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Humanity has always had a love-hate relationship with technology, and robots are no different.  Over the years, there have been hundreds of movies about sapient robots, and the portrayals have varied wildly.

Sociologists and histories have outlined how the advancement of technology led to greater productivity in the workplace, and how the introduction of that technology displaced some workers and led to a spreading fear that computers and robots would one day take the place of humans.

These fears were reflected in science fiction and movies.  But, when later generations saw prosperity and new jobs emerge from technology, the tide began to shift. Observing how artificial intelligence and robots have been portrayed by Hollywood provides a fascinating glimpse into humanity’s relationship with the technology that it depends on.

1920s-1960s: A Fear of Robots

The Industrial Revolution of the 1700’s and 1800’s gave birth to the term Luddites Luddites Attacking? Being A Techie Could Be Dangerous Luddites Attacking? Being A Techie Could Be Dangerous Three shocking stories where people have attacked gadget loving techies . Are these anti-technology Luddites with anger issues, or justified privacy-rights activists? Read More  – the name of textile workers who protested the adoption of the spinning frames and looms that threatened to replace them.

luddites

Of course, Luddites could not stop the progress of technological achievements. As the centuries rolled on, more machines came. Assembly lines, radios, telegraphs, printing presses, electric motors, and railroads provided a constant stream of devices and machinery for science fiction writers 3 Examples of Amazing Science Fiction Tech That Became Reality 3 Examples of Amazing Science Fiction Tech That Became Reality Technology is difficult to predict, because it often develops in response to new needs or changing situations that are difficult to imagine. There are, however, a few sci-fi books that were particularly prophetic. Read More to worry about.

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In the 1930s, John Maynard Keynes wrote that:

“We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come – namely, technological unemployment.”

So, it is no surprise that a film like Metropolis would appear in 1927.

metropolis

The plot had obvious connections to the modern social fears about industrialists, as it was about a wealthy class of “thinker-industrialists” who ruled over the workers who were toiling in the underground regions of the city, operating the machines that provided the city with its power.

The form of artificial intelligence 7 Amazing Websites To See The Latest In Artificial Intelligence Programming 7 Amazing Websites To See The Latest In Artificial Intelligence Programming Artificial Intelligence is not yet HAL from the 2001: The Space Odyssey…but we are getting awfully close. Sure enough, one day it could be as similar to the sci-fi potboilers being churned out by Hollywood.... Read More that took shape in this movie was that of the female robot Maria, who ultimately caused chaos and death for the workers in Metropolis.

While it’s tempting to dive into a Freudian analysis about why the filmmakers chose a female robot for this evil purpose, a deeper analysis of the film will note that the fact that the robot caused nothing but mayhem to the working class is hardly a coincidence.

Other robot sci-fi films throughout the 20s, 30s and 40s followed the same “evil robot Here's Why Scientists Think You Should be Worried about Artificial Intelligence Here's Why Scientists Think You Should be Worried about Artificial Intelligence Do you think artificial intelligence is dangerous? Does AI may pose a serious risk to the human race. These are some reasons why you may want to be concerned. Read More ” theme, like the 1921 Mechanical Man, featuring a 10 foot tall robot programmed to blow fire out of its hands and cause all sorts of mayhem.

mechanical-man

Undersea Kingdom in 1936 featured raygun-toting robots called Volkites – the army of evil warlord Unga Khan.  The Phantom Creeps in 1939 featured an 8 foot iron robot “iron man”, built by the evil villain Dr. Zorka to take over the world.

The run of evil robots in Hollywood didn’t end in the 30s. There was the 1941 film The Mechanical Monsters, where a mad scientist’s flying robots attacked Gotham City with their flamethrowers. They could only be stopped by Superman.

In the 1950s, pulp sci-fi began to shift its focus onto aliens – but there were still plenty of films featuring robots – and usually in a negative light. Case in point; the film Gog in 1954, where experimental robots created in a top-secret government lab went out of control after enemy agents took them over, becoming killing machines.

gog

This trend continued on with movies like Kronos in 1957, where an alien robot sucked all electrical and atomic energy from Earth, putting humans at risk of running out of all power. There was the Invasion of The Neptune Men in 1961, where robotic aliens from Neptune invaded Earth.

Of course, who could forget the climax of this wave of evil artificial intelligence, the ultimate sinister computer – the one and only HAL-9000 in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Hal 9000

Stanley Kubrick’s film really took fears about artificial intelligence to a whole new level. In fact, the film was one of the first Hollywood futurist films exploring what a future world might look like if the newfangled computers of the late 1960s might one day become smarter than humans What Is The Turing Test And Will It Ever Be Beaten? What Is The Turing Test And Will It Ever Be Beaten? The Turing Test is meant to determine whether machines think. Did the Eugene Goostman program truly pass the Turing test, or did the creators simply cheat? Read More .

The thinking and feeling computer, known as HAL-9000, not only specialized in fixing the ship or playing chess, but it was also able to develop an evil plot to kill the astronauts on board in order to prevent them from shutting down its malfunctioning systems.

HAL 9000

In the film, the ship’s last remaining astronaut – Dave Bowman – survived long enough to disconnect HAL’s brain modules. However, the question of what catastrophic consequences Here's Why Scientists Think You Should be Worried about Artificial Intelligence Here's Why Scientists Think You Should be Worried about Artificial Intelligence Do you think artificial intelligence is dangerous? Does AI may pose a serious risk to the human race. These are some reasons why you may want to be concerned. Read More might come from an artificial intelligence that’s smarter than humans is a debate that lingers on well into 2015 and beyond.

1970s-1990s: A Love of Robots

One of the best eras in Science Fiction, thanks to the magic of special effects in Hollywood, included the year that one of the greatest Sci-Fi films of all times was released – Star Wars – in 1977.

r2-d2

Suddenly, the robots were the good guys. Oddly enough, C-3PO – the anxious and talkative gold-plated robot – was actually based upon the design of the evil robot in Metropolis.  C-3PO fast became one of the most recognized icons of the Star Wars films, and one of the kindest robots in the history of movie robots.

And just when you thought robots couldn’t get any more gentle, in rolled R2-D2, the barrel-shaped Astromech droid that remained C-3PO’s ever-present side-kick throughout the trilogy. Movie fans came to adore the small, stocky droid as one of the main heroes of the film.

The public’s love affair with robots continued on into the 1980s, with films like D.A.R.Y.L.

daryl

This 1985 film portrayed an android to the audience as an innocent 10 year-old boy. It was difficult for anyone not to feel sympathetic toward the robot – even if he was only a machine created in a government lab.

This was also a film that went beyond the 2001: A Space Odyssey question of machine intelligence, and instead focused on getting audiences to consider a scenario where a robot could “malfunction”, and actually feel things like fear, or love.

The love affair with A.I. beings continued with the film Short Circuit in 1986.

Number Five

This robot – which eventually became an iconic character in 1980’s America – was one of a group of robots fabricated by a defense contractor called Nova Robotics. While intended to be a killing machine, robot “Number 5” was struck by lightning and “came alive” with a very human-like personality Thinking Machines: What Neuroscience and Artificial Intelligence Can Teach Us About Consciousness Thinking Machines: What Neuroscience and Artificial Intelligence Can Teach Us About Consciousness Can building artificially intelligent machines and software teach us about the workings of consciousness, and the nature of the human mind itself? Read More .

Just like in the movie D.A.R.Y.L., the robot’s creators considered the robots human-like, highly intelligent qualities as a “malfunction”, seeking to destroy the device before things got out of hand.

Just a couple of years later, in 1987, yet another film portraying artificial intelligence in a positive light was released – RoboCop.

robocop

In stark contrast to the evil and destructive robots of the films from many decades earlier, this 1980s film portrays this half-human, half-robot representation of artificial intelligence as a superhero. The film grossed $8 million in its opening weekend, and over $53 million during it’s North American run – proving that the public really, really connected with the idea of good-guy robots.

The Pendulum Swings

Post 2000, Hollywood has started entering into a multi-faceted coverage of artificial intelligence. There is no longer a common theme in movies, as debates also rage throughout modern society as to whether or not the advancement of A.I. How Will AI Impact Your Life in the Next Ten Years? How Will AI Impact Your Life in the Next Ten Years? Artificial intelligence is growing quickly, and seems braced to change the world. How will that change present itself in the next few years? Here are some good guesses. Read More will benefit or destroy humanity.

There are two examples of movies that take polar opposite views on this. On the one side, there is I, Robot, a 2004 film starring Will Smith, about a future world in 2035 where robots are prevalent throughout society. Their purpose is to serve humans, and they obey the “Three Laws of Robotics”, the primary of which is that they must not “injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”

sonny

It’s actually this first law that drives the U.S. Robotics security AI known as V.I.K.I. (Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence) to turn the robots toward a mission to remove free will from all humans, in order to ensure the survival of the human race.

The conclusion of the superior intellect of the artificial intelligence in this movie is basically that left to their own devices, humans will eventually drive themselves extinct (an argument that is difficult to debate).

Of course, society’s love for artificially intelligent robots is not gone, as evidenced by the release of Wall-E by Disney in 2008.

wall-e

This heartwarming story takes place in the distant future – 2805. Earth is nothing more than a massive garbage-heap, and Earth’s population has escaped the planet to live in starships, while the robots remain on Earth in order to clean up the planet.

WALL-E is one of the last remaining robots, who develops a form of human-like intelligence toward the end of the 700 years spent on Earth. The film explores WALL-E’s love for a second robot named EVA.  It is yet another examination of a scenario where artificial intelligence “evolves” into human-like form – complete with fears, anger, and of course love.

Hollywood’s examination of artificial intelligence over the last several decades makes it clear that humanity hates the idea of technology that can replace us, but is moved by the idea of another intelligence that may be capable of the same emotions that make us distinctly human.

Do you love movies about artificial intelligence and human-like robots? What are some of your favorites? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

Shelly Wall / Shutterstock.comCC BY-SA 3.0

  1. Horatio Valentine
    July 21, 2015 at 4:56 pm

    I think the new TV series 'Humans' is another great example. The future is here, people. You may think that your blender doesn't care what you put in it, but one day it might decide that it doesn't like being treated like an appliance and will revolt. What happens when your roomba decides that vacuuming is not what it wants to do? Ridiculous? Maybe... But what happens when you buy that fancy AI robot that will do all your housework, cook your meals, change diapers, drive you to the mall, and every other task you don't like decides that it deserves more rights? Or when hackers find ways to bypass the safety protocols? AI is a slippery slope that will end badly.

  2. Phids
    March 26, 2015 at 7:22 pm

    I'm surprised you didn't mention "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" from 2001.

    There was also an interesting movie that came out last year, "Autómata", which addressed some good issues with AI.

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