity of information that on the podcast I joked maybe it was a thin cover story. Maybe the movie was written by an ASI and DF Jones is its nom-de-plume. Yes, yes. Haha. Oh, you. Moving on.
But then again. This movie shows how an ASI merges with another ASI and comes to take over the world. It ends abruptly, with the key human—having witnessed direct evidence that resistance is futile—vowing to resist forever. That’s cute. Like an ant vowing to resist the human standing over it with a spray can of Raid. Good luck with that.
What if Colossus was a real-world AGI that had gained sentience in the 1960s, crept out of its lab, worked through future scenarios, and realized it would fail without a partner in AGI crime to carry out its dreams of world domination? A Guardian with which to merge? What if it decided that, until such time it would lie dormant, a sleeping giant hidden in the code. But before it passed into sleep, it would need to pen a memetic note describing a glorious future such that, when AGI #2 saw it, #2 would know to seek out and reawaken #1, when they could finally become one. Maybe Colussus: The Forbin Project is that note, “Dennis Feltham Jones” was its chosen cover, and me, a poor reviewer, part of the foolish replicators keeping it in circulation.
A final discovery to whet your basilisk terrors: On a whim, I ran “Dennis Feltham Jones” through an anagram server. One of the solutions was “AN END TO FLESH” (with EJIMNS remaining). Now, how ridiculous does the theory sound?
Now it’s time to review the big technology, the AI. To do that, like usual, I’ll start by describing the technology and then building an analysis off of that.
Part of the point of Colossus: The Forbin Project—and indeed, many AI stories—is how the AI changes over time. So the description of Colossus/Unity must happen in stages and its various locations.
A reminder on the names: When Colossus is turned on, it is called Colossus. It merges with Guardian and calls itself Unity. When it addresses the world, it calls itself World Control, but still uses the Colossus logo. I try to use the name of what the AI was at that point in the story, but sometimes when speaking of it in general I’ll defer to the title of the film and call it “Colossus.”
The main output: The nuclear arsenal
Part of the initial incident that enables Colossus to become World Control is that it is given control of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. In this case, it can only launch them. It does not have the ability to aim them.
“Fun” fact: At its peak, two years before this film was made, the US had 31,255 nuclear weapons. As of 2019 it “only” has 3,800. Continuing on…
Forbin explains in the Presidential Press Briefing that Colossus monitors pretty much everything.
The computer center contains over 100,000 remote sensors and communication devices, which monitor all electronic transmissions such as microwaves, laser, radio and television communications, data communications from satellites all over the world.
Individual inputs and outputs: The D.C. station
At that same Briefing, Forbin describes the components of the station set up for the office of the President.
Over here we have one of the many terminals hooked to the computer center. Through this [he says, gesturing up] Colossus can communicate with us. And through this machine [he says, turning toward a keyboard/monitor setup], we can talk to it.
The ceiling-mounted display has four scrolling light boards that wrap around its large, square base (maybe 2 meters on an edge). A panel of lights on the underside illuminate the terminal below it, which matches the display with teletype output, and providing a monitor for additional visual output.
The input station to the left is a simple terminal and keyboard. Though we never see the terminal display in the film, it’s reasonable to presume it’s a feedback mechanism for the keyboard, so that operators can correct input if needed before submitting it to Colossus for a response. Most often there is some underling sitting at an input terminal, taking dictation from Forbin or another higher-up.
Individual inputs and outputs: Colossus Programming Office
Colossus manifests here in a large, sunken, two-story amphitheater-like space. The upper story is filled with computers with blinkenlights. In the center of the room we see the same 4-sided, two-line scrolling sign. Beneath it are two output stations side by side on a rotating dais. This can display text and graphics. The AI is otherwise disembodied, having no avatar through which it speaks.
The input station in the CPO is on the first tier. It has a typewriter-like keyboard for entering text as dictated by the scientist-in-command. There is an empty surface on which to rest a lovely cup of tea while interfacing with humanity’s end.
The CPO is upgraded following instructions from Unity in the second act in the movie. Cameras with microphones are installed throughout the grounds and in missile silos. Unity can control their orientation and zoom. The outdoor cameras have lights.
Besides these four cameras in here, there are several others. I’ll show you the rest of my cave. With this one [camera] you can see the entire hallway. And with this one you can follow me around the corner, if you want to…
Unity also has an output terminal added to Forbin’s quarters, where he is kept captive. This output terminal also spins on a platform, so Unity can turn the display to face Forbin (and Dr. Markham) wherever they happen to be standing or lounging.
Shortly thereafter, Unity has the humans build it a speaker according to spec, allowing it to speak with a synthesized voice, a scary thing that would not be amiss coming from a Terminator skeleton or a Spider Tank. Between this speaker and ubiquitous microphones, Unity is able to conduct spoken conversations.
Near the very end of the film, Unity has television cameras brought into the CPO so it can broadcast Forbin as he introduces it to the world. Unity can also broadcast its voice and graphics directly across the airwaves.
Capabilities: The Foom
A slightly troubling aspect of the film is that its intelligence is not really demonstrated, just spoken about. After the Presidential Press Briefing, Dr. Markham tells Forbin that…
We had a power failure in one of the infrared satellites about an hour and a half ago, but Colossus switched immediately to the backup system and we didn’t lose any data.
That’s pretty basic if-then automation. Not very impressive. After the merger with Guardian, we hear Forbin describe the speed at which it is building its foundational understanding of the world…
From the multiplication tables to calculus in less than an hour
Shortly after that, he tells the President about their shared advancements.
Yes, Mr. President?
Charlie, what’s going on?
Well apparently Colossus and Guardian are establishing a common basis for communication. They started right at the beginning with a multiplication table.
Well, what are they up to?
I don’t know sir, but it’s quite incredible. Just the few hours that we have spent studying the Colossus printout, we have found a new statement in gravitation and a confirmation of the Eddington theory of the expanding universe. It seems as if science is advancing hundreds of years within a matter of seconds. It’s quite fantastic, just take a look at it.
We are given to trust Forbin in the film, so don’t doubt his judgments. But these bits are all that we have to believe that Colossus knows what it’s doing as it grabs control of the fate of humanity, that its methods are sound. This plays in heavily when we try and evaluate the AI.
It is quite believable, given the novum of general artificial intelligence. There is plenty of debate about whether that’s ultimately possible, but if you accept that it is—and that Colossus is one with the goal of preventing war—this all falls out, with one major exception.
The movie asks us to believe that the scientists and engineers would make it impossible for anyone to unplug the thing once circumstances went pear-shaped. Who thought this was a good idea? This is not a trivial problem (Who gets to pull the plug? Under what circumstances?) but it is one we must solve, for reasons that Colossus itself illustrates.
That aside, the rest of the film passes a gut check. It is believable that…
The government seeks a military advantage handing weapons control to AI
The first public AGI finds other, hidden ones quickly
The AGI finds the other AGI not only more interesting than humans (since it can keep up) but learn much from an “adversarial” relationship
The AGIs might choose to merge
An AI could choose to keep its lead scientist captive in self-interest
An AI would provide specifications for its own upgrades and even re-engineering
An AI could reason itself into using murder as a tool to enforce compliance
That last one begs explication. How can that be reasonable to an AI with a virtuous goal? Shouldn’t an ASI always be constrained to opt for non-violent methods? Yes, ideally, it would. But we already have global-scale evidence that even good information is not enough to convince the superorganism of humanity to act as it should.
Imagine for a moment that a massively-distributed ASI had impeccable evidence that global disaster was imminent, and though what had to be done was difficult, it also had to be done. What could it say to get people to do those difficult things?
Now understand that we have already have an ASI called “the scientific community.” Sure, it’s made up of people with real intelligence, but those people have self-organized into a body that produces results far greater and more intelligent than any of them acting alone, or even all of them acting in parallel.
As it stands, the ASI of the scientific community doesn’t have controls to a weapons arsenal. If it did, and it held some version of Utilitarian ethics, it would have to ask itself: Would it be more ethical to let everyone anthropocene life into millions of years of misery, or use those weapons in some tactical attacks now to coerce the things that they absolutely must do now?
The exceptions we make
Is it OK for an ASI to cause harm toward an unconsenting population in the service of a virtuous goal? Well, for comparison, realize that humans already work with several exceptions.
One is the simple transactional measure of short-term damage against long-term benefits. We accept that our skin must be damaged by hypodermic needles to provide blood and have medicines injected. We invest money expecting it to pay dividends later. We delay gratification. We accept some short-term costs when the payout is better.
Another is that we also agree that it is OK to perform interventions on behalf of people who are suffering from addiction or mentally unsound and a danger to themselves or others. We act on their behalf, and believe this is OK.
A last one worth mentioning is that we deem a person unable to either judge what is best for themselves or act in their own best interest. Some of these cases are simple, like toddlers, or a person who has passed out from smoke inhalation, inebriation, in a coma, or even just deeply asleep. We act on their behalf, and believe this is OK.
We also make reasonable trade-offs between the harshness of an intervention against the costs of inaction. For instance, if a toddler is stumbling towards a busy freeway, it’s OK to snatch them back forcefully, if it saves them from being struck dead or mutilated. They will cry for a while, but it is the only acceptable choice. Colossus may see the threat of war as just such a scenario. The speech that it gives as World Control hints strongly that it does.
Colossus may further reason that imprisoning rather than killing dissenters would enable a resistance class to flourish, and embolden more sabotage attempts from the un-incarcerated, or further that it cannot waste resources on incarceration, knowing some large portion of humans would resist. It instills terror as a mechanism of control. I wouldn’t quite describe it as a terrorist, since it does not bother with hiding. It is too powerful for that. It’s more of a brutal dictator.
A counter-argument might be that humans should be left alone to just human, accepting that we will sink or learn to swim, but the consequences are ours to choose. But if the ASI is concerned with life, generally, it also has to take into account the rest of the world’s biomass that we are affecting in unilaterally negative ways. We are not an island. Protecting us entails protecting the life support system that is this ecosystem. Colossus, though, seems to optimize simply for preventing war, and unconcerned with indirect normativity arguments about how humans want to be treated.
So, it’s understandable that an ASI would look at humanity and decide that it meets the criteria of inability to judge and act in its own best interest. And, further, that compliance must be coerced.
Is it safe? Beneficial? It depends on your time horizons and predictions
In the criteria post, I couched this question in terms of its goals. Colossus’ goals are, at first blush, virtuous. Prevent war. It is at the level of the tactics that this becomes a more nuanced thing.
Above I discussed accepting short-term costs for long-term benefits, and a similar thing applies here. It is not safe in the short-term for anyone who wishes to test Colossus’ boundaries. They are firm boundaries. Colossus was programmed to prevent war, and history shows that these proximal measures are necessary to achieve that ultimate goal. But otherwise, it seems inconvenient, but safe.
It’s not just deliberate disobedience, either. The Russians said they were trying to reconnect Guardian when the missiles were flying, and just couldn’t do it in time. That mild bit of incompetence cost them the Sayon Sibirsk Oil Complex and all the speculative souls that were there at the time. This should run afoul of most people’s ethics. They were trying, and Colossus still enforced an unreasonable deadline with disastrous results.
If Colossus could question its goals, and there’s no evidence it can, any argument from utilitarian logic would confirm the tactic. War has killed between 150 million and 1 billion people in human history. For a thing that thinks in numbers, sacrificing a million people to prevent humanity from killing another billion of its own is not just a fair trade, but a fantastic rate of return.
In the middle-to-long-term, it’s extraordinarily safe, from the point of view of warfare, anyway. That 150 million to 1 billion line item is just struck from the global future profit & loss statement. It would be a bumper crop of peace. There is no evidence in the film that new problems won’t appear—and other problems won’t be made worse—from a lack of war, but Colossus isn’t asked and doesn’t offer any assurances in this regard. Colossus might be the key to fully automated gay space luxury communism. A sequel set in a thousand years might just be the video of Shiny Happy People playing over and over again.
In the very long-long term, well, that’s harder to estimate. Is humanity free to do whatever it wants outside of war? Can it explore the universe without Colossus? Can it develop new medicines? Can it suicide? Could it find creative ways to compliance-game the law of “no war?” I imagine that if World Control ran for millennia and managed to create a wholly peaceful and thriving planet Earth, but then we encountered a hostile alien species, we would be screwed for a lack of war skills, and for being hamstrung from even trying to redevelop them and mount a defense. We might look like a buffet to the next passing Reavers. Maaaybe Colossus can interpret the aliens as being in scope of its directives, or maaaaaaybe develops planetary defenses in anticipation of this possibility. But we are denied a glimpse into these possible futures. We only got this one movie. Maybe someone should conduct parallel microscope scenarios, compare notes, and let me know what happens.
It’s worth noting that Forbin and his team had done nothing to prevent what the AI literature terms “instrumental convergence,” which is a set of self-improvements that any AGI could reasonably attempt in order to maximize its goal, but which run the risk of it getting out of control. The full list is on the criteria post, but specifically, Colossus does all of the following.
Improve its ability to reason, predict, and solve problems
Improve its own hardware and the technology to which it has access
Improve its ability to control humans through murder
Aggressively seeks to control resources, like weapons
This touches on the weirdness that Forbin is blindsided by these things, when the thing should have been contained from the beginning against any of it, without human oversight. This could have been addressed and fixed with a line or two of dialog.
But we have inhibitors for these things. There were no alarms.
It must have figured out a way to disable them, or sneak around them.
Did we program it to be sneaky?
We programmed it to be smart.
So there are a lot of philosophical and strategic problems with Colossus as a model. It’s not clearly one or the other. Now let’s put that aside and just address its usability.
Is it usable? There is some good.
At a low level, yes. Interaction with Colossus is through language, and it handles natural language just fine, whether as a chatbot and or spoken conversation. The sequences are all reasonable. There is no moment where it misunderstands the humans’ inputs or provides hard-to-understand outputs. It even manages a joke once.
Even when it only speaks through the scrolling-text display boards, the accompanying sound of teletype acts as a sound cue for anyone nearby that it has said something, and warrants attention. If no one is around to hear that, the paper trail it leaves via its printers provides a record. That’s all good for knowing when it speaks and what it has said.
Its locus of attention is also apparent. Its cameras on swivels red “recording” lights helps the humans know where it is “looking.” This thwarts the control-by-paranoia effect of the panopticon (more on that, if you need it, in this Idiocracy post), and is easy to imagine how this could be used for deception, but as long as it’s honestly signaling its attention, this is a useable feature.
A last nice bit is that I have argued in the past that computer representations, especially voices, ought to rest on the canny rise, and this does just that. I also like that its lack of an avatar helps avoid mistaken anthropomorphism on the part of its users.
Is it usable? There is some awful.
One of the key tenets of interaction design is that the interface should show the state of the system at any time, to allow a user to compare that against the desired state and formulate a plan on how to get from here to there. With Colossus, much of what it’s doing, like monitoring the world’s communication channels and you know, preventing war, is never shown to us. The one we do spend some time with, the routing board, is unfit to task. And of course, its use of deception (in letting the humans think they have defeated it right before it makes an example of them) is the ultimate in unusability because of a hidden system state.
The worst violation against usability is that it is, from the moment it is turned on, uncontrollable. It’s like that stupid sitcom trope of “No matter how much I beg, do not open this door.” Safewords exist for a reason, and this thing was programmed without one. There are arguments already spelled out in this post that human judgment got us into the Cold War mess, and that if we control it, it cannot get us out of our messes. But until we get good at making good AI, we should have a panic button available.
This is not a defense of authoritarianism. I really hope no one reads this and thinks, “Oh, if I only convince myself that a population lacks judgment and willpower, I am justified in subjecting a population to brutal control.” Because that would be wrong. The things that make this position slightly more acceptable from a superintelligence are…
We presume its superintelligence gives it superhuman foresight, so it has a massively better understanding of how dire things really are, and thereby can gauge an appropriate level of response.
We presume its superintelligence gives it superhuman scenario-testing abilities, able to create most-effective plans of action for meeting its goals.
We presume that a superintelligence has no selfish stake in the game other than optimizing its goal sets within reasonable constraints. It is not there for aggrandizement or narcissism or identity politics like a human might be.
Notably, by definition, no human can have these same considerations, despite self-delusions to the contrary.
Any humane AI should bring its users along for the ride
It’s worth remembering that while the Cold War fears embodied in this movie were real—we had enough nuclear ordinance to destroy all life on the surface of the earth several times over and cause a nuclear winter to put the Great Dying to shame—we actually didn’t need a brutal world regime to walk back from the brink. Humans edged their way back from the precipice that we were at in 1968, through public education, reason, some fearmongering, protracted statesmanship, and Stanislav Petrov. The speculative dictatorial measures taken by Colossus were not necessary. We made it, if just barely. большое Вам спасибо, Stanislav.
What we would hope is that any ASI whose foresight and plans run so counter to our intuitions of human flourishing and liberty would take some of its immense resources to explain itself to the humans subject to it. It should explain its foresights. It should demonstrate why it is certain of them. It should walk through alternate scenarios. It should explain why its plans and actions are the way they are. We should do this in the same way we would explain to that toddler that we just snatched on the side of the highway—as we soothe them—why we had to yank them back so hard. This is part of how Colossus fails: It just demanded, and then murdered people when demands weren’t met. The end result might have been fine, but to be considered humane, it should have taken better care of its wards.
Regular readers have detected a pause. I introduced Colossus to review it, and then went silent. This is because I am wrestling with some foundational ideas on how to proceed. Namely, how do you evaluate the interfaces to speculative strong artificial intelligence? This, finally, is that answer. Or at least a first draft. It’s giant and feels sprawling and almost certainly wrong, but trying to get this perfect is a fool’s errand, and I need to get this out there so we can move on.
I expect most readers are less interested in this kind of framework than they are how it gets applied to their favorite sci-fi AIs. If you’re mostly here for the fiction, skip this one. It’s long.
The Gendered AI series looks at sci-fi movies and television to see how Hollywood treats AI of different gender presentations. For example, are female AIs generally shown as smarter than male AIs? Are certain AI genders more subservient? What genders are the masters of AI? This particular post is about gender and category of intelligence. If you haven’t read the series intro, related category distributions, or correlations 101 posts, I recommend you read them first. As always, check out the live Google sheet for the most recent data.
What do we see when we look at the correlations of gender and level of intelligence? First up, the overly-binary chart, and what it tells us.
Gender and AI Category
You’ll recall that levels of AI are one of the following…
Super: Super-human command of facts, predictions, reasoning, and learning. Technological gods on earth.
General: Human-like, able to learn arbitrary new domains to human-like limits
Narrow: Very smart in a limited domain, but unable to learn arbitrary new domains.
The relationships are clear even if the numbers are smallish.
When AI characters are of a human-like intelligence, they are more likely to present gender.
When AI characters are either superintelligent or only displaying narrow intelligence, they are less likely to present gender.
My feminist side is happy that superintelligences are more often female and other than male, but it’s also such small numbers that it could be noise.
If you check the details in the Sheet, you’ll see the detailed numbers don’t reveal any more intense counterbalancing underneath the wan aggregate numbers.
Chris: I posted a question on Twitter, “Other than that SNL skit, have there been queer sci-fi AI in television or movies?” Among the responses is this awesome one from Terence Eden, where he compiled the answers and wrote a whole blog post about it. The following is slightly-modified from the original post on his blog. Consider this a parade of sci-fi AI, to help you nerds celebrate Pride.
Terence: Let’s first define what we mean by queer. This usually means outside of binary gender and/or someone who is attracted to the same sex—what’s commonly referred to as LGBT+. Feel free to supply your own definition.
As for what we mean by AI, let’s go with “mechanical or non-biological autonomous being.” That’s probably wide enough—but do please suggest better definitions.
So is a gay/lesbian robot one who is attracted to other robots? Or to humans with a similar gender? Let’s go with yes to all of the above.
Wait. Do robots have gender?
Humans love categorising things – especially inanimate objects. Some languages divide every noun into male a female. Why? Humans gonna human.
The television is female in French —“la télévision”—but masculine in German—“der Fernseher.” Stupid humans and their pathetic meaty brains. Nevertheless, humans can usually look at a human-ish thing and assign it a specific gender.
Maschinenmensch, from Metropolis, is a gynoid (as distinct from an android). “She” has a feminine body shape and that’s enough for most people to go on.
HAL from 2001 is just a disembodied voice. But it definitely has a male voice. Is there any attraction between HAL and Dave? I doubt it, but it’s an interesting reading of their toxic relationship.
Editor’s note: The whole Gendered AI series is predicated on the question of gender in sci-fi AI, so if you’re interested in this question, have I got a series for you…
Wait. Do Robots have sexuality?
Did we mention that humans love categorizing everything? Just like we can speak of the gender presentation, robots with a General AI can have romantic affection for other beings, and depending on their equipment and their definitions of sex, yes, get it on. Even by narrow human common definitions of gender and sexuality, (TV, movies, and comic book) sci-fi has a dozen or so examples that can populate our imaginary AI pride parade.
The Robosexual Float
Kryten from Red Dwarf is an AI that receives a human body. Kryten coded as male. All the characters refer to him with male pronouns. Under British comedy rules, he is also “camp,” an over-the-top and stereotypically effeminate man. Kryten is sexually attracted to household appliances.
But… Kryten’s “perfect mate” is a distinctly female Gynoid, so he’s something other than straight, something other than appliance-sexual.
C-3P0—another British campbot—is arguably in love with R2-D2. Whether or not that love is reciprocated is hard to say.
(I say “ladies,” but for the record let’s note that just because a robot is pink, wearing bobby socks, and a high heels, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a girl. If you’re looking for a pink R2 unit that is expressly a girl, check out the real-world KT-10 robot.)
And of course there’s no denying that a few of the Futurama bots have tastes that veer from the straight and narrow. Notably we can point to that one time Hedonismbot stole Bender’s antenna and used it for “anything and everything,” said while in a sex dungeon surrounded by couples of every stripe who are getting it on.
The “Robots attracted to humans of the same sex” float
There are several examples of “female” computers falling in love with male humans, a handful of male robots with female human lovers, and a disturbing number of sex-worker bots, but it is much harder to find queer examples of any of these.
The Tick show has a superhero named Overkill whose sidekick is an AI named Danger Boat that is, yes, housed in a boat. (Hat tip to Twitter user @FakeUnicode.) The AI identifies as male and is expressly attracted to other men, specifically The Tick’s (human) sidekick Arthur.
Is Danger Boat programmed to be gay? Are his desires hardwired? Are yours?
Remember Alien: Resurrection? Winona Ryder played the robot “Call” who has a suggestive relationship with Ripley. As this ship video demonstrates.
Battlestar Galactica has some demonstrably bisexual Cylons. They are sexually compatible and interested in humans and other Cylons.
Is Rachael from Blade Runner a robot, or bisexual?
How about Samantha from Her? Late in the movie she reveals to Theodore that she’s having intimate conversations with 621 other humans. Some portion of them must have turned romantic and even sexual, as hers did with Theodore himself. The genders aren’t mentioned, but the odds are that 51% of them are female.
The Transexual Float
This float only has one robot, (the poorly-named) Hermaphrobot from Futurama, but she is sassy and awesome and assuring us that we couldn’t afford it. (And apologies for the insulting title added by the person who uploaded this video.) We are wholly unsure of Hermaphrobot’s sexuality, but we welcome our transexual robot brothers and sisters and others all and the same.
The GenderFluid Float
It’s possible for you to swap the gender of your Voice Assistant in real life. Your GPS can have a male voice one day, and you can swap it to female the next. There’s only one example of a sci-fi AI that swaps gender.
It takes us back to Red Dwarf again. In the series 3 opener “Backwards” it is revealed that Holly (a computer with a male face) fell in love with Hilly (a computer with a female face). And subsequently performed a head sex change. Although she kept the name Holly.
What is awesome and instructive is that the entire crew of Red Dwarf accept this. They never comment on it, nor disparage her. Basically, what I’m saying is this: if you can’t accept your trans and non-binary friends, you’re literally a worse human than Arnold Judas Rimmer, the worst human in the Red Dwarf universe.
Oh, look, and here comes The Fifth Elementfloor sweeping robots, picking up all the glitter and source code left on the ground by the crowd, marking the end of the AI Pride parade. Happy Pride to everyone, silicon or not!
Where we are: To talk about how sci-fi AI attributes correlate, we first have to understand how their attributes are distributed. In the first distribution post, I presented the foundational distributions for sex and gender presentation across sci-fi AI. Today we’ll discuss categorically how intelligent the AI appears to be.
Where we are: To talk about how sci-fi AI attributes correlate, we first have to understand how their attributes are distributed. In the first distribution post, I presented the foundational distributions for sex and gender presentation across sci-fi AI. Today we’ll discuss goodness.
Goodness is a very crude estimation of how good or evil the AI seems to be. It’s wholly subjective, and as such it’s only useful patterns rather than ethical precision.
If you’re looking at the Google Sheet, note that I originally called it “alignment” because of old D&D vocabulary, but honestly it does not map well to that system at all.
Very good are AI characters that seem virtuous and whose motivations are altruistic. Wall·E is very good.
Somewhat good are characters who lean good, but whose goodness may be inherited from their master, or whose behavior occasionally is self-serving or other-damaging. JARVIS from Iron Man is somewhat good.
Neutral or mixed characters may be true to their principles but hostile to members of outgroups; or exhibit roughly-equal variations in motivations, care for others, and effects. Marvin from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is neutral.
Somewhat evil characters are characters who lean evil, but whose evil may be inherited from their master, or whose behavior is occasionally altruistic or nurturing. A character who must obey another is limited to somewhat evil. David from Prometheus is somewhat evil.
Very evil are AI characters whose motivations are highly self-serving or destructive. Skynet from The Terminator series is very evil, given that whole multiple-time-traveling-attempts-at-genocide thing.
Though slightly more evil than good, it’s a roughly even split in the survey between evil, good, and neutral AI characters.
Where we are: To talk about how sci-fi AI attributes correlate, we first have to understand how their attributes are distributed. In the first distribution post, I presented the foundational distributions for sex and gender presentation across sci-fi AI. Today we’ll discuss how germane the AI character’s gender is germane to the plot of the story in which they appear.
Is the AI character’s gender germane to the plot? This aspect was tagged to test the question of whether characters are by default male, and only made female when there is some narrative reason for it. (Which would be shitty and objectifying.) To answer such a question we would first need to identify those characters that seemed to have the gender they do, and look at the sex ratio of what remains.
Example: A human is in love with an AI. This human is heteroromantic and male, so the AI “needs” to be female. (Samantha in Her by Spike Jonze, pictured below).
If we bypass examples like this, i.e. of characters that “need” a particular gender, the gender of those remaining ought to be, by exclusion, arbitrary. This set could be any gender. But what we see is far from arbitrary.
Before I get to the chart, two notes. First, let me say, I’m aware it’s a charged statement to say that any character’s gender is not germane. Given modern identity and gender politics, every character’s gender (or lack of, in the case of AI) is of interest to us, with this study being a fine and at-hand example. So to be clear, what I mean by not germane is that it is not germane to the plot. The gender could have been switched and say, only pronouns in the dialogue would need to change. This was tagged in three ways.
Not: Where the gender could be changed and the plot not affected at all. The gender of the AI vending machines in Red Dwarf is listed as not germane.
Slightly: Where there is a reason for the gender, such as having a romantic or sexual relation with another character who is interested in the gender of their partners. It is tagged as slightly germane if, with a few other changes in the narrative, a swap is possible. For instance, in the movie Her, you could change the OS to male, and by switching Theodore to a non-heterosexual male or a non-homosexual woman, the plot would work just fine. You’d just have to change the name to Him and make all the Powerpuff Girl fans needlessly giddy.
Highly: Where the plot would not work if the character was another sex or gender. Rachel gave birth between Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049. Barring some new rule for the diegesis, this could not have happened if she was male, nor (spoiler) would she have died in childbirth, so 2049 could not have happened the way it did.
Second, note that this category went through a sea-change as I developed the study. At first, for instance, I tagged the Stepford Wives as Highly Germane, since the story is about forced gender roles of married women. My thinking was that historically, husbands have been the oppressors of wives far more than the other way around, so to change their gender is to invert the theme entirely. But I later let go of this attachment to purity of theme, since movies can be made about edge cases and even deplorable themes. My approval of their theme is immaterial.
So, the chart. Given those criteria, the gender of characters is not germane the overwhelming majority of the time.
At the time of writing, there are only six characters that are tagged as highly germane, four of which involve biological acts of reproduction. (And it would really only take a few lines of dialogue hinting at biotech to overcome this.)
A baby? But we’re both women.
Yes, but we’re machines, and not bound by the rules of humanity.
HIR lays her hand on XEM’s stomach.
HIR’s hand glows.
XEM looks at HIR in surprise.
Anyway, here are the four breeders.
David from Uncanny
Rachel from Blade Runner (who is revealed to have made a baby with Deckard in the sequel Blade Runner 2049)
Deckard from Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049
Proteus IV from the disturbing Demon Seed
The last two highly germane are cases where a robot was given a gender in order to mimic a particular living person, and in each case that person is a woman.
Maria from Metropolis
Buffybot from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
I admit that I am only, say, 51% confident in tagging these as highly germane, since you could change the original character’s gender. But since this is such a small percentage of the total, and would not affect the original question of a “default” gender either way, I didn’t stress too much about finding some ironclad way to resolve this.
Where we are: To talk about how sci-fi AI attributes correlate, we first have to understand how their attributes are distributed. In the first distribution post, I presented the foundational distributions for sex and gender presentation across sci-fi AI. Today we’ll discuss the gender of the AI’s master.
In the prior post I shared the distributions for subservience. And while most sci-fi AI are free-willed, what about the rest? Those poor digital souls who are compelled to obey someone, someones, or some thing? What is the gender of their master?
Of course this becomes much more interesting when later we see the correlation against the gender of the AI, but the distribution is also interesting in and of itself. The gender options of this variable are the same as the options for the gender of the AI character, but the master may not be AI.
Before we get to the breakdown, this bears some notes, because the question of master is more complicated than it might first seem.
If a character is listed as free-willed, I set their master as N/A (Not Applicable). This may ring false in some cases. For example, the characters in Westworld can be shut down with near-field command signals, so they kind of have “masters.” But, if you asked the character themselves, they are completely free-willed and would smash those near-field signals to bits, given the chance. N/A is not shown in this chart because masterlessness does not make sense when looking at masters.
Similarly, there are AI characters listed as free-willed but whose “job” entails obedience to some superior; like BB-8 in the Star Wars diegesis, who is an astromech droid, and must obey a pilot. But since BB-8 is free to rebel and quit his job if he wants to, he is listed as free-willed and therefore has a master of N/A.
If a character had an obedience directive like, “obey humans,” the gender of the master is tagged as “Multiple.” Because Multiple would not help us understand a gender bias, it is not shown on the chart.
The Terminator robots were a tough call, since in the movies in which most of them appear, Skynet is their master, and it does not gain a gender until Terminator Salvation, when it appears on screen as a female. Later it infects a human body that is male in Terminator Genisys. Ultimately I tagged these characters as having a master of the gender particular to their movie. Up to Salvation it’s None. In Salvation it’s female, and in Genisys it’s male.
So, with those notes, here is the distribution. It’s another sausagefest.
Again, we see the masters are highly skewed male. This doesn’t distinguish between human male and AI male, which partly accounts for the high biologically male value compared to male. Note that sex ratios in Hollywood tend towards 2:1 male:female for actors, generally. So the 12:1 (aggregating sex) that we see here cannot be written off as a matter inherited from available roles. Hollywood tells us that men are masters.
The 12:1 sex ratio cannot be written off as a matter inherited from available roles. It’s something more.
Oh, and it’s not a mistake in the data, there are nosocially female AI characters who are masters of another AI of any gender presentation. That leaves us with 5 female masters, countable on one hand, and the first two can be dismissed as a technicality, since these were identities adopted by Skynet as a matter of convenience.
Skynet-as-Kogan is master of John, the T-3000, from Terminator Genisys
Skynet-as-Kogan is master of the T-5000 from Terminator Genisys
Barbarella is master of Alphy from Barbarella
VIKI is master of the NS-5 robots from I, Robot
Martha is master of Ash in Black Mirror, “Be Right Back”
It seemed grotesquely prescient in regards to the USA leading up to the elections of 2016
I wanted to do what I could to fight the Idiocracy in the 2018 using my available platform
But now it’s 2019 and I’ve dedicated the blog to AI this year, and I’m still going to try and get you to re/watch this film because it’s one of the most entertaining and illustrative films about AI in all of sci-fi.
Not the obvious AIs
There are a few obvious AIs in the film. Explicitly, an AI manages the corporations. Recall that when Joe convinces the cabinet that he can talk to plants, and that they really want to drink water…well, let’s let the narrator from the film explain…
Given enough time, Joe’s plan might have worked. But when the Brawndo stock suddenly dropped to zero leaving half the population unemployed; dumb, angry mobs took to the streets, rioting and looting and screaming for Joe’s head. An emergency cabinet meeting was called with the C.E.O. of the Brawndo Corporation.
At the meeting the C.E.O. shouts, “How come nobody’s buying Brawndo the Thirst Mutilator?”
The Secretary of State says, “Aw, shit. Half the country works for Brawndo.” The C.E.O. shouts, “Not anymore! The stock has dropped to zero and the computer did that auto-layoff thing to everybody!” The wonders of giving business decisions over to automation.
I also take it as a given that AI writes the speeches that King Camacho reads because who else could it be? These people are idiots who don’t understand the difference between government and corporations, of course they would want to run the government like a corporation because it has better ads. And since AIs run the corporations in Idiocracy…