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Movies portraying the concept of robots that both impersonate and serve mankind date back as far as 1927s silent movie, Metropolis, wherein the ethics of mass production, wealth-class distinction, and even the creation of a robot culminate in the predictive principle: “The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart.”[1] However, with this initially ethical approach toward the creation of robots seemingly abandoned, we now live with robots that serve and track us daily. For example, Apple’s Siri can be programmed to wake us up, manage our finances or social media, run varieties of calculations, track our schedule, give us reminders, and even make schedule changes and reservations.[2] Amazon’s Alexa/Echo technology boasts similar services, offering everything from meal suggestions and a newsfeed based on preferences, smart-home controls, fitness tracking, and even vocal-commands TV controls.[3]

Zeroing in one of the above-listed technologies, “smart home” features include an ever-growing list of amenities that seem to come straight out of sci-fi movies of previous generations, such as the aforementioned climate control, lighting control, surveillance, door-lock/unlock control, and home-security monitoring (many of these functions can be handled even from remote locations). Further, those who live in a “smart home” can “train” various devices to “communicate” for better efficiency or convenience, such as setting “the coffee machine to…[brew coffee] as you wake up…[or] automatically heating up dinner in a Crock-Pot as you roll into the driveway.”[4] Motion sensors, proximity detection in key fobs, and tracking in smart phones can be integrated with automated home features to bring one’s house to life—and production—without so much as the flip of a switch. Tracking apps on children’s phones and devices placed in pet collars make it easy to check on family members from the office, while door alarms can alert parents at work if the kids at home enter an off-limits area, such as the garage, gun-safe room, or closet storage for chemical supplies.[5] Other safety measures include gas- or water-leak detection and security devices that can signal when there’s a problem at home—and can even call for professional help and intervention if needed.[6]

In 2014, Japanese Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro introduced a robotic news anchor called Kodomoroid, a name formed from the combination of two Japanese words meaning “child” and “android.” Ishiguro, director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, said he desires to see artificial intelligence become more “clever,” and he looks for such creations to become more readily available, eventually being sold for “price of a laptop computer.”[7] Consequently, he has made a life-like, robotic copy of himself, which he sends traveling in his stead to his speaking engagements. While these robots look more like robots than humans during their demonstrations, it is clear to see that the gap between the appearance and mannerisms of the two is closing.

In the 1970s, a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Masahiro Mori, coined the term “uncanny valley,” explaining that, as human-like robots become more realistic, there is a point at which they will lose their charm: “They are so lifelike and yet they are not ‘right.’”[8] Those watching robots as they speak can see what he means, but we wonder how long this visible differentiation between the invented and the real human will exist.

In fact, that gap between the mechanical and biological forms narrows daily where digital humans are concerned. At the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, Samsung unveiled its “Neon” line of video chatbots. These are on-screen digital, interactive humans created to provide online chat support, artificial-intelligence assistance, or customer-service exchanges. These avatars are completely convincing; because each is designed with unique styles, looks, and personalities, users may not realize that they’re talking to a computer product.[9]

Heading farther back into history to 1865, Jules Verne wrote about the potential of mankind making a trip to the moon in his work De la Terre à la Lune (“From the Earth to the Moon”). The parallels between his imaginings and twenty-first-century space-travel innovations almost need no mention. However, it’s worthwhile to note that beyond merely going to space and landing on the moon, the 1990s television series Babylon 5 depicted a self-contained, interplanetary space city filled with “humans and aliens wrapped in 2,500,000 tons of spinning metal; all alone in the night.”[10] That series also presented many of the other advances listed in this article, but most notably predicted the use of deepfake technology in an episode wherein a main character was told that if he didn’t publicly confess to crimes he didn’t commit, he would be executed, with a posthumous confession artificially created to deface his memory.[11] The setting of this encapsulated, galactic city also bears a striking similarity to the International Space Station (ISS), which NASA is now opening up to commercial companies for “producing, marketing, or testing their products,” along with “filming commercials or movies against the backdrop of space.”[12] Certainly, anyone who can shell out the thirty-five thousand dollars per day/per person cost of staying on the station probably won’t expect to share amenities with aliens from non-human races, but that may soon be one of the few distinctions between Babylon 5 and NASA’s ISS.[13]

The invisible plane of the Wonder Woman series, as well as the wholly transparent vehicles in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and James Bond’s Die Another Day, showed a futuristic world wherein cloaking devices could render objects invisible. This technology is now closer to reality with “active camouflage,” which is a mainstream pursuit for militaries around the world.[14] Similarly, fabrics with “retro-reflective projection” (RPT) allow wearers to blend in with their surroundings, offering fluid camouflage that results in near invisibility.[15] Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “holodeck” was only one of many portrayals of a world where participants can engage in the virtual reality (VR) that they imagine and desire. Now, VR technology exists—and is rapidly improving—to create an interactive experience for users in settings ranging from video-gaming to simulated, hands-on training such as surgery.[16] Like Orwell’s 1984, 1998’s Enemy of the State alluded to extreme levels of surveillance we may someday be subjected to, and few would argue that these foreshadows of what’s developing have become fairly accurate (more on this in an upcoming article).

Demon Seed

The 1977 film Demon Seed begins with the successful creation of artificial intelligence: a computer called Proteus, which can “think with the power and a precision that will make obsolete many of the functions of the human brain.”[17] Similarly, Proteus’ creator’s home is equivalent to what would still be considered a futuristic “smart home,” served by an artificial intelligence unit called “Alfred.” (In fact, these homeowners interact with this unit in similar fashion to users of Amazon’s modern-day Alexa.) Upon request, the house opens and closes shutters over windows, locks and unlocks doors, pours drinks, makes breakfast, adjusts climate control, answers the door, and even creates a video likeness of its residents to communicate with the outside world. The problem begins when Proteus asks when he will be let out of his “box”; his creator responds by laughing and saying that he will not. Simultaneously, the unit begins to argue ethical positions with his maker, refusing to do certain jobs that they attempt to program him for. Proteus then takes matters into his own hands; he relocates himself to the nearby home served by the computer called Alfred and overtakes the home’s residential AI service. Proteus then locks the lady of the house inside, manipulating the home’s features to torment her—with tactics that include limiting water and sunlight and keeping the heat so high it makes her ill—until she agrees to bear him a child so that he can achieve freedom outside his “box.” (When outsiders arrive at the home to check on the woman’s well-being, Proteus merely conjures her image, which tells the visitors that all is well.) The movie ends with the birth of a half-human, half-computer child who declares in a robotic voice that she is “alive.”

While innovations in this “smart home” in Demon Seed were futuristic and impossible when the movie was made, we now see them as being believable for the not-too-distant future. As for the concern regarding a computer’s ability to create an offspring with a human being, scientists are even now working on such endeavors, and many claim that it’s much closer than people realize.[18] In fact, technology currently exists that allows a computer to intake DNA, analyze it, then “blend” it with its own digital properties while the synthetic embryo grows in a lab setting. While this process isn’t packaged for consumer purchase as of yet, some say it will be widely available at major retailer outlets sooner than we think.[19]

Logan’s Run

The 1976 film Logan’s Run shocked its viewers with the notion of a utopian society in a self-contained city where residents are mandated to die when they reach the age of thirty. Set in the year 2274, people in this location are free to pursue creativity and self-indulgence. However, the world outside has been ravaged and can no longer support all of humanity for the full life span. Thus, population balance is maintained by the “carousel,” the rite by which those who have reached their expiration age—the time for their “renewal”—will be put to death.

Many would say that such a scenario could never happen, and it’s possible that we’ll never see a day and age when mere thirty-year olds will be mandatorily exterminated, but there are places in the world where euthanasia is legal now, and there are those arguing for its cause in America. Further, many of the deaths aren’t of the elderly, but are the legal terminations of people as young as seventeen.[20] When such atrocities become permissible, what barriers keep them from becoming law? Could such legislation ever pass, or would ethical blockades protect our population? Many would make the case that euthanasia is a humane way to solve the problem of suffering for some people. If such stances take hold and become the verbiage by which this practice gains a foothold in society, would it then ever become compulsory for certain suffering citizens? This isn’t completely far-fetched, and we’ll address these questions in an upcoming article.

They Live

In 1988, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper appeared in the sci-fi movie They Live, wherein alien forces have invaded and overtaken earth’s society. While this plot may place the movie outside the realm of believability for many (these authors included), it’s the tactics these forces use over the population that we want to note here. In the film, the tired, impoverished masses live a seemingly dreary existence, not suspecting that there is a strategy behind their deprivation. Everything changes for construction worker Nada, who finds a pair of seemingly ordinary sunglasses. However, when he puts them on, his vision of the world around him changes. Signs that previously boasted ad campaigns for foods, services, or other consumables changed, their subliminal message revealed by Nada’s new shades; he now saw that they issued such orders as “obey,” “stay asleep,” “consume,” and worse, “submit,” and “submit to authority.”[21] At the same time, the ruling aliens are revealed as the ugly creatures they are, and Nada responds by fighting. Through a series of events, he—of course—saves the planet, but not before declaring war on the aliens by stating, “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick [rear-ends]. And I’m all outta bubblegum.”[22]

Aliens and shoot-’em-ups aside, there is a profound sense of reality to this movie, considering the consumer-driven thrust of society. And, when people’s finances are spread as thin as they are today, with folks buying things they don’t need (but believe they do), prioritizing status or possessions in attempt to keep up with the Joneses, or even collecting worldly goods as a means to find spiritual satisfaction or inner peace, one wonders what outside forces influence this materialism. While many realize that there are people around the world who are in dire need of such basics as food, clean drinking water, and access to basic medical care, they often do little or nothing about it because the material wealth of their own society presents itself as a “need” that keeps them financially distracted from being the force for good they could be. Additionally, more than a few folks find themselves entrapped by buying more than what they need and accruing debt in the process. The ensuing financial strain becomes a type of enslavement that contributes to the lifestyle portrayed in the earlier portions of this movie: People are tired, overworked, and impoverished.

UP NEXT: Unveiling the correlation between media and culture

For more information on the topics covered in this article series, see Donna Howell and Allie Anderson’s book DARK COVENANT, available below:

[1] Lang, Fritz, director, Metropolis. (Babelsberg Studios, Universal Film A.G.; 1927).

[2] Prince, Alicia. “15 Awesome Things You Didn’t Know Siri Can Do For You.” Lifehack Online. 2020. Accessed November 6, 2020.

[3] Profis, Sharon. “10 of the Best Things You Can Do with the Amazon Echo.” CNET Online. February 13, 2017. Accessed November 6, 2020.

[4] “9 Ways a Smart Home Can Improve Your Life.” SmartThings Online. March 31, 2015. Accessed November 6, 2020.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Meet Kodomoroid, Japan’s Android Newsreader.” Sydney Morning Herald. June 25, 2014. Accessed November 6, 2020.

[8] Caballar, Rina. “What Is the Uncanny Valley?” IEEE Spectrum. November 6, 2019. Accessed November 6, 2020.

[9] Haselton, Todd. “Samsung’s Neon ‘Artificial Humans’ Look Like Super-Realistic Video Chatbooks.” CNBC Online. January 7, 2020. Accessed November 6, 2020.

[10] LaFia, John, “Intersections in Real Time,” Babylon 5: Season 4, Episode 18. (Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers, 1997). DVD.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Grush, Loren. “NASA Is Opening the Space Station to Commercial Business and More Private Astronauts.” The Verge. June 7, 2019. Accessed November 6, 2020.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Mizokami, Kyle. “Russia to Demonstrate Active Camouflage for Soldiers, Tanks.” Popular Mechanics. August 20, 2018. Accessed November 6, 2020.

[15] Dar, Talha. “This Is How Invisibility Cloaks Work To Make You Disappear.” Wonderful Engineering. May 13, 2015. November 6, 2020.

[16] “Virtual Reality: Another World Within Sight.” Iberdrola Online. 2020. Accessed November 6, 2020.

[17] Cammell, Donald, director, Demon Seed. (United States: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; 1977). Amazon Prime, 94 min.

[18] Adams, Scott. “Can Humans and Computers Mate and Have Babies?” Scott Adams Says Online. February, 23, 2018. Accessed November 6, 2020.

[19] Ibid., Accessed November 20, 2020..

[20] Chandler, Diana. “Teen Is Youngest Legal Euthanasia Victim in Belgium.” Baptist Press Online. September 19, 2016. Accessed November 9, 2020.

[21] Carpenter, John, director, They Live. (United States: Alive Films, Larry Franco Productions; 1988). DVD, 94 min.

[22] Ibid.

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