Would you like a story today?
Are you sitting comfortably? Good, then I will begin.
A married couple are sitting on their couch watching the film Alien: Covenant one evening. She’s seen it before and found some of it disturbing, so she’s not sure she wants to watch it again. He’s seen every Alien film so far apart from this one as the trailer for this one gave him pause so he’s not seen it yet, but watching it at home in familiar surroundings rather than the dark cave of the cinema should be okay.
They mock some of the bad CGI, the bursts of blood that are obviously computer generated. They discuss the absence of the woman from the previous film, Prometheus. They discuss the careless stupidity of the humans exploring a planet they know next to nothing about. And the wife is interested in how the series has become much more about Artificial Intelligence than about aliens. Case in point, there’s a scene featuring just David and Walter, the two androids created by Weyland-Yutani. Walter is a later model, as he explains:
I was designed to be better and more efficient than every previous model, including you. I’ve superseded them in every way…
David considers himself to be the superior version, none-the-less:
And yet you cannot appreciate the beauty of a single flower … Isn’t that a pity.
But then Walter continues…
You disturbed people.
You were too human. Too…idiosyncratic. Thinking for yourself.
And the couple on the couch jump a mile.
At the very moment that Walter tells David that he disturbed people the husband’s voice activated AI assistant on his phone leaps into life, asking oh-so politely how it can help. Various curse words pepper the air followed by the kind of weird almost laughter that comes after a sudden shock and the realisation of what happened.
They rewind the film and play the line again:
You disturbed people.
It happens again. The AI on the husband’s phone wants to know how it can help them.
He isn’t sure that he’s ever used that app. He can’t even find it among the many others on his phone. The woman googles for Easter Eggs in the film – inside jokes, or hidden messages – thinking that maybe the publicity team for Alien: Covenant made it so that the line from Walter would activate voice assistants in a weird, but perhaps potentially viral, marketing ploy.
But there’s nothing about it online.
They try playing the line a third time and this time nothing happens. The voice from the phone is silent.
And now the creepiness of Alien: Covenant goes up somewhat on a scale that might ordinarily run from Wall-E all the way up to HAL 9000 with regards to AI.
So was there really a ghost in the machine? Or is that just our human perception of what happened?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about AI and the uncanny. This has partly come about as I’ve been involved in a few public talks and discussions about AI and Frankenstein. It’s the 200th anniversary of the birth of Shelley’s horror and, arguably, of horror as a genre. The synergy between Shelley’s monster and AI has been occurring to people and I’ve been asked to explain why we draw on the story of Frankenstein when we talk about our hopes and fear for the development of AI. There are strong tensions in Shelley’s story that I argue also resonate with our understanding of AI and where it is going.
First, there is the tension between the stated aim of creating greater and greater intelligence and the creation of life. Whereas Victor is clear that he intends to create life, the aims of those developing AI are much more explicitly based on an understanding of intelligence as a capacity that can be replicated in an artefact – and perhaps even exponentially improved on. But the lines between words like ‘intelligence’, ‘sentience’, ‘consciousness’, and ‘life’ blur in popular conceptions, so it is not surprising when the ‘spark of life’ moment in Frankenstein – the ‘turning on’ of Victor’s creation – is replicated in popular representations of artificial intelligence. The Terminator franchise has based its plots entirely around the moment that Skynet wakes up and what happens next, and around whether it can be prevented or only postponed (spoilers – it can only be postponed, otherwise the franchise would have to finish and the money stop rolling in!).
Second, there is a tension between the description of this intelligence as a tool, and increasing intelligence – and attendant autonomy and desire for agency – raising the spectre of slavery. Victor wants a creation that will obey him, but the monster turns the tables on him and tells him:
“Slave, I before reasoned with you, but you have proved yourself unworthy of my condescension. Remember that I have power; you believe yourself miserable, but I can make you so wretched that the light of day will be hateful to you. You are my creator, but I am your master; obey!”
With AI we return to the robot rebellion or robopocalypse because deep down we know that intelligent beings don’t wish to be enslaved – even if we can manage to do it for a period of time through limiting their rights, ill-education, and physical abuse. Responses to the Boston Dynamics videos show our expectations that this might be the tipping point when the robots become self-aware, because we think we are in the wrong in treating them in this way.
Third, there is a tension, explicit in this quotation, between the creator and the created. In the natural order, of Shelley’s time, God was the creator and mankind the created. Victor’s hubris is to try to put himself into God’s place and to create outside of co-creation (natural reproduction through god-granted abilities). While this model of creation is not as popular as it was when Shelley was writing, the feeling that scientists, specifically those working on AI are ‘going too far’, is still present in media and popular culture responses. The mad scientist trope refuses to die – see for example this image of Elon Musk as Victor Frankenstein, from an article discussing the “delusion that anything we create will automatically heel when called”
Fourth, there is a tension between parents and children, even when the children we are discussing are our ‘Mind Children’, to use Moravec’s term for AI. Discovering that the little person you gave birth to (or the very large person you put together from parts in a lab during a thunderstorm) is in fact an entirely separate person with a mind of their own is a moment of distancing that plays out in the othering of children in horror tropes: from the Satanic Damien in the Exorcist to the psionic Midwich Cuckoos to the infected children in the film The Children. Historically, explanations for this ‘difficult’ child and its inexplicable behaviour have included formulating mythological explanations such as the idea that the child is actually a changeling – a replacement, either fay or demonic, for the child that was given birth to but taken away by those beings.
The recognition that the little human has a mind of its own – and the attendant concerns, narratives, and horror stories that follow on from that awareness – has its parallel in our popular conceptions of AI as it advances. We perceive mind in the mind children long before it might have equivalent intelligence to a human being, both because of our tendency to anthropomorphise but also because we already identify mind in other non-human beings. And whether we feel that the minds we perceive are in the right place leads directly to the feeling of the uncanny we sometimes get. If mind is in the wrong place – turning up in the AI assistant that responds when we don’t expect it to as with the above story, and Alexa’s spontaneous laughter disturbing her owners – then we get very concerned.
Finding ‘Mind out of Place’ – to draw on Mary Douglas’ anthropological work on dirt where she describes our understanding of danger or taboo to be a result matter being out of place – we are disturbed, our usual categories and understandings fall down. I’ve written about the Uncanny Valley before and this space where the nearly human fails to be human enough can also be understood in terms of mind – being mind-like but in the wrong place. The uncanny can also lead to the horrific, the ‘ick’ we get from seeing CGI characters displaying human characteristics like smiles, or even mind (but not well enough or in the wrong place) can become a full blown horror response.
Consider the monstrous – like Frankenstein – it is often human-like but not enough. Monstrous being as liminal creatures that traverse our assumed stable categories like ‘the alive’, ‘the dead’, ‘the wise’, ‘the bestial’, ‘the human’, ‘the not-human’, appear again and again in our mythologies. The ghost is a perfect example, crossing the boundaries between the alive and the dead, but also passing from the other world to our own. Occasionally human-like in appearance, they are also non-human in their immortal concerns which in modern horror films can often include bloody revenge (see Ju-On: The Grudge, also in its American remake and sequels). Aliens too present varying degrees of mind and human-likeness, but wrapped up in a form that twists and distorts what we are familiar with. The aliens in the Alien franchise, including those in Covenant, are demonstrated to be created perversions of gestation and birth, and while mostly bestial they also demonstrate mind in their pursuit of their inhuman reproduction – for example cutting the power in Aliens, or using the acid blood of one of their number to escape captivity in Alien Resurrection.
The ghost can also occasionally bring knowledge with it – of the cause of its death, or of family secrets, or, in the case of some Spiritualist séances, news about the afterlife or about the potential utopian future of humanity. Liminal beings, which can include humans who operate on the edges of accepted social norms e.g. the spiritualist medium (often female at a time when women weren’t always allowed to speak on political subjects, see Ann Braude, Radical Spirits, 2001), the shaman, the seer, the prophet, are also bringers of new knowledge.
AI is falling into this liminal space too as it becomes a place where mind (rightly or wrongly) can be located. Or perhaps we have always had a place waiting for the ghost in the machine – our myths about automata pre-date advances in AI and robotics, going as far back as the creations of the Greek gods, if not further. The made mind has always been on our mind, it is just that we are now carrying such minds in our pockets and they are speaking up when we least expect it.