Do you believe smart robots will exterminate the human race?
This is one of the first questions I ask my students at the university, when I teach about new media technology, robots and storytelling in movies. Often half of the group confidently raise their hands. When I further ask why, they immediately reference science-fiction movies like Terminator or contemporary series such as Black Mirror. Some even refer to the Matrix-Scenario and suggest that the robocalypse has already happened. And we are unknowingly in the Matrix, while our bodies are producing energy for smart robots. I'm sometimes impressed that physically impossible stories about humans as energy generators are convincing! So movies about robots must have a strong effect on us if they can indoctrinate such beliefs.
As a passionate and critical researcher, I investigate the impact of new technologies on our society, at Leiden University’s Centre for Innovation and I am also a filmmaker myself. So obviously, my focus is all around moving images. And I want to explore how stories of artificially intelligent robots shape our vision of the future, and why this matters!
First, do movies really influence what we love, hate or fear?
Please have a look at the picture of this historic clown. Cute, isn’t he? When I ran an image search for ‘clowns’ in 2018, this is what google threw up. Please have a closer look at them. Our digital collective image of clowns seems to have changed with Pennywise from the movie ‘it’. And Pennywise is not even the worst of these horror clowns.
So yes, we have convincing empirical evidence that movies can evoke strong emotions and massive reactions in the viewer. And todays geniuses of filmmaking certainly ride on the shoulders of giants with fundamental knowledge and intuition on how to tell immersive stories. Filmmakers can basically make millions of people afraid of robots.
How did robots become such a dominant part of sci-fi movies?
Let’s delve into the past. During the industrialization, technological progress was often seen as a big threat. There were various uprisings against technological development across Europe, most famously by the Luddites in England. They initiated a violent rebellion against automatic weaving machines.
Automatization, or robots will one day in the future take our jobs. Hmmm yes, sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Some say, we’re experiencing another industrial revolution right now.
So if robots are doing all these terribly boring jobs for us – why are our future visions of them often so dark and dystopian?
Well – in storytelling, nothing gets the blood pumping like fear, and a majority of sci-fi movies draw on this emotion… a lot! Hand in hand with fear, we have a deep fascination of the unknown.
For example, the old Jewish character Golem can be a villain or a victim – man or woman, or both at the same time. The golem is brought to life by writing ‘truth’ - ‘emet’ on his forehead. And be deactivated again, when removing the e-letter, by changing the inscription from "truth" to "death".
There are various other characters such as the ancient Greek Talos from Hephaestus, Frankenstein or Maria from the 1920ies movie Metropolis. This cultural memory continues to shape contemporary characters such as Dolores from Westworld. But cultural memory is not “just” stories – it also influence how we perceive robots in the real world.
What exactly do sci-fi movies influence us about?
First, in a majority of sci-fi narratives, after a flourishing period of peace, future societies collapse into a dystopian end-time scenario. Robots relieve us from redundant work and are here for our pleasures. But as soon as they develop a ‘self-conscious’ state, they upraise against humanity. In this particular metamorphosis, Filmmakers visualize robots as terrifying and uncanny.
So the basic message is: although we first believe that robots are here for our own good, in the near future they will turn evil and kill us all. Is there a deeper underlying problem with the power-relationship? The word robot was first coined in 1923 by Karel Capek in his famous play R.U.R: “Rossum’s Universal Robots”. It has its origins in the czech term robota, which means forced labor. The story of R.U.R. depicts a classical relationship between robots and humans, where robots serve as slaves for their human masters.
Many examples in literature and art depict power relations of robots and humans (r2h), biased by the archaic patterns we know from human to human (h2h) socio-economic structures: the master-slave relationship. Our cruelty to each other is projected onto a technology which fundamentally differs from human intelligence, motivation or needs. Even the philosophically deep movie ExMachina ends with a fight between the creator and the robots. And spoiler-alert: yes, Ewa the main character frees herself from slavery - but in this unique example, we feel that she has the right to do so!
While modern series stretch this narration over several episodes or even seasons, this main arch is wide spread. If we believe in the stories we’ve been told, the clash between humans and robots is inevitable.
But are we telling the stories of a future we want to live in?
If we humans create robots in our own image and enslave them, will it be so surprising that they will try to rise against us? So further, among us humans, who exactly are those creators? Movies show another conspicuous analogy to our current tech world. Robots are universally created by an #evil corporation. Today’s questionable power of tech-companies is mirrored in the society of the future. Are robots killing us or is it the #latestagecapitalism?
This negative perception of robots is not a human universal. Historically, the idea of robots originates in the mythologies of various cultures around the world. Today few people appreciate the souls in every thing, yet Animism, considered to be a proto-religion of our species, would find it natural to see robots as capable of hosting their own souls. Maybe robots are enchanted by the beauty of the world, too?
Mechanical puppets are close relatives of robots, for example the Japanese “Karakuri Ningyo”. Historically the word “karakuri” also notes the connotations of 'trick', 'deceive' or 'illusion' as they imitate to be alive. Some of those mechanical puppets were made to take part in tea ceremonies. Hence, these puppets are helpmates, friends or even seen as equals. The fictional robot character 'tetsuwan atomu' had a clear impact on the real development of Japanese robots. In the creation of the world famous ASIMO robot, the developers started with the questions: "Wouldn't we like to have a robot like tetsuwan atomu?" We should also keep in mind that sci-fi movies can be a source of inspiration for good!
As real robots take more responsibility across human experiences, we need to decide on the way they are approached, integrated and reflected in our society.
So should we fear AI-robots or not?
Today, the debate of killer robots has reached United Nations Level, were “lethal autonomous weapon systems” have become a major negotiation stream. But fear does not help with the understanding of a complex, unknown technology. Instead, it clouds our view on it completely. You should definitely fear an aggressive honey badger in front of you. But in contrast to what fear-mongering movies want you to believe, neither shooting with big guns or fighting them with your bare hands are particularly smart strategies to deal with AI robots. Let’s try to avoid this mess.
What can we do instead?
Movies communicate in a different language. The more we learn to read movie the same way as we learn to analyze texts, the better we can reflect on their impact on us. There is a subconscious influence on us from the movies we watch. And our resulting thoughts impact our actions. Hence, science fiction not only speculates about the future, but also shapes it!
We can assume, that there will be a day forthcoming, when we need to collectively decide on the rights of what the EU lawmakers call electronic persons. Understanding where our fears, futuristic visions and believes about robots come from, is therefore crucial for us as citizens of the world.
We’re living in a digital time, where new tech is in a permanent state of becoming. Technological reality is advancing faster than our understanding of it. If we like it or not, we won’t stop the advancements of robots. Yet we may be able to create a vision different from enslaved robots serving their human master under the specter of a powerful evilcorp so often told in scifi movies.
Today, AI is being developed both, behind closed doors inside corporations who recently gave up on not being evil and out in the open, at foundations, universities and github. We need to start spreading ideas from positive SciFi stories as well, where evilcorps were overcome and decentralized. Maybe one way is to tell more robot stories about a future, in which we really want to live in.