Spielberg's AI: Another Cuddly No-Brainer

From: Stevan Harnad (harnad@coglit.ecs.soton.ac.uk)
Date: Mon Sep 03 2001 - 10:10:44 BST

Review of Spielberg's AI: http://aimovie.warnerbros.com


                Stevan Harnad

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

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. (I have
not read the short story by Brian Aldiss that inspired the movie, nor the
screen story by Ian Watson on which the movie is based, but they are
irrelevant: 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stayed themselves, at no time would you say they had disappeared and been
replaced by a robot -- unless, of course they did "disappear," and some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,
Water-World, I couldn't possibly count them all) suggests that that's really
all there was to it. Pity. An opportunity to do build some real intelligence
(and feeling) into a movie, missed.


Stevan Harnad harnad@cogsci.soton.ac.uk
Professor of Cognitive Science harnad@princeton.edu
Department of Electronics and phone: +44 23-80 592-582
             Computer Science fax: +44 23-80 592-865
University of Southampton http://www.cogsci.soton.ac.uk/~harnad/
Highfield, Southampton http://www.princeton.edu/~harnad/

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