November 7, 2016


Over the past 65 years, Artificial Intelligence has been heavily documented in films (check out our interactive experience), and we wondered just how real those depictions were, and whether they will affect us in the real word. For answers to our questions, we asked IEEE Member George K. Thiruvathukal, also a member of the IEEE Computer Society and  Professor of Computer Science at Loyola University, Chicago, about the future of AI and how it has been portrayed in film.

IEEE Transmitter: Do you believe the portrayal of AI in movies is realistic and illustrates where we are or could be in the future? What’s your favorite AI film?

Thiruvathukal: Yes and no to part one of this question. When I think of AI, I think some of the pioneering efforts happened in the TV series Star Trek, and the movie Terminator. Both feature AI with androids that were seemingly “all too human” at the time. I’d say that both of these are among my favorites. I don’t get too much time to watch any of the more recent movies but am convinced that what we say in films/TV as I described is realistic and entirely possible even within most of our lifetimes. The question is only whether they will be human or not quite human.
IEEE Transmitter: How are advances in AI going to help us? How can they harm us?

Thiruvathukal: The present state of AI is to augment human intelligence and especially help us with recall and basic inferencing from large data sets. When we talk about AI, we also need to be talking about the state of related areas, such as machine learning, neuroscience, and robotics. It is this combination of understanding the human brain and being able to mimic other human aspects that will allow AI to be more helpful to us. For example, we presently can use robots to do many tasks that would be otherwise hazardous to humans (e.g. submersibles, drones, etc.)

Of course, any technology can be harmful to us. Terminator is interesting because it deals with AI and its dangers. While some ideas are rather far-fetched (AI returning from the future), it is clear that the future could be fraught with great societal challenges, especially if robots end up in the wrong hands. Even in the right hands, we must ensure that ethics are considered. For example, in warfare, we’ve seen drones of increasing sophistication used to get the “bad guys.” But what will happen when other folks who think they’re the “good guys” get the same technology? It smells like a future (or present) arms race.

IEEE Transmitter: Some films tackle the subject of AI and the medical field, do you think AI has a strong future in medicine and medical technology?

Thiruvathukal: Yes, and this may be one of the best potential uses. With continued advances in robotics and another area, nanotechnology, I think many procedures will eventually be possible with intelligent micro-robots. Given the great danger of performing many surgeries, this would be a welcome breakthrough.  

IEEE Transmitter: In terms of security and plausibility, is it possible that AI could become sentient and take over the human race?

Thiruvathukal: Anything is possible, but as we know with humans, we are more likely to find  ways to (nearly) destroy ourselves. The previous century was dominated by advances in nuclear capabilities, which remain a great threat to humanity. This century will see much more use of intelligent machines (drones are the start). With self-driving vehicles (which were funded by DARPA, the defense department’s research arm), we will see more and more AI and related technology in conflict. As AI becomes more lifelike, I see a scenario unfolding where it blends into human life as opposed to a complete takeover. Given the large number of jobs that many don’t wish to do, robots would blend in nicely.

Explore Hollywood’s take on AI with our interactive journey through the movies.


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