|Photo by Greg Rakozy|
A couple of weeks ago, I watched the film Ex Machina for the third time. For those who haven’t seen it, the movie centers around Caleb, a young programmer, who has been appointed to use the Turing test to see if Ava, an android, is passable as a true artificial intelligence. Each time I’ve seen it, I’ve watched it with people who hadn’t experienced it before, so I’ve enjoyed hearing their take on the film. Needless to say, it’s now one of my favorite movies of all time.
However, it made me think of the difference in perspective people from the West, such as the U.S., and people from the East, such as Japan, have about artificial intelligence. Through films, TV shows, and so on, the West usually offers a cautionary tale when it comes to artificial intelligence whereas the East romanticizes it. Why such a stark contrast? Who is right? Will the arrival of true artificial intelligence result in our destruction or will we be able to live with these new entities in perfect harmony?
From The Terminator franchise to Stephen Hawking himself, artificial intelligence is touted as something to be feared. The fear of a man-made living being can be seen all the way back in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a story about an artificially created person. Even Frankenstein himself abandoned his creation out of fear of what he had done. Throughout the tale, though, you start to question what makes one human and who really is the bigger monster, Frankenstein or his creation.
From there we get the likes of HAL-9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. An AI said never to be wrong, his sanity declined after given the order to keep the real mission objective secret from the crew of a space shuttle. I will always remember HAL’s creepy rendition of “Daisy” as his memory was being removed bit by bit. You can’t blame him; his orders conflicted with his need to be always right and helpful to the crew. Without him, you probably wouldn’t see the likes of GLaDOS from the Portal video game series.
And then we have Ava from Ex Machina. In the beginning, she comes across as a very curious girl, wanting to see the world, fall in love, and, really, be human. You feel for her plight to escape, get away from her abusive “father.” But then you realize it’s all been a part of the Turing test; she was a mouse using Caleb as a means to escape the maze. In that case, does she pass the test? Does her ruthlessness show the conscience of a manipulative machine or a manipulative human?
One common denominator between these various films and books is the idea of hubris, of man putting himself on the same playing field as God. With HAL, Ava, or even Frankenstein’s monster, humanity has created something beyond an offspring but a completely new species. But should humanity take on the role of God? I’m not a religious man, but humanity has already gone in the direction of changing the world around them to suit their needs, for the better and worst.
Granted, the experts who are scared aren’t scared because of just hubris. Like Ava, an artificial intelligence could potentially use us until we are no longer necessary. Enter the days of The Terminator, the last dregs of humanity hiding until our robot overlords finally wipe us all out. It’s all very doom and gloom, though every once in a while you have Western films and TV shows that tell a slightly brighter tale, be it Short Circuit or the recent British series Humans. But, for the most part, people still fear the day of the Singularity, when artificial intelligence goes beyond our capabilities to maintain.
On the other hand, Eastern media tends to portray artificial intelligence in a brighter light. The Ghost in the Shell series is an excellent example of AI and human intelligence co-existing and even merging; the difference between them is blurred. For example, in the first film, Project 2501 is an AI born from the net and seeks to be human through survival and propagation. On the other hand, the protagonist, Motoko, in the second film, has her consciousness uploaded to the net, becoming, in a way, an artificial intelligence originally born as a human being.
My favorite video game series, Xenosaga, portrays many artificial people struggling with what it means to be human. KOS-MOS, the series’ poster girl, is an emotionless killing machine, but her creator, Shion, wants her to be so much more, treating her like a daughter. MOMO is a biological android known as a Realian in the series, designed after her creator’s dead daughter; she struggles to find her own identity and be more than just a copy of someone.
Throughout various other anime, video games and manga, androids are seen as learning creatures, starting from cold, emotionless machines to caring people. These stories of artificial intelligence tend to lead to the creation of “humanity” within these machines. Whereas in the West AI is a brand new entity that could decide to wipe us out, in the East it is almost like a new step in human evolution.
In the Korean anthology Doomsday Book, the second film, The Heavenly Creature, centers on a robot that has achieved enlightenment. I believe this goes in contrast to my discussion of the Western perspective; whereas the West fears hubris, the East embraces the soul in all things. Where The Heavenly Creature is centered around Buddhism, I believe the Japanese perspective stems a bit from Shintoism. In Shintoism, everything is inhabited by a spirit, including things such as trees and rocks. With this approach, it’s easy to see why the Eastern perspective is more favorable toward artificial intelligence. With Japan’s aging population, the robot revolution is sounding more and more appealing for them. Hell, robots can get married in Japan.
So…who is right?
It’s hard to say, really. With people like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk warning us about the dangers of artificial intelligence, it’s not easy to ignore. On the flipside, you have other people claiming that AI still has a long time to go before it becomes anywhere near as malevolent as HAL. In the meantime, it makes great science fiction, whether you fear or romanticize the subject. I’d like to believe in Alan Turing’s idea of teaching artificial intelligence like a child, letting them know the difference between right and wrong, but that may be too optimistic. For now, I’m content with having awkward conversations with Google on my phone.