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Killer Robots in fiction and life – The looming prospect of killer AI

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Killer Robots in fiction and life by Chris Godber

Robots gone rogue is a subject that has  fascinated artists, filmmakers and writers  since they were immortalised in films such as Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis and Blade Runner. The idea of machines superseding their programming and their human masters to invoke chaos, death and misery upon them was one that inspired many to horror and shock, providing writers with an endless source of source material to ruminate over,  and it is a subject that continues to inspire today, as the reality of it actually happening becomes more possible.

TechNews2020 writer Chris asks should really be worried or are these visions of killer machines merely a product of our imaginations, harking back to much older and more primitive fears which have always resided in the human mind, looking at the history or art, cinema and writing, and comparing and contrasting to where we are today.

John Connor: You just can’t go around killing people.
The Terminator: Why?
John Connor: What do you mean why? ‘Cause you can’t.
The Terminator: Why?
John Connor: Because you just can’t, okay? Trust me on this.

Frankenstein [Novel by Mary Shelley]

Man plays God and gets burnt

Ok so not strictly speaking AI or robotics but I don’t think I can go into the history of cybernetics and Science gone wrong without mentioning the genre defining Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. In the novel the gifted Dr Frankenstein attempts to conquer the issue of death, by re-animating dead tissue, and all in the hopes of providing a remedy and solution to what he sees as problem that is human mortality.

Needless to say it does not all go attempting to plan as his creation turns on his master, developing a curiosity about the world, but being tragically unable to understand or respond to  it correctly given it’s artificial ‘soul’ if you will.

One of first novels that asked big questions about ethics in Science, and today the new emerging  of bio-engineering and even trans-humanism makes the possibility of at least Life Extension a real possibility in the near future, with Trans-humanism even advocating for a human-machine symbiosis and thinkers like Ray Kurzwell predicating a technological singularity whereby machines becomes exponentially more intelligent that their creators.  All these big questions are addressed in one way or another in Frankenstein, a work of fiction that was probably decades if not longer before it’s time

Metropolis [Film by Fritz Lang]

Class struggle and the allure of the dark feminine in a machine

Metropolis is an iconic classic Sci-Fi film by the visionary director Fritz Lang, it is set in a dystopian extreme world where the ‘club of sons’- a kind of elite class, live a live of Idyll peace in a vast metropolis above whilst at the same time, workers in a vast underground city work themselves to death to keep their ‘perfect system’ above running.

All of this is revealed to the protagonist, who is the son of the architect of this Dystopia and as the plot thickens it becomes apparent that a mad inventor named Rotwang has created a robot copy of Maria, a popular women in the underground city who promotes peace and peaceful protest, inspiring the workers below to violent revolution against their masters, and ultimately sets the course for the crumbling of society and order.

Visually stunning, Metropolis is one of the classics of German Expressionist cinema, if not the pinnacle of it along with other such films like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. The robot Maria is a kind of archetype not often explored in cinema of a underhanded and evil, corrupt android who uses her intelligence to turn people against each otehr and to destroy using her feminine whiles as it were (there is one scene shown above where she erotically dances for the ‘Club of sons’, sending two men into a jealous rage against each other as they fight for her company).

The only other film I can think of that explores this concept of the ‘Machiavellian machine’ is the brilliant Ex Machnia, itself a masterpiece. But what are the chances of such an AI being a reality? And should we be scared? These are big and very real questions that have been asked in Science fiction and science ethics writing for decades, not least in Issac Asimov’s conception of the 3 laws of robotics in fiction (I, Robot) – a series of laws designed to ensure robots would fulfil a creative and collaborative role in our lives, and a kind of safety net to prevent any underhanded desires to hurt human beings.

They are

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

The facts are, if it is possible to create theoretical super-intellgient AI that can pass Turing tests then Science must provide a solution to ensure they are on our side, otherwise it is inevitable that one, or many of them could pose the risk of ‘going Maria’ and either plotting our destruction, or at least sowing the seeds.

The Terminator Series

When the tools that are there to protect us, turn on us.

Terminator is perhaps the most recognisable and popular franchise that deals with the ideal of killer robots in popular culture -focusing on a military system called SkyNet that goes rogue and decides to destroy the human race with nuclear arms during ‘Judgement Day’ , the film focuses on three central characters – Jon Conner, the future leader of the human resistance fighting for the ongoing survival of the human race, and his mother Sarah Conner, the woman whose fate deals her the hand of both birthing and protecting the boy who must one day become a man and save the world, and then finally The Terminator himself, played in both of the original films by Arnold Schwarzenegger.  In the first as a would be assassin, and in the second a cybernetic protector, a kind of surrogate T-800 Father figure, the machine who learns if not to feel, then to process and protect, Terminator aesthetically bought us the look of the killer robot in modern pop culture, all huge alien looking guns and bodies that make them look like cybernetic skeletons from the depths of hell itself. It created it’s own idiom as well as bringing in interesting ideas about the implications of time travel and advanced cybernetics and their potential uses. So what are the chances of some potential military system built to protect us going rogue or malfunctioning and destroying us?

Well as the recent letter to the UN from leading figures in the tech sector working in the AI and Robotics sector urging governments to ban the development ‘Killer Robots’ proves anything, it is that the risk of something like SkyNet deciding to eliminate the human race are  taken very seriously, and with even public intellectuals like Sam Harris  speaking at length about the danger of creating super-intelligent AI at a Ted talk, It is clearly a question which is being posed increasingly with more seriousness.

You should view the Sam Harris Ted Talk below if you’d like a wider perspective on this increasingly big question emerging in Computer Science and Tech Ethics.


Roberta Matta and HR Giger

The painters of a strange, dark and surreal biomechonoid future

HR Giger and Roberta Matta are two visual artists who explored the idea of the machine through the prism of strange otherworldly alien worlds, and a melding together of the sexual, the organic and the mechanic, the horrific and uncanny with the alluring aesthetic of the machine. Both artists produced work that seems like it is borne out of time, space and place, there own kind of visionary language of Biomechonoid and bizarre alien vistas, and both with a visionary unique visual look which is almost entirely their own, decades and even half a century after their original creations. They are both artists in my opinion who  project human fears, far into imagined futures, world which are informed by our reality at it’s core,  but mixing the technological with the profane and the arcane world of ancient fears in a way that is still unique and perplexing, both beautiful and obscene in equal measure.

Intervision by Roberto Matta