The roots go as deep as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; man will outdo himself by building inventions superior to himself, which will then force us to deal with our own inferiority. It’s an old story retold recently in a trio of films coming out this year: In Avengers: Age of Ultron, superheroes fight against a robot villain, in Ex Machina a computer scientist is tasked with being the human emissary to the world’s first true A.I., and in Chappie a metal policeman gains free will.
Time and again, we come back to the theme of these three films: That we humans will, either accidentally or intentionally, create something bigger than ourselves, something perhaps that we can’t even control. Avengers: Age of Ultron even has it that the Avengers created Ultron as an assistant, to police the world in their absence, when instead it runs haywire and forces them to unite to shut it down. Ex Machina and Chappie, meanwhile, pose deeper questions: What makes a machine and what makes a human? Is one more valuable than the other? Is one superior to the other?
These ideas are much older than even film, but the 1927 classic Metropolis dove into the heart of them quite handily. In this film, it turns out our manufactured utopia is built on roots of suffering and oppression. There’s a sharp divide between the classes, and oh my, is that Occupy Wall Street complaining now about the exact same thing?
Humans are in an uneasy place in nature. It’s lonely at the top of the food chain. There’s nowhere to go but down. Our worst enemy is ourselves, and so there was a huge resurgence in fiction centering on the theme of mankind being too clever by half and engineering its own destruction, right around the time of the Cold War. For many years, we have had to live with the idea that we could blow up the world thousands of times over, and yet trust the humans with their fingers on the red buttons not to push them.
Culture in the 1950s found itself at a loss for words to top the real-life fears of our own kind. Instead, the cinema turned to Lovecraft-inspired otherworldly frights. What could be more telling of our psychological state than titles like Unknown World, The Thing from Another World, and The Day the Earth Stood Still, all three of which came out in the banner year of 1951? In that same year, nuclear testing began in Las Vegas, Nevada, the Rosenbergs were tried and executed, and – here’s the path to today – Remington Rand built the first UNIVAC 1 computer. Having thrown up our hands and given up on civilizing humans, the UNIVAC’s first task was to count and sort us for the US Census Bureau.
Today’s news is fraught with hand-wringing about more sophisticated technology and the threat it poses to our own sense of security. That very entity which once used computers to reassure us, the US Government, now presents an ominous threat in the public mind: the CIA and the NSA, and all its secrets hidden in the impermeable grasp of cryptography. Intelligence defector Edward Snowden is the new Senator Joseph McCarthy; no matter how scared we are of technology, he has to stay in our face urging us to be more terrified still. We’ve got not only our own government watching us, but possibly foreign governments. Not only that but the millions of hackers using bots who can crack into anything from your cellphone to your home security system from across the globe.
Now sit down with any computer scientist for ten minutes and ask them if they think we’re justified in making such bogeymen out of the humble computer. Of course, as with the vampires and goblins, the fact is that true artificial intelligence in any form, benevolent or malevolent, can not exist. Computer can’t make choices, and if they could, they would not have the biological drives that make humans both hostile and ambitious. You can’t make an electron have conscious decisions which wire path to go down any more than you can make a kitchen sink faucet decide whether or not to turn on.
As usual, fiction takes the fears already in our heads and exaggerates them. Because, after all, that’s how you tell a cracking good story. However, fiction also raises the issue in such a way that we tend to deal with problems before they become that big; scared of Godzilla, we run out and neuter the lizards. You could make a case that the global standing down of nuclear arms by the 1990s and the end of the Cold War was brought about, in part, by society expressing its terror in green men from Mars attacking us on the drive-in movie screen. Likewise, when we watch a spaceship crew get snuffed out by the HAL 9000, or a robotic Godzilla rampaging in the streets, it’s our normal and healthy reaction to our own mind-boggling power. Invent gods? We are gods right now, at least the closest thing to gods the universe currently presents. And with great power – say it with us, Marvel fans – comes great responsibility.