Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Real Artificial Intelligence may never Emerge, but on Film it Allows a Closer Look at Ourselves

Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet may have been the first cinematic robot to have his say, but the evolution of Artificial Intelligence on film has come a long way – even if the limits that are tested go long beyond what I believe is possible.

I cringed, in I, Robot when the James Cromwell character states that there have always been “ghosts in the machine, where lines of code grouped together to produce unintended results.”  He likened this unexplained phenomena to the machine’s soul. 

Excuse me, as a computer science graduate, those are known these as programming mistakes, and while they seem like ghosts at the time, once you correct them, there’s nothing supernatural about it.

So long lines of code fed into a series of electronic circuits that feel – I don’t think so. But that doesn’t mean the introduction of a Hal 9000, a Mr. Data or the model 1887 from the Terminator causes my neural net enough dismay to turn the channel.
In fact, my attention span only elevates but not from a desire to dream of something like the creation of organic circuits to make computer sentience a reality. Instead, the notion of the methodical robot attempting to navigate among all the uncertainties of humanity means the chance to take a closer look at ourselves.

Mr. Data of Star Trek :The Next Generation appears to have feelings when he is passed over for a command in a vital engagement against the Romulans in the neutral zone. Even the forward thinking Captain Picard needs a nudge to put aside the circuits and recognize Data’s results over 26 years of exemplary service.

But Data is confronted by the worst form of human prejudice as he actually takes command of the USS Sutherland. Data’s first officer is upfront about the unsuitability of an android in a command position. Hinting at Data’s inherent lack of feeling, 
the first officer presupposes that all the electronics do not give consideration to the human lives affected by each decision.

While that might be true, Mr Data is certainly equipped with an internal counter, and his sophisticated processing could calculate acceptable risk as well as any human counterpart. Still, the argument is fair – especially since the officer does not know Data personally. 

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean this Starfleet officer is free of a whole store of unjustified generalizations. “Just as a Klingon shouldn’t be a ship’s counselor, an android should never command,” he reasons quite dispassionately to Data.

His true colors revealed, the officer does, to his credit, juxtapose Data’s core programming onto himself.  Mr. Data endeavors to be more human above all else, and when he saves the day, the officer addresses Data as Captain in admission of his own failures. That gives us that closer look and something to shoot for.

I think Robby would be very proud.

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