4 TV Shows That Get Artificial Intelligence Right

Joel Lee 08-10-2015

With every year that passes, artificial intelligence shifts away from science fiction and more towards pure science. Some scientists think we should be scared of AI 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 while others think that AI will make our lives better 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 . The only guarantee is that artificial intelligence will happen, and most likely sooner rather than later.


So, the question is: what will artificial intelligence actually look like?

When we look at how Hollywood depicts AI How Hollywood Has Depicted Artificial Intelligence Over The Years 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. Read More , we see that there’s no real consensus any more on what to expect. Robots are good, robots are evil, robots live in a gray zone of morality — we’ve seen it all, and we’ll see it all again. But if there’s one common thread, it’s that AI depictions have rarely been realistic.

Fortunately, we’re starting to see a change in that on television, and the resulting shows have been phenomenal as a result.

AI: More Fantasy Than Science

Think back over how entertainment media has portrayed artificial intelligence. What you’ll realize is that AI has mostly been in the realm of feature films, not television shows. Few TV series are built on AI as a premise; rather, AI tends to be tackled in one-off episodes here and there.

And when AI is portrayed, it’s often fantastical instead of realistic. In a lot of ways, AI has become synonymous with “humans but not really,” as if robots could ever become so human-like that we’d be unable to tell the difference. We haven’t even beaten the Turing Test 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 yet, so this kind of AI is likely set for the very distant future.


This kind of mismanagement of the AI concept has led to common tropes like being unable to tell AIs from humans, or AIs that want to be more human, or movies that highlight the “one difference” that will forever separate humans from AIs. All too far removed from reality to be plausible… yet.

But there are two standout examples of AI done right.

HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Sonny in I, Robot. Whether you thought these movies were good or not is irrelevant. The fact is that they portrayed AI relatively well, which shouldn’t be a surprise since both films were based on books written by renowned science fiction authors (Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, respectively).

HAL 9000’s capabilities were influenced by hypotheses and conjectures put forward by well-known computer scientists in the 1960s, whereas Sonny was based on Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics — three realistic guidelines for keeping AIs in check. These are the kinds of AI we need to see more of in the entertainment industry.


Instead, we get far-fetched portrayals like the one in Her, where the protagonist falls in love with a gendered AI that’s basically all human except that she has no physical body. The film is admittedly a romantic drama, and it hits a lot of emotional notes that make it a worthwhile film Attention, Internet! The Best Movies About Artificial Intelligence Hollywood has released a lot of great movies exploring the issues of artificial intelligence over the years, and here are 10 of the best movies about AI we recommend you move Heaven and Earth to... Read More , but this is not what real AI looks like.

On the other hand, we have titles like Interstellar that truly redefine the cinema experience with honest explorations of sci-fi concepts The Best Time Travel Movies of All Time Time travel can make even the dullest movies more interesting. And the best time travel movies are truly mesmerizing slices of cinema. You really should see these flicks, either now or in the future. Read More like time travel and artificial intelligence. TARS, the AI entity in the film, has a few physical exaggerations that seem unrealistic, but the actual intelligence is rooted enough to feel like it could actually be real.

Battlestar Galactica

There aren’t many examples of AI in TV, but one significant show that tackled the idea to some extent was the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, which includes a primitive form of AI (robotic Cylon centurions) and an advanced form of AI (humanoid Cylons).

While Battlestar Galactica received acclaim for breaking past the traditional confines of sci-fi television — by focusing more on character drama than nifty special effects — we can’t ignore the poor artificial intelligence constructs the show used.


Most of the show revolves around the notion of, “Cylons look like us!” and, “Who’s a Cylon? Are you a Cylon?” Then once the identity of several Cylons was made known, the show revolved around the question of, “Are Cylons and humans actually any different?” Nothing new here, but thankfully the strength of the show’s characters redeemed this brilliant sci-fi TV show 10+ Brilliant Sci-Fi TV Shows That Aren't Star Trek [Stuff to Watch] The best sci-fi movies are often cherished by fans and placed up high upon the mantle, but it's TV shows that make up the bread and butter of any geek's media diet. A good TV... Read More .


The most recent attempt by TV to tackle artificial intelligence, at least at the time of writing, is Humans, a British-American remake of the Swedish show Real Humans.

Here we have a premise that we’ve seen time and time again: in the near future, human-like androids called “Synths” have become pervasively integrated into society. These Synths aren’t exactly human, but they’re close enough that the line is beginning to blur, and the writers have a lot of fun exploring the consequences.

In terms of breaking new ground, Humans is, unfortunately, a disappointment. We’ve heard all of these philosophical questions before, and the show doesn’t offer any new or original answers — but most of all, the actual AI is more fantastical than real. That being said, the show itself is fun and compelling to watch.


What this shows us is that most films and TV shows don’t really know how to handle AI in a way that stays true to reality without sacrificing narrative tension. If it’s too close to realistic then it borders on boring, so many writers extrapolate and push AI into fantasy territory — because that’s what people want to watch…

Person of Interest

This is why Person of Interest deserves high praise for the way it tackles the whole artificial intelligence concept. It’s a high concept show that’s heavy on action and conspiracies, but the lifeblood of the show is as realistic as it gets as far as Hollywood is concerned.

Warning: Mild spoilers coming up.

In the very first episode, we discover that a brilliant computer scientist named Mr. Finch has, in the aftermath of 9/11 and at the behest of the American government, built a massive artificial intelligence that digests all of the surveillance footage from around the country to predict acts of terror before they happen.

The AI is called The Machine and what’s immediately striking is the way in which this artificial intelligence communicates with Mr. Finch: by producing the social security number of anyone who might be involved in a criminal act, except that number could belong to the victim or the perpetrator.

I’m paraphrasing the premise here, but I want to highlight this AI because it’s the closest thing to “real” that we’ve seen on TV. It doesn’t talk. It isn’t omnipotent. But most importantly, it doesn’t fit inside your pocket. Later on, we see that The Machine is an enormous cluster of high-end servers that barely fits within a warehouse complex.


That’s what real AI would look like. No smartphone personalities that are “basically human”. No human shell with an intelligence so complex that we can’t tell it apart from other humans. The Machine is simply a super-powered supercomputer with extraordinary but plausible capabilities, and it never runs amok. It has a set of directives by which it must operate, and it does so.

Later on, The Machine does have its abilities expanded, but it never oversteps its bounds. It never breaks free from the directives that bind it. It is intelligent and it can communicate, but only through numbers, and it only communicates the information that it was meant to process.

Person of Interest exercises creative liberties here and there, but it always remembers the world that it built and stays true to the rules of its artificial intelligence. Is it any surprise to find that this series is overseen by Jonathan Nolan, brother to Christopher Nolan?

Black Mirror

More shows are starting to tackle AI from a more realistic angle. For example, Black Mirror, one of the best shows to hit the small screen in the past decade. This modernized Twilight Zone with a tech-based twist is like a short story anthology with each episode providing a standalone story and a brand new cast each time.

The show’s fourth episode, titled “Be Right Back”, involves a woman who loses her significant other in a car crash and subsequently purchases a built-to-order virtual AI that analyzes all of his online messages and social media profiles in order to emulate his personality and mannerisms. Essentially, she ends up talking to his ghost.

All of this is pretty far-fetched — certainly more speculative than Person of Interest — but the idea of using online data to rebuild one’s personality pushes it a step into “this could actually happen” territory (especially because it’s already happening 5 Inspiring Social Media TED Talks You Should Watch Social media has taken over the Internet. There are many who are actively trying to decipher the power of social media. Some of them have even given TED Talks that are well worth a watch. Read More ).

The genius of Black Mirror is that it takes this episode even one step further, aiming to explore the eventual consequences of this kind of AI and the emotional fallout that could happen in a situation like this.

Artificial Intelligence Is Coming Soon

In a time when TV is full of shows that rely on technobabble and gibberish Did You Spot These Funny TV & Movie Tech Bloopers? Hollywood has never been great about technological verisimilitude. Which means technologies are misrepresented because writers and directors are lazy. Here are some prime examples of their lackadaisical attitude to getting things right. Read More to push along cliched plots — I’m looking at you, CSI and NCIS — it’s refreshing to see shows like Person of Interest and Black Mirror do justice to this wonderful area of technology that we’re only just beginning to grasp.

They did it right and it was worth watching.

For those who are still skeptical about the advent of artificial intelligence, check out these robots that are painting, writing, and making music It's Happening: Robots May Be The Creative Artists Of The Future No machine or piece of software can emulate the passion of an artist, right? Wrong, sort of. Human creativity is important, but — sorry guys — the robots are coming for you too. Read More . Pretty soon, artificial intelligence will take over skilled jobs 8 Skilled Jobs That May Soon Be Replaced By Robots Are machines coming for your job? You might be surprised. Recent advances in AI are putting white collar jobs at risk. Read More and who knows what’ll happen next? Maybe we’ll enter into an era of AI-driven dystopia What Happens When Robots Can Do All the Jobs? Robots are getting smarter fast -- what happens when they can do every job better and cheaper than human beings? Read More . Maybe we won’t.

Have you seen any realistic examples of artificial intelligence on TV? What do you think AI will look like in the future? Which movies or shows will be proven correct? Please share with us in the comments below!

Image Credits: Supercomputer Cluster by Regissercom via Shutterstock

Related topics: Artificial Intelligence, Geeky Science, Science Fiction, Television.

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  1. Tomás Roque
    November 19, 2016 at 7:00 pm

    I imagine you're not familiar with Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex, as it is one of my favourite pieces of science fiction ever made, and also gets quite deep into the philosophical meanings of A.I. and what separated it from humans.

  2. VOR
    May 31, 2016 at 4:06 pm

    All types of machines so far are really nothing more than complicated sorting machines. If it's possible to instruct a machine to have actual intelligence, that would mean it's possible to write a set of instructions that describe how to 'be intelligent'. We are no where near understanding even the basics of that. And, at least on a larger, collective level, we seem to be confused about even that. Understanding how intelligence occurs is not simply. But understanding what is it and what is not is actually simple. To my dismay we can't tell a sifter from something that understands what sifting is. I sieve with holes sized to sort things is as smart as any program devised to date. Which is to say, 0% smart. Even the use of the word smart is self-misleading.
    The singularity will not result from designing more sophisticated sorters. Sorters that 'learn' from sorting are still sorters. If/when it happens, the singularity will take the form breakthrough in human understanding of the mechanics of actual intelligence. That breakthrough will not be based on the evolution of sorters.

  3. Anonymous
    October 8, 2015 at 6:30 pm

    Anything that's science fiction is going to have a certain amount of fantasy. BSG handles space combat realistically (no sound, nukes and bullets with water tanks as shielding from radiation etc) but asks us to accept organic robots with fully functional AI, divine intervention and some kind of teleportation.

    Real AI, to the extent that it exists at all, is mostly found in the form of expert systems, which use collections of rules to decide a course of action. They're not much good for simulating human behavior, but they CAN be useful for some applications. Chess playing is a great example, or IBM's Jeopardy-playing, Recipe-synthesizing, medical diagnosing Watson, which is probably the bleeding edge of something that actually exists in the world. Based on that, realistic AI is probably closer to Deckard telling his computer to enhance part of an image in Blade Runner rather than Bender being Bender on Futurama. Realistic AI on that basis is pretty freaking boring. Even a system that's designed to emulate a personality is just obeying a set of rules for a particular model.

    • Joel Lee
      October 17, 2015 at 12:33 am

      Absolutely, realistic AI would be boring. Every sci-fi story has a degree of fantasy, but some are more fantastical than others. Nice mention on Deckard and Blade Runner. That's certainly one of the more compelling examples.

      • mkzero
        January 6, 2016 at 9:43 am

        A set of commands/rules is not a real AI. Realistic AIs would not be boring, the would be a high risk to humanity. Seriously, think of it: When you have real artificial *intelligence*, why should it obey any rules you made up? You can't hurt a piece of metal, 1000 years in prison won't kill it and it'll probably evolve faster than humans ever could. And I don't see why an AI should care for a human life.

          February 29, 2016 at 1:16 pm

          Do you think making a body for itself is easy? It won't be a risk to humanity because it would need humans to do it's bidding. It can't just kill whole of Humanity even if it gets nuclear codes. Also AI would think this through, What does it achieve by killing all of Humanity? It would have nothing on this land to do about. What do you think Humanity's ultimate goal is? I have no idea. But what AI would think I am sure would be a few steps ahead. Moreover, people might say it will reciprocate(reproduce) but an AI has no use for it. It can live as long as it wants..It doesn't get bored feel loneliness like Humans do. Why would it want to make anything like itself. It would rather make robots that are controlled by it directly doing all of it's work. But AI would think further on that, it doesn't need many robotic workforce because Human Workforce is quite abundant. So it will use humans as long as it seems fit.

          Do you kill all animals just because they are not smart as you? You don't . You make them cattle ...give them minor jobs.
          If at all AI does something, it would be similar to Humans working for the AI rather than Human Extermination

        • mkzero
          March 1, 2016 at 9:33 am

          Why would it reproduce? Why do you even ask for reproduction. Sure, it wouldn't need it, because it could live on forever, but only if nobody pulls a plug. It's less about reproduction than it is clustering. And that's already happening with pseudo-AIs.

          But what you obviously don't get is the difference between a pseudo-AI and a real AI. Real AIs learn, develop and finally see, that humanity is just a big ball of bullshit that will finally just kill the planet and itself.

          If you still think, AIs are no problem, look at all the bright minds of this and the last century, who gave exact and plausible scenarios of why AIs are a bad idea. Look at what Steven Hawking, Bill Gates and even Elon Musk said.

          March 1, 2016 at 9:42 am

          You and I agree that there is no need for reproduction for AI. If I was an AI, I wouldn't declare my presence at all and have a surgical control over whole of Humanity. Control population and exploitation of resources from behind and show them the way to manage themselves and nature. But that's me...I just don't like idea of Human extermination by AI because I really feel what an AI think has to be different from what our heads can grasp.

        • mkzero
          March 2, 2016 at 9:12 am

          "have a surgical control over whole of Humanity"

          And that's where the the artificial *intelligence* would see it never could possibly control humanity. too many variables, too much useless human errors. humanity would obsoleted by a real AI. just like homo neanderthalensis was.

          like it or not: the dangers of a real AI overpower every use we could have with it and the probability of it exterminating humans is very high.

  4. Anonymous
    October 8, 2015 at 4:43 pm

    "...whereas Sonny was based on Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics..." Except that, as part of the movie's plot, Sonny was given the ability to *break* the Three Laws as he saw fit (and, presumably, a conscience to give those violations consequences).

    • Joel Lee
      October 17, 2015 at 12:34 am

      Yeah, that's right. And we saw what happens when robots transcend the Three Laws. Not a good time for anyone.

      • Anonymous
        October 17, 2015 at 5:30 pm

        Actually, if you'd watched the movie...
        ...Sonny's creator, Alfred Lanning, gave Sonny the ability to "break" the Three Laws; Lanning sacrificed himself (using Sonny as a suicide device) to lead Del Spooner (Will Smith) to investigate VIKI, who was going to take over the world. Sonny realized Lanning's plan was the only way to save Earth, yet showed real remorse yet realized that he had no choice.