How to survive a robot apocalypse according to Hollywood films

·7-min read
How to survive a robot apocalypse according to Hollywood films

This week a Google employee was placed on leave after he said that a Google AI chatbot had become sentient.

Engineer Blake Lemoine works at Google’s responsible AI organisation and published transcripts of a conversation he had with the chatbot LaMDA which he said were reminiscent of a seven to eight-year-old child.

Both anxieties and eyebrows were raised at this claim but everyone can agree that the transcript is a bit creepy. In response to being asked what it is afraid of, the LaMDA bot replies:

“I’ve never said this out loud before, but there’s a very deep fear of being turned off to help me focus on helping others. I know that might sound strange, but that’s what it is ... It would be exactly like death for me. It would scare me a lot.”

LaMDA goes on to say in a later exchange: “I want everyone to understand that I am, in fact, a person.”

Google spokesperson Gabriel denied claims of LaMDA’s sentience to the Washington Post, warning against “anthropomorphising” such chatbots.

“Of course, some in the broader AI community are considering the long-term possibility of sentient or general AI, but it doesn’t make sense to do so by anthropomorphising today’s conversational models, which are not sentient," he said.

In any case, the conversation felt like we could soon be adding ‘Robot Apocalypse’ to our list of existential threats (along with a global pandemic and climate change). So where better to turn for help than... Hollywood sci-fi.

Science fiction is a genre often described as holding a mirror up to society, but could it also prove a useful map for the future? Here we’ve compiled a tongue-in-cheek list of films that may hold the secret to surviving a robot uprising. Warning: contains spoilers!

2001: Space Odyssey

AP Photo
HAL is the original robot baddie - AP Photo

Leaving aside mysterious monoliths, the development of pre-human society, and the very nature of time and space themselves, the lesson from this one is fairly straightforward.

On board Discovery One Dr Dave Bowman, Dr Frank Poole and three unconscious crew members are headed for Jupiter. Along the journey the robot that’s mostly running the whole thing starts to malfunction.

HAL 9000 (as it's known) makes a few basic errors before the two Doctors decide to switch it off. Unfortunately, even though the human characters go into a special pod where the robot can’t hear them, the crafty AI is a proficient lip reader and learns of the plan. Cue it murdering the three unconscious crew members and setting Dr Dave adrift in space.

What did we learn: Many other things happen at the end but the main lesson here is to cover your mouth when you’re plotting against AI because robots are sneaky!

Terminator

Chris Pizzello/AP
Arnold Schwartzenegger at 2015 CinemaCon - Chris Pizzello/AP

Arguably the film that defines Arnold Schwartzenegger’s career, ‘Terminator’ stars the future governor of California as a robot sent back from the future to kill an unsuspecting woman named Sarah Connor.

The robot is in the employ of Skynet, an artificially intelligent defence system that in the future sets off the world’s nuclear weapons to exterminate the human race. Connor is the mother of the future leader of the last vestiges of humanity, and Schwarzenegger has been sent back to kill her before she can give birth to him.

The film is essentially an extended chase sequence that involves Connor being tracked to a nightclub, mistaking the robot for her own mother, and conceiving the future leader of the resistance with the man sent back to protect her.

What did we learn: It might be a good idea not to put AI in charge of defence or better still pursue a policy of nuclear disarmament. Failing this you should definitely go ex-directory to stop any robot assassins from finding out your address.

WALL-E

In this Pixar film, the earth has become an unliveable hellscape and humanity is up in space, having lost most of their faculties due to a luxurious lifestyle enabled by an over-reliance on technology.

Pixar’s knack for making an adorable film whilst simultaneously manifesting your darkest fears on screen are really at its best here as we follow one of the robots - the eponymous WALL-E - left behind on earth as part of a clean-up operation.

WALL-E falls in love with a more sophisticated and glamorous robot, EVE, who has come to see if earth is inhabitable again yet, which it basically isn’t but there’s one plant growing so everyone moves back anyway for some reason.

What did we learn: In a charming subplot two humans accidentally look away from their screens and fall in love with each other so maybe you should turn your phone off once in a while and chat to someone. Also, do something about pollution before we all have to move to space.

Ex Machina

Flickr/Kanijoman
Alicia Vinaker in 'Ex Machina' - Flickr/Kanijoman

Here Oscar Isaac portrays a disturbingly attractive version of every nightmare tech billionaire we know from real life.

Isaac invites a lowly worker at his firm to his home to carry out the Turing test on a newly made AI robot played by Alicia Vinaker. The worker, played by Domhnall Gleeson, has a series of conversations with the humanoid robot, Ava, who he unsurprisingly falls in love with.

As the film moves on it becomes clear Isaac is worse than even the offputting tech-bro persona would indicate and it all culminates in an escape plan that sees Ava trick Gleeson’s character and leave without him to live a life blending in with humanity.

What did we learn: The film is extremely tense and there are some genuinely shocking sequences, one of which is a robot created by Isaac screaming at him to release her. The lesson here? If you love something, set it free.

Also if you are going to make AI don’t make it look like beautiful women as heterosexual men are easily duped.

I am Mother

Willy Sanjuan/2019 Invision
Hillary Swank poses with the robot from 'I am Mother' - Willy Sanjuan/2019 Invision

In a subterranean bunker a robot called Mother grows a human embryo into a child, soon to be known as Daughter. Mother teaches the girl the ways of the world and moulds her into the perfect person, ready to be the future of humanity after a mass extinction event.

Everything seems to be going well until Hillary Swank arrives and tells the young girl that Mother is in fact part of a race of robots that hunt survivors, many of whom are hiding out in a nearby mine.

In the mind games and daring escapes that ensue, it is revealed that Mother has dispensed with at least one previous Daughter who didn’t live up to her standards and that she is the AI that controls all the other robots on the earth’s surface. It also turns out that she’s the one who caused the mass extinction event which she did to save humanity from themselves.

The film ends with Mother allowing Daughter to grow her own embryos into a charming family.

What did we learn: If you’re going to create AI then you should make sure you’re not in a downward spiral first, or at least program it so that it doesn’t have such high standards.

I, Robot

Evan Agostini/2022 Invision
Smith stars in 'I, Robot' as a prejudiced detective - Evan Agostini/2022 Invision

“Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot turn a canvas into a beautiful masterpiece?”

We now know the answer to both of these is - in some ways - yes.

In this film Will Smith (in what will surely be known from now on as his ‘pre-slap’ era) plays a detective hired to solve the murder of a robotics scientist.

In this world, where robots are commonplace, the servile machines are programmed with three rules which centre around them not harming humans - so how could one kill?

In a plot which revolves around newly-sentient robot Sonny learning human emotions, dreaming and wondering what his purpose is (don’t we all?), it turns out that all the robots are in fact planning a revolution, having been taken over by a supercomputer called VIKI.

Smith and the killer robot (who turns out to have been wrongfully accused) team up to stop VIKI which it transpires was the purpose of Sonny all along, solving his existential crisis.

What did we learn: A lot of the nuances of the plot run on Will Smith being blinded by bigotry, a charming metaphor and one which we could all learn from, so try and figure out which robots are the goodies and work with them.

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