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The best A.I. movies and TV shows

December 8, 2020, 4:38 PM UTC

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Good morning, Fortune senior writer Jeff Roberts here with a question: What movie or TV show has done the best job exploring A.I.? I ask because even though Hollywood is notorious for flubbing scientific details, the stories it tells often reflect our collective hopes and fears as a society.

I set about making a list, and the first film to come to mind was the 1968 classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The movie, hailed for its realistic depiction of space flight, features a computer named HAL who goes rogue, commandeering the voyage and killing the astronauts. A fun tidbit is that HAL was inspired by IBM (note the initials are all one letter off). And while few people today would pick IBM as the company most likely to enslave us, 2001’s theme of betrayal by our own machines still resonates.

That fear of losing control of the devices we build is a common story line. Other prominent examples include the Terminator series, the original Alien, and certain episodes of Black Mirror.

But the robots are not always the bad guys. There is another popular A.I. trope in Hollywood in which machines offer connection and even redemption in a world where we’ve lost our humanity. Think of Harrison Ford finding love with a replicant in Blade Runner or Joaquin Phoenix mending his heartbreak with a digital assistant in Her. In some cases—notably the dystopian game show setting of Westworld—the robots’ attempts to become sentient are a rebuke to the moral failings of real humans.

It’s notable that, in the A.I. shows that offer the promise of redemption, the machines that might save us are female. But this stereotype of female empathy is not universal. In canvassing my tech reporter colleagues, a number cited Ex Machina—which sees the protagonist outsmarted by a sociopathic female robot—as a must-watch. Then there is Wall-E, the gentle male robot who helps humanity repair a ravaged Earth.

I confess I haven’t seen the latter two films but plan to soon. Other A.I. shows that came up in my canvass include Westworld precursor, Person of Interest, the new sci-fi series Next, and the 2001 Steven Spielberg film called, appropriately enough, A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

What do you think? Are there any big omissions in our list of top A.I. movies and TV shows? If so, please email me your favorites, and we’ll include your responses in next week’s Eye on A.I. newsletter.

Jeff John Roberts
@jeffjohnroberts
jeff.roberts@fortune.com

A.I. IN THE NEWS

AI on trial: The criminal defense bar has been pushing back for years against “trial by algorithm.” Now, social justice lawyer are following their playbook to challenge “automated decision-making systems [that create] a hidden web of interlocking traps” that can deprive low income individuals of access to health, education and credit. 

A machine gun using AI killed Iran’s top nuclear scientist, using an “intelligence satellite system which zoomed in” on the scientist without killing his wife who was inches away. Or at least that’s what Iranian officials claim. Others are skeptical, saying Iran appears to be stringing together “cool buzzwords” to suggest the hit by Israel could only have been achieved with futuristic weaponry.

AI is overhyped (again): A Scientific American journalist who has been writing about AI for four decades concluded the technology is indeed overhyped. He argues that, over repeated cycles of hype cycles and AI winters, it’s become clear that some fields of AI have stalled and that the tech will never achieve its ambitions for the basic reason that “human and machine intelligence are radically different.”

But the market begs to differ: Investors seem more smitten with AI than ever as C3, which sells artificial intelligence tools to enterprises, plans to go public this week at a higher-than-expected valuation. No word on whether the company name is related to R2-D2’s less popular sidekick.

FORTUNE ON A.I.

Europe is missing out on the A.I. revolution—but it isn’t too late to catch up — By Francois Candelon and Rodolphe Charme Di Carlo

BRAIN FOOD

What was in that explosive Google paper? The tech world has been buzzing about the ouster of Timnit Gebru, who co-led Google's ethical AI team. At the center of the controversy is a paper Gebru co-authored about Google's primary line of AI research. The head of Google's AI program says the paper wasn't up to snuff academically, but others say Gebru was ousted because the paper raised inconvenient questions about a flagship product.

The paper is not circulating publicly but MIT Tech Review obtained a copy and summarized its findings. The publication notes Gebru and her co-author identified four broad ethical issues related to Google's AI research: the massive energy use required to train large language models; the risk of introducing bias when data sets are so large as well as the challenge of auditing them; lost opportunity costs that arise from directing mega-research projects towards money-making ventures; the potential for large language models to deployed for nefarious ends.

Google is sticking with its position that the paper lacked scientific rigor and that the company wasn't given proper time to review it—but several Google veterans note that such strictures have not been applied in the past. Meanwhile, Gebru's co-author warned the company's response could create broader problems:

Bender worries that Google’s actions could create “a chilling effect” on future AI ethics research. Many of the top experts in AI ethics work at large tech companies because that is where the money is. “That has been beneficial in many ways,” she says. “But we end up with an ecosystem that maybe has incentives that are not the very best ones for the progress of science for the world.”