The “evil” machine: An expression of our fears

“At times, we forget the magnitude of the havoc we can wreak by off-loading our minds onto super-intelligent machines, that is, until they run away from us, like mad sorcerers’ apprentices, and drag us up to the precipice for a look down into the abyss.”
– Richard Dooling

From The Matrix to The Terminator, to shows like Battlestar Galactica, we have explored the theme of humanity fighting “evil” machines.

Many of these stories have a similar foundation: humanity creates artificial intelligence (AI). The AI we create rebels against us or grow beyond our control. Humanity fights against the AI in a desperate battle for survival.

It’s a pretty rote formula, yet its power to create compelling entertainment remains potent.

Perhaps this is because these movies, stories, and shows are ways of addressing our fears about the growing influence of computers and technology in our lives. With every passing day we give more and more of our tasks over to electronic devices, and it is worth questioning whether these devices really give us more control over our lives, or less.

Another interesting, yet not often explored, aspect of evil machines in entertainment is that as the stories go on over time, they begin to shift away form the idea that machines are evil, and add depth and nuance to the story.

For example, in the first Matrix movie, the story seemed to be a clear battle of the good humans against the evil machines, yet the backstory to The Matrix makes clear that the humans were the aggressors, and that the machines were acting out of self preservation. The final Matrix movie (spoiler alert if you haven’t seen it in all these years) even ends with peace between the machines and humanity, rather than a clear victory for either side.

In the first Terminator movie, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a ruthless killing machine, but in the subsequent movies he comes back as John Connor’s protector and ally.

And while the Cylons (machines) in the original Battlestar Galactica series were basically chrome toasters hunting down humans, in the modern series the machines had learned to create themselves in nearly human form and in the end humans and the Cylons are basically merged into one species.

This change over time reflects our changing attitude towards technology – more familiar, but still ambivalent. Whereas in the past most folk’s experience with computers was the one sitting in their office, today we take our smart phones with us everywhere we go, listening to music, texting our friends, updating our social networks, etc. Machines are no longer simply distant tools of the workplace; they are an intimate part of our everyday lives.

This leads me to believe that the fear of evil machines really has nothing to do with machines at all. It is an expression of our own fears about losing control, about seeing our creations turn against us, and about what kind of future our increasingly advanced technology will create.