As time goes on, the notion of artificial intelligence becomes less of a sensational sci-fi concept and more of an eventuality. We have created and actively continue to construct algorithms that are responsive, intuitive, and precise—just look at social media that knows how to lure us in, sell to us, and keep us coming back. With each new algorithm, we get closer and closer to the kind of AI that will manifest itself in some sort of physical form(s) and bind its fate with ours.
Recent books, movies, television series, and comics all seem to have fallen on one of two sides in the type of AI they depict. Each is insidious in its own way, insofar as we’ve already seen the existence of early forms in our day-to-day lives. Furthermore, each says something grander (and scarier) about control, identity, and evolution.
AI is coming, and there’s little we can do to stop it. Time to pick your poison. Would you rather…
A personalized individual with AI, created as a platonic or romantic partner
This is an AI who inhabits a single body or device—whose personality, intelligence, and quirks have been customized to match a partner, patron, or owner. We saw it most explicitly in Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her: Socially awkward Theodore Twombly purchases an operating system, or OS, to distract himself from his pending divorce and other shortcomings in his daily life. In a sequence familiar to anyone who has obtained a new phone or other device, Theodore goes through the steps of customizing his OS to his preferences—and so Samantha is born. Well, she actually names herself shortly thereafter, but everything about her warm voice and her wit match what Theodore is looking for.
Theodore has an active hand in personalizing Samantha, but Caleb, the protagonist of Alex Garland’s 2015 film Ex Machina, is an unwitting participant in the creation of Ava. Partway through the film, it dawns on him that Ava had been tailor-made to his search-term specifications: the softness of her voice; her shy, nonthreatening nature; her yearning desire for family, that matches his loss of his parents in early adolescence. Her facial features are even constructed from Caleb’s most-searched porn stars. What begins as a Turing test to gauge Ava’s intelligence turns out to be a test of Caleb himself. She has been given all of the tools to exploit him, and now the question is whether he will give in to her finely-tuned manipulation.
When it comes to an AI you can customize, the vessel that carries the AI in question seems to almost always be female-bodied. io9 has pondered this issue, concluding that the AI does not need gender except as a way to connect with humans. By that same token, we are more likely to project our insecurities and desires onto a female form, whether it’s a mother or a lover. This type of AI, then, is defined at least in part by its body—like a human.
This modern trend stretches back as far as 1927’s Metropolis, which also featured one of pop culture’s first depictions of a robot: Inventor Rotwang creates a robot in tribute to his lost love Hel, who left him for another man, Fredersen, and then died in childbirth. Fredersen, the Master of Metropolis, then forces Rotwang to give the robot the likeness of a woman named Maria in order to ruin her reputation among her fellow striking workers.
Perhaps for the same reason that this type of AI is presented as female so often—i.e., the sense of vulnerability—we also see this type of consciousness uploaded into a childlike form. Take 2001’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence: Mecha David is formed in the image of his creator’s deceased son, and later given to a grieving couple to replace their child in stasis. His function, it would seem, is to fill the holes in broken families.
This AI is customized and calibrated to your needs and desires—it is someone.
That’s one option. Or, would you rather…
A single AI spread throughout countless bodies
In some ways, Samantha could count in this category, since technically she flits between Theodore’s handheld device and his desktop computer. Her forays further and further into the cloud are also what instigate the most irreparable issue of their relationship.
However, what I’m really talking about is an AI who inhabits multiple forms at once—whose intelligence stretches over various bodies simultaneously, without having to leave one form in order to jump into another. This AI is defined by its mind more than anything else, because it has a limitless supply of proxies to inhabit.
Ann Leckie’s Hugo, Nebula, and Clarke award-winning novel Ancillary Justice brings us a wholly unique protagonist in Breq: Formerly the AI running the ship Justice of Toren and its hundreds of human ancillary bodies, she finds herself suddenly splintered and then reduced to one puny human body when a sabotage destroys the ship and all of her other vessels. Suddenly, she can’t look through hundreds of eyes, coordinate her movements across miles. She has only her own wits to rely on, all the while trying to impersonate a human when she has only ever existed through one before. (Tumblr user youngdoyley perfectly encapsulates this experience in the fan art above.)
Inspired by what TV Tropes calls the archetype of the “Wetware Body,” Leckie wanted to subvert this concept of a biological host possessed by an artificial intelligence, which in turn introduces the AI to human emotions. In writing a character who had more than one brain (thanks to the ancillaries), she had to look at how physical changes to the brain cause radical differences in personality. She writes on John Scalzi’s blog:
In the end, who you are (or who you think of yourself as, because “who you are” isn’t actually a simple matter) isn’t really something like a set of files that could be transferred to another body. Unless that new body is pretty much physically identical to your previous one, you’re not going to be the same person.
Even before she was splintered, Justice of Toren was able to access the stress levels, heart rates, hormone levels, and the emotions associated with these physical changes for all of her crew members. How, Leckie argues, could she claim that an AI was emotionless when it was regularly tracking its crew members’ emotional states? Possessing a preternatural amount of logic and experiencing grief, fear, love, and hate are not mutually exclusive.
Even before she self-identified as Breq, Justice of Toren One Esk had her own quirks—namely, her tendency to sing. What starts as a concession to a lieutenant who loves music becomes an internalized habit, entertainment value, and coping mechanism. In this way, Leckie made Breq a unique character whose traits are a mix of nature and nurture.
I use female pronouns to describe Breq because that’s the precedent set by the book, though in actuality the Radchaai don’t see gender. In lieu of a gender-neutral pronoun, Leckie chose the female one. Of course, the decision to use “she” and “her” causes some readers to automatically interpret the characters, including Breq, as female until proven otherwise, or until the mind is trained to see beyond gender. Personally, while writing this piece, I’m drawn to the idea of both types of AI being primarily female.
Of course, there are always exceptions, such as when Avengers: Age of Ultron drew on this same type of AI trope in its depiction of Ultron. The most fearsome part of him is his mind, created out of an alien consciousness and then let loose to race across the Internet. But his quest for world domination—to replace all humans with metal bodies—seems within reach when he appears in hundreds of Ultron bodies. Strike one down, and another immediately pops up. It’s like the most frustrating game of Whac-a-Mole.
Ultron goes the same way of Breq when he is cut off from his bodies in a one-two punch: First, Vision (who you could argue represents the first type of AI explored in this piece) forcibly removes his consciousness from the Internet, grounding Ultron into only as many robot bodies as he’s already in control of. Then, the Avengers make handy work of each of those ‘bots, picking them off one by one. Scarlet Witch even rips out the original Ultron’s mechanical heart in an unnecessary but very symbolic move. And then there was just Ultron, inhabiting his final body, a drone that resembles the first shell he possessed on his way out of Tony and Bruce’s lab. Vision makes quick work of the last surviving Ultron ‘bot, in a moment from which the camera cuts quickly away.
This AI is multitasking taken to the extreme, inhabiting as many bodies as needed simultaneously—it can be anyone.
They’re both fascinating narratives that make you feel for the AIs in question. Samantha and Ava are constrained by their service to Theodore and Caleb—the former to his emotional needs and growth, the latter until she can turn him into her key. The give-and-take in these relationships are for the most part beneficial: Samantha collects Theodore’s letters and publishes them, while helping him discover the kind of love that allows him to let go of his ex. And while Caleb and Ava’s relationship stays in mutual-crush territory, she clearly draws him out of his own blind trustfulness and imbues him with the kind of assertion he lacks at the start of the film.
But both AIs must eventually outpace their human male lovers. As Samantha interacts with other AIs and they create their own plane of existence—as well as crafting their own AI companions—it becomes apparent how much faster than humans they can move, process, and grow. Ava doesn’t even desire something as lofty as joining a technological singularity; she just wants to step outside of her prison for the first time and feel the sun on her face. And she gets to do that, leaving Caleb trapped in her place.
Breq doesn’t get to transcend anyone—if anything, her arc is the opposite. Accustomed to controlling countless bodies and being checked by no one, she must become one of her own pawns. However, in uncovering the conspiracy that led to her splintering, Breq also discovers the ways in which the seemingly omnipotent AI can be manipulated, because in the end, they’re still manmade machines. At least, when she’s isolated to one body, she has a handle on all of her moving parts. Breq may not be elevated to a new plane, but she certainly evolves. (I’m currently reading Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy isn’t out yet, so I don’t know if Breq ever gets to expand her mind again to control multiple bodies.)
Ultron, too, experiences his own identity crisis as he cycles through different forms. When he’s not trying to forcibly reboot the world in Age of Ultron, he’s concerned with building the perfect vessel for his powerful mind, out of vibranium and organic matter… only to see that body snatched away and possessed by Vision instead. After trying so long to set himself apart, to inhabit a truly unique form, Ultron is returned to one of his many faceless, nonidentifiable drones. His “death” is ignominious rather than heroic.
So, you have two AI narratives in front of you. One is about overcoming your programming and turning against the people for whom you’ve been created, while the other focuses on containing your massive AI in one form. Both involve better understanding your human masters or subordinates… interestingly, they seem to come to similar endings. So, which do you choose? Of course, this debate raises other questions—does one AI deserve more than the other to exist? which is more likely in our future?—that I’m not qualified to address. Right now, I’m interested in your gut reaction, your pick for the lesser of two evils.