Hollywood’s Romanticization of Artificial Intelligence

By Peter Lagosky

Cultural depictions of automated living are nothing new to the average North American media consumer. As early as the 1960s, shows such as The Jetsons whimsically foretold of the coming millennium and its associated technological renaissance of floating cars, teleportation devices and friendly robots that would tend to the children, cook dinner, or clean the house in as little time as it took to worry about it. While the millennium as portrayed in The Jetsons was a far-fetched utopia of man and machine coming together to rid the world of human error and inefficiency, it still reflected popular wishful thinking on behalf of those who created film or television during the era.

As the year 2000 drew nearer, more and more consumer attention was given not only to the growth and evolution of technology, but also to the possible shortcomings of too much digitization, as well as what could happen if the machines overpowered us and took charge. Plenty of Hollywood blockbusters have focused on the development, implementation, and often disastrous outcomes of artificial intelligence. Once the 1980s rolled around, Hollywood developed a sort of obsession with the future, and the film industry’s collective ability to accurately depict and assuage fears of an AI meltdown was met with varying levels of success. Before we look at some films that have shaped our perception of artificial intelligence, we need to travel back in time to when film-making and futurism merged to create a burgeoning business. We need to turn the clock back to 1982.

In 1982, the Commodore 64 was released, revolutionizing home computing. For the first time ever, the personal computer was released to a broad market, and new ways of accomplishing simple tasks and processing information were introduced, bringing with it the fields of computer sciences and programming. Soon enough, the first ever computer virus, the Elk Cloner, was discovered and found to be rampantly infecting Apple II computers through floppy disks. Long before the introduction of the Internet, fears of information insecurity and mechanic rebellion shocked the computer industry, and before they knew it, their own end users were finding new and inventive ways to program and reprogram the machines to perform malicious tasks.

Trust in machines was virtually non-existent and is still a very foreign idea to most: why put any trust in a platform that, using its own technology to help you, can just as easily compromise you? The idea seemed ludicrous until later in 1982 when Walt Disney, whose entertainment conglomerate had a small collection of Disney-licensed video games playable on the Commodore 64, opened EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) at Walt Disney World and changed perceptions of the future from a cold, sterile abstraction created by nerds to something accessible, fascinating, and worth getting excited about. Best of all, it made tons of money, and personal computing was a burgeoning field just as soon as it faltered.

One of EPCOT’s most notable attractions is “Future World,” which features sections with names such as Spaceship Earth, Innovations and Wonders of Life. Computers were given new hope as life-preserving, joy-bringing, space-exploring wonder machines that, if we trust enough, could bring us great efficiency and innovation. All of a sudden, the future was friendly, and with the continued development of both personal computing and EPCOT, technology, as well as innovation and imagination, were at an all-time high. It seemed only natural to release movies that reflected this energy and exploited the technologically feeble-minded populace.

It all started back in 1984, the same time personal computing took another humongous leap, with Apple’s release of the first Macintosh personal computer.

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