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Peaceful Bots and Automated Overlords: AI on the Big Screen

According to the imaginations of movie directors, our future is sleek buildings, flying cars, and smartphones brought to life as companions… or spies. This often takes the form of robots with superior cognitive abilities and some level of consciousness that presumably stems from artificial intelligence.

Regardless of physical manifestation, AI-enabled technology is a common theme on the big screen. With the age of AI in full swing, we put together a list of where cinema sees AI in the future. Will we have evil overlords? Friendly chirping bots? Manipulative cyborgs?

As with any categorization, there is a bit of a gray area regarding what constitutes “good” and “evil.” For this list, we’ve considered the journey the sentient being takes as the discerning factor. For example, if AI starts off as a human-hating, world-domination-driven being, it’s evil. It is important to consider that artificial intelligence is a learning, adapting entity. Perhaps whether AI becomes evil (or doesn’t) relies solely in the hands of its creators.

The Good:

“EVA!”—Wall-E, Wall-E (2008)

Evilness Rating: Don’t you ever talk about Wall-E like that!

It’s no secret AI is often cast as the villain in movies, but Pixar’s animated film, “Wall-E,” flips the script. After humans trash the plant, a troop of admittedly adorable robots are left to restore the Earth to a livable condition. One of these robots is the overly curious Wall-E, who cares greatly for the treasures he finds, the friends he makes, and of course his girl-bot crush, Eva. Needless to say, something so cute and compassionate is a far cry from “evil” AI.

“For you sir, always.”—Jarvis, Iron Man (2008)

Evilness Rating: 1/10

Just because AI has the potential to out-think the human race doesn’t mean it has to do so maliciously. In Marvel’s “Iron Man,” Tony Stark creates Jarvis, an AI-based assistant who helps him survive his superhero escapades (and let’s be honest, his daily life). Jarvis’ breadth of knowledge paired with his unflinching loyalty marks him as the ultimate goal of AI: a peaceful extension of human knowledge to help society.

“Honey, I’m home.”—Samantha, Her (2014)

Evilness Rating: 1/10

Another noteworthy example of loveable AI: “Her”, a romantic science-fiction in which a divorcee-to-be falls in love with his AI, Samantha. As time progresses, Samantha’s ability to learn and grow enables her to love him back, generating one of the more odd cinematic love stories, but landing her low on an “evil” ranking.

“You know better than to trust a strange computer!”—C-3PO, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Evilness Rating: 2/10

C-3PO reprimanding his droid companion R2-D2 for trusting an unknown computer is a testament to IT teams everywhere. C-3PO’s fear and paranoia rank his relatability high, and his evil factor low. However, his sassiness gives a hint that this saucy minx isn’t all good. While C-3PO and R2-D2’s capabilities are rudimentary compared to those of other cinematic robots, they remain some of the most famous icons of AI today.

The Evil: 

“I’ll be back.”—The Terminator, The Terminator (1984)

Evilness Rating: 8/10

The Terminator is, obviously, a straight-up killing machine, and certainly its body count throughout the movie and effect on our AI vernacular (Skynet, Terminator) is reflective of this. However, this is the very reason he doesn’t make it all the way to “most evil” on these rankings—he isn’t evil for evil’s sake, he was just programmed that way. And there’s something to be said for that.

“My logic is undeniable.”—VIKI (Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence), I, Robot (2004)

Evilness Rating: 9/10

One nagging fear regarding AI is the idea that one day intelligent robots will rise up against their creators. To protect humans, all robots in “I, Robot,” including the central control system VIKI, are hard-wired with Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. This backfires when, under the guise of saving humans from themselves, VIKI coordinates a hostile robot takeover, putting her high on any list of evil AI.

“Why do you call him sir?”—Ultron, Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Evilness Rating: 10/10

Also created by Iron Man, Ultron is the stark opposite of the original Avengers AI. Unlike many “evil AIs” on our list, Ultron doesn’t grow into a human-hating entity over time; he starts off that way. His self-imposed directive to eradicate people via mass-murder makes him one of the more intrinsically evil robots on the list.

The Questionable:

“After this there’s no turning back. You take the blue pill, the story ends…You take the red pill…”—Morpheus, The Matrix

Evilness Rating: 5/10

One of the most intense life decisions in cinematic history: the red pill or the blue pill. Inside “The Matrix,” humans are blissfully unaware of the dismal state their real world has fallen to under the rule of automated overlords. But a few humans have outsmarted AI, and offer others the choice to see through the ruse. The world’s devastation would lead many to believe the machines to be evil, but their initial predisposition was not. Rather, they were simply responding to the fear-driven attacks of humans—one could argue they did get a bit carried away though.

“Do you want to be my friend?”—Ava, Ex Machina (2014)

Evilness Rating: Cannot compute

Perhaps the AI living furthest in the grey area, Ava from “Ex Machina” presents a difficult question for viewers—is the creator or the created evil? Raised in captivity but more attuned to the world than the man who made her, Ava is willing to do anything—yes, even evil things—to escape her oppressors. With humanoid features, speech patterns, and artificial intelligence, she secures a young programmer’s trust using friendship and sexuality. But should audiences hate her for doing so, or applaud her innovation? Truly a complex narrative, Ava’s evilness ranking is one of the more difficult to discern. We’ll leave that up to you.

Imagination and cinematic flair have created quite a spectrum for AI—how it originates, how it weaves into society, and, of course, how evil it becomes. The ways in which viewers navigate complex narratives lends generously to the growing fear and excitement regarding artificial intelligence. Perhaps the most important thing to note as we step into this future technology is that respecting the creation breeds respect for the creator—and our best shot at a Hollywood “happily ever after.”