In Our Final Invention, a brilliant and terrifying look at the very real threat of artificial intelligence, James Barrat makes the claim that we will soon be facing an alien menace of our own making: a super intelligence that, while not necessarily bent on our destruction, will be ambivalent about us at best—and one that may decide we are worth more as biological building blocks than human beings. While Barrat argues passionately about the need to prepare for this inevitability now and find a way to keep it contained, the odds are that no matter what we do, it will find a way to break out of its box. And once it does, it will surely evolve to the point of deciding we are far more trouble than we’re worth.
Think about it for a moment. We’re closer than ever to the Singularity. Various forms of AI surround us, from our iPhone’s personal assistant to search algorithms, car computer systems and Amazon’s “recommended for you” lists. Brilliant men and women are throwing billions of dollars at AI research and development. Let’s face it: an AI that can learn is coming, and once that happens, our time is limited. Even if it is not malevolent, it will most certainly view us as expendable depending on its own needs—as Barrat points out, humans don’t hate lab rats, but we experiment on them in many horrible ways. We are engineering our own extinction.
One of the most fertile places to explore this theme is in the movies, from the classics Metropolis and Forbidden Planet to The Matrix (and, well, A.I.). So in honor of our future machine overlords, I’ve put together a top ten list of the most terrifying instances of onscreen AI. Keep in mind, this list is focused on scary depictions; otherwise, the list might be three times as long (some might say this is a cowardly way out, but I say the world of AI in film is large enough for it).
Without further ado:
10. Wall-E (AUTO)
A robot (Wall-E) falls in love with another robot (EVE) and goes on a grand adventure to save the human race from a slow descent into obscurity, proving himself more human than human in the process. AUTO, the villain, is the autopilot of the gigantic intergalactic ship that humans live on, having abandoned Earth after overloading it with waste and draining its natural resources. AUTO may be just following programming at first, but things take a dark turn at the end as it asserts itself. Let’s just say it’s learned a thing or two along the way.
This might seem like a bit of an odd one to start off the list, but has there been a more poignant commentary on humanity’s self destructive nature, the power of love and hope, and the dangers of artificial intelligence without an off switch?
9. Westworld (Gunslinger)
In the distant future, an adult amusement park is populated by robots that appear human. Guests pay to do anything they want—from engaging in quick draw duels with the Gunslinger, to having sex with androids in the bordello. Of course the robots are programmed to always lose the duels and agree to the sex. Until they decide to revolt.
A cult classic, Westworld may not be on everyone’s radar, and that’s a shame. There’s a kind of relentless terror in the Gunslinger’s pursuit, something that quite likely inspired The Terminator years later—a machine that won’t stop until you’re dead. Besides, this one was directed by Michael Crichton. How cool is that?
8. Forbidden Planet (Great Machine)
A science fiction classic and loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Forbidden Planet inspired many generations of filmmakers. The film’s bleak landscape and concepts of space travel, alien races and thinking robots were all revolutionary at the time, at least on the big screen. Much of it still holds up today. When the small rescue mission lands on Altair IV, Dr. Edward Morbius warns them away. He and his daughter Altaira are the only people left alive from the original expedition. An ancient alien race, gone for thousands of years, has left behind a device Morbius calls the “plastic educator.” The device can greatly expand human intelligence, but at what cost? The new arrivals are about to find out.
This one is a bit different than the others on this list, mainly because the “AI” threat resides within a human brain (or at least what used to be one). But the concept of the subconscious “ID”—one reason I think we find artificial intelligence so fascinating—is so central to the film, it belongs here. And a human mind that has been altered to such a great degree isn’t really human anymore. Sounds like the Singularity, doesn’t it? Only this is no Utopian future.
7. War Games (WOPR/Joshua)
A young hacker interfaces with a NORAD supercomputer called WOPR and, thinking he’s playing a game, nearly sets off World War Three. The computer, nicknamed Joshua, tries to win the game at all costs. It’s only through a simple game of tic-tac-toe that it learns that nuclear war is futile and decides to concede.
Here’s a perfect example of a nice little computer program intended to help humans in times of conflict that learns on its own and decides to go off the rails. An artificial super intelligence? Not quite, but close. Sure, in this movie it decides that the only way to win is not to play. But what if the next time it realizes that getting rid of all humans would actually be the best way to go?
6. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (Mecha)
I have to admit, the first time I saw A.I., I didn’t consider it a classic. But this is a movie that rewards you for watching it several times over. Full of emotion and a multilayered commentary on what makes us human, the relatively simple surface story of an android boy that wants to become human is devastating. The Mecha aren’t exactly evil, but they do things that would certainly be considered such. When the human race is long gone, our own creations have outlasted us, and evolved to the point of becoming their own species. Perhaps that’s the secret of where we come from; was there some ancient alien race that decided creating their little humanoids was a good idea, and is now long gone, lost on the scrapheap of time, while we live on?
5. Blade Runner (replicants/Roy Batty/Pris)
In the not-so-distant future, Blade Runners hunt down rogue replicants, or androids, that are marked for termination. How cool is that job description? Pretty cool, until you fall in love with one.
Harrison Ford hunts Darryl Hannah and Rutger Hauer. Enough said. Blade Runner is a pioneering movie in so many ways, the film itself is beautiful, and even the ending is controversial. Ridley Scott calls it his most personal and best film. It’s a must see for me, at least once a year.
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (HAL 9000)
This one pretty much has to be on this list. Two astronauts travel to Jupiter to find out the origins of the black monoliths that are affecting human evolution. On the way, they are menaced by the ship’s intelligent computer, HAL, which becomes increasingly unstable and eventually tries to kill them all. HAL’s red, glowing “eye” has become one of the enduring images in all cinema (clearly influencing another on this list, AUTO from Wall-E), and his deceptively calm voice sends chills down viewers’ spines as he loses his digital mind. Once again, the astronaut manages to find an “off switch” of sorts, but it doesn’t diminish the terrifying implications. Once again, we are engineering our own doom.
3. Alien (Ash)
A small crew in the deepest reaches of space investigate a distress beacon and end up inviting a vicious killer on board their ship. One of the scariest movies ever made, the most obvious threat in Alien isn’t artificial intelligence, of course. But one of the ship’s crew, Ash, is actually an android, and boy, does he malfunction. I remember watching this as a boy and being as terrified by Ash and his ultimate demise as I was by the alien creature stalking them all. No small feat of filmmaking, to be sure.
2. The Matrix (Agent Smith)
I refuse to accept the second and third movies in the trilogy, but the first one is a mind-bending accomplishment and one of the most astonishing films in recent memory. A man discovers that the world is actually a giant computer simulation and he is the chosen one, meant to get underneath the skin of reality and find the truth. There’s a thick stew of philosophy, cultural and religious references in here but somehow it all works.
As the agent policing the sim, Smith is about as scary as it gets—an unstoppable AI that can do just about anything it wants. Of course the real terror lies beneath the surface, where the sentient machines crawl over humans lying in stasis, their brains and bodies being used for fuel. Many of the concepts aren’t new, but the story together with the revolutionary special effects takes this one nearly all the way to the number one slot.
1. The Terminator (Skynet/Terminator)
You knew this was coming, didn’t you? The Terminator is about a killing machine sent back through time to erase the mother of a boy who will grow up to lead the resistance in a man vs. machine world war—and the human soldier sent back by that very same man to save his own mother. The soldier, of course, ends up falling in love with her and becomes the boy’s father.
Kind of makes your head hurt, doesn’t it? Well, forget about the logic loops here, and just sit back and enjoy the ride. A modern classic of relentless terror and pulse-pounding action, The Terminator made Arnold famous (well, even more famous) and introduced the line millions of kids have spoken into the mirror in a bad Austrian accent: “I’ll be back.” We hope so, Arnold, for at least one more round. Terminator: The Retirement Home Chronicles? I’ll be first in line.
- Star Wars (not #1 only because I don’t consider Vader to be AI, and the droids aren’t scary)
- I Robot
- Star Trek Next Generation: Nemesis
- The Black Hole
- The Day the Earth Stood Still
Nate Kenyon is the author of Day One, coming October 2013 from Thomas Dunne Books. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association and International Thriller Writers. He lives in the Boston area. Visit him online at NateKenyon.com.