Thursday, 3 March 2016
The Artifice of Artificial Intelligence
For a director like Steven Spielberg, the release of A.I. Artificial Intelligence proved a strange choice upon its initial release. It was poorly received at the Box Office, with critics bashing the film for various reasons. Much of that arguably had to do with the film's strange history. It originated as a project by Stanley Kubrick, who was interested in the question of whether it is possible for a machine to become essentially human. He had already explored these ideas through the HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but was interested in going deeper into the psychology of artificial intelligence.
Over the course of his career, Kubrick began trying to find a way to explore this concept. He eventually found a narrative in the short story Super Toys Last All Summer Long and began planning it. Kubrick was also close friends with Steven Spielberg, and suggested a collaboration between the two. Ultimately, Spielberg turned this down. Kubrick still worked extensively on developing his vision of the film. He wrote storyboards, some early drafts of the script, and even tried to find ways to capture the robot child protagonist. His first idea was to have David played by an animatronic, allowing for him to display an uncanny appearance.
When this proved costly, he considered CGI after seeing it used to make dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Eventually, it became clear that David would have to be played by a child actor. This in turn was also one of the main reasons Kubrick turned to Spielberg. In the amount of time it took Kubrick to make a film, the child cast as David could age enough that he looks noticeably different from when the film started production. Spielberg, being credited as the man responsible for the modern blockbuster, was much faster. He could cast an actor and film the movie in a much shorter period of time.
The collaboration was later revisited, with Kubrick enticing Spielberg with an opening credit: "Stanley Kubrick presents a Steven Spielberg film." Kubrick planned to start working on the film after he finished Eyes Wide Shut, but he died before production could begin. Spielberg was now left alone, and after being encouraged by Kubrick's family, decided to continue the project. It was a very daring move on his part. Spielberg had to take everything his friend had designed and somehow make a film out of it. After writing a draft of the screenplay based on Kubrick's notes, Spielberg began production.
This has inevitably resulted in a notable controversy. Is AI Artificial Intelligence a Spielberg or a Kubrick film. One could argue either way. It is true that Spielberg was the one who completed the film, but it was based in large part on the vision Kubrick had spent years developing. This dual authorship is alluded to in the opening credits, which identify the movie as "An Amblin/Stanley Kubrick Production." (Amblin is Spielberg's production company, named after one of his first projects). While Spielberg wrote the final draft of the script, the story was designed by Kubrick. Even the often-despised final act where David is found buried in the ice, was based on ideas designed by Kubrick.
Now it would be improper to say that AI Artificial Intelligence lacks the trademarks of a Spielberg film. Even the use of a repetitive title calls to mind the similarly-named E.T. The Extraterrestrial. However, the themes and ideas explored are very much those of Stanley Kubrick. It presents the final chapter in a long series of films that bring out the very simple question of what it means to be human. Throughout Kubrick's career, he explores themes of humanity, both in questioning its nature and in its loss. In his first feature Fear and Desire, a group of soldiers struggle to control their own feelings while under stress. Paths of Glory forces the viewer to question just what it means to be brave, while also showing the human lives wasted in fighting a pointless war. Spartacus sees an army of slaves trying to find an identity for themselves. 2001: A Space Odyssey asks just how advanced a machine can become before it is considered essentially human. In A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick showed how forcing a person to change their nature destroys them. Full Metal Jacket shows a group of ordinary people gradually losing themselves as they are turned into killing machines. Finally, Eyes Wide Shut brings the nature of love into question, and shows how people are driven by their sexual urges. Had he lived to begin production, AI Artificial Intelligence would have simply been the latest incarnation of a theme that had fascinated Kubrick from the beginning.
The plot of AI Artificial Intelligence revolves around robotics. During the film's opening, an unseen narrator (who is not revealed until the final act) explains that in the near future the polar ice caps have melted, flooding much of the world. The government is enforcing birth control regulations, and thousands of people have been displaced by the flooding. As a result of all the social problems occurring, robots have become an essential part of the economy and the workforce.This is hardly an optimistic moment. Already, we realize things are bad enough for the human characters in the film, to say nothing of what will be faced by the robot who will guide us through this world.
The press conference that begins the film's story sets the tone for much of the rest of the film. We meet a scientist named "Dr. Hobby" (William Hurt) who shows the progress that has been made in the robotics industry. He does this, fittingly enough, with a female android. At first she blends in with the others at the meeting, facing away from the camera. It is only when Dr. Hobby begins to show his control over her that she becomes apparent. He orders her to undress, and she has no choice but to follow his orders. For all intents and purposes, she is his slave. Much like how Spartacus was bought and trained to follow orders, this android was built and programmed to do as Hobby asks.
The slave metaphor goes even further when David encounters an old scrapyard. He witnesses a truck dumping a pile of old mechanical parts into a ditch. These old pieces are presumably left over from robots were were found to no longer be useful and subsequently destroyed. Humans see machines as lesser beings only to be kept around as long as they are useful. What is shown is essentially a robot mass grave, not unlike those used by the Nazis to dispose Holocaust victims. David is not alone in this scene, either. He also encounters a group of old worn-down robots who, like dumpster divers, desperately search the remains for spare parts. The fact that many of these robots are in such poor condition that they have to resort to grave robbing just to survive shows humanity's disregard to their well-being as soon as they stop being useful.
Finally, these robots, who are minding their own business, are the victims of slavery by way of the "Flesh Fair," a carnival-like event with an emphasis on the destruction of old robots. In order to find participants, ringmaster Lord Johnson-Johnson (Brendan Gleeson) sweeps the surrounding area in an airship, using a large net and a group of motorcyclists to round up any robots he finds and bring them in. In other words, robots are taken against their will for no other reason than because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. At the carnival, Johnson-Johnson also states that the event is designed to embrace the imagined superiority of humans, emphasizing further the bigotry going on. This idea of promoting human superiority by destroying robots is really not much different from a lynching at a Klu Klux Klan rally to emphasize the alleged dangers of racial integration.
It is strange and ironic then that what Dr. Hobby proposes is the idea of a robot who is capable of loving. He wants to design a robot that is programmed with "everlasting love" and bases its appearance on his own dead son. Hobby appears to believe that the emotions shown by his android slave are nothing more than imitations, and wants to go what he believes is a step further by creating a machine capable of real emotions. Hobby only seems to be interested in seeing if such a creation is possible. When a woman at the conference questions whether the fact that they can build such a machine automatically means they should, Hobby dodges the question.
This calls back to the HAL 9000 computer in 2001. During a BBC broadcast of the Discovery mission, the question comes up if HAL really thinks and feels or if he merely acts like he does. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) points out that this is a question nobody can really answer, but he feels as though HAL is a sixth member of the crew. Likewise, the audience is also left to think about this on a philosophical level. However, the film does seem to support the idea that HAL does think and feel on at least some level. While HAL speaks in a consistently monotone voice (famously delivered by Douglas Rain), he does show that he appears to have a consciousness.
HAL is also interviewed in the BBC broadcast and speaks fondly of the Discovery's crew. Later, we also see him casually greeting Dr. Bowman and complimenting his sketches. Bowman also has no issue with this, agreeing to show HAL his sketches and even moving them closer so that he can get a better view. This early moment is conveying a sense of camaraderie between man and machine. Bowman treats HAL as he would a human crew member; exactly the opposite of the humans depicted in AI Artificial Intelligence. It is shown that HAL is capable of feeling (being able to recognize Bowman's artistic talents as well as express concerns about the mission), and that he is capable of developing relationships.
It is true that HAL goes on to begin murdering the crew of Discovery, but on some level this makes him all the more human. While the film does not explicitly state the reason for HAL's malfunction, it is given in both the novelization and the sequels: he was given a series of conflicting orders (providing accurate and reliable information while also keeping details of the mission secret) and finds himself confused about how to reconcile them. When Bowman speaks privately with his second-in-command Dr. Poole (Gary Lockwood) in the EVA pod, HAL reads their lips and becomes afraid of deactivation. Bowman and Poole both speak of HAL like a medical patient in critical condition, unsure of whether he will recover and how to proceed if the worst happens.
HAL sees disconnection as equivalent to death; he subsequently panics and commits what is essentially a crime of passion in self-defense. What becomes more interesting is when Bowman finds himself the only remaining crew member. He dons a spacesuit and enters HAL's memory core while the computer is desperately pleading for his life. It is somewhat ambiguous, but HAL appears to be displaying signs of guilt over his actions. If indeed his murders were a crime of passion committed while he was not thinking clearly, he is now starting to come to his senses and recognize what has happened. In any case, HAL remains scared of his own fate, but the danger he has already posed leaves Bowman no choice but to dispose of him.
Bowman's relationship to HAL actually bears a surprising resemblance to that of David and Monica (Frances O'Connor). Like HAL, David is a machine who becomes part of a family. He is initially constructed as an experimented, and tested as a substitute for Monica's son (who has been put into stasis for an indefinite time due to his life-threatening disease). Monica is, like the audience, unsure about David at first. His strange robotic mannerisms and ability to move around the house undetected makes her uncomfortable. Despite this, Monica comes to accept David as her own child, even giving him a friend in the form of a robot Teddy (Jack Angel). Even after Martin returns home, she is the one person who tries to accept David as part of the family. It is the distrust of his father Henry (Sam Robards) and Martin's refusal to accept his "brother" that lead to her having to lose David.
In both cases, it is the person closest to the machine who must ultimately destroy it. Bowman is shown to have an emotional connection with HAL, and he displays noticeable fear when disconnecting him. This is not unjustified, as he is presumably experiencing a mix of emotions. There is the obvious fear of being alone and the shock of losing his crewmates, but there is also his previous relationship with HAL. Making matters worse is that technically Dave is unable to kill HAL so much as lobotomize him. He has to cut off his own friend's higher brain functions while he slowly pleads for his life. All Dave can do is stay focused while trying not to make things worse. The only comfort that can come is when HAL relates his "birth" and offers a distraction for both by singing a song he was taught by his programmer.
Similarly, it is Monica who takes the responsibility for removing David. Henry might have been very cold and casual about taking David to the factory where he was made, and Martin might even have enjoyed it. However, even here Monica displays some compassion for David. She tries to make it easier for him, setting up the trip as a one-on-one family outing. Just as Bowman had trouble disconnecting HAL, Monica has trouble losing David. Unlike Bowman, she ultimately cannot go through with destroying something she loves, and instead chooses to abandon him. Even this is not easy, though. David is shown desperately pleading for his mother to keep him much like HAL pleading not to be disconnected. In both cases, the machines show their humanity through fear.
Monica does try to make it easier for David, calmly explaining to him what is happening and letting him keep Teddy; as well as leaving him money and trying to advise him on how to look after himself. Just like Hal's singing of "Daisy" these provide only a small amount of comfort. Hal's singing is able to calm Bowman enough to finish his job, and keeps him distracted, but it does little to ease the tension of the lone survivor being forced to lobotomize his only remaining friend. Likewise, Monica's attempts to give David the means to start a new life also do little to change his emotional state. It is through such a moment that the machine is able to show its humanity.
It is also through an act of human error that the machine becomes dangerous. Both HAL and David are victims of their own programming. David is programmed with the ability to love, but it works too well. Because of his programming, David is unable to understand anything other than earning his mother's love. HAL was given conflicting orders, and believed he needed to defend himself when he thought the Discovery crew were going to disconnect him. Just like HAL, David is also provoked by humans. Martin is responsible for psychologically tormenting him by convincing Monica to read them Pinocchio, giving David the idea that the Blue Fairy can turn him into a "real live boy." Martin's friends are also responsible for scaring David and his near-drowning, the final act that leads to his being cast out of the family.
This conflict between humanity and artificial intelligence is one that has become a common theme in science fiction. John Carpenter would later borrow it in his 1974 comedy Dark Star. This time around, the artificial intelligence emerged in the form of talking bombs. In this case, the inability of humans to co-exist with machines becomes a source of humor. Unlike HAL, Bomb 20 (Adam Beckenbaugh) is designed to explode making its emotions far more dangerous and yet still human. Like HAL or even David, the bomb is shown to have feelings. It shows excitement upon being deployed, and expresses frustration whenever the computer orders it to return to the ship.
The most famous moment, of course, comes when Lt. Doolittle (Brian Narelle) must face the bomb at the end. In keeping with the themes of human error, this machine has gone unnoticed by the crew until now. The bomb has a very clear desire to explode, to the point where it has no regard for the safety of the crew. This is likely a flaw in programming, but it is also here that the bomb strangely becomes human. Lt. Doolittle approaches the bomb, and begins teaching it the fundamentals of rationalist thinking. Bomb 20 shows its humanity by being able to engage in a philosophical discussion (even if it does not fully understand what its discussing), at one point quoting Descartes: "I think therefore I am." The bomb is capable of independent thought, and is in fact smarter than it appears. Of course, in a humorous twist, this ends up backfiring on the crew when the bomb's interest in rationalism leads it to conclude that they are "false data" before detonating inside the ship.
This idea of a machine acting human becomes a major theme in both the second and third acts of AI Artificial Intelligence. In the second act, the viewer is introduced to Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) a robot prostitute who despite the allegations of Dr. Hobby (who maintained that robots made before David cannot actually feel) does act remarkably human. He is shown enthusiastically engaging with clients, and apparently does such a good job he has to deal with multiple women across different locations in one night. He has a pager which lets him know when there is work to be done, marches through the streets, and even stops to casually greet his female counterpart Gigolo Jane (Ashley Scott). This exchange is brief, but the enthusiasm the two show suggests a friendship between colleagues. Finally, when Joe discovers that his latest client has been murdered, he is genuinely panicked.
It only makes sense that a character like Joe should become a father figure for David. While it is true that he is a very eccentric individual and not even that intelligent (he does after all believe David's claim that "the Blue Fairy" can turn him into a real boy) he develops a close bond with him. When David voices his desire to become a "real live boy" Joe immediately agrees to assist him. These two machines, supposedly unable to think, are forming a close friendship. Joe could have left David and tried to continue his work as a prostitute, but instead he becomes interested in assisting another person like himself. While his solution of asking a program called "Dr. Know" (Robin Williams) might not be the most practical choice, he is showing a newfound loyalty to his friend which might not have been in his original programming. While speaking to Dr. Know, Gigolo Joe and David both have to work together to find the right questions.
When Joe and David go to the flooded ruins of Manhattan, there is a reveal that challenges David's understanding of the world around him. He arrives at the office where he was created, and discovers an identical robot, who is quickly destroyed. David is faced with the possibility that, contrary to what he has been told, he is not special or unique. However, this may not be entirely true. David is showing his humanity at this moment, as for the first time showing that he is capable of anger, but more interesting is the behavior of his double. The two Davids are exact opposites of each other. The David encountered at the office proves to be friendly, enjoys reading, and has no issue with seeing a copy of himself. The David the viewer has followed is much more impulsive, refuses to accept another copy of himself and eventually resorts to murder. Even though these two may look the same, they have shown very different personalities, suggesting that David is more unique than he appears.
However, the true extent of how far these ideas can go is not made evident until the third and final act of the film. At this point, David has managed to find a statue of the Blue Fairy, but becomes trapped underwater for two thousand years, during which time he continues to ask the Blue Fairy to transform him until he runs out of power and shuts down. The movie then jumps ahead to a distant future where humanity has become extinct and a new ice age is underway. With their creators gone, the robots have taken over. Two thousand years later, the descendants of these robots have evolved into an advanced race of beings (who were often mistaken for aliens by the film's initial audience).
An expedition manages to uncover David and Teddy, as well as reactivate both. Their initial motivation is pure scientific interest. The fact that David resembles a human, and would have had memories of being around humans proves to be a remarkable discovery for these robots, who have been studying their creators. However, they do not simply exploit David and discard him when they are finished. Instead, they try to assist him. To do this, they create a virtual replica of David's home. Much like David Bowman before him, this functions as a means to ease his transition into a new world, and eventually to motivate a transformation. The robots initially refrain from speaking to David in person, instead communicating through a projection of the Blue Fairy (Meryl Streep) who eventually "agrees" to briefly resurrect Monica.
The robots depicted here deliver the most compassion David is able to experience in the entire film. Only one is given any major focus, an official voiced by Ben Kingsley (who has also served as the film's narrator, creating the impression that the entire film has been him looking back on the past). This particular individual becomes a new parental substitute for David, being the one member of his race to directly confront him and doing what he can to improve his well-being. He is the one who ultimately decides to clone David's mother (though not without first making sure he understands she can only live for one day) and letting him have the happiest moment of his life.
Throughout the film, David has understood little more than the love for his mother, but now he begins to show that his feelings are much more complex. He is seen playing with a toy spaceship and finds it reminds him of the amphibicopter Joe used to take him to Manhattan. When he spends the day with his mother, the narrator mentions that he was not allowed to tell her what was happening, but he still draws inspiration from his journey. He is shown painting pictures of Joe, as well as other encounters he has experienced over the course of the film. As the day comes to an end, David is able to experience a moment that was forbidden by the society into which he was born: his mother expressing her love for him.
This is what he has always wanted, and it sets up the narrator's final lines: "So David went to sleep too, and for the first time in his life, he entered that place where dreams are made." It is a strange line, often interpreted as meaning his death, but it is something else. David has finally managed to find closure. The narrator refers to "dreams," as in other than being loved. This experience has finally allowed David to move on. He has wanted to become a real boy, and in a manner of speaking, the robots have allowed him to do so. He cannot be literally transformed, but they have allowed him to move past love, allowing him to grow up (although being a robot he will still retain the outward appearance of a child). In that sense, he is finally learning to think beyond his programming, and may even be able to live a good in this future life just as Monica wanted.
This is not unlike the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey, when David Bowman finds himself carried through the "Star Gate" and brought to a hotel room, likewise meant to assist him with a transformation. This room, presumably constructed by the aliens, serves to make it easier for him to make contact. It is also in this room that Bowman metaphorically "grows up" on a larger scale. In this case, his grown involves experiencing a rapid evolution, where he alone learns what is in store for humanity's future (represented by his transformation into a fetus). It is not clear exactly what this entails, but a new world has opened up for Bowman, just as later would for David.
AI Artificial Intelligence depicts this same journey. What 2001: A Space Odyssey did for humans, AI Artificial Intelligence does the same for robots. The final product may have been directed by Spielberg, but it is very much a Kubrick film. The themes of human nature and just what it means to be human presented here are the ultimate extent of a lifetime of movies on the subject. From Fear and Desire to Eyes Wide Shut Kubrick has studied human nature, and AI Artificial Intelligence is no exception. He shows human nature, both the positive and negative, but also how in the end there is no reason to assume machines cannot think or feel. If anything, Kubrick is more worried about how humanity would treat artificially intelligent machines if they were to be made than how they would treat their creators.