Western literature is replete with stories of living beings created from lifeless objects, such as the Roman poet Ovid's tale of Pygmalion, the sculptor who fashioned a beautiful woman from stone, and the 15th-century legend of the rabbi of Prague and his golem.
In the age of film, television and computers, however, technology has replaced God or the supernatural as the force that creates creatures with artificial intelligence (AI).
Some of the more modern stories have been cautionary tales about the dangers of technology. One of the earliest (and darkest) treatments of AI is German director Fritz Lang's 1926 silent film classic, “Metropolis.” Lang portrays the future as a nightmare, with most people living as slaves, cruelly controlled by machines.
Another is “Blade Runner,” a 1982 film directed by Ridley Scott, set in the Los Angeles of the future. It starts as a technology-run-amok story, with a policeman tracking down several escaped androids, slaves with human appearance and intelligence. But the cop, played by Harrison Ford, slowly begins to realize that the androids he is seeking are no different from the humans who created them. After one of the androids saves his life, he understands that the problem isn't that intelligent machines want freedom, it's that humanity is unwilling to give it to them. Hence the nightmare scenario depicted in “Metropolis” is turned on its head: Humans are not the slaves, but the enslavers.
Other films and TV shows have offered a more optimistic vision of the future for humans and humanlike machines. In George Lucas' “Star Wars” trilogy, intelligent androids (or droids as they are called in the movies) are depicted as friendly, helpful and even charming creatures with distinctive, human personalities. Gold-plated C-3P0, for instance, is essentially part English butler (complete with crisp Oxford accent) and part Cowardly Lion. And while the droids featured in the film are presented as servants of the human characters, they are also treated like friends and compatriots.
“Star Wars” robots C-3PO, left, and R2-D2 were given humanlike characteristics by director George Lucas, center. (Photo Credit: Reuters)
The android-as-friend scenario is taken a step further in “Star Trek: the New Generation,” where the robot named Data is not just a member of the starship Enterprise crew but the third-highest-ranking officer on the ship, who regularly gives orders to his human crew mates.
“Star Trek” presents an optimistic and anthropomorphic view of the future of human-AI relations. While Data is smarter and stronger than his crew mates, he only uses his superior abilities to help humanity, not destroy or dominate it. In fact, he says he is actually trying to “become more human” by working to understand and even mimic human behavior. Likewise, the other humans treat the android as one of their own and encourage him in his efforts to be like them.
Most movies and TV shows about AI are not taken too seriously by experts in the field, but one film, Stanley Kubrick's “2001: A Space Odyssey,” has had a profound impact on AI researchers and others. “By the end of the film, my head was spinning,” Roger Schank, a noted AI researcher and director of the Institute for Learning Sciences at Northwestern University, has written.
“2001,” which concerns several human encounters with aliens (who are never seen), takes place primarily aboard a Jupiter-bound spaceship controlled by the HAL 9000, a computer with AI. Unlike its counterparts in other films and stories, HAL (for Heuristic ALgorithmic) is not cute, nice or evil, although its eerily soothing monotone has been discomforting to many. Rather, HAL is presented as multifaceted: competent and confident and yet able to feel fear and commit murder. “No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information,” HAL proudly tells a BBC interviewer early in the movie. Yet at another point the computer kills four human astronauts to protect itself and its mission. And later in the film, it begs for its “life” as it is finally being shut down.
Recently, HAL celebrated its birthday. The computer reveals in the film that it was born on Jan. 12, 1997. The event was commemorated with a slew of articles and at least one book assessing how close researchers are to creating a real HAL. The general consensus seemed to be that we'll have to wait a while longer. Given the fact that HAL committed four murders on its first mission, maybe we shouldn't be in any rush.
Crevier, Daniel , AI: The Tumultuous History of the Search for Artificial Intelligence, Basic Books, 1993. Crevier, a Canadian AI researcher, documents the history of artificial intelligence from pioneers like Alan Turing and Marvin Minsky to more recent developments such as Douglas Lenat's work with Cyc. Particularly illuminating are Crevier's last few chapters, where he discusses the future implications of AI.
Kaku, Michio , Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century, Anchor Books, 1997. Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at City University in New York, takes a deep look into the next century with the help of experts in various scientific fields. Among other things, he describes efforts to make machines think, talk and move like human beings and predicts that by 2050, computers will have “primitive emotions, speech recognition and common sense.”
Stork, David , Hal's Legacy: 2001's Computer as Dream and Reality, MIT Press, 1997. Stork, chief scientist at the Ricoh California Research Center, has assembled a group of AI experts to discuss progress in the field since the fictional HAL 9000 made its debut in Stanley Kubrick's “2001: A Space Odyssey” in 1968. The answer, generally, is that while scientists have built computers that have more raw power than HAL, they have yet to produce anything like a thinking machine.
Browning, John , “Artificial Intelligence,” The Economist, March 14, 1992. A slightly dated but thorough overview of the AI field, from esoteric efforts to build thinking machines to expert systems and other practical uses developed by researchers.
Chapman, John , “Man's Brief Reign in the Evolutionary Spotlight,” The Futurist, September-October, 1997. Chapman, a financial analyst, predicts that human beings will undergo a new phase of physical evolution through the merging of flesh and blood and computers or as the author puts it, “mechanical beings built around a kernel of biological life.”
Dibbell, Julian , “The Race to Build Intelligent Machines,” Time, March 25, 1996. Dibbell compares the AI research efforts of Douglas Lenat, who is trying to teach a computer to think, with those of Rodney Brooks and his “bottom-up” approach.
Epstein, Robert , “The Quest for the Thinking Computer,” AI magazine, summer 1992. Epstein, a researcher at San Diego State University, discusses the Turing Test and the founding of the Loebner Prize competition in 1991. Included in the piece are samples of discussions between people and machines from the first contest.
Garfinkel, Simson , “2001 Double Take,” Wired, January 1997. Garfinkel looks at the current state of AI research, including work on vision systems, voice recognition and machines with “common sense.”
Gelernter, David , “How Hard Is Chess?” Time, May 19, 1997. Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale University and noted social critic, tries to deflate the hype surrounding Deep Blue's victory over Garry Kasparov in May. Gelernter writes: “Deep Blue is just a machine. It doesn't have a mind any more than a flower has a mind.”
Platt, Charles , “What's It Mean to Be Human, Anyway?” Wired, April 1995. Platt, a novelist and contributing editor to Wired magazine, humorously describes his experiences as a participant in the 1994 Loebner Prize competition.
Wright, Robert , “Can Machines Think?” Time, March 25, 1996. Wright examines the various theories on the nature of human consciousness, with an eye toward determining if artificial intelligence is really possible.
Suplee, Curt , “Robot Revolution,” National Geographic, July 1997. Suplee, a science writer for The Washington Post, gives a good overview of the latest developments in the field of robotics, from Robodoc to NASA's Sojourner Mars rover. As with most National Geographic articles, this one contains stunning photographs of robots at work and play.