Ponderance

(May 2003 - March 2007.) Tama's thoughts on the blogosphere, podcasting, popular culture, digital media and citizen journalism posted from a laptop computer somewhere in Perth's isolated, miniature, urban jungle ...

I,WillBot, and Why the Network is Evil!

Wednesday, July 28, 2004
[This review and following commentary contains spoilers for the film I,Robot. You have been warned!]

I've had a few days to process my conflicting responses to I,Robot, so this post will contain a quick response to the film and then a little bit more on my thoughts about what I,Robot says about bodies, technology and related fears.

Film Review Bit:
If I,Robot is being seen by young audiences who have little or no familiarity with the long history of science fiction literature or films, then this is probably a pretty decent film. Sure, Will Smith overacts for the first half so that his character-detective Del Spooner-will seem to have a deeper and more nuanced quality by the end of the film. Sure, Bridget Moynahan is poorly cast as Susan Calvin, making the strong, intelligent Asimovian character into a tokenistic female off-sider for Will Smith; she seemingly 'accomplishes' something when she learns to shot Will's big gun! That said, the film looks pretty amazing and the future is an interesting visual landscape; the robots look like what I've imagined robots will look like, and the high technology blends into the everyday; it doesn't jut out and proclaim 'look at this cleverly thought up gadget'. The CGI is smooth and the main robot Sonny (is that Sony or Sunny?) is convincing on a Gollumish level (apparently using the same technology as was used to create Gollum). The action sequences explode with well-directed clockwork, and lots of things blow up, get shot and end up in pieces. For a fifteen year old boy, I, Robot probably rocks! However, for anyone who has ever watched more than one or two science fiction films, this film is almost offensively predictable and morphing the interpretation of Asimov's zeroth law into a fascist-like computer-directed nanny culture seemed pretty cheap (you may recall a few months ago I worried that I,Robot would basically use the 'Sentinels' plot from the X-Men comic; I think I might have been right).

Techno-Rant Bit:
What I found most interesting about the film, though, it the implicit issue of robot rights and what or whom is or isn't alive. Sonny, the film's central robotic character (from a motion-captured template, using actor Alan Tudyk of FireFly fame) really does come across as a sympathetic character. From the beginning, we know that a company that advertises their products as 'three laws safe' will have 'products' that aren't safe. Those laws, if you've missed them, are:
1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. [From Asimov, Isaac. I, Robot. 1950. London: Panther, 1968, p. 8.]
While director Alex Proyas admits that, at best, the film was "suggested" by Asimov's writing, the fidelity to the three laws is pretty weak from the first moment. Sonny, we learn, has 'two' positronic brains and while programmed with the laws (presumably in one brain) can choose to ignore them (presumably using the other); this seems a rather second-rate plot point since we never find out what else having two brains might actually do. Sonny's arguments and responses after he is accused of murdering his creator, Dr. Alfred Lanning (played by James Cromwell) are very emotive, while his claims to having had dreams immediately situate him in the human(-like) realm. I wonder if a claim to having dreams acts a bit like a claim to having a soul? Either way, at a metaphoric level, Sonny is a repressed human 'other' by about thirty minutes in.

After justifying his existence and few a useful re-directs, Sonny ends up with the 'good guys' fighting the other NS-5 model robots who appear to have turned evil. Will Smith, in the meantime, has had to get over his anti-robot prejudice and the idea of having a black actor playing a 'racist' anti-robotist did actually work quite well. The film does end on an attempted tear-jerker as we zoom in on Will Smith's hand grasping the white (or translucent) hand of Sonny (people and machines bond; different races metaphorically bond; and we get CGI until the very last second).

For some reason, though, the key issue of bodies was constantly of interest in I,Robot. When we eventually learn that all the 'evil' NS-5s are being controlled by the central AI computer VIKI (Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence), there appear to be two main evil elements: the disembodied (VIKI is the only techno-character who doesn't have her own unique body [even if she is partially embodied as the eyes, ears and brain of the main robotic building]); and the idea of the network (since VIKI is a network[ed]-entity, 'her' control over the other robots is via the futuristic equivalent of wireless or bluetooth technology). VIKI is also 'three laws safe' but with her 'undeniable logic' has interpolated the zeroth law: 'that no robot may not injure humanity or, through inaction allow humanity to come to harm.' VIKI sees human beings hurting each other all the time and concludes that a state where she can contain and control human beings will prevent us hurting each other, thus fulfilling her programming.

When the other NS-5s are not 'talking' with VIKI, they are the model of servitude and manners; when interfacing with VIKI, they suddenly glow red in the chest, suggesting a demonic possession of sorts. And the demon in question turns out to be the central AI who is controlling the NS-5s as her puppets. When VIKI is inevitably defeated (by an alliance between humans, a robot and nanotech, I might add), the NS-5s again return to their servant-like state. Here, I suggest, we see a movement away from 'technology = bad' to 'invisible technology = bad'. Just as the 'evil' internet (which we can't quite 'see') has allowed hackers and mp3/film downloaders to 'flaunt the law', the seemingly disembodied VIKI can use the network to turn 'good' passive, responsive servants into 'bad' human-hating puppets. So, according to I,Robot we don't necessarily need to fear the robots: we need to fear the network(s).

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