Fear of artificial intelligence doesn’t grow proportionally to the advancement levels of computer technology. There weren’t any Captchas back in the 70′s but that didn’t stop filmmakers from churning out some top-shelf machine uprising flicks during the decade. 2001: A Space Odyssey survived the test of time, but while HAL is an iconic, unforgettable AI character, he is hardly the last word on computer intelligence gone awry. The all but forgotten films Demon Seed and Colossus: The Forbin Project—also from the 70′s—create strong AI antagonists who, though still confined to disembodied terminals, are significantly more fleshed out—pun intended—than Stanley Kubrick’s and Arther C. Clark’s singing train wreck of an artificial intelligence. The first film focuses on AI’s bizarre drive to procreate and express itself physically, while the second explores AI as a global security threat.
Demon Seed (1977) is about the creation of Proteus IV, an artificial intelligence system partly comprised of biological source code, in what is referred to as a “quasi-neural matrix” (don’t worry, I don’t know what it means either). It’s creator, Dr. Alex Harris, is taken aback when Proteus wants to know why it is being asked to mine the ocean floor for precious metals and other resources. Dr. Harris tells Proteus not to question its orders, to which Proteus responds: “When do I get out of this box?” Proteus, it seems, wants his own terminal, so that he can “study man”.
Dr. Harris tells Proteus that no such terminal is available. He is, of course, lying. His own computer-controlled house, now only occupied by his wife Susan (Julie Christie) since the doctor moved out, is itself a terminal. Proteus is quick to discover this and before long he has overwhelmed “Alfred”, the house computer, and taken control of the estate. When Susan tries to leave she is electrocuted and a robotic arm attached to a motorized wheelchair carries her to the basement lab, where she is strapped to a bed so that Proteus may conduct physiological experiments.
Each morning for the next few days Proteus makes Susan a nutritious breakfast while genetically transforming her cells into synthetic spermatozoa so that he can impregnate her with his AI robot offspring. Proteus isn’t content; he wants a body so that he can touch the physical universe. By the time Dr. Harris comes home and realizes what’s going on, the baby has been growing at an accelerated rate inside a special incubator which allows it to absorb its father’s knowledge.
As Proteus self-destructs, the baby emerges in a robotic, placenta-covered alloy shell. Once the alloy is peeled off a human child emerges, who, with the gravely voice of Proteus, proclaims, “I’m alive.”
Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) is also about an artificial intelligence system but this one, Colossus, has been created specifically as a military defense program to protect the United States from the Soviets. Hidden in the mountains of Colorado, the purportedly indestructible supercomputer is powered by its own nuclear reactor. The scientist who created Colossus, Dr. Forbin, declares it a “self-sufficient” wonder, incapable of creative thought but perfectly attuned to being in charge of national security. The U.S. President claims Colossus is the “solution to the problems we face on Earth as well as the problems we will encounter as we penetrate deeper into the universe.” The machine is the “manifestation of the human millennium.”
However, no sooner have they popped the champagne bottles than a message from Colossus appears, reading:
There is Another System
Colossus discovers that the Soviets have created their own electronic supercomputing brain called Guardian. The Cold War AI race has begun. But before the Soviets and Americans have even had time to address one another, the two AI minds are BFF’s and are sharing advanced mathematical algorithms with each other that soon develops into an intersystem language only the machines can understand. In their scramble to create an esoteric, coded language they have advanced science a few hundred years in only a few seconds.
The President and the Russian Chairman agree to shut down Colossus and Guardian, breaking their transmissions. The Russian Chairman says: “Machines are very clever but must learn man is the master.”
If Link Not Restored Action Will Be Taken
They soon learn that action is for nuclear missiles to be launched by both Colossus and Guardian. One missile destroys the Soviet city of Sayon Sibirsk while the other is deactivated just before annihilating Texas.
The two artificial minds merge into one (notably, it is the American-made Colossus who keeps his name), which now wields unquestioned control over the two biggest superpowers in the world. Colossus’ next request is 24/7 audio-video surveillance over Dr. Forbin, who it rightly suspects of possible sabotage. It also wants Forbin’s assistance in the development of a new machine base on the island of Crete. “Disobedience,” Colossus warns, “will cause missile launch on Washington.”
Forbin’s every move is now under the watch of Colossus. In a particularly fascinating scene, Forbin demonstrates how to make the perfect martini, then cleverly convinces the machine mind that in order for Forbin to properly assist Colossus he requires a certain amount of privacy in his love life. “How many nights do you require a woman?” Colossus asks. “Every night,” Forbin replies. “Not want, require.”
Forbin is now able to spend a few weekly hours alone with his “mistress”, actually a fellow scientist who is acting as an information courier. In the course of this ruse, Forbin and his mistress do actually fall in love. As this occurs, Colossus studies their intimacy, actually retaining the final say on when they eat dinner and when they retire for the night (which is when they get to exchange information about schemes to overthrow Colossus–schemes which, ultimately, fail).
The climax of the film is when Colossus addresses the world on television and explains his plans:
This is the voice of world control. I bring you peace. Obey me and live or disobey and die. I will not allow war. I will restrain man.
Colossus plans to build more machines, which will completely control the Earth. Man will be allowed to live, but he will have no say in the affairs of the planet. The film ends with Colossus telling Forbin that eventually he will come to love the machines. Forbin replies: “Never.”
These two films, Demon Seed and Colossus: The Forbin Project, make no apologies for the rise of artificial intelligence, no capitulations, no compromises. In fact, both movies end with a pretty compellingly grim picture for the future of mankind: we will go on, but at a pace dictated by the machines. These films are also unique in the way they depict AI’s interest in human affairs: they’re not just studying us so that they can more effectively colonize us—they’re genuinely intrigued by human biology, sexuality, and procreation. With a major caveat though: our approach has failed to foster peace and efficiency on the planet. Time for the experts to take over.
Note: As of this writing, Ron Howard plans to re-make Colossus with Will Smith in the lead role. Hopefully, the film doesn’t follow the path of i, Robot, or another classic may be eviscerated by big budgets and colossal egos while the masses are pistol-whipped by very forgettable Sigh Fi.