Which Movies Get Artificial Intelligence Right


Artificial Intelligence Arm Wrestling

– By Caroline –

Artificial intelligence is a curious thing. From as far back as Metropolis, popular culture has been thoroughly interested in robots and their varying degrees of complexity. Some films depict the idea with robots ruling over humans as in The Matrix. Others have a strong tendency to lean towards technology going awry as seen in such movies as I, Robot and Ex Machina.

Yet which depiction is closer to the truth? Will real artificial intelligence serve humanity, rule over it or do something in between? To answer that question, we need to look at films that show us the most plausible reality.

Full disclosure: I don’t think most movies featuring artificial intelligence are incredibly realistic future environments, but that doesn’t mean they poorly depict the aspect we’re specifically looking at or that their agenda isn’t worth considering. Plausible or not, some of these movies are great anyway. You’ll see in just a moment what I mean.

Blade Runner

If you want to make someone seriously consider the concept of artificial intelligence, make them watch Blade Runner. Set in Los Angeles during the year 2019, humanity has created a new race of artificial lifeforms known as “replicants” that are nearly indistinguishable from most humans.

What makes these “replicants” truly special is their limited lifespan. Planned obsolescence guarantees that these engineered beings will only live roughly four years before expiring. Rather than face their fate as humanity’s servants, several of them decide to escape to Earth to try and extend their lives.

Given how close we are to 2019, it’s obvious that this future is a bit farfetched by today’s standards. We don’t have flying cars just yet.

Yet what makes Blade Runner a truly interesting depiction of AI isn’t the futuristic environment but the fact that these beings seem very much alive. Purely mechanical intelligence definitely has a place in science fiction, but there are certain limitations without the “meat” behind it, at least from a man-made design perspective.

I base this on the simple fact that the human brain has no known memory limitations while occupying an incredibly small space. The likelihood of technology reaching that point entirely with current computing technologies and theories is fairly small.

Yet there is a recent film that takes this idea and runs with it.

Ex Machina

Over 30 years later, another film did an excellent job depicting and explaining AI. Ex Machina is the story of a genius developer, one of his employees and his goal of creating the perfect artificial intelligence.

One of the film’s biggest themes is testing the machine’s ability to pass the “Turing Test.” In this test, a human is tasked with deciding which personality is human and which is a computer generated or artificial intelligence. A failure to differentiate between the two means the AI is essentially an independent being of thought.

This film’s depiction is realistic because the artificial intelligence basically uses the movie’s equivalent of Google, cell phone spying and wiretapping to establish an enormous database of human behavior to learn how to act, when to act and why to act in certain ways.

All of this information is integrated and processed using a new form of “hardware.” This is essentially artificial soft tissue that mimics the neuroplasticity of a real brain in that it can form new connections and learn. This is where that “meat” comes into play, because simple circuits simply aren’t advanced enough currently for the level of processing required for a true AI.

The Matrix

So far we’ve mostly been looking at films where AI is depicted in a very physical way. Yet another well-known franchise also presents a very convincing artificial intelligence. The Matrix is unique in its “the machines rule humanity” depiction because rather than exterminate humanity, the machines have decided to harvest humans for their bioelectric energy.

That isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of issues with the plot, but what does seem interesting is the efficient, logic-based thinking the machines exhibit throughout the film. Until events depicted in the “Animatrix” films, the machines are basically amicable to humans. Once threatened, they take over for their own protection.

I would suggest this depiction of AI works well because assuming smart machines would immediately try to eradicate humanity fails to account for similarities AI would have with living organisms. As bad as humans can be, as a general rule they don’t just exterminate absolutely everything or else there would be nothing left. AI should logically not be any different.

Furthermore, the depiction of Agent Smith’s “infection” throughout the franchise is a brilliant way of projecting what is mental illness to living organisms onto non-living organisms. Naturally, there is one other way to depict AI in the same level of extremism.

Terminator’s Skynet

Of all the depictions of artificial intelligence, Skynet from the Terminator franchise may be the most feared by real people because it seems plausible that an AI plugged into the internet might actually decide to wipe out humanity and take over for itself.

I don’t entirely agree that the course of actions and decisions Skynet makes in the films would actually occur in real life, but the way it gets there does seem plausible. The moment Skynet gets access to the net, it infects every internet enabled device on the planet. It gathers information and grants itself access to just about every system.

You have to consider that even humans are capable of hacking into systems relatively quickly. Children can hack into public WiFi. People have used baby monitors to take a look into people’s homes. Our best consumer defenses such as Virtual Private Networks (Secure Thoughts can tell you what those are) and high-cost anti-malware subscriptions might get shredded like tissue paper if a fully-functional AI wants to access something.

It therefore seems likely that a monstrous intelligence like Skynet would be able to hack into just about any device. Real limitations might include internet speed, limited amounts of processing power and levels of encryption on various systems (unless Skynet is a quantum computer).

Movies Do an Average Job

At things go, quite a number of sci-fi films do an acceptable job of depicting AI. At this point we don’t have any truly impressive AIs just yet, so it’s difficult to get much of a comparison between fact and fiction. What we do know is how complicated natural intelligence is and just how difficult that is to mimic.

The biggest unknowns for movies to navigate are whether artificial intelligence will serve humanity, coexist with it, seek to rule it or seek to destroy it. Until someone creates a true AI, we’ll probably never know for sure.

So what do you think? Are there any other movies that do a better job of depicting artificial intelligence? When we finally do create a genuine AI, will it be hostile or friendly? Share your views in the comments and tell us what you think!


Caroline is a technology and online security enthusiast that loves science fiction. When she’s not writing about current tech, she’s always speculating about what tomorrow has to offer.