I spoke recently of the speed at which computers are learning to beat humans at board games from checkers to chess. Scientists train the machines to develop decision rules by having the machines play the same games millions of times and apply what they absorb to make decision rules about optimal playing strategies.
Now the concern seems to be that more sophisticated computers will acquire enough artificial intelligence (AI) to outsmart humans at every turn and become the bosses of us all. This may have originated in the fervid imaginations of screenwriters and film producers.
Let me trace the ways.
The Tin Man
This early robot was created by Frank Baum in his series of books about the land of Oz. The Tin Man was featured in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz as a sweet character who regretted his lack of a heart, a situation that was fixed by the movie's end.
It was a charming movie, but writers of later stories and films got the idea of generating more conflict -- that is, warfare -- by inventing scary robots who threatened humanity.
Here are a couple examples.
By 1999, the computers had turned into bad guys in the Matrix trilogy.
In it, robots developed by humans had transformed into sentient beings. They rebelled against humans, and the humans battled back by blocking sunlight. The robots took control of humans and used them for energy. The situation, an existential threat to humanity, turned into three movies, comics and video games.
Perhaps the most prominent and successful battling robot movies are the Transformer series, based on the Hasbro group of toy characters. The toys are robots that can be manipulated to turn into transportation vehicles like helicopters or weapons. The toys have been very popular.
In the four Transformers movies (starting in 2007 and running through 2014 with more expected to be released), some of the robot characters are good bots and others are evil bots. As they battle each other, the fate of humans hangs in the balance.
Here are a couple of the major Transformer characters:
Optimus Prime, a heroic bot and the compassionate leader of the good-guy Autobot forces, whose alter ego is a Freightliner truck.
OP believes that "Freedom is the right of all sentient beings," including humans, and the survival of his enemies, the Decepticon forces, weighs on his conscience.
Megatron, the leader of the bad-guy Decepticon forces, can transform himself into a Walther pistol.
His motto is said to be "Peace through Tyranny," and he has led a Decepticon revolution that, "like many such movements, ended up becoming a whole new tyranny."
Here we have the seeds of conflict.
Naturally these leaders and their lieutenants have backstories and battle in each film for control of the world and, probably the universe. I didn't play with Transformer toys as a child and so have not kept up with developments of their characters through the story lines of the Transformer movies.
What's Happening Now
The sentient robot threat now has leaped out of science fiction literature and film and into the scientific community itself. More on that tomorrow.