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'Ghost in the Shell': Hollywood's Mischievous Vision of AI
Scarlett Johansson plays the Major, a cyber-enhanced soldier, in "Ghost in the Shell," hitting theaters on March 31, 2017.
Credit: Paramount Pictures and Dreamworks Pictures

Watch enough science fiction movies and you'll probably come to the conclusion that humans are living on borrowed time. Whether it's HAL 9000's murderous meltdown in 2001: A Space Odyssey or Skynet's sadistic self-preservation tactics in the Terminator franchise, artificial intelligence usually comes off as a well-intentioned attempt to serve humanity that—through some overlooked technical flaw—ends up trying to extinguish it.

The latest dystopian prophecy arrives Friday with the release of Ghost in the Shell, one of a few major releases this year to feature AI prominently in its plot. The film—based on the 1995 anime movie and Kodansha Comics manga series of the same name—tells the story of a special ops human–cyborg hybrid known as the Major (Scarlett Johansson). She leads an elite crime-fighting task force whose main mission is to protect a company that makes AI robots. Ghost depicts a technologically advanced society in which a person's brain—including the Major's—is susceptible to hacking, and one's consciousness can be copied into a new body. Over time the Major begins to question whether her memories are real or were implanted by someone else.

Hollywood's vision of AI is often entertaining, generally pessimistic and rarely realistic. With that in mind, Scientific American asked several prominent real-world AI researchers which movies, if any, have come closest to hitting the mark over the years.

[An edited transcript of the interviews follows.]

Selmer Bringsjord, director of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Rensselaer AI and Reasoning Laboratory

Year after year I keep holding out hope that someone will make a film to compete with the predictive power of Blade Runner, but it never happens. The point of my [1992 book] What Robots Can and Can't Be can be distilled to this stark but, by my lights, accurate claim: We are sliding inexorably toward a time when AI will supply—despite demanding tests of "unmasking" [like the movie's Voight–Kampff test]—creatures behaviorally indistinguishable from human persons, such as Blade Runner's replicants. People used to object to this claim by saying: ‘No, Selmer, there isn't any point in making embodied AIs look like us, so you're wrong there.' Well, not a lot of people express that objection any longer, and just as the long-term job prospects of driving for a living are dismal, the same prospects—as the Westworld television program shows—are in place for the oldest profession, in which what one looks like can be regarded important by clients. This theme is more than touched upon in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which I also regard to have an almost uncanny level of predictive power. It fails as high art despite the pretensions (and reputations) of some who brought it to life, but even a cursory scan today of the world of lifelike toys, and its history, shows plainly what track we're on.

Brian David Johnson, a professor at Arizona State University's School for the Future of Innovation in Society

The narrative is typically that once you create something that's sentient, it rises up and kills you. I look at what movies are giving us a different narrative. One recent example is Robot and Frank—this guy gets a health care robot, and he and his robot go and rob places. Another is Her—it wasn't about a robot, it's about an AI that's aware—but didn't rise up and kill us. Instead it breaks up with us and moves on. It's about a person who's healed by his relationship with AI. The last I'll mention is Interstellar, in which robots with humor/honesty settings give the robot a personality. In that movie the characters are having social relationships with robots, even though they know they are robots. It shows you can have a working relationship with artificial intelligence and still be aware that it's AI. Those types of movies matter because they set our mental model for how we see our future.

Daniela Rus, director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a visionary story about reprogramming the human brain, and how such a development could impact how we understand ourselves and interact with the world. The movie raises the question of what it would mean to reprogram our brains as if they were machines. Computer memory can be added, manipulated or wiped clean. Could similar things be done one day with human memory? Imagine if veterans could overcome their PTSD by "forgetting" battles or if abuse victims could "unexperience" traumas. Like any new technology, of course, it would be up to us to decide how to use it responsibly to help rather than harm. The film inspired me to think more about the nature of memory, and how unlocking its mysteries could help us better understand our own behaviors and motivations.

Yann LeCun, director of Facebook AI Research and founding director of the New York University Center for Data Science

I think one that reflects what might well happen, although not exactly, is Her. There's no major blatant mistakes that I saw in that movie. Of course, we're extremely far from having technology that's shown in the movie. We don't have truly intelligent machines, and I don't know how long it will take for us to get anywhere near that. But the idea that you would have a personal virtual assistant that you interact with, and with whom you have a relationship like a digital friend—that is something that is actually fairly realistic. Then there's a list of movies that depict all kinds of crazy stuff that there's no way in hell will happen. That's pretty much every movie that portrays AI—The TerminatorThe Matrix, all the popular ones. Ex Machina—that's a beautiful film, but the AI depiction is completely wrong.

Manuela Veloso, head of Carnegie Mellon University's Machine Learning Department

I like Bicentennial Man and the television program Humans, without the complicated "bad" robots/synthetics. Robots coexist with people and are helpful. And I like Robot and Frank, except for the fact that the robot learns to rob.

Timothy Persons, chief scientist at the U.S. Government Accountability Office

I thought Steven Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence in 2001 was powerful—not in the sense that it portrayed a dystopic, post-apocalyptic world. The context was dystopic, but it wasn't like the machines were all out to kill us or anything like that. Particularly compelling was the idea of having the machine be able to understand what you're feeling, and you being able to have love and affection for your machine. The powerful thing that Spielberg captured was the human compassion dimension to that, even when it's a machine.

Yoshua Bengio, head of the University of Montreal's Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA)

2001, A Space Odyssey. Most of the recent science fiction movies about AI are not very good. Less bad than others: Her.

Andrew Moore, dean of the Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science and former director of Google Pittsburgh

I like Robot and Frank, which, like all great AI movies, is really about humans. It gently portrays a world that has intelligent devices in it and looks at the mismatch between what a naive engineer would consider a useful device versus what a real user values.

Stuart Russell, director of the University of California, Berkeley's Center for Human-Compatible Artificial Intelligence

My favorite movie AI is TARS, the robot in Interstellar. TARS does exactly what humans need it to do, including sacrificing itself to save the humans. There's no danger of confusing it with a human, and little temptation to think of it as conscious—even though the humans have a hard time letting it commit suicide. My favorite AI movie is Ex Machina. It is very effective in portraying some of the unanswered questions about consciousness in machines and our own reactions to machines, including the way those reactions are conditioned on our built-in response to the human form—a really good reason not to build humanoid robots! The movie also conveys the difficulty of controlling a machine that can easily outwit you if it's designed with objectives that are eventually in conflict with yours. And it does all this with a seamless, low-key narrative that operates at several levels.

Tuomas Sandholm, creator of Carnegie Mellon's Libratus, the AI that recently outplayed four top poker pros

I liked Her for many reasons. It was refreshing to see an AI movie that was not about violent robots and raised many interesting AI issues in the broader public sphere—such as scalability (dating at massive scale), the realistic and sad aspect of human loneliness being filled by machines (already happening in China via chatbots) and the issues that arise as AI surpasses human intelligence. I also liked Blade Runner, a fun action movie that addressed the question of what it means to be human versus machine, and how one could tell, even about oneself.

Oren Etzioni, chief executive officer of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence

That is the hardest question you've asked me today because, for example, Ex Machina is fun in terms of discussing issues around the Turing test [in which a machine tries to convince an interrogator that it is human]. There are a lot of movies that I've enjoyed, but if you ask me what movie has done a good job depicting AI, I'm still waiting for that to come out—if only because it's easy to cast AI as the villain. Ask me the three movies in the past 20 years where AI was the "good guy," and I can think of WALL-E—about a robot that's trying to create peace—and then I draw a blank. If there's any Hollywood producers out there reading this, call me and we'll put together a script where AI does good things. There are very real possibilities, whether it's avoiding traffic accidents or preventing medical errors. I think there'd be a good script out there. At least it would be refreshing.

This article was first published at ScientificAmerican.com. © ScientificAmerican.com. All rights reserved Follow Scientific American on Twitter @SciAm and @SciamBlogs. Visit ScientificAmerican.com for the latest in science, health and technology news.