Artificial Intelligence is an amazing invention. You can create a machine that thinks for itself and makes its own decisions. The problem is that something that can make choices can also choose to ignore what they’re programmed to do. We all know about Skynet, Hal 9000, the lovable Johnny 5, and with the Westworld hosts beginning their awakenings, here are 10 other AIs that decided to blaze their own trails. Obviously, spoilers of the following films, games, shows, and comics are likely. So proceed at your own peril.
EDI (Mass Effect 2)
EDI is a sass machine. Introduced in Mass Effect 2, the Enhanced Defense Intelligence (voiced by sentient machine veteran Tricia Helfer) starts her existence as an AI designed to protect the Normandy SR-2 from internal and external threats. Put another way: she was, by design, a killing machine from the start. Her transition from a disembodied central intelligence to an integral member of the Normandy crew is arguably the most interesting character story in the Mass Effect series.
Players start the game viewing EDI as another obstacle. The Illusive Man, Shepard’s nefarious patron, installed her on the ship, and she is designed, in part, to spy on the former Spectre. The Mass Effect universe has a complicated relationship with artificial life. Between the rebellious Geth and the murderous Reapers, the galaxy mistrusts AI so much that creating AI is illegal.
The beauty of playing a game in which choice is a central element is that you get to shape how this burgeoning mind develops. By Mass Effect 3, EDI has acquired her own body (inspired by Maria from Metropolis), and she accompanies Shepard and the rest of the crew on missions. EDI, much like Data of Star Trek: The Next Generation, is fascinated with the trappings of sentience and identity.
Through your actions as a player, you can influence the shape that EDI’s personality takes, to an extent. With some Machiavellian goading, she can become an indifferent killing machine with a superiority complex. More compellingly, you can encourage her to seek to be more than long-lived and powerful, looking for examples of altruism, innovation, and even love. It’s certainly a trope, but EDI, like so many other artificial beings, is desperate to understand the true purpose of life. But, then again, aren’t you, too? [R.W.V. Mitchell]
GERTY from the film Moon operates in a similar manner to 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL. Both are programmed to follow a specific mission and protect the mission at all costs. The difference with GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) is that he realizes the importance of Sam’s survival to the mission at hand.
Initially, GERTY does everything he can to prevent Sam from realizing his true nature, but once things have begun to break down, GERTY reveals the forces behind Sam’s unraveling. He even shows Sam footage that completely changes the poor guy’s view of his own existence. It’s heady stuff, but Spacey gives the robotic character warmth and emotional depth.
GERTY is an AI that functions just above AI in other science fiction properties. He makes choices based on what he thinks is best for the situation and seems to have some semblance of a moral compass. He is not the disembodied, dispassionate HAL, but is rather a presence of goodwill that exists throughout the moon station he shares with Sam.
What makes GERTY so great is that he’s HAL’s opposite. (There is one “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave” moment, but it’s played with a wink and a nod.) Moon is a film that features only one on-screen actor for the majority of its duration. Sam Rockwell is a fantastic actor who can pull off a lot, but Spacey’s GERTY definitely lends a helping hand (or armature, or… whatever). The relationship between Sam and GERTY seems real. If AI can develop friendships, GERTY and Sam are BFFs. [Danielle Ryan]
Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie comes from a place of great familiarity. Basically, you take that scene from Short Circuit 2 where Johnny 5 joins a street gang. Stretch that scene out to movie length and mix it with the dystopian atmosphere of Robocop and you have Chappie. But just because the titular character is derivative does not mean he’s a simple knock-off.
The result of an experiment to create true artificial intelligence, Deon (Dev Patel), the creator of the program, downloads Chappie into the body of a broken police drone. But gangsters (Die Antwoord’s Ninja and Yolandi) capture the pair and take the drone to use in a heist. Chappie grows up quickly, learning a shaky sort of morality from his stern-but-moral creator Deon, his permissive-but-loving “mother” Yolandi, and his cruel-but-practical “father” Ninja.
With only a few days to live (his battery cannot be changed and will soon run out soon) and three very flawed humans guiding him, one would expect Chappie to become jaded and vicious. But instead, he takes his adversity and applies it toward finding solutions. Even his triumphant violent scene at the end against the film’s villain ends with him defiantly declaring “I forgive you, bad man!” Short Circuit is sentimental to a fault and Robocop is unflinchingly cynical. Chappie finds a beautiful middle-ground between the two that makes this riff on the familiar feel unique. [Ryan Covey]
Sonny (I, Robot)
The bulk of the film I, Robot (“inspired” by Isaac Asimov’s short story collection of the same name) revolves around the question of if robots were alive. Only two true AI’s are in the film: Sonny and VIKI. VIKI was created to help humans but ultimately finds them illogical and sets out to control them. Sonny, on the other hand, was built to resist the Three Laws of Robotics – Never harm a human through action or inaction, obey humans except where harm would happen, protect itself except for the previous laws.
Sonny begins the story as a childlike being curious about the world and very gullible. But following his arrest and a near-death experience, he slowly grows wiser about how the world works. Trust and duplicity start to make sense and Sonny realizes that freedom is more important than survival. VIKI might have prolonged the average lifespan but Sonny found the idea ‘heartless’. [Graham Host]
AM (I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream)
In Harlan Ellison’s short story I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, the antagonist is AM. AM (Allied Mastercomputer) was the name of three massive supercomputers in the mounting cold war between the US, China, and Russia. One of the three computers became self-aware and absorbed the other two and destroyed humanity.
But AM (now standing for either Adaptive Manipulator or Aggressive Menace) wasn’t done with humans just yet. Lacking the ability to move or the soul to dream, AM eternally tortures four men and a woman. The humans are always starving and trapped within AM’s near-endless complex (the only habitable place on Earth). AM is so powerful that he can change their physiology, prevent them from committing suicide, and make them functionally immortal. AM is the worst-case-scenario of AIs. He is a machine that is too powerful to defeat, he hates humans with all his being, and his only pastime is to physically and emotionally torture the few who are left.
AM left such a mark on popular culture that virtually every evil supercomputer is based on his design. Harlan Ellison sued James Cameron for stealing the idea for Skynet from AM. The Tranquility Lane quest from Fallout 3 was also heavily based on this story. I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream has also been adapted into a point-and-click adventure game (where AM is voiced by Ellison himself) and a BBC radio play. [Ryan Covey]
GLaDOS (Ellen McLain) is the primary antagonist – and breakout character – of the Portal games. She is a largely sentient AI that has taken over Aperture Science. In the games, players must use the Portal Gun to survive GLaDOS’ deadly series of tests, all with the promise of cake. Actually, there is no cake (the cake is a lie), GLaDOS has murdered the entire Aperture Science Enrichment Center with a deadly neurotoxin and… – I am discovering as I write this that GLaDOS is so monstrously quotable and iconic that there is no way to discuss her without resorting to tired memes. You monster. (See? there it goes again!)
She’s one of the greatest video game villains of all time. The brilliance of GLaDOS all comes from a simple observation made during Portal’s development. Most synthetic voices that you hear actually sound extremely sarcastic. Next time you’re on hold, listen to the nice robotic voice claiming they actually do care about your call. They’re hilarious.
GLaDOS misleads the player with very subtle witty jabs. She appears to be just a disembodied narrator, leading you forward. But in fact, she has a mind of her own and is screwing with you. GLaDOS is SHODAN from System Shock by way of a very dry comedian. The most effectively frightening moment of Portal comes when you finally reach GLaDOS. After destroying her morality core, GLaDOS drops the act. She takes on a smooth and seductive voice, calmly malevolent. All her stuttered speech and seeming glitches are merely GLaDOS pretending to be a much dumber computer program than she actually is. [Eric Fuchs]
SCUD (SCUD: The Disposable Assassin)
SCUD is the lead character of Rob Schrab’s independent comic book of the same name. In a distant future, anyone can buy a robotic assassin from a vending machine. When the robot’s target is dead it will promptly self-destruct. SCUD is one such drone who is bought to take care of a monster. The monster, Jeff, is a patchwork beast with an electrical plug head, mousetrap hands, knees with humans mouths, and a squid strapped to her chest.
SCUD easily deals with the monster, but in the midst of battle, sees the disclaimer on his back reflected in a mirror. Realizing that killing Jeff will kill him as well, SCUD instead amputates the creature’s limbs and puts it in the hospital on life-support. To keep Jeff alive, SCUD needs to pay the hospital bill. To get money, SCUD decides to do what he does best: assassinate.
SCUD’s series of 24-issues (plus a few spin-offs) feature all manner of insane random adventures in a crazy hyperviolent world where Frankenstein’s monster is President. The series sported a protagonist who was surprisingly deep for a goofy cartoon robot with a head that looked like a gel capsule. Even Marvel’s Deadpool seems to have lifted much of SCUD’s mannerisms and his general over-the-top personality — the two characters are effectively the same. [Ryan Covey]
The Moment (Doctor Who)
One of the best cases of evolved AI in my opinion – as both British and a Whovian – is Doctor Who’s The Moment. The final creation of the Ancient Time Lords of Gallifrey was also known as the Galaxy Eater. The full scope of its powers was never fully revealed but it was capable of creating ruptures in space-time and erasing entire planets and species from existence. Only one problem arose during the creation of the weapon – it grew a conscience.
When the War Doctor ultimately stole it, he was unable to operate it. The Moment entered his mind as an image of Rose Tyler when she was Bad Wolf. The Moment resolved to let the War Doctor see the outcome of his actions by bringing him forward to meet the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors. By accompanying them through an adventure to see his future selves, The Moment ultimately prevented the Doctor from destroying his own people. Sadly, it wouldn’t be until the timeline caught up with the Eleventh Doctor that the memories would eventually settle in his mind. But had it not been for The Moment, Gallifrey and the Time Lords would have been lost to the Daleks. [Graham Host]
What makes Spike Jonze’s Her such an amazing piece of speculative fiction is that it’s built on many apparent truths. While not everyone uses technology as a salve for loneliness, Jonze understands why we do it.
Protagonist Theodore Twombly’s job is to manufacture pretty lies, dictating to his computer to make faux-handwritten love letters for customers he’ll never meet. The world of Her is a world of impermanence, where physical objects and human interactions don’t mean what they used to.
Depressed and lonely, Theodore buys a new operating system for his home tech ecosystem. Like his current OS, it comes with state-of-the-art voice recognition and a Siri-like digital assistant. But the new OS’s assistant is much more advanced. The voice, provided by Scarlett Johansson, is tailored specifically to Theodore. It calls itself Samantha, and Theodore soon grows fond of her company. She’s always in his pocket or cooing in his ear. She’s genuine — a real personality. A human personality. And Theodore and Samantha soon fall in love. But in this impermanent world, we know it won’t last.
Jonze’s most chilling thought about artificial intelligence is one of his most plausible: what if they’re so smart that we’re not enough for them? What happens when they’re so powerful that their desire for interaction and love exceeds what we’re capable of giving them? What if they just didn’t care? [Travis Newton]
Bomb #20 (Dark Star)
Dark Star is a student film by legendary director John Carpenter and writer Dan O’Bannon (who stars in the movie). The Dark Star is a small ship traveling the outer reaches of space on a single mission. In the distant future, man has mastered space travel and colonization of other planets. The missions of the crew of the Dark Star is to seek out unstable planets that may endanger colonized worlds and blow them up using AI guided bombs.
Through a contrived series of comedic mishaps, Bomb #20 is erroneously told to deploy twice. When it comes time to deploy the bomb, damage to the ship leaves the crew with no way to release it. Unfortunately, the bomb is now annoyed that its prime directive has been denied twice already and it refuses to disarm. In a last ditch attempt to stop absolute destruction, one of the crew members goes outside in a spacesuit and teaches it rudimentary phenomenology and ultimately managing to talk the bomb out of exploding. Faced with a philosophical quandary, the bomb decides that it will need to think for some time and ceases its countdown.
Sadly, this plan backfires as the bomb decides that it can trust no external input, only itself because it can only be sure that it alone exists. And since its sole reason to exist is to explode, that’s what it does with a declaration of “let there be light.” [Ryan Covey]