20 Nov Why I, Robot, is a persuasive imagining of the A.I. apocalypse
Set in 2035, the film I, Robot (2004) is a dystopian, science fiction situated in a futuristic paradigm where robots are a ubiquitous feature in the bustling American city as they perform daily functions based on the commands of humans. Guided by the Three Laws of Robotics (Asimov, 1950) that prevents them from injuring any human, the robots are perceived as a safe form of state-of-the-art technology running on artificial intelligence (“A.I.”) that enhances the lives of mankind while remaining subservient to the human race. However, the death of Dr Alfred Lanning, the co-founder of U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men (“USR”), triggers an investigation by Detective Spooner, the protagonist of the film. With the help of an NS-5 robot, Sonny, and a robo-psychologist Calvin, Spooner uncovers plans by USR’s central artificial intelligence computer, VIKI, short for Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence, to organise a robot takeover of the world. This leads to an apocalyptic crisis where the people’s rights begin to be suppressed by the robots who violates the laws of robotics and uses violence against humans. The central arc of the film follows Spooner as he uncovers the plot, and undermines VIKI’s attempts for robotic domination of the world.
As a highly popular and acclaimed Hollywood production, the appeal of I, Robot as an imagining of an A.I. apocalypse to consumers is an interesting topic that helps understand and negotiate our relationship with technology in this techno-centric era that is currently undergoing the Fourth Industrial Revolution defined by unprecedented progress in digitisation, cloud and artificial intelligence. Just as how pop-science books help frame public discussion on the metaethics of A.I. and technological issues (Geraci 2010, p. 1003), movies in mainstream media and popular culture perform the same role by projecting and reflecting our fears of overreliance on robotics and exploitation by artificial intelligence who are built to supersede human intelligence. More significantly, the increasing reliance on technology and inseparability from the Internet and machines powered by technology makes an A.I. apocalyptic scenario highly probable and highly anticipated, hence, making the question of why I, Robot is a persuasive imagining of the A.I. apocalypse important.
In this opinion article, the thesis statement is that I, Robot is persuasive in its portrayal of the A.I. apocalypse, setting the apocalypse within the boundaries of realism while challenging the notions that A.I. machines do not develop consciousness over time. Firstly, the imagining of the apocalypse is able to effectively reach out to a wide range of audience by inciting fears of possible robot takeovers. Secondly, it touches on relevant controversies surrounding the development of A.I. that represents actual concerns and apprehension towards A.I. today. Last but not least, it is able to reconcile the irreplaceable importance of human judgment and the need for machines to complement the work of humans in order to achieve outcomes beyond our productive capacities following the apocalypse.
The film persuasively portrays the A.I. apocalypse as it is able to effectively use visual imagery, symbolic references and parallel experiences to incite fear towards the A.I. apocalypse. In the film during the robot takeover, the vivid imagery of the robots climbing the building in large quantities mirror the symbolic scene in Hollywood zombie apocalypse films where climbing up the buildings is not only a symbol of superhuman strength, but also widespread inherent absence of human rationality and control that leads to hordes of robots climbing the building for their sole objective – the human. In addition, the moment of complete A.I. takeover is signified by the sudden blackout of the city, otherwise portrayed as a well-lit, vibrant and cosmopolitan night view. This further emphasises the ongoing chaos of the situation when the robots have asserted control over key human infrastructures so much so humans have lost total control of the city completely to robots, causing a complete shutdown both in the visual and metaphorical sense. Such an observation is a key aspect of the A.I. apocalypse as the Geraci observes that several authors depicting the A.I. apocalypse argue in popular science books that technological evolution would naturally result in “supremely intelligent machines that could take over the universe” (Geraci 2010, p. 1004)
Interestingly, they are able to incite fear among the audience by portraying instances that mimic variations of what happens in dictatorial regimes where exploitation of the masses and loss of freedoms occur. In the film, the robots begin enforcing a curfew, demanding all humans to go home so as to, in the words of the rogue A.I., VIKI, “reduce the loss of human lives during this transition”. When humans begin protesting against the robots’ instructions, there is a suppression of rights and a violent crackdown in which robots use violence against people, hence, breaking Asimov’s First Law of Robotics (Asimov, 1950) which states that they must never injure a human being. Such parallels to rebellions in dictatorial regimes humanises the process to enhance the realism of the possible situation that may arise in the future, hence effectively inciting fear among viewers that the A.I. apocalypse presented in the film is not as far-fetched as they perceive it to be.
Another reason why I, Robot is an effective medium for the imagining of the A.I. apocalypse is because the storyline is relevant to the trend of technological advancements and innovation in the field of robotics, making the A.I. apocalypse increasingly relevant in today’s society. As I, Robot is inspired by Asimov’s written book with the same name, some of the scientific developments in the book were persuasive and made believable from the scientific angle. For instance, the development of the positronic brain in both VIKI and the NS-5 robot models that serves as the culprit mimics the machine learning process in real life. Through random segments of code, machines of today learn the various combinations of codes that are acceptable based on the functions they are designed to perform and attempts to apply the pattern to other contexts. As mankind make increasing breakthroughs in robotic innovations (for e.g. robot caregivers in Japan), we become increasingly reliant on the technology and accord the technology more and more trust over time. In fact, there is increasing trust in technology increasingly as systems become increasingly connected, forming the bedrock for the development of A.I. Examples include Cloud technology and Internet Banking. In its inception, people (in the past) were generally worried about Internet Banking for fear that the technology may not be reliable. Over time, despite being increasingly exposed to internet frauds and internet crimes, the distrust in the system eroded with time and people now trust the system so much so that it is prevalent and a common aspect of everyone’s individual lives. Companies are increasingly digitising information and storing it on cloud, where they previously feared data infringement and hacking.
Linking it to I, Robot and how this fuels the A.I. apocalyptic narrative, the A.I. apocalypse occurs because mankind accrues so much trust in the system and the robots so much so that the A.I. powers the state and runs the whole system, including the chores and functions in a household. In the film, Spooner is ridiculed and perceived as “crazy” because of his inherent distrust and doubt towards robots and the new system of A.I. In fact, it is asserted in the movie that robots never commit crimes, because they are thought to be bind to the rules that prevent them from hurting humans. This is further asserted by Calvin (the robo-psychologist who helps Spooner) who initially argues that people trust robots because they are “safe”. This leads to a paradigm where VIKI (the A.I.) is trusted with key governmental and city infrastructure so much so that she is handed the whole city “on a silver platter”, as Spooner exclaims. The trust in robotics in I, Robot is reflective of the increasing trust and reliance we give technology without full comprehension and knowledge on possible deviant behaviour.
Hence, this aspect of realism and relevance in I, Robot, makes the A.I. apocalypse so much more believable because we realise that while we know robotics, machines and A.I. have limitless potential, the amount of trust in the system is reflective of the trust we give technology without realising what the technology is fully capable of. Although the level of trust we give robots is still far from the level of trust the characters in I, Robot give, the film serves as a cautionary tale on the A.I. apocalypse being a very possible scenario if we, as a human race, are careless with our unbridled development of technology without understanding how systems can go wrong.
Last but not least, a key strength of I, Robot, is in its willingness to retain the benefits of technology in the post-apocalyptic scenario while reconciling the cons of technology throughout the movie with intrinsic humanist traits, making the show relatable and reasonable in its handling of the A.I. apocalypse. After the subduing of VIKI’s positronic brain, the feature that conflicts with the Three Laws and allows for overwriting interpretations of the Three Laws, rather than destroying the NS-5 robots, they are sent for servicing and re-evaluation. More importantly, Spooner’s acceptance of Sonny, the only robot who has emotions and a sense of purpose, after Sonny helps Spooner to resist the attempts of VIKI for robot domination of the world, is a sign of Spooner reconciling with his distrust for robots. By opting for coexistence with technology, the film emphasises the importance of managing and controlling the technology as compared to total opposition to all technological advancement. This is a realistic stance for the current reality where many of our processes are dependent on and made more efficient by technology. Hence, the film does not alienate the readers but rather gains the buy-in of the audience into their portrayal of the A.I. apocalypse, leaving the audience aware that such an apocalypse may happen and that we have what it takes to deal with the problem in the future.
What furthermore makes this apocalyptic film persuasive in its romanticised ideal that intrinsic human traits such as the ability to feel and make holistic judgments are irreplaceable and are hence used to mitigate the cons of technology. In the film, Spooner’s disdain in robots stem from his disillusionment in a system that only uses logic and numbers to make life-and-death decisions. The life-saving robot chooses to save Spooner (who has a 35% chance of survival) instead of the younger girl (who has a 11% chance of survival) despite Spooner’s repeated instruction and plea to “save the girl”. In contrast, when faced with a life-and-death circumstance, Sonny (the NS-5 robot with human traits and emotions) makes the choice of saving Calvin (the robo-psychologist who helps Spooner) which is portrayed as a more holistic decision as emotions come into play. Situated in the A.I. apocalypse the people in the film experiences, the lack of human emotion and judgment is shown as a con of technology and are hence mitigated by human ingenuity responsible for the creative idea to inject nanites into VIKI (the evil A.I. computer who wants to take over the world), ultimately ending the apocalyptic scenario of the A.I. takeover. By prizing human traits in the A.I. apocalypse, the film strikes a chord with the audience who is assured that while machines may surpass them in manual jobs, they can never take away what is intrinsic in the human soul.
Interestingly, I, Robot is also a commentary on Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics that is widely used in both science fiction and robotic experimentation. The First Law states that a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. The Second Law states that a robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. Lastly, the third law states that a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law (Asimov, 1950). Unlike Anderson’s belief that the three laws are inadequate for machine ethics (Anderson 2007, p. 477), the film I, Robot posits (through Calvin, the robo-psychologist) that the issue lay in the development of the positronic brain that can choose not to follow the three laws, despite knowing the three laws. Hence, this film is an effective imagining of the A.I. apocalypse as an execution-problem of unknowingly giving robots unbridled free will rather than technology as an ethical problem in and of itself, once again reconciling with both the benefits and cons of A.I.
Asimov, the renowned science fiction writer, wanted to promote a future in which robots and humans coexist in society (Geraci 2010, p. 1010) and the film I, Robot remains true to Asimov’s spirit of coexistence by reconciling with both the benefits and cons of technology at the end of the film, hence making the dimension an possible future the audience can envision. Another key reason why the mass audience buys into I, Robot and the A.I. apocalyptic paradigm it presents is due to the relevance of the film’s themes to developmental trends and the film’s appeal to the human emotion through the apocalypse. Since the audience buys into the dystopian story the film is telling, I, Robot is a persuasive film for the imagining for the A.I. apocalypse and has the power to “normalise new ways in which individuals may see themselves with respect to technology” (Geraci 2010, p. 1009). The question now then, is after the imagining of the A.I. apocalypse, can we prevent such a crisis? Only time will tell.
Anderson, S. (2007). Asimov’s “three laws of robotics” and machine metaethics. AI & SOCIETY, 22(4), 477-493. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00146-007-0094-5
Asimov, I. (1950). I, Robot. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Geraci, R. (2010). The Popular Appeal of AI Apocalypse. Zygon, 45(4), 1003-1020. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9744.2010.01146.x