While “Avengers: Age of Ultron” sent Hollywood’s box office through the roof on opening weekend, don’t be too quick to hang all that success on superhero mania. There’s a deeper theme in “Ultron” that will surface in numerous forthcoming film, TV and streaming projects: artificial intelligence gone awry.
AI, to use its shorthand, is cropping up with increasing frequency across genres, tapping into a larger cultural anxiety not just over cartoonish super-robots but the seemingly harmless machines that assist us in everyday life as well.
“It’s prevalent, perhaps, because the intelligent technology is a lot closer a day-to-day believability,” said Mark Digby, production designer of dark AI thriller “Ex Machina.”
“I think voice recognition, voice activated systems on your phone, on your laptop, it has allowed us to dream a bit further and take it into drama.”
In the “Avengers” sequel, Ultron refers to the self-sustaining defense robot created by Robert Downey Jr.‘s Tony Stark, a fallback so he and his powerful friends can rest in between alien invasions. Except Ultron’s sophisticated design and unlimited access to networked knowledge leads to some pretty destructive independent thought.
“If you think about it, we’ve been experiencing artificial intelligence in our lives for quite some time,” said University of Washington professor Carlos Guestrin, an AI expert and Carnegie Mellon transplant whose work is funded by Jeff Bezos’ Amazon.
“Think about ten years ago when you couldn’t use your device for an Uber or shop in your mobile browser. But pulling out your phone and asking Siri for a restaurant recommendation doesn’t make the most exciting movie,” Guestrin said.
Hollywood is taking care of that.
In “Ex Machina,” a seductive and dangerous machine uses human manipulation to achieve her ends. Columbia Pictures’ recent “Chappie” saw a bunny-eared robot triumph over its military programming for the ability to think and feel. AMC rolls out the limited series “Humans” in June, about artificial household servants eerily close to the real thing. Even a forthcoming remake of the seminal android film “Blade Runner” has Ryan Gosling in talks to star.
It would seem a deeper fascination with our insidious gadgets has audiences wired.
“As the internet of things begins to rise, and our homes become more networked, the need for this thing that’s more intelligent than we thought it was becomes possible. That’s where AI is beginning to creep into everyday life, behind the scenes,” said Peter Rubin, senior editor at Wired magazine.
Rubin points to examples like a Jawbone device that measures REM sleep and will one day communicate with thermometers in our homes to calibrate sleep temperatures. All the benign systems whose purpose is to get to know us.
And knowing us humans shouldn’t always suggest terrifying us. Explorations of the AI theme run a full spectrum from popcorn fun to bittersweet romance to doom. Spike Jonze won an Oscar for writing 2013’s “Her,” about a detached man in search of romantic connection with a digital assistant, voiced by Scarlett Johansson., that only communicated with him through an earpiece.
“For all its flaws, ‘Her’ was really on to something. Think about how much we personify our technology,” said Guestrin. “When it doesn’t do something we want it to, it’s very personal. You’re yelling at the little person in there.”
Rubin says a film like “Her” underscores the narrative possibilities for AI, taking it out of a sci-fi context and using it to serve a wider audience.
“In that particular film, the need people had for AI was to create the illusion of romantic attachment. That’s when it’s no longer a movie, it’s a mirror,” said Rubin.
That aforementioned sci-si context has long fascinated filmmakers, most memorably Stanley Kubrick’s decades-long development of “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” a film based on a short story by Brian Aldiss that would eventually see release in 2001 with Steven Spielberg stepping in as director after Kubrick’s death.
Starring Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O’Connor and William Hurt, the movie grossed nearly $240 million worldwide and was a tipping point for AI in pop culture. “A.I.” saw a young robot (Osment) in search of a fictional fairy to make him human (O’Connor), often battling a dystopian, droid-killing human culture — perhaps a precursor to real stresses in rapid tech development.
Technology executives and scholars have made waves in the past two years by admitting AI needs heavy-handed human supervision, especially when it comes to delicate systems like weapons and self-driving cars. Guestrin encourages the high drama be left on the screen.
“I’m very optimistic about where it’s going. Even people now who are [wary of the internet] still make Facebook profile pages and shop on Amazon. That’s what privacy policies are for. The same will happen with AI,” he said.