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Are We Catching Up to Pop Culture AI?

What do you picture when you think of artificial intelligence?

For many of us, AI conjures up the images we’ve come to know from pop culture — the sinister takeover by robots capable of independent thought, or the sad tale of a robot boy programmed to love in Spielberg’s epic, A.I.

For all of the tales of self-determining robots, AI with emotions and intelligent bots with jobs (looking at you, C-3PO), surely all of these ideas are just a work of fantasy?

How close can we really be to the AI of pop culture?

As with many other humans, we are fascinated by the idea of what AI might be able to accomplish, so we took some key themes from pop culture AI to see how far we’ve advanced in real life.

Here’s what we found.


One of the major themes repeated throughout many examples of AI in pop culture is self-determination. The story often goes that the AI starts off innocently enough as someone’s experiment with the next great technology, but it keeps quietly learning — learning so much that it develops its own thoughts, preferences, and impulses.

In the 2004 film I, Robot, the world of 2035 sees highly intelligent robots filling public service roles with the purpose of keeping humans safe. Supposedly, everything they do is based in logic and data analysis, a trait Will Smith’s character, Del Spooner hates them for after he is rescued from a car crash, but a 12-year-old girl was left to die due to her survival being statistically less likely.

Logic and analyzing data is seemingly harmless, although the film does show how that can fall down in the face of very “human” decisions, but what happens when decision-making becomes something else? The plot sees robots scheming to take over and remove free will from humans to keep them safe from extinction.

Are we there yet? Well, yes and no. Yes, AI is capable of “machine learning,” thereby progressing and following logic (the decision to take over from humans in I, Robot was based on programming logic to “keep humans safe”). There are many advanced applications being developed right now, such as DeepCoder, a bot which is capable of writing code on its own to solve math problems.

The AI we see today can learn and make decisions, but it is around strict parameters of logic. We’re not likely to see human enslavement by bots anytime soon, although a Vox interview reveals that experts are quite divided as to whether we should be worried about this in the future. Self-determining to take over the world? Not yet, at least…


Another frequent theme in pop culture is the use of cybernetics — where a human has robotic parts fulfilling some body functions through a connection to the human brain. Will Smith’s character in I, Robot is an example, with a cybernetic left arm, lung and ribs.

The question is, could this be possible? Are we there yet with a human/machine merger?

Many researchers feel that it is possible that we will see more in the way of cybernetics in the future, although of course, their use raises ethical questions. For example, what if we had the technology to give a human ability beyond our normal scope? Would that be right?

Today, we do have some degree of human brain-computer interfaces, particularly when used for therapeutic purposes. For example, there are the Deep Brain Electrodes (DBS) used to relieve symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. On this, Kevin Warwick of Coventry University says:

“ However, even here it’s possible to consider using such technology in ways that would give people abilities that humans don’t normally possess—in other words, human enhancement. In some cases, those who have undergone amputations or suffered spinal injuries due to accidents may be able to regain control of devices via their still-functioning neural signals.”

We’re not there yet with the movie version of cybernetics, but there is research being conducted to explore the possibilities.

Are We Catching Up to Pop Culture AI?

Feeling human emotions

If a bot can learn, can it also learn to feel human emotions? We see many examples in pop culture, such as the awakening of the robot, Dolores on Westworld, or the desire for independence from Ava, the robot on Ex Machina.

We’re not there yet with AI having the ability to feel human emotions, but we are trying. There is a concern that AI will need to understand human values in order to respect them — the basis of a project by Foundational Research Institute. Their project aims to discover whether AI can learn value concepts the same way humans do.

A Nerdist article explores the concept of machine consciousness and concludes that whatever it ends up being, it won’t look human. We can draw the comparison with flight — man-made flying machines look nothing like those designed by nature:

“When we think about how humanity will create consciousness, it seems far more likely that this trend will continue. Scientists and engineers will strive to duplicate the human mind through various A.I. technologies, but when they finally cook up consciousness, it won’t be human consciousness, it will be machine consciousness — a consciousness far different from our own.

In other words, when it comes to creating consciousness in machines, people are going to aim for bird but they’re going to hit plane.”

Taking over human jobs

There has been some version of the idea of artificial intelligence taking over human jobs for years. Consider Rosie, the robot from the cartoon The Jetsons or C-3PO, that butler robot from the Star Wars movies.

While the AI we have today doesn’t tend to have the humanoid qualities of those robots, we do have several examples of how AI is taking the place of human operators. Here are just a few:

  • Making investment decisions. Tools like NSR Invest are continuously machine learning, reading patterns and data so that they can make instant investment decisions based on the preferences of the individual investor. Instead of spending a lot of time going through listings to find the perfect opportunity, the bot technology can see it within seconds of it being listed and snap it up.
  • Housekeeping. It’s not quite Rosie or C-3PO, but the Roomba is a good example of AI in action for housework tasks. The original is the vacuum, but others have come out for things like weeding the garden. Somewhat controversially, there are plans for Roomba to do home mapping of user’s homes.
  • Personal assistants. Voice-powered assistants like Siri or Alexa are helping us to play music, make orders or simply to find information.
  • Self-driving cars. Tesla, Google, Toyota and now GM are all working on and improving self-driving car technology. In recent news, the US Senate reached an agreement that paves the way for self-driving cars on public roads. How soon before that Uber or taxi request fetches a self-driving vehicle?

Are We Catching Up to Pop Culture AI?

Source: VisualCapitalist

Causing chaos and/or making war

The idea of chaos or war at the hands of AI is a popular theme in fiction. But how close are we to this as reality?

To begin with, we don’t have AI with independent thought, as mentioned earlier, so any kind of chaos caused has to come from some kind of program logic or malfunction. Here are a few stories pulled from real life though:

  • South Korean woman “attacked” by Roomba. We have to say attacked loosely here — the victim fell asleep on the floor after setting her Roomba and it tried to vacuum up her hair.
  • “Flash crash” of financial markets. In 2010, the Dow Jones crashed very briefly, but could have had grave economic implications for many. This crash was attributed to AI — a trading malware shorting markets. A few years later, a man in London was arrested in connection with the crash.
  • Killer robots. Yes, those are actually here already. South Korea devised a sentry bot known as Super aEgis II. While the aim is not to cause chaos, this robot soldier can lock onto a human-sized target at night from over 2 kilometers away and has a range of over 4 kilometers.

Final thoughts

Big questions remain around the future of AI. We are already starting to incorporate it into apps and tools we use in everyday life — it is not just the realm of the science lab anymore.

We’re seeing jobs replaced by AI and the introduction of technology to take over everyday tasks, but we’re not there with pop culture yet in terms of a true “human” level of intelligence, including independent thought and emotions.

Scientists predict that it’s coming though, here’s a piece from Scientific American to leave off with:

“ Hampering our ability to design general AI is the embarrassing fact that we don’t understand what we mean by “intelligence.” This lack of knowledge makes any predictions of when we will achieve strong AI fraught with uncertainty. Still, it may not be so far away. For the record, most experts believe that strong machine intelligence will arrive before the century is over, assuming current trends continue.”

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