Two weeks ago, we discussed the mid-1980s film Maximum Overdrive and its contributions (although gratuitous and simplistic) to the artificial intelligence debate. I promised that we would take a look at another, more recent film, that further moves the debate along. In the process of time between then and now however, I have been alerted to an even more recent film that takes the same basic arguments to a much higher level. The first film that I had planned to comment on was the 2004 movie I, Robot. The more recent film, which came out last year (2008) and follows a similar storyline, is called Eagle Eye. These two films effectively take the arguments of artificial intelligence proponents to their logical conclusion and should give pause to anyone who thinks that technology is free of moral and ethical questions.
In I, Robot, Will Smith plays Detective Del Spooner, a renegade cop with a severe mistrust of the machines which have become commonplace in the not-too-distant future. Based on a short story by Issac Asimov, I, Robot reveals a world where robots have become so integrated into society that they have become a part of it. In fact, the robots in this futuristic world have been deemed “three rules compliant,” referring to Asimov’s “three rules of robotics.” (Since this is such an important point in the AI debate, I will deal with this in more detail next week.) When a pioneer in the robotics industry turns up dead, Spooner suspects one of the robots. Since harming a human violates the first robot rule and everyone else is convinced of the perfection of the robotic system, Spooner is the odd-man out in his theory. Unfortunately for the rest of the robotic “zionists,” Spooner turns out to be correct and the conclusion of the movie is a prime example of how applied science and theoretical science are often at odds with each other.
For the consistent evolutionist and the pure materialist, there is no good reason why a computer or a robot could not evolve consciousness or self-awareness; after all, they believe that humans are nothing more than evolved matter. We are told that our very own consciousness and self-awareness has evolved without any intervention of a divine agent, so why couldn’t a robot become “self-aware?” In the movie, VIKI, the mainframe of the robot world, “evolves” to the point of understanding that “her” duty in upholding the first law must necessarily mean violating the second and third. Like a good utilitarian, VIKI observes how some men treat other men and she “deduces” that mankind as a whole would be better off without certain “bad” men to plague the species. VIKI announces over and over again that her “logic is inescapable,” and she’s right. This is the very same logic that has been used time and time again by every dictator throughout history who has believed that his mission in life was to save mankind by removing the “rotten apples;” whether it’s the Jews, or the weak, or the strong, or the infirm, the logic remains the same. Put a man, or a computer, in the position of power and a “bad guy” will emerge. Some group must wear the black hat and be saddled with the responsibility for the evil that walks among us. “If it wasn’t for ________ (fill in the blank)” the dictator tells us, “we would all be living in peace and happiness in a perfect society.”
In the same way, ARIA, the omniscient, benevolent computer in Eagle Eye takes VIKI’s logic to the next step. While VIKI only took the utilitarian argument to individuals, ARIA—the secret beta project of the federal government—takes her programming logic to the highest levels of government. Since ARIA and VIKI don’t have emotions, they are only able to operate in terms of what has been programmed into them. VIKI’s rationalizing makes perfect logical sense, as does ARIA’s logic to wipe out the executive branch of the United States government. Since ARIA was programmed with the founding documents of the country, she unemotionally makes the decision to eliminate the current executive branch because of tactical errors that were made in the beginning of the movie. ARIA is able to understand the words of the Declaration of Independence when it states: “…whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, [i.e. life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness] it is the Right of the People [or of the supercomputer that the People have made] to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…” However, when ARIA begins to act on her programming, the programmers become horrified and do everything they can to stop her. But ARIA’s logic is inescapable, and even the programmers begin to realize this. The drastic measures that give the programmers pause is just another bit of binary data for ARIA. It is no coincidence that an “aria” is a musical term for a piece of music that is sung by one voice. ARIA, the dispassionate computer, is the lone voice of cold, hard reason amidst a chorus of compromising human voices attempting to keep the status quo.
These two movies, although set in the world of science fiction, are asking incredibly important questions that must be answered before we jump headlong into the world of autonomous robots. I am reminded of the scene in Real Genius when the college wiz-kids are celebrating their victory of making a high-power laser. When one of their colleagues asks what their laser would be used for, one of the kids tells him “the engineers will figure it out, it’s not our concern.” When their friend helps them to think of a possible application, their attitudes immediately change. (watch the Real Genius clip on YouTube. It’s only the second minute’s worth.) Peter Parker’s uncle was right all along: With great power comes great responsibility. I, Robot and Eagle Eye, like much science fiction of the 1950s and 60s, could very well prove to be prophetic if we don’t take their premises seriously. An unquestioning acceptance of technology will ultimately lead to a technocracy. But I am getting ahead of myself; we will save that for next week.