Spielberg's AI: Another Cuddly No-Brainer

Stevan Harnad
Department of Electronics and Computer Science
University of Southampton
Highfield, Southampton

It would have been possible to make an intelligent film about Artificial Intelligence -- even a cuddly-intelligent film. And without asking for too much from the viewer. It would just ask for a bit more thought from the maker.


AI is about a "robot" boy who is "programmed" to love his adoptive human mother but is discriminated against because he is just a robot. I put both "robot" and "programmed" in scare-quotes, because these are the two things that should have been given more thought before making the movie. (Most of this critique also applies to the short story by Brian Aldiss that inspired the movie, but the buck stops with the film as made, and its maker.)

So, what is a "robot," exactly? It's a man-made system that can move independently. So, is a human baby a robot? Let's say not, though it fits the definition so far! It's a robot only if it's not made in the "usual way" we make babies. So, is a test-tube fertilized baby, or a cloned one, a robot? No. Even one that grows entirely in an incubator? No, it's still growing from "naturally" man-made cells, or clones of them.

What about a baby with most of its organs replaced by synthetic organs? Is a baby with a silicon heart part-robot? Does it become more robot as we give it more synthetic organs? What if part of its brain is synthetic, transplanted because of an accident or disease? Does that make the baby part robot? And if all the parts were swapped, would that make it all robot?

I think we all agree intuitively, once we think about it, that this is all very arbitrary: The fact that part or all of someone is synthetic is not really what we mean by a robot. If someone you knew were gradually replaced, because of a progressive disease, by synthetic organs, but they otherwise stayed themselves, at no time would you say they had disappeared and been replaced by a robot -- unless, of course they did "disappear," and some other personality took their place.

But the trouble with that, as a "test" of whether or not something has become a robot, is that exactly the same thing can happen without any synthetic parts at all: Brain damage can radically change someone's personality, to the point where they are not familiar or recognizable at all as the person you knew -- yet we would not call such a new personality a robot; at worst, it's another person, in place of the one you once knew. So what makes it a "robot" instead of a person in the synthetic case? Or rather, what -- apart from being made of (some or all) synthetic parts -- is it to be a "robot"?

Now we come to the "programming." AI's robot-boy is billed as being "programmed" to love. Now exactly what does it mean to be "programmed" to love? I know what a computer programme is. It is a code that, when it is run on a machine, makes the machine go into various states -- on/off, hot/cold, move/don't-move, etc. What about me? Does my heart beat because it is programmed (by my DNA) to beat, or for some other reason? What about my breathing? What about my loving? I don't mean choosing to love one person rather than another (if we can "choose" such things at all, we get into the problem of "free will," which is a bigger question than what we are considering here): I mean choosing to be able to love -- or to feel anything at all: Is our species not "programmed" for our capacity to feel by our DNA, as surely as we are programmed for our capacity to breathe or walk?

Let's not get into technical questions about whether or not the genetic code that dictates our shape, our growth, and our other capacities is a "programme" in exactly the same sense as a computer programme. Either way, it's obvious that a baby can no more "choose" to be able to feel than it can choose to be able to fly. So this is another non-difference between us and the robot-boy with the capacity to feel love.

So what is the relevant way in which the robot-boy differs from us, if it isn't just that it has synthetic parts, and it isn't because its capacity for feeling is any more (or less) "programmed" than our own is?

The film depicts how, whatever the difference is, our attitude to it is rather like racism. We mistreat robots because they are different from us. We've done that sort of thing before, because of the color of people's skins; we're just as inclined to do it because of what's under their skins.

But what the film misses completely is that, if the robot-boy really can feel (and, since this is fiction, we are meant to accept the maker's premise that he can), then mistreating him is not just like racism, it is racism, as surely as it would be if we started to mistreat a biological boy because parts of him were replaced by synthetic parts. Racism (and, for that matter, speciesism, and terrestrialism) is simply our readiness to hurt or ignore the feelings of feeling creatures because we think that, owing to some difference between them and us, their feelings do not matter.

Now you might be inclined to say: This film doesn't sound like a no-brainer at all, if it makes us reflect on racism, and on mistreating creatures because they are different! But the trouble is that it does not really make us reflect on racism, or even on what robots and programming are. It simply plays upon the unexamined (and probably even incoherent) stereotypes we have about such things already.

There is a scene where still-living but mutilated robots, with their inner metal showing, are scavenging among the dismembered parts of dead robots (killed in a sadistic rodeo) to swap for defective parts of their own. But if it weren't for the metal, this could be real people looking for organ transplants. It's the superficial cue from the metal that keeps us in a state of fuzzy ambiguity about what they are. The fact that they are metal on the inside must mean they are different in some way: But what way (if we accept the film's premise that they really do feel)? It becomes trivial and banal if this is all just about cruelty to feeling people with metal organs.

There would have been ways to make it less of a no-brainer. The ambiguity could have been about something much deeper than metal: It could have been about whether other systems really do feel, or just act as if they feel, and how we could possibly know that, or tell the difference, and what difference that difference could really make -- but that film would have had to be called "TT" (for Turing Test) rather than "AI" or "ET," and it would have had to show (while keeping in touch with our "cuddly" feelings) how we are exactly in the same boat when we ask this question about one another as when we ask it about "robots."

Instead, we have the robot-boy re-enacting Pinnochio's quest to find the blue fairy to make him into a "real" boy. But we know what Pinnochio meant by "real": He just wanted to be made of flesh instead of wood. Is this just a re-make of Pinnochio then, in metal? The fact that the movie is made of so many old parts in any case (Wizard of Oz, Revenge of the Zombies, ET, Star Wars, Water-World, I couldn't possibly count them all) suggests that that's really all there was to it. Pity. An opportunity to build some real intelligence (and feeling) into a movie, missed.