Title: I, Robot
Release date: July 15, 2004
Director: Alex Proyas
Producer: Laurence Mark; John Davis; Topher Dow; Wyck Godfrey
Writer: Jeff Vintar (based on Isaac Asimov’s book of the same name)
Starring: Will Smith; Bridget Moynahan; Bruce Greenwood; James Cromwell; Chi McBride; Alan Tudyk
Production company: Davis Entertainment; Laurence Mark Productions; Overbrook Films
Running time: 115 mins
As a boy I grew up with reading and rereading Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot” (1950), a collection of short stories about robots and the human protagonist, Susan Calvin. At some point, I also purchased the successors to that book including “The Naked Sun”, “The Robots of Dawn”, and “Robots and Empire” – a progression of lessening enjoyment as they went on.
Asimov’s book is the one responsible for giving popular culture, and in some ways wider culture through popular culture, the ‘Three Laws of Robotics‘:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm;
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law;
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Elements of this, with some refinement, can still be found in other examples of robotics in popular culture such as Aliens, Robocop and the recent TV series Almost Human and Humans. Many of these examples, as well as Asimov’s own stories, focus upon what happens when the rules are kept absolutely or when they are transgressed. The three laws have also inspired the Three Laws of Transhumanism in Zoltan Istvan’s novel “The Transhumanist Wager” (2013) which are stated as:
- A transhumanist must safeguard one’s own existence above all else.
- A transhumanist must strive to achieve omnipotence as expediently as possible—so long as one’s actions do not conflict with the First Law.
- A transhumanist must safeguard value in the universe—so long as one’s actions do not conflict with the First and Second Laws.
Getting back to the movie, though, the plot of the movie draws upon a variety of elements from Asimov’s collection of short stories and weaves them together into a narrative of a detective action movies with some interesting reflections on ethics, the boundaries between the human and the technological, and good old-fashioned human self-interest. Will Smith carries the film well, as do the special effects with the robots, with the ending leaving space for an unfulfilled sequel and one the might be a little bit more positive than the ending of The Machine.
In terms of transhumanist themes there are plenty to think about – from robotics, to the creation of human-like (with our flaws) artificial intelligence, aspects of a singularity and human therapy/enhancement through the use of robotic prosthetics. For me the film highlighted two aspects, in particular. Firstly, that while we might not be able to definitively state that a particular technological creation is intelligent or conscious, we will act towards them (both positively and negatively) as if they are ‘persons’. This parallels transhumanist, Ray Kurzweil, when he says:
Sometime early in the next century, the intelligence of machines will exceed that of humans. Within several decades, machines will exhibit the full range of human intellect, emotions and skills, ranging from musical and other creative aptitudes to physical movement. They will claim to have feelings and, unlike today’s virtual personalities, will be very convincing when they tell us so. (Kurzweil: 1999, 56).
The second aspect that comes to mind reflects that of theological and computer scientist, Anne Forst, who contends that who we thing about robots and engaging with them tells us more about ourselves that it does about them (Foerst: ). Moreover, she would assert it tells us theologically about ourselves, God, our creations, and the relationships between them. Even if we can create something that mimics a human being, would our definition of it being human have to stretch that far? Foerst appears to be in the camp that allows for the possibility. Responding in an interview to the question of whether she might want at some point to ‘christen’ or baptize a robot she answers,
I think I would baptize it. This is the whole issue: that we are created in the image of God does not mean that God gave us intelligence and all this kind of stuff. Like I have said above, very soon we will be able to rebuild all of these features classically identified with the image of God. Therefore, AI teaches us that the Imago Dei should not be equalized with “intelligence,” “rationality,” or “reason.” In my opinion, “Imago Dei” means that God, in creating us, started a relationship with us, and separated us from the rest of creation by starting and maintaining this relationship with us but this separation is not because of some features we have. It is not empirical but means trust and love between God and us. If the Imago Dei is relational in that sense, then I have no trouble thinking that Cog [a robot] might have a relationship to God, too, at some point. If it develops the way it does, then Cog will ask at some point, “Where do I come from?” and “What is the meaning of my life?” (Palmer: 1997, 19-20).
Moreover, how the robots are treated is also reflects upon how we treat others whom we deem ‘less’ human than ourselves, leading to their oppression and marginalization. For robots in this film, you could substitute refugees, people of different faiths, different cultures and ethnicities, different genders, and/or sexual orientation.
Overall, I really like this film. Good pacing, good effects and good stuff to think about (and Will Smith!).
[Aside: Asimov’s work is also the source material for The Bicentennial Man (1999) featuring Robin Williams – a film we will come to later.]
- Kurzweil, Ray. “The Coming Merging of Mind and Machine.” Scientific American Presents 10, no. 3 (1999): 56-60.