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Monday 2 July 2001

A.I. Mines Science Fiction's Rich Robotic History
by Jeff Berkwits

(Exclusive to Locus Online)

What is it that makes the idea of creating a synthetic, self-aware entity so appealing to both scientists and science fiction fans? Is it humanity's desire to emulate God, or simply a natural hunger to better understand the thought processes and emotional forces that define who we are as human beings? Although researchers have only recently begun to seriously consider the real-life ramifications of artificial intelligence, for decades prescient writers and filmmakers have offered intriguing glimpses of a future filled with mindful machines and sentimental, man-made servants.

In fact, Steven Spielberg's new movie A.I. is loosely based upon Brian Aldiss's short story "SuperToys Last All Summer Long", first published more than 30 years ago. However, as most long-time SF aficionados already know, earlier literary examples of emotional automatons also exist. Philip K. Dick wrote "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" (the basis for the film Blade Runner) in 1968, while Lester del Rey's classic 1938 tale "Helen O'Loy" explores the loving bond that arises between a man and his overly romantic robot. Proto-science-fictional creations such as Frankenstein and the Golem serve as further proof of humankind's ages-old interest in creating artificial life.

For over 100 years, forward-thinking moviemakers have been bringing manufactured men to the big screen, too. Georges Méliès' long-lost Coppélia the Animated Doll, a short film produced in 1900, was among the earliest cinematic stories to deal with the concept of inorganic life, while the famed Metropolis (1926) featured a beautiful, albeit still compassionless, automated doppelgänger. Of course, one of the first -- and, to this day, most literally heartwarming -- instances of a robot with emotional aspirations is the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz (1939), who wanted nothing more than to possess a heart!

Nevertheless, it wasn't until much later in the century that Hollywood began examining in depth the concept of machines with actual empathy. Such pictures as Westworld (1973), The Stepford Wives (1974), and Demon Seed (1977) generally emphasized more malicious or lustful passions (often on behalf of both the automatons and their creators), just as movies like Star Wars (1977), Heartbeeps (1981), and the admittedly maudlin Bicentennial Man (1999) -- the last-named based, in part, on Isaac Asimov's 1976 story of the same title -- showcased more benign desires. Television provided similar androids, including the neurotic Marvin from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the emotion-seeking Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation (ironically, the opposite of the original Star Trek's Spock, who eschewed feelings for machine-like logic). And not all of these entities looked like human beings: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) featured the famous HAL 9000, while the little-known but lovable Electric Dreams (1984) starred a sentient home computer.

The movie A.I. is sure to spark further discussion and speculation about whether advances in synthetic intelligence represent the future of humanity or the first steps toward the downfall of civilization. It's a prudent concern, and one that's sure to continue, guaranteeing additional SF insight -- through short stories, novels and film -- for years to come.

Jeff Berkwits has covered science fiction movies and literature for numerous online and print periodicals including Cinescape, SCI FI,,, and Filmfax, among others, and at one time was the publisher and editor of ASTERISM: The Journal of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Space Music. He is currently a staff writer for Science Fiction Weekly.

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