Remembering the sexy AI film wave of 2013
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When you think of films involving artificial intelligence gradually gaining sentience – a classic of the sci-fi genre – your mind probably springs to Her. The film, written and directed by Spike Jonze and released in 2013, has become a beloved cultural oddity, delicious in its ability to take futuristic themes and fold them into a realistic modern-day setting, while also pondering the big questions: Are machines making us lonely? Or could they be the cure to our loneliness? Does the answer lie somewhere in between?
It feels wild that Her was released 10 years ago, back when everyone still used Facebook and chunky iPhone 5s and those little clip-on hot pink iPod shuffles. But Her wasn’t the only essential AI-themed film released during that era. Alex Garland’s directorial debut, the razor-edge thriller Ex Machina, arrived a few months later in 2014. It’s a film that also fits within the “sexy robots with consciousness” genre, this time with some extremely slick-looking technology, and a deeply enveloping electronic soundtrack. 2013 also gave us The Machine, a British sci-fi from Caradog W. James, which was ultimately overshadowed by Ex Machina, but which is worth mentioning here because it also involves a self-aware and conscious cyborg.
At the time, these films felt mind-bending and far-fetched, further away from us than the gritty realism of TV shows like Black Mirror (also released in the early 2010s). In the past couple of years, however, this particular AI film wave has begun to look increasingly predictive. Or, more than that, dangerously close to real life, helped in part by the recent emergence of language models like ChatGPT. “Over the next twelve months, AI is going to become increasingly a part of all of our creative and knowledge processes,” said Nina Schick, author of Deepfakes: The Coming Apocalypse, on a panel at GQ Heroes last month. “It’ll be like looking back, and being like, ‘Remember the days when I didn’t have a smartphone?’ That’s how dramatic it is.”
Out of all the aforementioned movies, Her is probably the one that most closely resembles a regular Tuesday (if I wanted to spend my evening having deep and meaningful chats with AI, I actually could, although we’re still in the early stages of creating AI voices that sound conversational and non-glitchy.) Still, the only reason the other films feel further away is because they involve glistening, lifelike robots, which currently cost hundreds of thousands to make and own (again, we’re not far off. Ameca, a grey-faced humanoid engineered in 2021 even appeared on an episode of This Morning). They also haven’t yet rounded themselves up to attack us – at least not in the way we thought they might. It’s more complicated than that. So there’s no need to gather the troops just yet.
That said, while these AI films are so much closer to accuracy now than they were in the early 2010s, what they failed to get right was just how weird and mundane the AI revolution would look like. Like, yes you can now have a conversation with a robot and maybe not be able to tell whether it’s human or not. But modern life has become absurder than just that. Now, we’re having to listen to long-dead pop stars sing songs they never actually sung (if TikTok throws up any more Freddie Mercury doing Adele covers I’m going to scream into the void). Meanwhile, uni students are getting ChatGPT to generate shit essays. Streaming services are looking to robots to churn out new movies, for free. And I can now see what “Virginia Woolf skateboarding over a bowl of mac n cheese while vaping a Lost Mary” looks like, thanks to AI image generators like DALL-E.
It will be interesting where sci-fi can go from here, when we’re so close to touching the AI singularity – a “hypothetical” future point in which technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible, resulting in incalculable changes to humankind. Who knew that the answer might, depressingly, come from AI – the filmmakers of the future – themselves?
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Remembering the sexy AI film wave of 2013