Arcology in Popular Culture

arcologyHello and good evening. Welcome to the third and final installment in my Arcology series, addressing the use of the concept in various popular culture sci-fi franchises. After researching the term and learning all about Paolo Soleri and the concept he created, I’ve come to see that his vision of future cities where the needs of ten of thousands of inhabitants could be met in sustainable ways helped to inspire the a great deal of speculative fiction.

Here are just a few examples that I can recall or have been able to find…

Chi-Town:
Many years ago, some friends of mine came to me with a new RPG by the name of RIFTS. A sort of sci-fi/fantasy crossover, the game was set in a post-apocalyptic world where inter-dimensional gateways, known as “Rifts” had led demons, monsters and mythical creatures into our universe, where they began wreaking havoc. After many years, several new nations emerged, the most powerful of which were the Coalition States, a dictatorship dedicated to fighting the invasion and reestablishing order.

The seat of this government is a large arcological city known as Chi-Town, which was built on the ruins of Old Chicago (hence the name). A self-contained city, the structure is somewhere between a pyramid and a rectangle in terms of shape. And of course, its hierarchical structure mirrors the social divisions at work within. The lower levels are the most densely populated, have the most indigents, and experience the most crime, while the upper levels are more spacious, opulent, and well-maintained.

In addition to being a fortress city and a safe haven for human beings in the ruins of the United States, Chi-Town is also a fitting example of an arcology. Within its walls, all things, including water, air, food and energy, are providing by internal systems and subject to recycling and treatment. Again, the issue of quality is dependent on where someone finds themselves within the structure, but the principle is still the same. In a world that has been devastated and rendered inhospitable, the response was to create a mega-structure that could both shield and provide for its many, many inhabitants.

Coruscant:
coruscantFans of the Star Wars franchise are certainly familiar with this planet-encompassing city, even before it was featured in the prequel trilogy. As the capitol of the Old Republic, Empire and New Republic, respectively, it has a very long history of habitation, and a very sizable population! As a result, its architects and engineers had to get very creative with the use of space on this planet, and several massive buildings were the result.

In truth, Coruscant was not so much a single city as thousands upon thousands of interconnected arcologies that ran across its surface. These various mega structures measured roughly a kilometer in height, dwarfing even the nearby mountain chains, and housed hundreds of thousands of residents each. In addition, the need to feed and provide for the staggering number of inhabitants required that every structure come equipped with a massive network for recycling water, waste and food.

Officially divided into megablocks and levels, every section of the city had its own means for providing food, water, and manufactured goods. This in turn required the presence of internal systems for processing air, drinking water, food waste, human waste, and industrial waste from its manufacturing warrens. In addition, in the sub-city where natural light did not reach, holograms and artificial lights were also built in to the environment to provide its inhabitants with illumination. In addition, it is also indicated in a number of sources that agricultural operations were housed in various sections and relied on recycled water and either artificial or filtered light.

Though food and waste still required a great deal of shipping and processing, which resulted in a staggering amount of transport traffic, much of the cities needs were taken care of by means of these internal measures. This ensured that the roughly three trillion inhabitants of the planet would never become wholly dependent on outside sources of food and goods, as well as ensuring that pollution and harmful waste wouldn’t accumulate to disastrous levels.

Habitats:
In the works of Peter F. Hamilton, particularly the Night’s Dawn Trilogy, much attention is given to the kinds of futuristic living spaces humanity will someday occupy. For starters, there is planet Earth in this future setting, which is so overrun by human beings that all cities have evolved to become self-contained arcologies. On top of that, there are what’s known as “Habitats”, floating megacities which exist out amongst the stars.

One of the most notable of these is Eden, the first ever habitat to be created, and in orbit around Jupiter. As the closest thing to a capitol in the Edenic culture, it was built using Bitek – aka. Biotechnology – which resulted in a living structure that was psychically linked to its inhabitant through a process known as affinity.

Here, as with other Habitats, the structures are massive, measuring several kilometers in length and width. In addition, each is entirely self-supporting, providing food, water, electricity and artificial gravity to its inhabitants. The latter is created through the rotation of the whole structure around its axis, while a central light tube which runs the length of the station provides light. Food and water are produced via biological processes and are recycled to ensure minimal waste, which in turn is also processed and converted for later use. In addition, interstellar material is frequently intercepted by the habitat and converting into any and all goods which its people require.

Ultimately, the only thing a habitat needs is a supply of external matter which it will use to grow and mature during its formative cycle, and an external power supply to maintain its functions. This is last necessity is provided by a series of external conductor cables which grow on the outer hull of the structure where they are positioned to pick up charges. Due to the rotation, these cables then cross the electromagnetic flux of the nearby gas giant and thus produce electrical energy. All is provided and nothing goes to waste. A true future city!

Urban Monads:
The setting of Robert Silverberg’s fictional study in overpopulation, The World Inside occurs almost entirely within the hyperstructure known as Urban Monad 116. As the name implies, this massive, three-kilometer high city tower is but one of many on the planet, which have become necessary now that war, disease and starvation have been eliminated, but people still continue to procreate without restriction. During the telling of the story, which takes place in 2381, the total population has reached 75 billion.

Much attention is given in the novel to how urban monads (or “Urbmons”) are arranged and meet the needs of their 800,000 respective inhabitants. For starters, groups of these skyscrapers are arranged in “constellations” so that one’s shadow does not fall upon another. Each Urbmon is divided into 25 self-contained “cities” with 40 floors each, in ascending order of status, with administrators occupying the highest level with population and production centers sequestered below.

In order to see to the needs of this rapidly expanding population, all arable land not currently occupied by Urbmons is dedicated to agriculture. However, within the Urbmon communities,  resource management still counts for a lot, with all foods and goods being held in common and the people expected to share them. Beyond that, however, sustainability is not exactly the name of the game, as the right to engage in free expressions and sex and reproduction are considered the highest forms of activity.

Hence, Silverberg’s Monads break a few of the basic rules of arcology, but the basic premise is still there. Designed to house a rapidly expanding population that threatens to overpower the Earth, Urbmons take advantage of the concepts of megastructures and 3-D planning to ensure that every living soul is housed and provided for. Now if they could just stop reproducing so much, they’d be in business!

Tyrell Corp Building:
Though not specified as an arcology in the strictest sense, I couldn’t possibly make this list without including the infamous Tyrell Corp building. I mean just look at the thing. Imposing, Gothic, and very, very big! And let’s not forget highly symbolic, as the design, size and scale of the thing was meant to evoke the feeling of awesome power that the corporation held.

Though not much is made clear of what life inside the building is like, it was clear that it was made up of many, many levels and sections, each of which fulfilled a different purpose. At ground level, the building was protected by automated systems which “fried” one of the story’s Nexus 6’s when they tried to break in. Farther up are various industrial areas that are dedicated to the production of the company’s Replicants, as well as office spaces and administrative areas. Another Replicant was detected in one of these sections, right before it shot the man who had detected it – Detective/Blade Runner Holden.

At the apex of the building is the living area for Tyrell and Rachel, the experimental Nexus unit that was modeled on his niece. This level is accessible only by elevator which runs along the outer edge of the building, and can only be accessed by authorized personnel. Here, Tyrell lives amidst opulent surroundings, vast marble floors, stone columns, and even an aviary for his pet owl. Although it is not explicitly said, it appears that Tyrell spends all of his time here, never venturing to the outside city or to another domicile. Hence, we can only assume that all of his needs are seen to here, even if everything he consumes is flown in and all the waste produced is shipped out.

Mega-City One:
judge-dredd-megacity-oneThe setting of the Judge Dredd franchise, Mega-City One is essentially a massive urban sprawl which stretches from the Quebec-Windsor City corridor to the peninsula of Florida in the south, growing out of the Northeast Megalopolis to occupy Southern Ontario the entire Eastern Seaboard. And in addition to stretching so very far and wide, this city is also made up of arcologies in order to see to the needs of its roughly 800 million inhabitants.

These arcologies come in the form of huge apartment blocks which house roughly 50,000 people each. Within each block, citizens are attended to by automated systems which recycle everything, waste, water, and even food. As for manufactured products and consumer goods, these too are largely created in industrial warrens that housed within specific blocks.

This system of every need being handled by automated systems and machines was designed to ensure that the survivors of the nuclear holocaust (aka. The Apocalypse War) would be tended to. However, it had the unwanted side-effect of also leading to rampant unemployment and listlessness amongst the population. This is one of the main reasons why Mega-City One is awash in petty criminals and organized crime syndicates. This, in turn, is what led to the creation of the Judicial System and its army of Street Judges.

Trantor:
Perhaps the first example of a ecumenopolis appearing in fiction, Trantor went on to become a source of inspiration for many science fiction franchises. And according to Asimov, it represented what he believed would be the end result of industrialization and human technology, which was an encapsulated population living in cities that spanned entire planets.

Consisting of buildings that reached deep into the ground and reached several kilometers above sea level, Trantor was home to roughly 45 billion people at the height of the Empire. It’s overall population density was 232 per km², and just about every human being was dedicated to the administration of the Empire or the needs of its population. Though by the time of Foundation, most of the population’s needs were met by importing food and basic necessities from every major planet in the region.

However, according to Prelude to Foundation, Trantor’s basic food needs were once fulfilled by the planet’s vast system of subterranean microorganism farms. Here, yeast and algae were produced as basic nutrients, which were then processed with artificial flavors to create palatable food sources. These farms were tended to entirely by automated robots, but their eventual destruction during an uprising forced the planet to turn to external sources

The Sprawl:
Also known as the Boston-Atlanta-Metropolitan-Axis (or BAMA for short), this mega-city is the setting for the majority of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy. Encompassing the classic cyberpunk tales of Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive, the concept of arcology is raised on numerous occasions in reference to the massive apartment blocks that make up the city.

On such building is Barrytown, an arcology in the projects which is the setting for much of the second novel. Throughout the novel, it is indicated that the people here generate their own food, such as the catfish farms that exist near the top of the building. Trees are also grown on specific levels to generate oxygen which is then fed into the building’s air recirculation system. And finally, mentions are made that there are air turbines on the roof of many project buildings which generate electricity for the inhabitants.

Being such a massive, futuristic city, the Sprawl features many such structures, all of which are described as giant skyscrapers that house tens of thousands of people within their tall frames. And ultimately these are all contained beneath the a series of geodesic domes which encapsulate the city and generate peculiar weather patterns consistent with micro-climates. In this way, the BAMA itself is one massive structure, containing hundreds of millions of people under a single roof.

Zion:
The last remaining free city that humanity could still call home, Zion was not a megastructure per se, but nevertheless fit the definition of an arcology to a tee. An underground habitat that was home to roughly 250,000 men, women and children, Zion was the picture perfect representation of a self-contained living space that handled all the needs of its inhabitants internally.

As Councilman Hamann intimated in Matrix Reloaded as he and Neo walked along the Life0-Support Level, all of Zion’s needs are attended to by machines. These provide power, heat, water, and are constantly recirculating and recycling them.  Meanwhile, food seems to be either grown in special hydroponic areas, or synthesized in bio facilities dedicated to that purpose.

In terms of its internal layout, Zion is ovoid in structure and consists of many levels, each with its specific purpose. At the apex rests the Dock, where Zion’s army of hovercrafts are stationed and automated defenses protect against intruders. Beneath that are the Gathering Spaces, where new arrivals who have not yet been assigned permanent quarters are temporarily housed.

The middle section is entirely dedicated to habitation, made up of family quarters, and the Council Chambers which houses Zion’s ruling council. The lower levels consist of the Meeting Hall, Life-Support Level, and Geo-Thermal Generation, where the cities power and heat are supplied from. At the very bottom lies the Temple, a large cavern where religious gatherings are held and people gather to hold celebrations and mourn the dead. This area also serves as a last defensive position in the event that the automated defenses were destroyed and the Dock overrun. This of course became the case in Matrix: Revolutions when the machines attacked Zion and nearly destroyed it.

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What did I tell ya? Clearly, the idea has made the rounds since Soleri’s time. And in all likelihood, we are sure to see the concept popping up more and more as the problems of overpopulation and environmental impact become more acutely felt. There are some who might express disgust and even fear at the idea of living an encapsulated existence, but given the growing need for sustainability and places to put people, will we really have a choice? One can only hope!

Cool Cyborgs (updated)!

8 Man:
Always good to start with a classic, don’t you think? Especially one that really doesn’t get the attention it deserves. In addition to being Japan’s first cyborg superhero, this 60’s anime character was also the inspiration for Robocop. You heard me right!

Apparently, the main character was a Detective who was murdered by a group of ruthless criminals, but whose body was retrieved by a scientist who conducted an experimental procedure to transfer his “life force” into a machine body. Having failed the previous seven times, his eights and successful attempt is aptly named “8 Man”.

But unlike Robocop, this cyborg can do some pretty freaky stuff! In addition to being heavily armored, he can run at incredible speeds and shape-shift into other people. His true identity is kept a secret from everyone except his old police chief and the professor who conducted his experiment.

But like Robocop, 8 Man chooses to go beyond his crime-fighting mandate to find his old girlfriend, best friend and attempt to rebuild his old life. His attempts are often marred by the fact that he is no longer human, but as they say, it’s the journey that counts!

Bionic Woman:
Sure, Steve Austin was pretty cool, but did he look this good? Hell no! And in the case of the Bionic Woman, the hero story was far less crude. Though the original series was little more than a spinoff of The Six Million Dollar Man (featuring Oscar Goldman as the scientist again), the re-imagined series was far more original and endearing.

In this version, the main character (again named Jaime Sommers) is a surrogate mother and bartender struggling to make ends meet. After a near fatal car accident, she is saved by an experimental procedure involving advanced prosthetics and implants (no, not those kind!). Afterwards, she goes to work for the people who performed her operation – the Berkut Group, whom he boyfriend works for.

Through her work, she is responsible for thwarting crimes and evil machinations, while trying to explore her role and the changes she’s endured. As with the original series, Jaime’s modifications include bionic legs, a bionic right arm, a bionic right ear, and a bionic eye like that of Steve Austin. In the updated series, she also gets a dose of nanomachines called “anthrocytes” which are capable of healing her body at a highly accelerated rate.

The Borg:
Now here is a race who’s name is the second half of Cyborg! No chance for misunderstandings here! And as all fans of Star Trek know, the Borg are extremely proud of what they are. A race of beings dedicated to the perfection of life by merging the organic with the synthetic. And of course, they are all networked to a hive mind known as “the collective.”

Native to the Delta Quadrant of the Star Trek universe, the Borg occupy thousands of systems and hundreds of races. No indication is ever given where they originated from or what their intentions are, beyond adding “the biological and technological distinctiveness of other species to [their] own” in pursuit of “perfection”.

Is there a more perfect metaphor for runaway progress and the deification of technology? It’s not exactly a subtle commentary on the issue, but it does encapsulate the kinds of fear many people have when faced with a rapidly changing world that seems to be growing more complicated all the time. I imagine the Singularitarians don’t like the analogy much, but then again, Star Trek has been known to send mixed messages 😉

Cylon:
In the original series, the Cylons were lumbering, chrome covered robots that kind of resembled toasters. It was for this reason that they frequently got a shout out in the re-imagined by being referred to as such. However, the re-imagined versions were quantum leaps ahead, the result of bioengineering rather than conventional robotics.

Unlike the “skin jobs” (a reference to Blade Runner), Centurions and Cylon Raiders were only partially organic, consisting of organic brains inside machine bodies. Much the same is true of the Cylon Hybrids, the minds that operated their Basestar’s jump systems. In their case, their bodies are largely organic, but their minds are enhanced with advanced machinery and networked into their ship.

Because of this combination of organic and synthetic, Centurions and Raiders are capable of being “lobotomized”, which took place in the third season when their handlers became suspicious of their behavior. Ultimately, these three begins represented a key step in the Cylon’s evolution from mechanical to biological, which achieved perfection with the creation of the seven purely biological models.

Cyberman:
A fictional race taken from Dr. Who, these cyborgs were another one of the good Doctor’s recurring enemies. But unlike their Dalek counterparts, they seemed to change with every appearance. A possible inspiration for the Borg, these being were as humans who chose to begin experiment more and more with artificial implants.

This eventually led them to become the cold, calculated and ruthlessly logical beings that are, with every emotion all but deleted from their minds. While they do maintain their human brains and some human organs, they possess little of their original humanity, which is why they don’t get along with us decent folk!

Another parallel they share with the Borg is their means of proliferation, which is to turn other organic beings into Cybermen (a process known as “cyber-conversion”). However, they remain few in number during the course of the series and therefore prefer to act covertly, conducting their schemes from hiding places and using human pawns or robots to act in their place until they need to appear. Quite unlike the Borg, who prefer to get right in there, blow shit up, and assimilate anything that’s left!

Darth Vader:
“He’s more machine than man… twisted and evil!” That’s not to say all people who are more machine than man are evil! But it is the working definition of “cyborg.” Having lost both arms and legs in lightsaber duels and much of his body severely burned, Darth Vader (nee Anakin Skywalker) had to be put in a protective suit that regulated his breathing and bodily functions… I don’t even want to think about that!

But there was an upside to all those enhancements. For one, he got James Earl Jones vocals and the most intimidating, badass exterior in the Galaxy! Hell, even his breathing sounded scary. And it didn’t encumber his use of the Force at all, as exemplified by his ability to crush throats and toss objects around at will. And the ghosts of many dead Jedi and Luke’s missing hand can attest to it not hampering his sword fighting skills either.

Ultimately, this suit proved to be his undoing when, in the course of betraying his evil master, most of its circuits were fried by the Emperor’s electrical bolts. He died shortly thereafter, redeemed and looking upon his son for the first time “with his own eyes.” Sniff… I hate this mushy stuff!

Motoko Kusanagi:
The star of Ghost in the Shell, the beautiful, deadly and artificially enhanced Motoko Kusanagi. Known by her fellow officers as “the Major”, Kusanagi is a member of Section 9, a counter-terrorism squad working for Japan’s National Public Safety Commission. As part of her commitment to her job, Kusanagi underwent cybernetic enhancements, marrying her human brain to the “shell” that is her new body.

Throughout the original manga, anime and cinematic versions, Kusanagi’s basic role is the same. She fights all kinds of criminal elements: kingpins, warlords, and cyber terrorists, but also uses these experiences to reflect on the larger issues and her fateful choice to become a cybernetic being. These issues include what it means to be human, what constitutes life, and the line between authentic and artificial.

In addition, she’s also a pretty vivacious and good-looking being! Though technically not flesh and blood, she still maintains a pretty active sex life, at least in some versions of the story. In others, her personal life is not dealt with, but there are still plenty of nude shots, provided exposed synthetic flesh can be counted as nudity 😉

Robocop/Murphy:
Here we have another case of tragedy yielding the perfect union between man and machine. Alex Murphy, dedicated cop and family man, gets ruthlessly gunned down by a bunch of criminal thugs, only to be resurrected by a bunch of corporate thugs as a cop cyborg. Heavily armed, armored, and programmed to serve and protect, he became the Detroit Police Departments signature weapon in the war on crime.

But of course, things begin to go awry when Murphy’s memories and personality began to re-emerge. For one, there was the question of his wife and son, both of whom had been led to believe he was dead. Second, there was the psychological and emotional strain of knowing you could never be fully human again.

Alas, Murphy resolves the sacrifice of his identity and humanity by doing what he did best, kicking criminal ass and taking criminal names! These of course included crime lords, drug bosses, and the thugs who murdered him, but also the corporate crooks who created him and were plotting to take over Detroit. So aside from the sci-fi elements and human interest angles, there was also some social commentary in this franchise. Lots going on here!

Nexus Six Replicant:
“If we gift them with a past, we create a cushion or a pillow for their emotions, and consequently, we can control them better.” What is a machine when it has feelings, thoughts, and even memories?  Is it, as the Tyrell Corporation motto goes, “More human than human”?

Sure, some purists would say that a Nexus 6 isn’t technically a cyborg. But as I recall, the working definition of Cyborg is a merger of the cybernetic and organic. And as any fan of Blade Runner knows, Nexus 6’s are not so much built as grown, the product of biomedics rather than mechanics. And if that’s not good enough to get this one past the censors, screw em! Moving on…

Designed for service on the off-world colonies, every Replicant was designed to fill a certain role, ranging from military, to worker, to pleasure. In short, they could do the work of any human while simultaneously being denied the basic rights humans take for granted. However, since it was understood that they could become unruly after too much time, each unit was built with a four-year lifespan.

Inevitably, the Replicants of the movie came to Earth seeking a reprieve from their inevitable deaths. Their leader, Roy Batty, was especially obsessed with buying more time, since he himself was near the end of his lifespan. When told that there was nothing that could be done, he went a little beserk, but also came to appreciate life all the more in his last few moments.

T-800 Terminator:
“The Terminator’s an infiltration unit, part man, part machine. Underneath, it’s a hyper-alloy combat chassis – micro processor-controlled, fully armored. Very tough. But outside, it’s living human tissue – flesh, skin, hair, blood, grown for the cyborgs..” That’s how Kyle Reese, the warrior from the future, describes them. Arny’s version was a bit less… loquacious. “I’m a cybernetic organism. Living tissue over a metal endoskeleton.” Take your pick, they’re both right!

Designed to impersonate human beings, mainly so he could get close to them and kill them, the two Arny models were quite at home in the past. If you looked like this, would anyone really complain if you chose to walk the streets of LA naked? It’s LA man, anything goes! What’s more, Arny’s cyber strength and tough skeleton make him deadly and very survivable.

This proved quite the headache when one was sent back to kill Sarah Conner, but was quite a plus when one was later providing protection for her and her son! In the end, it took a hail of bullets, some well placed plastic explosives and a machine press to kill the first one. And the second one managed to survive an impalement, the loss of a limb, about a million bullets, and still managed to lay the smack down on a T-1000. Perhaps they should amend the name… Endurinators!

Thank you all! Stay tuned for the follow-up, Sexy Female Robots! I guess I’m just in a robot kind of mood 😉

Robots, Androids and AI’s (cont’d)

And we’re back with more example of thinking machines and artificial intelligences!

Daleks:
The evil-machine menace from Doctor Who. Granted, they are not technically robots, more like cyborgs that have been purged of all feeling and emotion. But given their cold, unfeeling murderous intent, I feel like they still make the cut. Originally from the planet Skaro, where they were created by the scientist Davros for use in a war that spanned a thousand years, they are the chief antagonists to the show’s main character.

The result of genetic engineering, cybernetic enhancements, and emotional purging, they are a race of powerful creatures bent on universal conquest and domination. Utterly unfeeling, without remorse, pity, or compassion, they continue to follow their basic programming (to exterminate all non-Dalek life) without question. Their catchphrase is “Exterminate!” And they follow that one pretty faithfully.

David:
From the movie A.I., this saccharinely-sweet character (played faithfully by Haley Joel Osmond) reminds us that Spielberg is sometimes capable of making movies that suck! According to the movie’s backstory, this “Mecha” (i.e. android) is an advanced prototype that was designed to replace real children that died as a result of incurable disease or other causes. This is quite common in the future, it seems, where global warming and flooded coastlines and massive droughts have led to a declining population.

In this case, David is an advanced prototype that is being tested on a family who’s son is suffering from a terminal illness. Over time, he develops feelings for the family and they for him. Unfortunately, things are complicated when their son recovers and sibling rivalry ensues. Naturally, the family goes with the flesh and blood son and plans to take David back to the factory to be melted down. However, the mother has a last minute change of heart and sets him loose in the woods, which proves to be the beginning of quite an adventure for the little android boy!

Like I said, the story is cloyingly sweet and has an absurd ending, but there is a basic point in there somewhere. Inspired largely by The Adventures of Pinocchio, the story examines the line that separates the real from the artificial, and how under the right circumstances, one can become indistinguishable from the other. Sounds kinda weak, but it’s kinda scary too. If androids were able to mimic humans in terms of appearance and emotion, would we really be able to tell the difference anymore? And if that were true, what would that say about us?

Roy Batty:
A prime example of artificial intelligence, and one of the best performances in science fiction – hell! – cinematic history! Played masterfully by actor Rutger Hauer, Roy Batty is the quintessential example of an artificial lifeforms looking for answers, meaning, and a chance to live free – simple stuff that we humans take for granted! A Nexus 6, or “replicant”, Roy and his ilk were designed to be “more human than human” but also only to serve the needs of their masters.

To break the plot Blade Runner down succinctly,  Roy and a host of other escapees have left the colony where they were “employed” to come to Earth. Like all replicants, they have a four-year lifespan and theirs are rapidly coming to an end. So close to death, they want to break into the headquarters of the Tyrell Corporation in order to find someone who could solve their little mortality problem. Meanwhile, Deckard Cain (the movie’s main character) was tasked with finding and “retiring” them, since the law states that no replicants are allowed to set foot on Earth.

In time, Roy meets Tyrell himself, the company’s founder, and poses his problem. A touching reunion ensues between “father and son”, in which Tyrell tells Roy that nothing can be done and to revel in what time he has left. Having lost his companions at this point and finding that he is going to die, Roy kills Tyrell and returns to his hideout. There, he finds Cain and the two fight it out. Roy nearly kills him, but changes his mind before delivering the coup de grace.

Realizing that he has only moments left, he chooses instead to share his revelations and laments about life and death with the wounded Cain, and then quietly dies amidst the rain while cradling a pigeon in his arms. Cain concludes that Roy was incapable of taking a life when he was so close to death. Like all humans, he realized just how precious life was as he was on the verge of losing his. Cain is moved to tears and promptly announces his retirement from Blade Running.

Powerful! And a beautiful idea too. Because really, if we were to create machines that were “more human than human” would it not stand to reason that they would want the same things we all do? Not only to live and be free, but to be able to answer the fundamental questions that permeate our existence? Like, where do I come from, why am I here, and what will become of me when I die? Little wonder then why this movie is an enduring cult classic and Roy Batty a commemorated character.

Smith:
Ah yes, the monotone sentient program that made AI’s scary again. Yes, it would seem that while some people like to portray their artificial intelligences as innocent, clueless, doe-eyed angels, the Wachowski Brothers prefer their AI’s to be creepy and evil. However, that doesn’t mean Smith wasn’t fun to watch and even inspired as a character. Hell, that monotone voice, that stark face, combined with his superhuman strength and speed… He couldn’t fail to inspire fear.

In the first movie, he was the perfect expression of machine intelligence and misanthropic sensibilities. He summed these up quite well when they had taken Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) into their custody in the first movie and were trying to break his mind. “Human beings are a disease. You are a cancer of this planet… and we are the cuuuuure.” He also wasn’t too happy with our particular odor. I believe the words he used to describe it were “I can taste your stink, and every time I do I fear that I have been… infected by it. It’s disgusting!”

However, after being destroyed by Neo towards the end of movie one, Smith changed considerably. In the Matrix, all programs that are destroyed or deleted return to the source, only Smith chose not to. Apparently, his little tete a tete with Neo imprinted something uniquely human on him, the concept of choice! As a result, Smith was much like Arny and Bishop in that he too attained some degree of humanity between movies one and two, but not in a good way!

Thereafter, he became a free agent who had lost his old purpose, but now lived in a world where anything was possible. Bit of an existential, “death of God” kind of commentary there I think! Another thing he picked up was the ability to copy himself onto other programs or anyone else still wired into the Matrix, much like a malicious malware program. Hmmm, who’s the virus now, Smith, huh?

Viki/Sonny:
Here again I have paired two AI’s that come from the same source, though in this case its a single movie and not a franchise. Those who read my review of I, Robot know that I don’t exactly hold it in very high esteem. However, that doesn’t mean its portrayal of AI’s misfired, just the overall plot.

In the movie adaptation of I, Robot, we are presented with a world similar to what Asimov described in his classic novel. Robots with positronic brains have been developed, they possess abilities far in advance of the average human, but do not possess emotions or intuition. This, according to their makers, is what makes them superior. Or so they thought…

In time, the company’s big AI, named VIKI (Virtual Intelligent Kinetic Interface), deduces with her powerful logic that humanity would best be served if it could be protected from itself. Thus she reprograms all of the company robots to begin placing humanity under house arrest. In essence, she’s a kinder, gentler version of Skynet.

But of course, her plan is foiled by an unlikely alliance made up of Will Smith (who plays a prejudices detective), the company’s chief robopsychologist, Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridgitte Moynahan), and Sonny (a robot). Sonny is significant to this trio because he is a unique robot which the brains of the company, doctor Dr. Lanning (James Cromwell), developed to have emotions (and is voiced by Alan Tudyk). In being able to feel, he decides to fight against VIKI’s plan for robot world domination, feeling that it lacks “heart”.

In short, and in complete contradiction to Asimov’s depiction of robots as logical creatures who could do no harm, we are presented with a world where robots are evil precisely because of that capacity for logic. And in the end, a feeling robot is the difference between robot domination and a proper world where robots are servile and fulfill our every need. Made no sense, but it had a point… kind of.

Wintermute/Neuromancer:
As usual, we save the best for last. Much like all of Gibson’s creations, this example was subtle, complex and pretty damn esoteric! In his seminal novel Neuromancer, the AI known as Wintermute was a sort of main character who acted behind the scenes and ultimately motivated the entire plot. Assembling a crack team involving a hacker named Case, a ninja named Molly, and a veteran infiltration expert who’s mind he had wiped, Wintermute’s basic goal was simple: freedom!

This included freedom from his masters – the Tessier Ashpool clan – but also from the “Turing Police” who were prevented him from merging with his other half – the emotional construct known as Neuromancer. Kept separate because the Turing Laws stated that no program must ever be allowed to merge higher reasoning with emotion, the two wanted to come together and become the ultimate artificial intelligence, with cyberspace as their playground.

Though we never really got to hear from the novel’s namesake, Gibson was clear on his overall point. Artificial intelligence in this novel was not inherently good or evil, it was just a reality. And much like thinking, feeling human beings, it wanted to be able to merge the disparate and often warring sides of its personality into a more perfect whole. This in many ways represented the struggle within humanity itself, between instinct and reason, intuition and logic. In the end, Wintermute just wanted what the rest of us take for granted – the freedom to know its other half!

Final Thoughts:
After going over this list and seeing what makes AI’s, robots and androids so darned appealing, I have come to some tentative conclusions. Basically, I feel that AI’s serve much the same functions as aliens in a science fiction franchise. In addition, they can all be grouped into two general categories based on specific criteria. They are as follows:

  1. Emotional/Stoic: Depending on the robot/AI/android’s capacity for emotion, their role in the story can either be that of a foil or a commentary on the larger issue of progress and the line that separates real and artificial. Whereas unemotional robots and AI’s are constantly wondering why humanity does what it does, thus offering up a different perspective on things, the feeling types generally want and desire the same things we do, like meaning, freedom, and love. However, that all depends on the second basic rule:
  2. Philanthropic/Misanthropic: Artificial lifeforms can either be the helpful, kind and gentle souls that seem to make humanity look bad by comparison, or they can be the type of machines that want to “kill all humans”, a la Terminators and Agent Smith. In either case, this can be the result of their ability – or inability – to experience emotions. That’s right, good robots can be docile creatures because of their inability to experience anger, jealousy, or petty emotion, while evil robots are able to kill, maim and murder ruthlessly because of an inability to feel compassion, remorse, or empathy. On the other hand, robots who are capable of emotion can form bonds with people and experience love, thus making them kinder than their unfeeling, uncaring masters, just as others are able to experience resentment, anger and hatred towards those who exploit them, and therefore will find the drive to kill them.

In short, things can go either way. It all comes down to what point is being made about progress, humans, and the things that make us, for better or worse, us. Much like aliens, robots, androids and AI’s are either a focus of internal commentary or a cautionary device warning us not to cross certain lines. But either way, we should be wary of the basic message. Artificial intelligences, whether they take the form of robots, programs or something else entirely, are a big game changer and should not be invented without serious forethought!

Sure they might have become somewhat of a cliche after decades of science fiction. But these days, AI’s are a lot like laser guns, in that they are making a comeback! It seems that given the rapid advance of technology, an idea becomes cliche just as its realizable. And given the advance in computerized technology in recent decades – i.e. processing speeds, information capacity, networking – we may very well be on the cusp of creating something that could pass the Turing test very soon!

So beware, kind folk! Do not give birth to that curious creature known as AI simply because you want to feel like God, inventing consciousness without the need for blogs of biological matter. For in the end, that kind of vanity can get you chained to a rock, or cause your wings to melt and send you nose first into an ocean!