AI in pop culture



When you’re asked to think about AI, what comes to mind?  

Chances are that your idea of artificial intelligence will have roots in pop culture. Perhaps you think of HAL or SKYNET, an evil machine that’s set to overthrow or even kill humans. Maybe the concept of AI makes you think of friendlier characters, such as R2D2 and C3PO from Star Wars, or the helpful Cortana from Halo.

Popular culture has introduced many AI characters over the years. But how does the depiction of AI in pop culture impact the technology, as AI grows into more of a reality?


AI as the villain

AI is new. It’s unknown, unfamiliar. And that can make it a threat. In pop culture, this manifests as AI filling the antagonist role. It’s a villain, it’s malicious.

•       AI and flawed logic

In some cases, it’s cold, amoral reasoning that makes the AI in pop culture the villain. For example, in I, Robot the AI antagonist had begun to kill humans due to concluding that it’s the best action to protect the human race. That is, they were following their programming.

Or, for instance, in the Portal game series, the antagonist GLaDOS has been programmed to run tests. As a result, she keeps the player captive so that she may obey her programming.

•       AI malfunction

In other works, artificial intelligence becomes the antagonist due to malfunction. For instance, HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Following a malfunction, the characters decide to shut down HAL. As a result, HAL kills them in order to protect and continue with its programmed mission.  

•       Self-aware AI villains

Perhaps the biggest fear about AI in pop culture, however, is what happens when AI becomes self-aware. Both The Matrix and The Terminator franchises provide examples. In both works, artificial intelligence becomes malicious and destructive, harbouring hatred for humans and a desire to harm them.


How does this impact AI development?

The depiction of AI as a villain, no matter the reason, creates an ‘us vs them’ mentality when it comes to real-life robots. Arguably, this hurts the development of AI, by damaging trust in the technology.

On the other hand, these depictions of AI (while melodramatic) do highlight the public’s real concerns.  

Consider, for example, the pop culture trope of the AI takeover. That is, the idea that robots will overthrow humans. Although in media this takes the form of eradicating or enslaving humans, a tamer version can be seen in the real world. For instance, many have feared being replaced by robots at work, following the rise of automation and AI technology.

It’s not bad to be wary of risks, and AI is unknown. There is a concern for the future, for what happens in case of malfunction. In these cases, AI in pop culture can help open the discussions for how to ensure that AI is safe for humans to develop and use.


Neutral AI

Other depictions of AI in pop culture take a more neutral view of the technology. That is, it’s good and bad. Across different media, some creations depict more than one form of AI. A kind that’s friendly or helpful, and a kind that isn’t.

For instance, Disney’s WALL-E sees friendly robots in EVE and WALL-E, and an antagonist robot AUTO. It’s notable that although AUTO is the antagonist, the machine continues to follow the orders it was given. Similarly, the other robots in the film all perform as programmed, save for the unthreatening WALL-E.

The video game Horizon Zero Dawn provides another example. This instance of AI in pop culture highlights the concerns of using artificial intelligence for weaponry. HADES, an ‘evil’ intelligence, controls war machines that destroy the world. But, just as AI is used as the instrument of our downfall, it’s also deployed as our salvation, in the form of GAIA. GAIA is an AI that saves humanity by restarting the world.

Or, consider Star Trek. In Star Trek, two sides to AI are represented: the friendly Data, and the evil Borg.


The impact of the neutral approach to AI in pop culture

A neutral view to AI in pop culture provides the opportunity for audiences to explore both sides of the AI coin.  

By putting both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ AI in the same story, AI in pop culture allows us to see both the fears surrounding the growing technology and the potential, too. It lets artists explore the concerns and dangers of artificial intelligence, but also recognise that AI isn’t necessarily ‘evil’ and that it could do good.

Yes, artificial intelligence could get used incorrectly. But it also has the potential to be beneficial to us. It can be the answer to future problems, like EVE or GAIA.

A neutral depiction of AI can serve to remind audiences that AI does as it is told to do. The danger comes from telling it the wrong thing.


Benevolent AI assistants

AI in pop culture isn’t all doom and gloom, either. There are cases where creators have depicted artificial intelligence in a more friendly light. That is, as it’s largely hoped the technology will manifest: an assistant tool that provides support and friendship.

An extremely well-known positive depiction of AI in pop culture comes from Star Wars — with the characters R2D2 and C3PO. These well-loved droids are the ones we’re all looking for. They serve both as assistants and also as friends to the human characters.

Another example comes from the British comedy show Red Dwarf (and the books that inspired the series). Two of the main characters represent artificial intelligence: Holly, the spaceship’s computer, and Kryten, a mechanoid programmed to serve and clean. Both characters are shown to be highly intelligent, but that is used to the benefit of their teammates. Even having broken his programming, Kryten remains friendly and helpful.


Impact of benevolent AI in pop culture

These instances of AI in pop culture paint AI technology in a brighter light. They show the goal and potential of the technology. (When it’s well managed and does as intended, that is.)

We are using artificial intelligence today as assistants. (Think Alexa or Siri.) AI chatbots are starting to offer support and companionship to people that need it.

In fact, AI in pop culture has directly impacted AI in the real world. In the video game series Halo, Cortana is an integral assistant and advisor to the player character. She’s nothing but helpful and friendly, and she’s the inspiration for Microsoft’s smart personal assistant of the same name.


Impact of AI in pop culture

Long before we had had even come close to realising artificial intelligence, pop culture started to shape public view of the technology.

But these fictional works tend to over humanise artificial intelligence. That is, it gives them desires and wants, makes them near-indiscernible from humans. This is an inaccurate depiction of AI technology. Artificial intelligence is a tool. It does as it is told, and AI doesn’t ‘want’ as humans do.

Despite this, depicting AI in pop culture is a way to introduce the technology to the wider public. It’s a way that we can explore the concerns and the hopes for this exciting tech.

As artificial intelligence evolves, AI in pop culture will hopefully come to depict more of the friendly side of robots.


Useful links

AI acceptance and the man on the Clapham Omnibus

Robots taking our jobs: the four ‘D’s to factor in

A lighter side to AI: positive artificial intelligence quotes


Download