Artificial Intelligence: A Robot Psyche

Wednesday, 03 August 2005 - 10 minutes to read

Steven Spielberg's Artificial Intelligence takes place in a world a few hundred years into the future (the exact time is not known) when the polar icecaps have melted, flooded the whole earth and left mankind struggling to maintain its way of life. With increasing environmental pressure, legal sanctions against childbirth have been introduced; and as a result, robots provide much of the necessary workforce in society.

Robots are not the crude implementations of machinery we saw in the 20th Century; they are sophisticated pieces of electronics, looking like men or women, with hundreds and hundreds of miles of fiber inside. Capable of interacting with society, they have begun to blur the distinction between man and robot. The blurring of this line between creator and created raises several different questions, among those the question of what responsibilities the creators have towards its creation? With less sophisticated robots, the distinction is clearly visible and it's relevant to treat them as different. But Cybertronics Corporation, under the leadership of Dr. William Hurt - having recently lost a son - bridges the gap between human and robot by building a child robot, which can love.

When Henry Swinton, employee of Cybertronics, is offered to test the new child robot "David" in a pilot experiment, he accepts. His real son, Martin, is in a coma and has been for some time, with doctors being pessimistic about the chances to awaken him and bring him back to life; Henry figures this could be a way to let his wife, Monica, let go of her inhibiting and denying attachment to Martin.

Monica's first reaction to David is violent: David immediately - unconciously, but by programming - taps into her emotions of motherhood, and she reacts repulsively, out of fear of letting go of Martin. David, however, in the state in which he is introduced to the family, does not feel any love towards them. He is as of yet "void" to those emotions; for he sake of the family all those capabilities are locked away until the family decides to keep him and goes through a special "imprinting" protocol, where these patterns are activated. Henry, the father, explains that if a family no longer wants to keep a robot child, it can never be re-imprinted; the attachment is permanent and the robot must be returned to Cybertronics for destruction.

The next few days are trying. Monica deals in frustration with David, who acts in sometimes a typically child-like manner, and sometimes not. Being a totally unemotional robot, he possesses the looks of a real human being, but is lacking in emotional response. This adds a certain tension to the family, because the robot constantly and by design plays on the emotional connections of human beings, and yet not conforming to them. It's like dealing with a totally unpredictable stranger living with you.

Eventually, Monica decides to keep him. She sits down with the robot - David smiling as always - and starts carefully reading a list of words designed to confirm the imprinting process. It is at this point in the movie when we first get to see the amazing transformation in David: As Monica reads the last word - "Monica" - David's eyes change. Hundreds of billions of synapses are suddenly flooded by emotions; parts of emotional understanding and reasongs that were unlocked now spring open and floods his "soul" with one thing only: a genuine love for his mother. "What were those words for, mommy?" he asks her, not realizing that this is the first time he's called her "mommy". Monica, barely containing her tears, whispers back: "Who am I, David?" He leans over and hugs her. "You're my mommy."

From this moment, David tries to deal with his world through his new capabilities of emotional reasonings. Like a child growing up, he attempts to figure out how to know if Monica really loves him. This is all he wants; to be loved back. But for a robot with little experience of society and the ways of the world, this gets a little tricky; especially when he is confronted by the concept of death. He himself having no expiration date, he struggles to grasp if Monica's fifty years is a long time or not.

Early on, Monica gives him a toy so he won't be so lonely: A little teddy bear, a little teddy mini-robot that walks and talks, and in a typical Spielberg-like manner becomes his companion through life. And his life isn't that bad, as long as he can just know for sure how much Monica loves him.

All this changes when Martin suddenly wakes up of his coma.

For children it can be difficult to suddenly have a new little brother or little sister. It means that all of the affection that previously went to them now is largely diverted to the newborn. For Martin, this means waking up to a situation where a robot is competing for mommy's love; for David, this is catastrophic - especially since Martin constantly reminds him of his robot nature, indicating that he is not a real person and therefore mommy can not love him. And this is where David's psyche takes its first serious damage; for if David is a robot, then he can not be loved. But that is unacceptable; without mom's love, he can not exist, since this is his only reason for existing. In trying to solve this complex equation, his psyche begins to split: the emotional self, which needs love, turns against his robotic self and thus denies his very own nature. This develops into feelings of hatred, but interestingly enough not towards Martin, but to Teddy bear; because Teddy is a robot, and thus reminds him of his own robotic nature that he cannot accept.

The situation abruptly changes again, when the rivalry between Martin and David becomes so strong that the family decides to return him to Cybertronics for destruction. Monica, however, strongly reacting to the emotional pull of David, is unable to go through with this and instead abandons him deep in the woods, warning him desperately to stay away from human beings while David finally starts to realize in horror and anguish that he will never see Monica again. In a heartbreaking scene, he watches Monica drive away, as he is left only with Teddy bear as his company -- alone.

How does a child robot deal with this trauma? His robotic synapses search for a solution, and in its cognitive data banks finds one that just might work. While in Monica's bed, Monica once read to him and Martin the story of Pinocchio, whom the Blue Fairy turned into a real live boy. Impossible as it may sound, his reasonings are remarkably accurate for a child with little understanding of how the world works, and with no external impulses to guide and correct him, he sets out on a journey to discover the Blue Fairy; for surely therein lies the great solution to how he can make Monica love him again. If only he can be a real, live boy; then he must be accepted back into the family and then Monica will love him forever.

Cybertronics is, of course, watching with intense scientific curiosity, to see where his motivations may lead him, for never before has any robot set out on a journey to fulfill himself, motivated by dreams and fueled by desire. They provide a little push in the right direction through a secret, encoded message that David finds, ultimately leading him back to the place where he first was created: in an abandoned skyscraper reaching out through the waters in the now lost island of Manhattan.

This is where David's psyche receives it's most serious and fateful dent: An awful awakening to reality. Confronted with Dr. William Hurt - his creator - as well as other "Davids" - machines just like him - he realizes the terrible truth: He is not unique and he is not one of a kind. Faced with this, his synaptic reasonings collapse one by one and folds neatly together into one final insight: There is no Blue Fairy, he will never become a real human being, and Monica will never love him. He eventually surrenders, and tries to commit suicide by falling from the skyscraper, plunging into the ocean waters beneath.

And so David makes his final discovery: Beneath the surface lie the remnants of old New York, with a theme park featuring an exposé over the story of Pinocchio - including, in a strange twist of events, a life-like statue of the Blue Fairy. David, emerging from the waters, takes a hovercraft and goes down there, and by accident becomes trapped under a Ferris wheel that cracks under the weight of centuries of water and rust, and is locked in right in front of his Blue Fairy. And having come this far, hundreds of feet under the ocean surface, in near total darkness - and finally at the one object that he believes will make him real - David's little psyche with no other options left finally and irrevocably locks into the fatal and unbreakable "10 GOTO 10" loop. He starts praying to the Blue Fairy to make him real, and continues to do so, until the seas through the millenias of time eventually freeze over and everything fades into darkness.

The movie doesn't end there, but for the sugar-sweet and highly Kubrick/Spielberg ending, go watch it yourself.

While some people may find the movie somewhat dull and boring (or even extremely so), to me it is fascinating beyond all comprehension, because we get to study a real robotic/electronic brain deal with the world based on the same premissions as we human beings do, and being so unprepared for it ultimately develops a type of split personality that very closely mimics a human psychatric disease. Its little electronic synapses struggles to grasp, identify, parse and transform all the data it receives. Ultimately - faced with an impossible requirement: the need for love and the inability of meeting that need - it locks down into an irreversible loop of internal reasoning. On today's PC computers, such loops merely freezes the computer; in David's case it causes a cognitive inability to act or react in any different way, his thinking now focused upon only one thing for the rest of his existance: In this case, in praying to the Blue Fairy to become a real, live boy; and the only thing that can ever break the loop is if the Blue Fairy statue actually answers his prayer.

It is interesting to see the parallellism between human psyches and robot psyches. Exposed to similar traumas, they both start to malfunction in similar ways. But the created brain still inherits a few properties of its original design: while a human being at some point would see the futility of going on and ultimately losing the will to live; the computer brain locks down in an irreversible loop where the same behavior continues repeatedly, over and over, until all remaining energy cells are spent and it dies.

But the real question is still unanswered: What responsibilities does the creator hold towards his creation? Is David real, or is it only a simulation? Is it right to simply terminate him, given the fact that his psyche still is only a computer program? Or do his emotions, feelings, and his capability to dream somehow guarantee him human rights? How should we deal with this in a situation where we are unable to differentiate between human and robotic life?

In the end, the movie asks us the question "what are we human beings really?" Are we simply biologic programs - infinitely advanced simulations of reasonings and thought through our cells, synapses or DNA - or are we more than that? And that question is left for the viewer to answer himself.

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