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12 Fictional Supercomputers I Hope Never Materialize


  • HAL 9000 from "2001: a space odyssey"

    Well, of course. The godfather of evil AI, from Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's science fiction epic, initially came on as a benevolent co-pilot and ship's first officer, guiding the Discovery on a mission that had been concealed even from its own crew. Bad idea: HAL decides whatever the mission is, it's too important to be shared with a human (read: fallible) crew, and sets out terminating all of them in turn. Evil supercomputer or just bad programming?

    Fortunately for us humans, astronaut David Bowman fights back, and unplugs HAL's higher brain functions in a scene that's as chilling and moving as the death of any flesh-and-blood character. HAL's death cry of "Daisy Bell" is actually a shout-out to the first singing computer, an IBM 7094, as enshrined on the 1962 album "Music from Mathematics."

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  • Marvin (and Eddie) from "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"

    Douglas Adams' cosmic comedy featured not one but two supercomputers of diametrically opposite demeanors: Marvin the Paranoid Android and the on-board ship's computer, Eddie. Marvin, with a "brain the size of a planet," spends his entire existence steeped in loathing and anomie. His resentment for his human handlers was immortalized in a novelty record with the lyrics: "Ten billion logic functions, maybe more / They make me pick the paper up off the floor."

    Eddie, on the other hand, is as cheerful and can-do as Marvin is not, like an eager-to-please airline attendant who just can't leave well enough alone. Both are products of the widely-loathed Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, which hit on the brilliant idea of giving AIs what they called "Genuine People Personalities." Evidently someone forgot to tell them most people don't really want supercomputers that act like people.

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  • AM from Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream"

    Ellison's widely-anthologized 1967 short story is still chilling today, and almost works as a sequel in spirit to "The Forbin Project" (see Slide #6): A supercomputer tasked with fighting a world war has absorbed its enemy computers. AM resents humanity for designing it with nothing but hatred (what else would a war computer be good for?), and now presides over a post-apocalyptic underground complex where it keeps alive the few human beings who remain, only to torment them endlessly. Eventually, only one human being remains, for whom AM devises torments that only a computer could come up with. Yikes. Again, the dangers of an AI taking on human qualities come to mind, as some human qualities aren't always benevolent.

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  • OMM 0910 from George Lucas's "THX-1138"

    On the other hand, maybe too much benevolence is a bad thing, too. Before "Star Wars," even before "American Graffiti," George Lucas created this highly experimental and hallucinatory filmed dystopia, all the more striking for being done on a small budget (exactly $777,777.77) with mostly found locations. His sterile and drug-controlled future world has one spiritual dimension, a sort of cybernetic father-confessor figure named OMM, with whom one communes in a chapel that resembles a phone booth. The feedback one received from OMM was reminiscent of the old AI program ELIZA, where soothing generalities and "but what about you?"-style questions sufficed to convince some people an actual human being was at the other end.

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  • GlaDOS from "Portal"

    The snide, sarcastic supercomputer from the hit video game franchise sounds like an auto-tuned Speak & Spell with a head cold. And at first you'd hardly suspect anything was wrong with her except for maybe her attitude. But over time, she reveals herself to be downright misleading and capricious, and the final conflict between the player and GlaDOS's personality core harkens back to the unplugging of HAL. Seems all those behavioral fail-safe systems installed into her to keep her from killing anyone only made her find cleverer ways to circumvent them.

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  • Colossus from "Colossus: The Forbin Project"

    The "Colossus" of the title, from D.F. Jones' novels and later a movie, is an American supercomputer, encased in a mountain bunker and entrusted with the U.S.'s entire nuclear arsenal. (The later movie "WarGames" picked up on the same idea.) Colossus soon detects the presence of "Guardian," a Soviet computer of the same type, and blackmails its human masters into talking with Guardian by threatening nuclear war. By the end of the story, Colossus and Guardian have merged, declaring itself "the voice of world control," and taking command of, well, everything. "In time," it says, "you will come to regard me not only with respect and awe, but with love." Colossus creator, Dr. Forbin, has one word for that: "Never." Winning hearts and minds, indeed.

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  • Skynet from "The Terminator"

    James Cameron must have had Colossus on the brain when he was writing the screenplay for "The Terminator," as he borrowed some of the same ideas. His story featured Skynet, a massive defense computer also trusted with the world's nuclear weapons, which decides that humanity is a bigger threat than the computers on the other side. One nuclear war later, it's sending robot drones to comb through the wreckage and kill the survivors, even going so far as to send one back in time to kill the mother of the then-unborn human resistance. No discussion of unmanned drones today goes without being at least partly informed by thoughts of the "Terminator" films, but it looks like even Skynet couldn't make a mission of retroactively rewriting the third and fourth movies in the series to not stink.

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  • ARIIA from "Eagle Eye"

    Warning: spoilers!

    Short for Autonomous Reconnaissance Intelligence Integration Analyst, ARIIA (voiced by Julianne Moore) is a DoD supercomputer designed to gather military intelligence that achieves a degree of self-awareness and sets up one of the most preposterously contrived plots in all of movie history. After its own advice about a military operation is ignored and many people are killed, ARIIA uses its power over just about every darn thing in the world to coerce two civilians (Shia LaBeouf and Rosario Dawson) into assassinating the president and thus preventing more ham-handedness at the executive level. Sounds like everyone involved would have done better with PRISM.

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  • Proteus from "Demon Seed"

    Do supercomputers dream of electric babies? Apparently this one did. Give HAL from 2001 the voice of Robert Vaughn with a bad cold, name it Proteus IV, stick it in a high-tech house where he can spy on Julie Christie, and have it attempt to reproduce itself through her, thus opening itself up to the most convoluted paternity suit in history. The underlying idea is actually a fascinating one --a Von Neumann machine made flesh -- but the oh-so-'70s execution of the concept (right down to the 2001-style light show at the end) produces more giggles than chills.

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  • David 8 from "Prometheus"

    The positively suave David 8 (portrayed by actor Michael Fassbender) comes off at first like the ultimate ship's first mate: polite, competent, tireless, and handsome --even if he does have milk for blood. He also has an agenda, which involves putting one over his human masters and discovering for himself the true nature of the alien world-building and life-constructing technology his crew has been sent to look into. Too bad the only thing that makes him into a half-way decent being is having his head ripped off.

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