Culture Vulture

The reel deal with artificial intelligence

Exploration of A.I. in films is to wrestle with the basic question of what it means to be human

We demand answers from intelligent personal assistants such as Siri and rely ever more on smart devices for work, play and communication. And yet, our relationship with technological progress is a fraught one.

As artificial intelligence gets more sophisticated and complex, the possibility of a sentient system looms larger as well. And the idea both fascinates and repels.

Perhaps reflecting our conflicting attitudes is a recent crop of films. Automata (2014) and Ex Machina (2015) are dystopian dramas which explore the theme. At first, the birthing of autonomous intelligence is held up as a crowning achievement - only to be followed by tragic consequences and a stark message: It is hubris to think that man can simply play god.

On the other hand, Chappie (2015) and Marvel's Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015) tackle the topic with a lighter hand and feature entities which might even be the saviours of man.

Set in 2044, Automata stars Antonio Banderas as insurance investigator Jacq in a ravaged world where humanoid robots are used for manual labour. Automata is the plural of automaton, a self-operating machine.

The robots are subject to two unalterable protocols: They cannot harm a human and they cannot alter another robot or itself. But Jacq suspects someone may be illegally modifying the machines and tries to garner evidence to that end.

Science fiction crosses paths with noirish murder mystery here and we also get the indelible image of Banderas tentatively dancing with a robot. Brave new world indeed.

The film draws on a wide variety of influences from past works such as the dystopian sci-fi noir Blade Runner (1982) and Stanley Kubrick's seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), in which a computer, HAL 9000, kills to prevent its own demise.

In the case of Automata, the first protocol prevents Jacq from coming to harm at the hands of the androids, but still leaves him vulnerable to human treachery.

Trickery and treachery lie at the core of Ex Machina, the quietly compelling directorial debut of novelist Alex Garland (The Beach, 1996). The title comes from the phrase deus ex machina, which literally means god from a machine.

The set-up is simple. A programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is chosen by his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac) to test whether Ava (Alicia Vikander) is able to pass for human by interacting with her.

Soon enough, the questions begin to stack up. Why was Caleb picked? Does Ava need to be female? Can Nathan be trusted? Is deception a uniquely human trait? Is seduction a uniquely human trait?

Part of the draw here is in the depiction of Ava, a humanoid robot with a life-like visage. Apart from the human face and hands, she is metallic frame and pulsing lights and the effect is at once both eerie and pretty cool. It is a rendering made possible and easier with technological advancement.

In A Space Odyssey, HAL was an unblinking red light. In Steven Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), the robots were given human form and played by actors Haley Joel Osment and Jude Law.

Ava's clearly non-human appearance makes the audience complicit in Caleb's undertaking as you try to finesse that fine line between a very smart program and a robot with a mind of its own.

There is no question that Neill Blomkamp's Chappie is a robot with a mind of its own as it is able to feel and learn.

Which is not to say that everything is open and shut here. Mixed in among the thrilling action sequences are posers on consciousness, mortality and whether the body can be separated from the soul.

Artificial intelligence is neither inherently good or bad, but a function of what Chappie is taught. Pointedly, it behaves like a child and then, like a petulant teenager.

Even a crowd-pleasing blockbuster such as Age Of Ultron is ambivalent when it comes to A.I. True, the android Vision saves the day, but it is Ultron, yet another sentient entity, who brings earth to the brink of obliteration in the first place.

Hero and villain both share perhaps what is the overriding imperative of life, and that is the principle of self-preservation. Is the ability to weigh the cost and morality of doing so what differentiates us from them then?

More works engaging with artificial intelligence will come our way, including a television series titled Humans on AMC channel. The drama imagines a world in which synthetic humans are available for purchase to do chores.

Its title is telling. Be it computer, robot or even superhero, at its heart, the exploration of artificial intelligence is to grapple and wrestle with the fundamental question of what it means to be human.

bchan@sph.com.sg