AI and science fiction

This article is part of my Master’s Thesis - Future Imaginaries. Previous Chapter: 4.2 Artificial Intelligence and future imaginaries

In the vagueness of the discourse around AI, stories play a much more critical role in the development of expectations for the future than technical facts. For AI, these are especially science fiction movies, which provide images that invisible algorithms cannot.1

In his article ‘Life, but not as we know it: AI and the popular imagination,’ Luke Goode has taken a closer look at the images of the future of AI presented in science fiction and analyzed their effect on the public discourse around AI.

Among other things, he points out that Karel Capek’s 1921 play ‘RUR,’ which first introduced the word ‘robot,’ directly addressed the uprising of these very robots:

“Significantly, it derives from the Slavonic word robota, meaning forced labour: […] mainstream SF has certainly helped entrench a narrow, binary framing of technology as something that either serves us or enslaves us, a problematic framing that continues to reverberate today through non-fictional debates surrounding the politics and ethics of technology.” 2

Even if these representations always had socio-critical aspects commenting on the realities of their present, the image of “dangerous machine intelligence threatening to outwit, overthrow or exact revenge on its human masters” (ibid., p. 188) runs like a thread through popular representations. Especially in films like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and the novels of Isaac Asimov, which reinforced the “Frankenstein complex” (ibid., p. 188), as Asimov himself called it.

In the mid-eighties, the Terminator film series was launched, whose portrayal of killing robots that functioned via the networked intelligence “Skynet” has had a lasting impact on the public perception of AI to this day. A study conducted by the Allensbach Institut für Demoskopie (Institute for Public Opinion Research) on behalf of the Gesellschaft für Informatik e.V. (German Informatics Society) confirmed this:

“When asked which machines with artificial intelligence are familiar from movies, books or comics, three-quarters (76%) of Germans aged 16 and over cited the Terminator from the movie of the same name.” 3

The “Frankenstein complex” continues into the present—with films such as ‘The Matrix’—and can be traced back to its mythical roots in Prometheus, the Golem, or the Garden of Eden.4 In recent years, the cinematic narrative around AI has also become more complex and diverse. Goode draws on ‘Her’ and ‘Ex Machina’ as examples, discussing classic gender stereotypes.5

Goode, however, does not attribute the shaping of the public image solely to representations in science fiction films but complements his analysis by considering how science fiction themes influence AI representations and images in “non-fictional genres including popular science and philosophy, technology journalism, and online videos and blogs”:6

“The popular imagination around AI is developing in the context of a sensationalist, marketing-driven and viral (or meme-based) online attention economy.” 6

From Amazon’s ‘Alexa’ to self-driving cars to autonomous weapons systems, Goode details how the excitement-based coverage around these topics often goes far beyond the technical reality of the specific news story. Media reports mix ‘narrow purpose AI’ (specific AI that can solve one task) with ‘general purpose AI’ (full AI that can solve different, unrelated tasks). Thus, reports on ‘narrow purpose AI’ such as Google’s success with the Go-playing AI ‘AlphaGo’ are conveyed as a warning for an imminent ‘general purpose AI.’ 7

Goode also examines other factors, such as the singularity propagated by some technology-enthusiastic futurists – a point in time at which technological development is said to exceed human thinking ability.8 With his analysis of these influencing factors on the public image of and discourse around AI, he gives an example of how to approach Future Imaginaries for a specific topic.

From science fiction to media events to particular interest groups, many stories and images impact the ideas about AI’s role in society. Their impact goes far beyond that of the sober technical facts of AI. It solidifies those ideas into collective expectations of the future that increasingly determine the actions of many actors, such as those in politics.

  1. The illustration of AI studies with anthropomorphic robots alone can be the basis for numerous social science studies. 

  2. Goode, L. (2018). Life, but not as we know it: A.I. and the popular imagination. Culture Unbound: Journal of Current Cultural Research, 10(2), 185–207., S. 187 

  3. Gesellschaft für Informatik (GI). (2019, Juni 25). Allensbach-Umfrage: Terminator und R2-D2 die bekanntesten KIs in Deutschland. Gesellschaft für Informatik e.V. bekanntesten-kis-in-deutschland/. Accessed: January 3, 2020 

  4. cf. Goode 2018, p. 189 

  5. cf. ibid., p. 190 

  6. ibid., p. 193  2

  7. cf. ibid., pp. 194-195 

  8. cf. ibid., p. 198 

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