What is it that makes the idea of creating a synthetic, self-aware entity so
appealing to both scientists and science fiction fans? Is it humanity's
desire to emulate God, or simply a natural hunger to better understand the
thought processes and emotional forces that define who we are as human
beings? Although researchers have only recently begun to seriously consider
the real-life ramifications of artificial intelligence, for decades prescient
writers and filmmakers have offered intriguing glimpses of a future filled
with mindful machines and sentimental, man-made servants.
In fact, Steven Spielberg's new movie A.I. is loosely based upon Brian
Aldiss's short story "SuperToys Last All Summer Long", first published more
than 30 years ago. However, as most long-time SF aficionados already know,
earlier literary examples of emotional automatons also exist. Philip K. Dick
wrote "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" (the basis for the film Blade
Runner) in 1968, while Lester del Rey's classic 1938 tale "Helen O'Loy"
explores the loving bond that arises between a man and his overly romantic
robot. Proto-science-fictional creations such as Frankenstein and the Golem
serve as further proof of humankind's ages-old interest in creating
For over 100 years, forward-thinking moviemakers have been bringing
manufactured men to the big screen, too. Georges Méliès' long-lost Coppélia the Animated Doll, a short film produced in 1900, was among the earliest cinematic stories to deal with the concept of inorganic life, while the famed
Metropolis (1926) featured a beautiful, albeit still compassionless,
automated doppelgänger. Of course, one of the first -- and, to this day, most
literally heartwarming -- instances of a robot with emotional aspirations is
the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz (1939), who wanted nothing more than to
possess a heart!
Nevertheless, it wasn't until much later in the century that Hollywood began
examining in depth the concept of machines with actual empathy. Such pictures
as Westworld (1973), The Stepford Wives (1974), and Demon Seed (1977) generally emphasized more malicious or lustful passions (often on behalf of both the automatons and their creators), just as movies like Star Wars (1977), Heartbeeps (1981), and the admittedly maudlin Bicentennial Man (1999) -- the last-named based, in part, on Isaac Asimov's 1976 story of the same title -- showcased more benign desires. Television provided similar
androids, including the neurotic Marvin from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the emotion-seeking Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation (ironically, the opposite of the original Star Trek's Spock, who eschewed feelings for machine-like logic). And not all of these entities looked like human beings: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) featured the famous HAL 9000, while the little-known but lovable Electric Dreams (1984) starred a sentient home computer.
The movie A.I. is sure to spark further discussion and speculation about
whether advances in synthetic intelligence represent the future of humanity
or the first steps toward the downfall of civilization. It's a prudent
concern, and one that's sure to continue, guaranteeing additional SF
insight -- through short stories, novels and film -- for years to come.