Of AI, pop culture, and reality aping fiction

| Updated on February 07, 2018

The world is slowly beginning to imitate art when it comes to technology. Is it already time for dystopia, wonders Mirza Mohammed Ali Khan

One cannot say for sure if Artificial Intelligence (AI) will replace humans in jobs in the future, as things start getting automated. But what has already been happening for a while now is AI replacing flesh-and-blood protagonists in movies and written works of fiction.

Remember Robin Williams’ iconic Bicentennial Man, where a robot starts to develop human emotions? Or Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence? A similar tale about a robot boy, where it is programmed to love?

Artificial love

Of course, it’s not been all love and mush when it comes to AI in movies. The Will Smith-starrer I, Robot showcased its grey areas. As did the Oscar-winning 2013 drama Her, which involved a male protagonist falling in love with his highly advanced personal assistant that takes a woman’s avatar.

Let’s pause for a moment here and examine Her. Needless to say, spoilers ahead. The male is helplessly in love with the AI software that does his chores. So much so that he is hooked to its virtual presence — having it with him all the time through earpieces and going out on ‘dates’, where he shows it the surroundings using his phone’s camera.

The love story is doomed, as the AI evolves much faster and is talking to or rather, being in love with multiple people at the same time, as it reveals to the shocked male protagonist. However, in a rather morbidly hilarious scene in the movie, the two even attempt to go out on a ‘physical’ date, with the AI using a human stand-in. The way it works is that the AI gives instructions to the passive human using an earpiece and the human does whatever the AI asks it to. Wow, talk about a role reversal, right?

Not fiction anymore

Before you laugh this off and dismiss it as something confined to the realms of imagination, allow me to tell you how dangerously close we are to such a reality. Researchers are testing a concept similar to such ‘surrogates’, thankfully limited only to humans, as of now. The concept involves a human wearing a helmet with a tablet strapped on, with another person’s face on it displayed in real time.

This surrogate can attend meetings, conferences, and do chores in lieu of the human whose face is on the tablet. It is called Chameleonmask and will also transmit real-time audio from the absentee human. The human surrogate also wears the same clothes as the person they are filling in for and can also run errands. If you thought that was absurd, there’s more to come. A China-based company that manufactures sex dolls also makes a ‘smart’ version that is WiFi-enabled and can reply to your queries by browsing the internet a la Siri or Alexa, control connected home appliances, and in the future, may also mimic facial expressions. It retails for a whopping $4,000 and its makers are optimistic of its chances in China, where men reportedly outnumber the women by over 30 million.

If the above product becomes a reality, which it seems well on its way to being, then the movie Her will come to life, that too with an artificial body. The dystopian drama on Netflix, Black Mirror, also addresses this in one of its episodes, where a woman pays for an AI to mimic her partner after he dies in an accident. Eventually, the AI’s parent company offers her a synthetic form of her partner, an exact bodily replica, that houses his AI-mimicked consciousness. She buys it, only to be distraught after she finds that it will only be bits and pieces of her partner and it leaves her yearning for him more than ever.

It’s anybody’s guess as to whether real life will mimic fiction going forward, especially once these products start becoming more mainstream. But with reports and narratives on how some Japanese men are starting to fall in love and finding companionship in their sex dolls are anything to go by, do pardon me if I think the future looks scary.

Assistants gone too far?

Jarvis from the Iron Man movies has endeared itself to many an audience. This smart, sometimes sassy robotic assistant to Iron Man is the epitome of AI succeeding. It’s just human enough to warn of dangers but also machine enough to gladly step aside and be over-ridden by human commands. Of course, we all saw the other side of AI in the Iron Man universe too, with Ultron attacking the human race.

Dan Brown takes it a step further in his latest novel Origin. One of the main protagonists, along with the ubiquitous Robert Langdon, is an AI that calls itself Winston aka Art (short for artificial). This AI plays as much a role in the novel as Langdon, including bailing him out of a few tight situations on multiple occasions.

And yet, Winston seemed a much more advanced version of what we already have in the form of AI in our everyday lives. Except, Winston is Alexa or Siri or the Google Assistant on steroids or something even more potent. Who knows, maybe our present-day virtual assistants will be Winstons in the future. They already can give you any information in seconds, can order your favourite food, book a cab to your most-preferred destination, and tell you the shortest route to take.

But, reading Brown’s Winston left with me with chills. And that is because of the cold, cut-throat manner with which the AI conducts itself and pulls the strings in a way that makes the human protagonists seem like marionettes serving a higher purpose. Winston’s sole aim in the book is to get a particular task done, and in whatever way possible. Brown paints Winston in such a way that it doesn’t come across as evil or malicious, rather just something going about its job with brutal efficiency, compromising on certain human morals along the way.

The reason this hit so close home is because the AI that surrounds us today is also doing the same, albeit in much less harmful and mostly even harmless ways. However, not all of them have positive results. For example, Google Maps’ shortest route could well lead you through a series of narrow and difficult-to-navigate streets, or worse, closed roads.

Then again, with technology’s big guns acknowledging that AI needs to be used responsibly, a purely pessimistic outlook is probably a bad idea. But, I blame it on our pop culture, which in recent times, has chosen to address AI morbidly. Any takers for a show or a movie that focuses on how we co-exist happily with AI? I’m definitely waiting.

Published on February 07, 2018

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