Hollywood has been making films about AI for almost a century.
Some of these films have really made us think about where mankind’s endless quest to create intelligence/consciousness may eventually lead us. These films have forced us to ask ourselves deep, philosophical questions about the nature of consciousness, the ethical questions surrounding the birth of AI, and the possible dangers such entities.
Others, not so much.
This trend reached an interesting peak in the 1980’s, when computer technology first popped up on the radars of the masses. As the realities of the digital age and its possibilities began to register on our collective conscious, it titillated and fascinated us in new and exciting ways. The possibilities seemed endless.
This fascination spawned a series of AI-related films that explored the ramifications of powerful computer technology and its applications in the field of artificial intelligence and machine learning.
The great thing about making films in the 1980’s is that you were neither limited by the immutable laws of physics and nature, nor required to explain anything technical or problematic in your story lines if you didn’t want to.
And, for the most part, nobody wanted to.
Fair enough. But we’ve always found it a bit unfair when AI filmmakers blend their own “science” with the realities of the AI and machine learning fields to suit the plot of their films and make their ridiculous premises appear more plausible than they actually are.
While it may seem trite to nitpick the pseudoscience of a clearly fictional film made decades ago, we don’t care. It’s our blog, and after spending a considerable amount of time developing an intimate understanding of the fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning, and learning more about how inaccurate most films on the subject truly are, these kinds of things annoy us now.
Here are a few of the worst offenders ever…
The 5 most inaccurate 1980’s films about AI
1) Short Circuit (1986)
A military prototype robotic soldier is struck by a lightning-induced power surge and malfunctions. The robot, named “Number 5”, escapes its military compound and begins a quest for knowledge of its nature and purpose, meeting and endearing itself to, several humans, who begin to understand that Number 5 has somehow developed a whimsical, childlike form of consciousness. The military baddies, convinced that Number 5 poses a threat to national security, hunt number 5 down to eliminate the threat. Number 5 develops self-awareness, and hilarity ensues as it interacts with the humans it encounters along the way, including mildly racist Indian scientist stereotype “Ben Jabituya” (who, it so happens, was played by a white dude for some reason). Despite its obvious stupidity and the limitations of the original plot, Short Circuit managed to spawn not one, but TWO sequels. sigh… the 80’s.
The classic lame sci-fi literary device of the bolt of lightning… How many films, particularly films about AI, have made use of this mysterious force of nature to justify impossible things happening? In the case of Short Circuit, a bolt of lightning somehow completely changes the mechanical construction of a robot’s circuitry. Sounds legit, right? The basic equation goes like this: more electricity = more science, which has never been even close to true. Also the fact that Number 5’s military designers inexplicably decided to give their creation adorable eyebrow flaps, a “Kit” from Nightrider style light bulb mouth, and huge, baby-like eyes for no discernible reason is highly dubious. Almost like they knew what would eventually happen…
And on a side note, did women ever actually find Steve Gutenberg attractive?
Rubbish rating: 73/100
2) D.A.R.Y.L. (1985)
D.A.R.Y.L., whose name is an acronym for Data Analysing Robot Youth Lifeform, is a military AI experiment that looks like a 10-year-old boy. It is set loose upon the world by a sympathetic scientist and winds up in an orphanage, where it is adopted by an unsuspecting couple. As Daryl adapts to his new life, the extraordinary abilities made possible by his advanced microcomputer brain begin to be revealed, through hitting home runs and being really good at computer games. When the military discovers that Daryl has been freed, they reclaim their property and debrief Daryl about what he has learned. Upon discovering that Daryl has adopted human emotions, including fear and self-preservation, Daryl’s military handlers decide that such technology is useless in combat and set about disposing of Daryl. Daryl uses his special skills to escape again with the help of more sympathetic humans. Flying a plane, driving recklessly and faking his own death, thus enabling him to live out his days with the family who adopted him.
D.A.R.Y.L. brought the Turing Test back to the forefront of philosophical debates about the nature of artificial intelligence and consciousness, but, in doing so, exposed the limitations of the Turing Test itself. Is whether or not a person can tell the difference between a machine-child and a real child really the best way to measure true AI? After all, we know plenty of people who regularly talk to their cats and attribute human emotions to dogs.
Also, look at this garbage swing. Surely an AI as competent as D.A.R.Y.L. is supposed to be could manage better form than this:
Rubbish rating: 85/100
3) Weird Science (1985)
Two hard done by nerds who can’t get girlfriends decide to create an artificial woman using their amazing 80’s computer technology and a doll. The pair hack into a government computer to obtain extra computing power and voila; the doll turns into a supermodel. Not just a supermodel, though. In addition to satiating the young lads’ teenaged sexual frustrations, the AI (whom they name “Lisa”) can conjure up fancy cars out of the ether, freeze time, and erase people’s memories with a wave of her hand. Hilarity ensues as Lisa dedicates her considerable powers to improving the lives of the lads through a series of bizarre trials and tribulations.
Where do we start? It must be mentioned that the designs for Lisa are made by feeding magazine clippings of attractive women into some kind of rudimentary scanner. Also hooking electrodes up to a doll was a nice touch. The scene where the boys hack into US government computers and the words “access denied” fly off the screen to the sound of bowling pins being knocked over is also classic. As with many films involving computer technology, the appearance of easy to follow computer interfaces is laughable, at best. At least they didn’t use a mildly robotic human voice to explain each phase of the process, as so many other films do…
"self destruct sequence initiated"
Rubbish rating: 87/100
4) War Games (1983)
When the US military realises that its personnel are unwilling to launch an all-out nuclear attack, regardless of the circumstances, they decide to hand over the military launch codes to an emotionless AI program named “Joshua” to eliminate the problem. A young hacker, attempting to access some in-development computer games before they are released, manages to hack his way into the military’s system and begins communicating with it.
Thinking he is playing a game, the young lad begins putting in motion actual military manoeuvres and activating a genuine nuclear strike against Russia. Seeing the US’s nuclear armaments begin to activate, the USSR responds in kind. Joshua finds this “game” interesting and moves forward with its plans to win the game even when the young man realises what is happening and stops playing.
Attempts to disable Joshua prove futile and it moves forward with its plans to launch an all-out nuclear attack. Humanity is saved when the scientists convince Joshua to play tic-tac-toe against itself, causing it to develop an understanding of the concept of a “no-win scenario”, and deciding that the only way to win at the nuclear game is not to play at all.
A valuable lesson is learned by all.
The lofty expectations of the ubiquitous computer hacker of 1980’s lore never really took shape. Sure, some hackers have managed small measures of mischief, spreading viruses and whatnot, and a few have even figured out how to steal money and identities, emails and documents. But the reality of internet infrastructures, firewalls, and failsafes have thus far prevented anything close to some of the fear-inducing predictions induced by the beginning of the digital age.
The idea that an artificial intelligence program would ever be given carte-blanche control over any service, military or otherwise, which could affect the lives of a populace on a large scale, or spread this kind of mayhem, is pretty much laughable. People simply wouldn’t allow it.
Maybe we have movies like this to thank for that…
Rubbish rating: 69/100
5) Tron (1982)
A rogue software engineer attempts to hack his former employer’s mainframe, engaging in a digital espionage battle with an artificial intelligence ant-spying program called “Master Control Program” or “MCP”. To defeat MCP, the engineer uploads his own program, called “Tron” into its mainframe to set things right. As things heat up, MCP decides to use lasers to download the software engineer into the mainframe, out of the real world and into the digital one.
Once in the mainframe, the software engineer discovers an entire world of anthropomorphised computer programs, and begins to interact with them. He learns that MCP is building up to leading a rebellion against the human race, known to these programs as “The Users”.
MCP forces these programs, as well as the software engineer, to engage in gladiatorial combat games with their very lives at stake. The engineer eventually learns of his immense power over the computer programs, and uses this power to defeat MCP.
The concept of people living and functioning inside a computer program works only as a metaphor. It is unfortunate that movies continue to insist on taking this idea so literally. This concept has been rehashed several times since, notably in the Matrix trilogy and the 2014 remake of Tron, but it still just seems stupid. The digital world bears no resemblance to the real world and attempting to make it do so is just plain silly. Also the 1980’s fascination with lasers has proven to be a red herring.
Remember when CGI like this looked cutting edge?