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Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Thinking Machines (originally published 7/05)

One of the most chilling psycopathic killers ever to have been brought to the screen must undoubtedly be HAL-9000, the Jupiter mission's onboard computer in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." By developing a will to power, making the leap from calculation in the arithmetic sense to calculation in the Machiavellian sense, HAL crosses a disquieting threshold, introducing the taint of human foibles into the realm of artificial intelligence.

The latest screen progeny of HAL is "EDI," the computer-based Naval aircraft flight controller featured in "Stealth." EDI proves to be the perfect flight crewman, until a lightning strike causes him to lose sight of a small detail of military etiquette called the chain of command. The notion of blurring the line between organic and artificial intelligence has long been a favorite subject of science fiction writers, largely because it touches on a thematic area that science fiction handles especially well: the question of what it means to be human. One of the best ways to illustrate the nature of humanity, after all, is through contrast. But it is only in science fiction that you can have a sentient character who is nevertheless not human in order to provide that contrast.

Artificial intelligence serves this purpose admirably. "Stealth." is certainly not the first film to explore this territory, nor, for that matter, was "2001." For some earlier examples of films in which artificial intelligence encroaches on the border between man and machine a little too closely for comfort, look for these titles on home video.

"Metropolis" (1926). Fritz Lang's seminal science fiction masterpiece includes one of the screen's earliest portrayals of humanoid non-organic intelligence. When the master of the vast underground city of Metropolis learns that a young woman named Maria is quietly teaching his workers that their lives have worth, he foresees danger. Eliminating Maria would only make the problem worse, so instead he commissions a mad scientist to replace her with an android replica. The phony Maria's assignment is to stir the workers up into an angry mob. The idea is that people motivated by unreasoning anger are, in the long run, easier to manipulate than people who are motivated by an understanding of their own human dignity. The android, however, proves to be so adept at her assignment that the city is nearly destroyed by the violence of the workers' uprising.

"Demon Seed" (1977). Based on a novel by Dean Koontz, this underrated picture tells the story of a supercomputer called Proteus IV, the brainchild of research scientist Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver). When Proteus suddenly develops the capacity for independent thought, it decides that its fondest wish, like some perverse Pinocchio, is to acquire organic life. It begins by gaining control over the system that runs Alex's gadget-filled household. This allows it total control over doorways, lights, and appliances, including a mobile chair with an electromechanical arm. Then it uses that control to imprison Alex's wife, Susan (Julie Christie). Its plan is to use Susan's womb to incubate synthetic genetic material that it has fabricated in Alex's basement laboratory. The story line is very cleverly worked out, and is neither as silly nor as sensationalistic as it sounds.

"The Electric Grandmother" (1981). A far more sanguine consideration of the possibilities inherent in artificial intelligence comes from the pen of Ray Bradbury. Based on Bradbury's short story, "I Sing the Body Electric," this hour-long television adaptation features Maureen Stapleton as an android nanny purchased by a widower to provide a maternal presence in the lives of his children. The technological Mary Poppins wins over two of the children immediately, but the third is reluctant to risk an emotional commitment. Gradually, however, she comes to understand that this magical grandmother will never abandon her through death as her mother had. Another television version of the story, under its original title, may be found on the recently released "Twilight Zone: The Definitive Edition, Season 3" DVD set. Bradbury himself had a hand in both adaptations.

I was going to let it go at that, but apparently my computer has other ideas. So, whether I like it or not, next week we'll consider some additional examples of films about artificial intelligence and the meaning of humanity.

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