You’re probably a science fiction fan these days. Don’t think so? Last year, the fastest-growing television show on air was Person of Interest, about an all-seeing supercomputer. This year, Almost Human, which features a faulty robot designed to think and feel like a human, and Intelligence about a human with a literal computer in his brain, have made their debut. And next month, Her, a film about a sentient operating system, might win an Oscar for Best Picture. Sci-fi isn’t a niche interest anymore, and one of the bridges that’s carried it from obscurity into the mainstream is also increasingly relevant in the tech world: Artificial Intelligence.
I spoke to widely cited pop culture expert and Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson about this apparent trend, who believes there’s a very good reason for the sudden resurgence of AI in popular culture.
"I think the reason we're getting this stuff made is because it [reflects] a theme so central to the American soul right now. A mere generation ago, a computer was merely doing your spreadsheets. It was a glorified typewriter. Now, we're using digital data processors to do what our brains do, so it's essentially intelligence."
Thompson is fond of pointing out that any given cultural fixation is rarely all that new—AI has been a part of the pop culture fabric for a very long time, at least as far back as HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like vampires a few years ago, Artificial Intelligence has been a constant in fiction, only now brought to the forefront of our minds because it strikes a nerve and reflects very real choices we have to make in the very near future.
As such, no two current incarnations of AI are alike.
The first of the current crop to hit the air was the CBS drama Person of Interest. Initially a procedural akin to popular shows like NCIS but with a thick layer of tech paranoia, the show deals with a machine that taps into massive amounts of surveillance data in order to identify people who may perpetrate or fall victim to imminent crime. However, at the end of its first season, the series took a turn—and the Machine at the center of the show’s conceit was revealed to be a sentient, self-sustaining entity.
Person of Interest portrays a relatively grounded take on AI when compared to classic examples like Terminator’s Skynet or 2001's HAL. What’s more, it’s depicting a form of Artificial Intelligence that’s already pretty much here—we just call it machine learning. When considered in concert with current concerns about privacy and big data, and with everything from our walls to our clothes potentially being connected, the idea that we’re just a few algorithms shy of creating a sentient intelligence doesn’t seem too farfetched.
Less grounded is this season’s new sci-fi series Almost Human, which jumps 34 years in the future to show us a world where tech has run amok, forcing human law enforcement officials to be assigned to logic-based androids for assistance. But these androids, thought of as hardware, aren’t the focus of the show’s portrayal of Artificial Intelligence. That would be Dorian, a member of a discontinued line of androids designed to emote and feel, who hates being called a synthetic and is considered "crazy" in comparison to the other AI robots.
We don’t have humanoid robots yet, but we do have our fair share of concerns about tech companies getting out of hand, and robotics—and by extension, AI—is very much a part of that.
But perhaps the most thought-provoking take is the Oscar-nominated film Her, because it presents AI as an idealized form of what we already have. And to a pop culture academic like Thompson, where technology is right now changes everything about how it's portrayed in media:
"When we spend as much time with an AI as we do with a human intelligence, then why wouldn't we form a relationship with it? Look at teenagers and cell phones. Even though they're not dating their cell phones, they're very much attached. When TVs first came out, people were as attached, but TVs couldn't interact. In the Siri era, computers can interact, they have a voice. So you take the notion that computers can interact, and relationships are so messy, and you have the solution to a problem—the idea is that if tech has solved all of these problems, why can't it solved the ultimate problem, which is finding meaningful companionship?"
And as the Internet of Things gains traction, and we develop ways for the objects we connect to communicate independently over the web, Thompson believes pop culture’s current interest in AI will naturally progress to what some would argue is its natural endpoint: the Technological Singularity.
"It will ultimately, I suspect, move into the fantasy of immortality, becoming God. If you can download the contents of one's brain, would you continue to exist?"
He’s not wrong—the trailer for Transcendence, a film scheduled to be released in April, is about just that.
"We're talking about all these big questions like ‘is this ethical, is this possible?’" Thompson says. "While we are wrestling with these questions, what would be more fascinating than watching stories about it?"