What Sci-fi Gets Right

September 27, 2016

Science fiction films are saturated with references to artificial intelligence (AI), often in the form of robots capable of developing their own thoughts, feelings and dreams. Cyborgs have staked their claim on the big screen, but how do Hollywood’s creations compare to the reality of machine learning?
“Metropolis,” a 1927 science-fiction drama, has been acclaimed as the first movie to explore the relationship between man and machine. The German film portrays the discrepancy between the social classes of an urban city. The AI featured in it, named the “false Maria,” wreaks havoc throughout the city in order to further separate the working and upper classes.

This film portrays one of many examples of the power-hungry, emotionless robot trope that Hollywood has reused for years. Another depiction is HAL 9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a murderous AI who kills many of the crew members on his spaceship due to their plans to deactivate him.
In reality, the chances of AI “going rogue” and gaining sentience, as they do in many of these films, are very slim. Many science-fiction movies like to play with the idea that at any point, an AI is capable of becoming conscious of its own existence and making decisions of its own accord. However, machine learning is actually characterized by the process of developing incredibly complex, deliberate code that allows the program to mimic human decisions. Self-awareness is too abstract for any modern computer to attain.

Regardless of the inaccuracies in many Hollywood portrayals of artificial intelligence, certain film representations of AI are surprisingly reasonable.
In the Avengers Universe, genius and billionaire Tony Stark, or Iron Man, creates an artificial intelligence that is capable of managing his house, interpreting voice commands and manning his iron suits. Though J.A.R.V.I.S, or Just A Rather Very Intelligent System, is purely fictional, it is much more attainable than false Maria or HAL. J.A.R.V.I.S is a prime example of the sophistication that could be reached in the future. Right now, some commonly advertised AI technology already includes voice commands and home management. A company called Nest has created a smart thermostat that is capable of collecting data through household supervision. It monitors daily household activity, such as a homeowner’s schedule and preferred temperatures. That information is used to develop a schedule for maintaining the temperature throughout a house.

J.A.R.V.I.S may have access to exclusive hardware (Iron Man’s suits), but it is not an entirely unrealistic portrayal of the potential future of machine learning.

If we disregard the somewhat far-fetched nature of many of these movies, several contain legitimate, albeit far-reaching, goals for those who are looking to develop AI. Even though we may someday have computers capable of thinking autonomously, it will likely not be in the near future. So unfortunately, sci-fi fans will have to continue waiting for their robot companions — and overlords — for as long as it takes.

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