Learning intelligences ("What is this thing you hu-mans call 'love?'")
Arguably the most interesting cinematic AIs are those with the capacity for change. While machines following their programming make excellent antagonists, machines that can learn make for more compelling characters. As they develop emotions and self-awareness, they force us to confront the issue of what makes us human – and what happens when we're confronted with our own sentient creations. Deep stuff.
Samantha (Her, 2014)
Spike Jonze's new film focuses on the relationship between lonely Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) and learning operating system Samantha (Scarlett Johannson). Can love flourish between a disembodied artificial intelligence and a man with a dubious moustache? You'll have to watch the film to find out, but suffice to say that the course of true love doesn't run smooth. It'll be a while before we invite Siri out on a date, anyway.
Jonze's vision of the future – realised with the help of production designer KK Barrett – looks forward to a point when UI design has shifted away from keyboards, touchscreens and mice – when your phone has a human personality, you don't need little square icons. And freed from the constraints of a futuristic interface, Her's technology looks more like vintage objets d'art than sleek glass pods.
The T-800 (Terminator 2, 1991)
In the first Terminator film, James Cameron created one of the most memorable screen villains; a remorseless machine assassin that "will not stop, ever – until you are dead."
To take that character and turn it into a heroic figure for the sequel was a bold move. To make the Terminator a fully-rounded protagonist, it needed a character that would change over the course of the movie – the very opposite of the first film's relentless killer.
Cameron's neat solution was to make the Terminator's CPU a "learning computer." Once hero John Connor resets it from read-only to read/write, the T-800 develops the beginnings of a personality (ironically contrasted with heroine Sarah Connor, who since the first film has repressed her emotions to become, effectively, a machine).
Over the course of the film, the Terminator learns how to smile (badly), pick up on human emotions and – eventually – work out why we cry, in a scene which inspired a generation of men to do just that. Don't deny it, you had something in your eye in that scene, too.
The Iron Giant (The Iron Giant, 1999)
When it was first announced that Warner Bros was making an animated movie based on Ted Hughes' The Iron Man – and relocating the setting to America – there was predictable outcry. But Brad Bird's 1950s-set adventure is both respectful to the source material (earning the praise of Ted Hughes, among others) and a powerful film in its own right.
Like the poem, the film explores the idea of a "gun with a soul"; a war machine that loses its memory in a crash and learns to embrace a new purpose. Sadly, the film bombed at the box office – you owe it to yourself to check out its gorgeous Norman Rockwell-inspired visuals and bitingly satirical look at Cold War paranoia.
More after the break...
The Puppet Master (Ghost in the Shell, 1995)
The main antagonist in Masamune Shirow's anime movie initially appears to be a hacker who's discovered how to take control of Niihama's cyborg population. In a neat twist, it's revealed that the Puppet Master is actually an AI program that's achieved self-awareness – which promptly claims political asylum from the authorities as an "autonomous life-form."
Masamune addresses questions of humanity and identity in the film, through the Puppet Master and cyborg heroine Motoko Kusanagi – the former claims that an entity based on computer information is no different to one based on genetic information, while Kusanagi worries that she's lost her humanity in the process of cyborg augmentation. In the end, the two merge to form a whole new entity, further complicating the issue of identity.
GERTY 3000 (Moon, 2009)
Voiced in studiously bland tones by Kevin Spacey, GERTY initially seems like a close cousin of HAL 9000 and Mother. From the film's outset, we're waiting for the point when this seemingly-friendly computer, with its blandly-smiling emoticon face, is going to betray solo astronaut Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell). But director Duncan Jones isn't that obvious; GERTY's programmed to look after his charge, and over the course of its long assignment to Sarang Mining Base, it seems to have developed an emotional attachment to Sam – eventually helping him uncover the secret behind the Moon base.
Production designer Gavin Rothery harked back to classic sci-fi films including Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey for GERTY's boxy design – and to create an authentically vintage look for the machine, resorted to dirtying it down with coffee and Post-it Notes. Check out his account of creating the computer here.
Bomb #20 (Dark Star, 1974)
Generally speaking, learning AIs are presented as heroic figures – blank slates that discover their inner humanity, like Star Trek: The Next Generation's Data. John Carpenter neatly inverts this trope with his sci-fi comedy Dark Star, when an electromagnetic pulse causes a spaceship's thermostellar bomb to malfunction.
The artificially intelligent bomb's release mechanism is jammed, but it refuses to cancel its detonation sequence – forcing the crew to introduce it to the concept of phenomenalism. Having convinced the bomb that it can't trust the evidence of its own sensors, it appears that they've saved the day – until it becomes clear that the bomb has discovered the concept of Cartesian doubt, and believes that it's the only thing that exists in the universe. Whereupon it explodes. Well, that's what you get for giving a nuclear weapon a brain.
WOPR/Joshua (WarGames, 1983)
You'd think if you were designing a military computer that runs combat simulations, you'd remember to put the word "simulation" in big letters on the screen when it's playing out global thermonuclear war scenarios. But apparently, NORAD is staffed by the Keystone Kops; they connect their highly sensitive computer to the regular phone line, enabling a teenage hacker to join in the fun and pretend to be a missile-flinging Soviet Union.
Fortunately, the Earth is saved when the aforementioned hacker teaches the computer about the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction. Let's be thankful he didn't try to play Space Invaders against it.
You can go a few rounds with WOPR yourself, thanks to a WarGames app for Android and iOS. Just remember to check that you're not connected to NORAD and about to rain down nuclear armageddon on us all.
Roy Batty (Blade Runner, 1982)
The backstory of Blade Runner makes absolutely no sense when you think about it for more than a second. If you're going to create android replicants to fight wars and dance in strip clubs for you, why give them a limited lifespan and a sense of self? It seems unnecessarily cruel.
Still, Rutger Hauer's bleach-blond android makes for a memorable antagonist, as he wrestles with his developing emotions and fear of death. Famously, Hauer improvised Batty's final speech, delivered as the replicant expires on a rooftop in the rain; it's justly considered one of the iconic moments in sci-fi cinema.