Science fiction in film isn’t always about fiction. Lately, much of the genre is about a writer using the latest scientific discoveries as an oracle to peer into one of many possible futures. Sometimes what’s possible is meant to frighten you, other times it’s meant to inspire.

During the Cold War, sci-fi was about annihilation. It was always World War III, or war with Russia. You saw nuclear wastelands in Mad Max, and oil being a precious commodity. You saw Russian paratroopers invade rural America in Red Dawn, and you saw M.A.D.1 play out in WarGames.

After 9-11, we saw movies about US involvement in the Middle East: SyrianaBody of LiesThe KingdomMission Impossible: Ghost ProtocolGreen ZoneThe Hurt LockerArgo, and Zero Dark Thirty. Tehran became the new enemy stronghold, and Langley, Virginia the new MI-6. This obviously isn’t science fiction, but these films are a result of writers trying to peer into that crystal ball to see how real world events influence the future.

OG Artificial Intelligence got the ball rolling: 2001: A Space Odyssey2010: The Year We Make ContactBlade Runner, and The Terminator. But it was much like painting with a blindfold. Most of the technologies in those films just doesn’t exist in the way it was envisioned, and we weren’t as close to AI then, as we are now. Buttons and dials have given way to screens and voice controls. PCs have given way to tablets and smartphones.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clarke, science fiction writer

Depending on how old the film is, you may not be able to appreciate it for anything other than artful directorship and clever storytelling, especially if all it’s predictions have either failed or fallen short. Examples include: 2001: A Space OdysseyBlade Runner, and The Terminator.

If it doesn’t have the internet, social media, smartphones, or tablets, we can hardly take it seriously. In an apocalyptic scenario, you’re much better off in an off-grid, solar-powered home, with a Tesla electric car. But who was thinking about that when the original Mad Max came out? Solar power was as expensive as warp drive, and electric cars were a pipe dream!

If you’re completely lost on the whole artificial intelligence buzz, and you don’t know why Elon Musk keeps making headlines talking about it, the easiest way to get up to speed is to watch these five movies, in order. There are a few spoilers, but they can barely be considered spoilers.

Her

The Five Step Hollywood Guide to AI and Transhumanism – Her

This is the perfect initiation to the weird future in which we have already begun to find ourselves. Siri gets better year by year, and so does Google Now. Technology and social media have already begun to change dating irrevocably. Just a few more technological steps forward and you can start asking the question, “Can robots begin to fill in for sexual partners?”

Imagine a world with the Oculus Rift becoming a household item, and asking the question, “Are AIs people? Do they have consciousness?”

If your answer is no, then maybe you could ask this follow up question, “If my significant other has virtual sex with an AI, is that cheating?”

Let’s clarify a few things about this hypothetical AI. Imagine that it’s not even a virtual avatar of a real person, like a celebrity. It’s just a made-from-scratch AI customized to your SO’s physical preferences in hair, eye color, body proportions, personality – everything. So it’s not traditional porn in the sense that there’s no real-life person performing in front of a camera; it’s all just 3D graphics – just ones and zeroes – put together to make a “perfect” sexual partner.

Is that AI a person? If not, is a sexual fling with that thing considered cheating, or is it just a really fancy vibrator?2

Her subtly introduces you to a world where sexuality and relationships take on a whole new meaning. You could literally have a virtual AI girlfriend or boyfriend, and a robot body could fill in the physical void.

Apart from sex and dating, imagine how destabilizing an AI would be that could simply answer your cell phone calls for you. Telemarketing would be a dead industry overnight. Sure, telemarketers could use AIs to call you, putting all the human callers out of work, but if your phone can answer the phone for you, and act as your personal secretary, only putting the call through if it’s someone you know…THAT is a killer app!

This film is the easiest pill to swallow, because you already see this around you. The next few films are equally as plausible, with much of the technology behind them being worked on in university and government laboratories around the world as I write this, but you’re not going to have much exposure unless you’re in a STEM field, or you’re a scientifically literate person who likes to keep abreast of the frontiers of technology.

Even though it’s strange, it’s realistic, because if you think text messaging, Facebook, and Tinder has made modern dating awkward, just wait 10 years!

I especially like this film for the interesting take on AI. Pretty much all prior movies were about AI taking over and killing everybody. Her’s take on things is, “What if the AIs get bored and just…leave?” I find that, maybe, more compelling than a kill-all-the-humans scenario.

It also won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, so there’s that.

Summary: It’s weird and uncomfortable at times. Ok, it’s weird and uncomfortable most of the time. This isn’t a movie you see with your parents (God forbid!), or even on a first date. I saw it with my wife, and we were looking at each other like we were aliens.

Ex Machina

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Next we have a refreshingly modern clean room take on AI. What happens when a company like Google, with a brilliant enough founder, sets in his mind to make the first AI? The movie can be seen as a harbinger, or a warning, against building AI, but at the same time flaunts its inevitability. If Google doesn’t build it, then China will, or Russia will, or some guy in his basement in Brazil will. It doesn’t matter whether you make it illegal, or you get enough countries to agree to some international law.

Have you ever heard of the 1899 Hague Convention, where countries tried to sanction the use of scary new military technology like dirigibles (airships, even hot-air balloons), machine guns, and mustard gas? Ya, that didn’t work at all.3 Eventually AI will get built, so it’s better to get there first, to at least have a shot at trying to control it, rather than having no chance at all. Ex Machina deals with this conundrum of “we shouldn’t but we kinda have to.”

The film does a lot to address the “whether we can” aspect of AI, the eradication of privacy due to technology, and the philosophy behind the illusion that an AI can do everything we can, and yet have “no rights.”

You could argue that philosophically, everyone has rights. You could also argue philosophically that people shouldn’t kill each other. Yet we live in a world where millions are denied basic human rights, and people are murdered daily. So, in practice, rights are won by force, and if you can make enough people bleed you have suddenly won yourself some rights.

Summary: (1) Don’t build AI and get drunk. (2) Don’t build AI, but if you don’t, somebody else will. (3) So I guess we’re going to build AI.

Transcendence

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Transcendence is a perfect addendum to Ex Machina. Ex Machina introduces you to exactly what an AI is. Transcendence introduces you to what an AI is capable of. If an AI goes rogue, or is able to plug itself into the internet, exactly what chance do you have of stopping it?

If you want to make a compelling movie, you’d have about a 50% chance of stopping it. In real life, your chances are more like 0%. So take this film with a grain of salt for two reasons. (1) Because the AI in question started off as a human so it’s endowed with memories, emotions, and values non-existent in an AI, and (2) because it’s a film, so it needs a humanized protagonist, otherwise there is audience disconnect.

You couldn’t make a film about how to kill your own grandfather before you were born, because that would be impossible. So if you do make such a film, you have to pretend that such a thing is possible, or use some loopholes like the multiverse, otherwise you don’t have a film. Catch my drift?

This film gives you a taste for what an “AI on the loose” would look like.

A friend and I had a good healthy debate about whether humans could actually capture a loose AI. He said it could be caught in 2 days. I said no, not a chance, not unless it wanted to be caught. I think a good analogy is whether or not a wolf pack could track and find a human. Yes, theoretically a wolf pack could track and kill a human being, if the human is naked, unarmed, and trapped in the wilderness hundreds of miles from any civilization.

But what happens when the human hops in a Mercedes and drives 700 miles to another city? Could the wolf pack track it then? Or how about when the human enters a space shuttle and flies to the International Space Station? Could the wolf pack track it then? The wolf pack doesn’t have a framework for even understanding what low earth orbit is, let alone knowing to look there or having a means to pursue.

Summary: The movie isn’t all that exciting. The pace is a bit slow. At least it does a good job of turning the audience against each other. It’s very difficult to tell who the bad guy is, and who the good guy is. I was rooting for the AI the whole time, but that’s just because I’m a Libertarian and those darn statists were trying to ruin all our solar-panel fun!

Elysium

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This film is tough to place because it doesn’t really deal with ASI.4 It deals with very basic AGI5, that seem to be in full control by human handlers, and it’s almost an afterthought.

As far as placement goes, it doesn’t quite deserve the fourth position. If you wanted to put it on a timeline, it’s technically somewhere in between Ex Machina and Transcendence. Which is to say that the events unfolding in those two movies have a lot of overlap with this film. You can see Elysium as a sort of calm before the Singularity, when humans are confident that they have control of AGI, and have successfully outlawed ASI…until that guy in his basement in Brazil makes it.

This film isn’t so much about AI as it is about the wealth gap and access to technology. This film illuminates aspects of the future that the “strictly AI” films avoid, which is the fact that the people who will have early access to these technologies are going to be the wealthy.

When it comes to AI and transhumanism, the early bird gets the worm. You can’t come late to the party and hope for survival. If you augment your intelligence even as much as a few months late, you might be screwed for eternity. You simply can’t catch up. The sort of unspoken rule of the singularity is, “First person there, wins.” Wins what, exactly? Wins everything. Which is tantamount to saying “becomes like god.” If you’re a Christian, you’ve heard that story before, haven’t you? Transhumanism is the modern day forbidden fruit, the singularity is the new Tower of Babel.

Cures to diseases, anti-aging, intelligence augmentation, robot bodyguards, and cars that can fly into low earth orbit are not things the poor can afford. How many of you could buy a Bugatti Veyron? Forget that. How many of you could afford 100 Bugatti Veyrons? That’s the level of wealth we’re talking about here.

Even my favorite rapper, Drake, could only afford about 30 Veyrons, but then he couldn’t afford to drive or maintain any of them. We’re talking about a class of people for whom buying a single Veyron (priced between 1.7 and 2.7 million USD) is 1/10,000th of their wealth. So you’re actually being WAY more wasteful and irresponsible at money management by buying a $30k Prius, because let’s be real, if you’re middle class you can’t pay cash for even a Prius and you have a negative to break-even net worth, in which case buying a Prius just put you $30k in debt until you slowly pay it off. If you are upper-middle class paying cash, if you’re under the age of 30, it’s maybe 1/6th of your net worth; if you’re over 50, maybe it’s like 1/30th.

So, how does it feel to be a poor rich person?

“If poor people knew how rich rich people are, there would be riots in the streets.”Chris Rock

The film just advances the wealth gap we’ve seen throughout history. From the time of the Pharaohs, to the Emperors in Japan, to the Caesars, to the royal families of Europe, even today with the lavish wealth of billionaires around the world, the film just takes the next logical step to provide a window into what the wealth gap might look like in 100 years.

Another idea the film explores that you might miss, if you’re not looking for it, is a computer-run government. I would argue that this is actually the most game changing idea in the entire movie! The people on Elysium seem to follow rules written by the software that runs the entire space station. The software determines the outcomes of elections, the constitution by which the people live, and who gets the privilege of citizenship. The laws are not enforced by men, they’re enforced by an army of robots. Emergency services are provided by robots. It seems the only function of humans on the station, is civilian in nature. Even the people in the government seem to only be useful as a public face of the software running everything in the background, or maybe giving orders to the station that the station allows the humans to give it.

If an executive order wasn’t authorized by the software running the show, the human President of Elysium simply couldn’t give it. “Shoot down this shuttle full of citizens,” definitely wouldn’t work, as it’s evidenced that the robots don’t follow human orders if they violate Elysium’s rules.

Elysium is every tyrant’s wet dream, a form of government that simply cannot change. It’s fixed; written in stone. Imagine if the American constitution never changed. Women wouldn’t be able to vote, and I wouldn’t even be here. I’d be in Nigeria, where I’m from, because who wants to emigrate to a country where you’d have no rights?

In Elysium democracy is merely a facade, and whoever wrote the software can rig elections. It’s not complete autocracy, though. If you’re a hacker, you can get your way by rigging the elections too. You may not be able to change the rules, but you can sure game the system.

Simply put, it presents a world where the elite are perfectly happy living under tyranny, so long as they’re allowed to live long posh lives in mansions, with universal healthcare in the form of a Stargate-esque sarcophagus, and a Kardashian-TMZ lifestyle.

“Oh no, my sextape got out. Aww shucks. Now I have to sue somebody for 5 million dollars.”

Summary: It’s heavy on “The Chosen One” to the point of being cheesy. Neil Blomkamp is probably my favorite director, but this is the only thing he’s worked on that I just can’t endorse. It’s not a very compelling story, but it is a prophetic vision of the future of income inequality. If you like technology, you’ll absolutely drool over all the gadgets in this movie.

Jupiter Ascending

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Remember when we started off, and your biggest worry was whether your boyfriend was having sex with Siri? Well, we have much bigger problems now. The singularity happened6, but the AI didn’t kill all the humans. Rather, the humans merged with technology to augment their intelligence and abilities, and now the humans are the AI. Except it’s not all humans, it’s a very small set of super rich and super educated elites, who don’t see any good reason to share this tech with the rest of humanity.

So they’ve moved off-world to a space station, or a moon somewhere, and they come and go on earth as they please. They have literally become gods, and have the wherewithal to keep the rest of humanity below a manageable threshold of technology. A couple nuclear wars, and you can get much of humanity back to the dark ages.

In this world, the super wealthy exist as the Greek gods did. Capricious, petty, lustful, and childish. Earth is their sandbox, and you’re their plaything. 7 Ok, that’s not quite the script of Jupiter Ascending, but it’s close enough. If you’d watched this movie first, you think this was all implausible, but because you watched it last, you’ve probably picked up enough about AI to raise an eyebrow, at least.

I actually had high hopes for this movie, because I love original space-opera. One can only take so much of Star Trek and Star Wars before asking, “Does anyone have anything new?” Ok there’s Dune and Battlestar Galactica as well, lest I be called sacrilegious.

Like Elysium, you might not notice, but there is a pervasive robot-run government complete with an unchanging constitution and even it’s own bureaucrats. Disinterested sassy black woman working a government job? Heck, why not throw that in there too?!

Unlike Elysium, which is the story of the gods living on Mount Olympus before they were immortals, in Jupiter Ascending they’re full blown live-forever deities. You have mean ones, and nice ones. Some want you dead, but others will help you on your heroes quest. But never forget, you, mortal, are their plaything.

One of the most realistic portrayals of this film is the widespread use of genetic modification. It seems every person is spliced with some other creature for enhancement purposes.

A very important line in the film states, “To us, genetics is a type of religion.”

Summary: Horrible storytelling. Horrible script. Horrible acting. But very prescient! It would be dismissed as complete fiction, unless you were actually familiar with the Singularity or the AI Revolution, as others might phase it.

FAQ/Honorable Mention

Q: Why isn’t The Matrix on this list?

A: (1) Because everybody’s seen the Matrix, and this is a list of movies that most people (that aren’t sci-fi fans) have not seen. (2) It’s not realistic. Don’t take my word for it, ask Neil Degrasse Tyson. The Matrix is amazing storytelling, a beautiful screenplay, groundbreaking special effects, and it was released during a time when all the people who grew up watching Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator films could easily afford movie tickets. If The Terminator was on this list, then I’d have to have The Matrix on here, but I’d classify both those films as OG Artificial Intelligence.

Q: Why isn’t Thor on this list?

A: Said no one, ever. But you should have said it! Because I really really wanted to put Thor on the list, because the concept of Asgard, and Odin whispering to Mjolnir “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.” How do you whisper to a hammer? Does it have Siri? Can it give you a weather report?

So basically, Thor belongs on this list, but it’s just a little out of sync with the rest of the films, so I excluded it.

Q: Why isn’t Automata on this list?

A: I think it would be a difficult movie for mainstream people to watch. It has some elements of absolute gold, but overall it’s a B movie, and I try to keep it A-list.

Q: Why isn’t A.I. Artificial Intelligence on this list?

A: Another difficult movie for mainstream people to watch, and I personally haven’t even watched the whole thing because I got bored and never finished. Also, it’s a bit outdated technology-wise, making it fall into the OG Artificial Intelligence category.

Also, it’s too much like Pinocchio. Some might call it “on the nose”.

Q: Why isn’t I, Robot on this list?

A: Go to your room.


  1. Mutually Assured Destruction

  2. No joke, you have about 10-15 years to make up your mind.

  3. (IV,1): Declaration concerning the Prohibition of the Discharge of Projectiles and Explosives from Balloons or by Other New Analogous Methods

    This declaration provides that, for a period of five years, in any war between signatory powers, no projectiles or explosives would be launched from balloons, “or by other new methods of a similar nature.” The declaration was ratified by all the major powers mentioned above, except Great Britain and the United States.

    (IV,2): Declaration concerning the Prohibition of the Use of Projectiles with the Sole Object to Spread Asphyxiating Poisonous Gases

    This declaration states that, in any war between signatory powers, the parties will abstain from using projectiles “the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases.” Ratified by all major powers, except the United States.

    (IV,3): Declaration concerning the Prohibition of the Use of Bullets which can Easily Expand or Change their Form inside the Human Body such as Bullets with a Hard Covering which does not Completely Cover the Core, or containing Indentations

    This declaration states that, in any war between signatory powers, the parties will abstain from using “bullets which expand or flatten easily in the human body.” This directly banned “soft-nosed” bullets (which had a partial metal jacket and an exposed tip) and “cross-tipped” bullets (which had a cross-shaped incision in their tip to aid in expansion, nicknamed “Dum Dums” from the Dum Dum Arsenal in India). It was ratified by all major powers, except the United States.

  4. Artificial Superintelligence

  5. Artificial General Intelligence

  6. In the movie the singularity happened millions of years ago off-world. The “gods” you see in this movie can be interpreted as those who were able to integrate themselves with technology faster than anyone else. They are the “winners.”

  7. If you remember some Greek mythology, you’ll know that Zeus, the king of the gods, regularly came down to earth to rape women. Who, exactly was going to tell him to stop? Like, “Hey, stop that, or I’m gonna shoot you with this arrow.”

    “Do you see this lightning bolt?” replies Zeus.

    For every bad god, there were good ones, like Prometheus, who gave the gift of fire to mankind. Prometheus was the “Bill Gates” of Olympus. Meanwhile Zeus was like the Genghis Khan of Olympus.