ROBOT: Artificiality Embodied

From: J. R. Molloy (
Date: Mon Oct 29 2001 - 09:47:15 MST

AI: Artificial Intelligence
Who will be in charge of whom? How will we decide whether decisions taken by
machines are morally good or bad? These are questions Steven Spielberg raises,
but does not really come to grips with in AI: Artificial Intelligence.

Movies have long dealt with the humanization of machines and the mechanization
of humans. Fritz Lang's seminal Metropolis (1927) brought us the robot Maria,
who assumes human form and leads the working classes into revolt against "the
thinkers." In Demon Seed (1977), Julie Christie tries (and fails) to avoid
becoming the surrogate mother of an intelligent computer that becomes driven
by its desire to procreate. Now, in AI: Artificial Intelligence (directed by
Steven Spielberg; starring Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law), Spielberg
investigates the concept of thinking robots at a higher level, but only
glances at it. Haley Joel Osment is hypnotic as David, who, we are told, is an
11-year-old boy whose love is real, although he himself is not. Robot David is
given to a couple whose real son is cryogenically frozen after being comatose,
and once the unique code words are said to David by his would-be mother, David
loves his mother without condition. But all goes awry when the real son
miraculously awakens, comes home, and rejects David, eventually forcing his
adoptive mother to dump him in the woods, unwittingly into the care of a robot
male prostitute (Jude Law with a wax finish). With Pinocchio in mind, this
unlikely synthetic pair heads off to search for the Blue Fairy, who can make
David, and hopefully his love for Mommy, real.

AI calls to mind Searle's Chinese Room argument.
>From a scientific perspective, the film raised, but did not really get to
grips with, the notion of artificial consciousness. This operated at several
levels in the film: there was Teddy, the apparently indestructible supertoy,
who gradually revealed more and more unbelievable abilities. An extra large
dollop of anthropomorphism is clumsily thrown in here, as well as cognitive
abilities so advanced in Teddy that David didn't seem to represent that much
of an advance - just the addition of a "love" subroutine. In many ways, AI
calls to mind Searle's Chinese Room argument: can you ask questions of David
that will allow you to distinguish whether he is robot or human? When he was
rejected by Mommy, David's reactions were indistinguishable from those of a
human child. Or, to pose the question in more emotive terms, how realistic
does a robot have to be before you become unwilling to switch it off at night?
In Blade Runner (1981), the question that sorted the men from the robots was
what they would do if they found an upturned tortoise in the desert. AI takes
a more subtle approach, but with ultimately the same outcome. The fact that
Mommy could not bring herself to take David back to the factory to be
dismantled indicates that she was, by this time, persuaded that he was more
than a mechanical object. Sophistication is direly lacking in the moral issues
raised in AI regarding artificial consciousness. There is the portrayal of
human resistance to all the other robots in the film, in scenes in which a
quasi-religious group aimed to "rid the earth of artificial life." Only
workers in the robot business would be sympathetic to their plight. But the
real questions here are, Who will be in charge of whom? How will we decide
whether decisions taken by machines are morally good or morally bad?

AI's future is heavy-handedly polar.
Spielberg picked up this story from Stanley Kubrick, who had been developing
it for some 18 years until his death in 1999. Unlikely bedfellows, Kubrick and
Spielberg allegedly collaborated on this project for several years. But
Kubrick's typically misanthropic vision is fully absent. AI's future is
heavy-handedly polar - good people live in an Ikea world, wooden, chrome, and
frosted glass: bad guys and robots occupy a kind of fiery neon heavy-metal
gig. Despite Kubrick's influence, Spielberg can't resist giving in to his
overwhelming fascination with schmaltz.

One of Kubrick's most enduring and popular characters was HAL, the
supercomputer from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a film that dealt with the
evolution of consciousness. HAL displayed genuine artificial intelligence, so
much so, in fact, that his was the most rounded character in 2001, complete
with massive, murderous flaws. David is not as smart as HAL, and unfortunately
his love is not real. And this is the fundamental problem with AI. It asks us
to sympathize with a machine that has no understanding of why or how it has
emotional cognitive functions in the first place. David's artificially
intelligent traits are no different from those of Arnold Schwarzenegger's
cyborg assassin, Terminator: he learns, and copies human behavior and
emotions. Not many of us felt compassion for that killer.

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Useless hypotheses, etc.:
 consciousness, phlogiston, philosophy, vitalism, mind, free will, qualia,
analog computing, cultural relativism, GAC, Cyc, Eliza, cryonics, individual
uniqueness, ego, human values, scientific relinquishment, malevolent AI

We move into a better future in proportion as science displaces superstition.

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