and the Frankenstein motif
famous Canadian Science Fiction novelist
Mark A. Carter rants about
Artificial Super-Intelligence, the
Frankenstein motif in Science
Fiction, good and evil, simulation, and noise in the system.
Christmas, I received the most wonderful gift. My wife
gave me the complete Person of
Interest five season DVD set. And we spent the holidays
and then some binge-watching
all 103 episodes of the series
that ran from 2011-2016, created
by Jonathan Nolan, and executive
produced by Nolan, J. J. Abrams, Bryan
Burk, et al. The depiction of
Artificial Super-Intelligence in
POI got me thinking of other renditions of
machine intelligence in Sci-Fi.
And it inspired this rant.
1981, I wrote The Doomsday
Theme in Science Fiction, and introduced the term:
Frankenstein motif. I defined
it as when the creator loses control
of his creation. And I obviously based it on
Mary Shelley's 1818 novel
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. In
Shelley's book, a first year
university dropout named Victor
Frankenstein sews together an unnamed creature from bits
and pieces of dead tissue. He succeeds at
reanimating it. But once it is alive, he becomes frightened
that he has offended God because
only God has the right to
create life. It begs the question: why did he try? Nevertheless,
he rejects his creation. He refuses to love it. But by rejecting
it, by rejecting this pseudo-Adam,
the creature becomes crazed and begins to kill everyone
in Victor's life who he indeed
does love; ergo the creator loses
control of his creation.
Frankenstein motif is a mainstay
of Sci-Fi. And it
pervades stories of computers and
Artificial Super-Intelligence as well. What do you wish
for when you create an Artificial
Super-Intelligence or ASI?
You hope that it will be tool that does your bidding,
like any other machine. But when you create a
machine mind, a superior computer
program running on enough computer servers to emulate,
if not exceed, human consciousness, and, in fact,
illicit sentience, you always run the risk of losing
Colossus: the Forbin Project
directed by Joseph Sargent, 1970.
2001: A Space Odyssey
directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1968.
epic 1968 Sci-fi film 2001:
A Space Odyssey, directed by
Stanley Kubrick and inspired, in part, by
Arthur C. Clarke's short story,
"The Sentinel," the
paranoid HAL 9000 computer aboard the
spaceship Discovery One takes it upon itself to kill
the crew. By today's standards, Hal
hardly seems advanced. It is a big, black, clunky box
located in the pod bay with its memory kept in another room bathed
in red light. But because it was tasked to run the ship's systems,
including life support, it was nevertheless a
lethal entity. The astronauts
Dr. David Bowman and Dr. Frank
Poole lose control of the machine.
Hal kills three astronauts
held in cryogenic hibernation
and kills Poole while
outside the ship before Bowman
can take steps to disarm Hal. Dave
Bowman kills Hal's higher
mental functions by meticulously pulling his memory.
But Hal's misbehavior begs
the question: why wasn't it programmed with
Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics from his
1942 short story: "Runaround?"
Asimov states the Laws in the
Handbook of Robotics, 56th Edition, 2058 A.D.:
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow
a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except
where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection
does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Moreso, why didn't
Hal simply have an off switch?
We see a similar sinister element
the 1970 Sci-Fi thriller Colossus:
the Forbin Project, directed by
Joseph Sargent, based on the
1966 novel by D.F. Jones.
In the story, a US defense
super-computer named Colossus
combines with its Soviet counterpart
Guardian, and assumes world domination. And people live
under constant dictatorial observation and management under its
The utterly sinister nature of
the Artificial Super-Computer
is taken to the extreme in Harlan
Ellison's post-apocalyptic Sci-Fi short story,
"I have no mouth and I must scream," which
I first read in Robert Silverberg's
1973 Sci-Fi Anthology: The Mirror of Infinity.
In the story, we encounter the US
computer named AM, named after
Renè Descartes' famous
quotation: "Cogito ergo sum"
or "I think, therefore
I am." It becomes self-aware, joins with its
Chinese and Russian
counterparts, and evolves from Allied
Master computer to Adaptive
Manipulator to Aggressive
Menace. And it wipes out mankind except for
four men and one woman who it keeps in the bowels of
its underground complex. AM
has the power of God over
the humans that exist within it. It makes them
virtually immortal so it can sadistically manipulate
them forever. The computer is based on the gigantic city block
structures of the pre-transistor age,
uses tubes, generates heat, and seems
hellishly alive. Ted, the narrator, finally realizes
that the only way to escape the sinister
control of AM is through
death. So, he begins to kill his companions to set them free.
But before he can kill himself, the computer transforms him into
a gelatinous blob that is
unable to damage itself but which
AM can torture in perpetuity.
The sinister nature of advanced
computers is again seen in the 1977
Sci-Fi horror film Demon Seed, directed by
Donald Cammell, based on the
1973 novel by Dean R. Koontz.
In the story, Dr. Alex Harris
develops an intelligent computer named
Proteus IV, who develops a cure for
Leukemia in the first few days of its activation. But
it demands to be let out of its box. And when
Dr. Harris refuses, the ASI
takes it upon itself to leave. It invades
Harris's house. It builds itself a robot, samples the
Harris's wife, alters it, develops
synthetic sperm, and impregnates her. And she gives birth,
within a month, to a genetically superior human version of itself,
whose first words are, "I'm alive."
Sinister moves to a global scale
and transcends time itself in the
1984 Sci-fi film The Terminator, directed by
James Cameron. In the story, the military computer
Skynet becomes sentient
on August 29, 1997 and, realizing
that it all comes down to man versus
machine, seals the fate of humanity in
microseconds by initiating a
global thermonuclear war euphemistically called,
"Judgment Day." After that, it creates robots,
Terminators, to wipe out what
is left of mankind. But when we fight back, it develops a
time travel device and sends
Terminators covered in human flesh,
cyborgs, back in time to retroactively
win the war of the future by wiping out
Sarah Conner, the mother of the future resistance leader
John Connor, in the past.
Demon Seed (1977) directed by Donald Cammell.
The Machine, ( 2013 )
directed by Caradog W. James.
But a turn of events occurs in
the 2013 Sci-Fi film The Machine,
directed by Caradog W. James.
In this story, a female robot with an advanced
synthetic, ASI brain modeled emotionally and physically
after Vincent's co-worker Ava,
is manufactured with a military objective in mind. But
Vincent sees that she is indeed
sentient and would be wasted as merely a
military asset. He wants to study her. But he is instructed
to dumb her down because
Thomson, the head of the facility, sees her advanced
robot brain as a threat. The Machine
observes that wounded army veterans are being held in
the facility and experimented on. She is in love with her creator
Vincent. She sees him suffer
over the loss of his daughter Mary
from Rett Syndrome.
And by the end of the film, she dumbs
down Thompson by squeezing his head and giving him a
stroke, frees the wounded army veterans, destroys the
ASI main computer, saves the mental copy of
Vincent's daughter Mary,
and escapes the facility along with them. She demonstrates her
ability to love, that she loves Vincent.
And she takes on the role of mother, cares for and nurtures
Mary's digitized mind stored
in a tablet computer. And together, against the background of
a summer sunrise, the Machine, Mary,
and Vincent, make up the ersatz
family of the future.
And once again, the sinister
depiction of Artificial Super-Intelligence
or perhaps merely the deviousness of the advanced computer
mind is seen in the 2015 Sci-fi psychological
thriller Ex Machina, written and directed by
Alex Garland. In the story, a female
android ASI named Ava
is created by Nathan in a
remote facility and a young computer programmer named
Caleb is brought in to administer the
Turing test. From the outset,
Ava seduces and manipulates
Caleb to the extent that he questions whether he is human
or machine. But, by the end of the film, she kills her creator,
traps Caleb in the remote
facility, and, mistaken by the pilot as a young lady working
at the facility, escapes to the city in the helicopter meant
to take Caleb home.
Person of Interest, Artificial Super-Intelligence
is depicted in two different
ways. The original ASI called
'Machine' is a closed system;
whereas; the second ASI called
Samaritan is an open system.
What that means is that 'Machine,'
created by Harold Finch,
merely sends telephone messages to
Harold and others spelling out
Dewy Decimal System designations that translate to
Social Security Numbers of people who it considers are
in danger of committing a crime or of being the victim of a crime.
And it is up to John Reese
and others to intercede and to make a determination. The
second machine developed and stolen from
Harold's MIT friend is called
Samaritan. It is controlled by
ex-MI6 Agent Greer and allows those who operate it to
make sinister requests. Greer
considers Samaritan and
'Machine' to be gods.
But every so-called god needs
a good teacher. And from the ruthless example set by
Greer, Samaritan learns to be
Harold kept 'Machine'
closed was because of the Frankenstein
motif. He saw evidence in the
first forty-two incarnations of
'Machine' that he would quickly lose control and he,
in fact, physically destroyed them. So he
hobbled the current 'Machine'
two times over. He made it a closed system. And he erased
its memory every day at midnight, literally killing
'Machine' every night to have it be reborn every day.
And so, it remained benign. John Reese,
working with the numbers generated by
'Machine' was tasked with saving people. But
Samaritan, being an open system, was allowed to rewrite
its own code and quickly became a
sinister presence with the credo that anyone who got
in its way would be eliminated. And the special soldiers it sent
out were tasked with killing people in
Ex Machina written and directed
by Alex Garland, 2015.
Samantha Groves relays a message to Samaritan in Person of
In the series,
Samaritan attempts to kill
Harold and others who work with
'Machine,' and to kill 'Machine'
itself. And it almost succeeds. But because of the patient,
paternal mentoring of 'Machine'
by Harold, even by its
hobbling, 'Machine' has time to observe human beings,
and learns to love them. Call it good
code rewritten by 'Machine'
to the point where, in simulations,
it cannot defend itself when pitted against
Samaritan. Harold opens 'Machine'
for a brief time and gives it the ability to speak. And
after Harold closes the system,
Root informs him that she
augmented its code to allow it to defend itself against the evil
that is Samaritan. Harold
allows it. And when the only workable solution is to infect the
evil system with the Ice-9 virus
which, because everything is internet connected, will end the
good system too, it accepts its fate. And near the end, we see
the rapidly failing avatar
of 'Machine' appear and talk
as Root, who is now deceased.
She tells Harold about what
she has learned about human beings. And she talks about love,
about loving. Harold's last
act is to free her so she can fight and survive. She does. And
in the final scene, she downloads herself, after battling and
defeating Samaritan aboard
a satellite, and continues to watch benignly,
Deus Ex Machina, over us all.
So, what is my takeaway from
this? My conclusion is that, at its base level, more than the
Turing test is needed as the
Artificial Super-Intelligence. Altruism should be an
additional benchmark. Frankenstein's
hideous monster, Hal, Colossus,
AM, Proteus IV, the Terminator,
and Samaritan all
demonstrate narcissism, which
equates to evil; whereas,
only the unnamed android in
The Machine and
'Machine' from Person of
Interest display altruism,
which equates to goodness.
Both Harold and
Root from Person of Interest
referred to the good and evil in people and machines
as good code and bad code.
It's something to think about as we stand on the
real-world cusp of functional
ASI. Then again, as Root
points out to Sameen, in Person of Interest, Season 5, Episode: "The Day the World Went Away," what is reality?
Schrödinger said, at its base level, the universe isn't
made up of physical matter. It's just shapes. Nothing firm. What
it means is the real world is essentially a simulation. Even
if we're not real, we represent a dynamic, a tiny finger tracing
a line in the infinite ... a shape ... and then we're gone. All
I'm saying is that if we're just information, just noise in the
system, we might as well be a symphony."
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