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Spielberg's 'A.I.' Betrays a Know-Nothingness on Science and Tech

By James Pinkerton - July 9, 2001 12:00 AM

There's been too much praise of the new Steven Spielberg movie, "A.I." I'm naturally inclined to like any film that takes an interest in the future, but "A.I." isn't about Spielberg's vision of the future. Rather, it's about his vision of the present. Indeed, tangled up in the orthodoxies of today, "A.I." offers a feeble and uninformed-and decidedly downbeat--look at the road ahead.

Which of course explains why most movie critics have liked "A.I." so much. CNN's Martin Grove called it "One terrific movie. 'A.I.' will be a nominee for Best Picture." Multimedia critic Roger Ebert gave it a "thumbs up" on his TV show. Rex Reed, writing in The New York Observer, enthused, "With 'A.I.' Mr. Spielberg has produced one whale of an entertainment even the cynics are heralding as a filmmaking triumph."

The cynics may be heralding "A.I." as a triumph, but that's the problem: the culture of cynicism so prevalent today is, in fact, a culture of know-nothingism, even nihilism, about science and technology. Critics who pride themselves in knowing all the love triangles of the Bloomsbury Group could not name, let alone explain, the Three Laws of Thermodynamics.

So these same critics were no doubt charmed by the trendily Malthusian premise of "A.I." Before the audience even meets the dramatis personae, the narrator has delivered a politically correct lecture, describing a future in which "the icebergs melted because of greenhouse gases." After the coastal cities were drowned, we are told, the authorities imposed a China-like "one child" policy on the portions of the planet that weren't water-worlded. And so child-hungry couples turn to lifelike robots, such as David, played in the film by Haley Joel Osment.

Leaving aside the vigorous debate about global warming, the illogicality of the film's premise can't be submerged. Surely a society sophisticated enough to create androids indistinguishable from the real thing would at least be capable of preventing Manhattan from going glug-glug. Moreover, aside from solutions to be found on earth other than people-rationing, someone would get the idea of seeking greener-and dryer-pastures elsewhere in the solar system. But to offer any sort of techno-solution would, it seems, get in the way of the film's limits-to-growth message.

Indeed, if more evidence were needed that the pursuit of the doom-and-gloom agenda requires ignorance, "A.I." provides no small amount of proof. As the story unfolds, we discover that the robot child is in many ways dysfunctional. This little "mecha" is seemingly defiant and nearly drowns his "orga" brother.

Whoa, any technologically literate reader might be thinking, what about Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics? Those three laws, first propounded in the story "Runaround" in the March 1942 Astounding Science Fiction, have been central to any discussion of robotics and artificial intelligence for half a century. For the record, the three laws are as follows: "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."

To be sure, in the world of science fiction, these laws won't always be abided by or enforced; Asimov himself, in his "I, Robot" stories from the '40s, always presumed that his laws would go haywire somehow. But no robot tale has been credible since if it doesn't at least acknowledge the existence or influence of the Three Laws. One of the few observers who noticed this glaring omission was Wired's Declan McCullagh, who wrote, "Think Asimov's Laws of Robotics with the first law replaced to read: 'Must find mother to love me.' You get the feeling that the David-bot's running some descendant of the C programming language that's stuck in an infinite loop reading 'repeat (find mom) {until mom == located}.'" In other words, Spielberg is bypassing future-minded sci-fi canon in pursuit of his own present-day Oedipal musings.

Moreover, the film's cluelessness about what life might be like in the age of smart machines is a part of the culture's larger fecklessness about the future. All sorts of assumptions are planted by the moviemaker, including the conceit that good trend lines, such as the creation of technologies that make life better, must always bend backward--while bad trend lines, such as environmental degradation, must go straight on forever. The Spielbergian prospect, in other words, trades away the bright possibility of human advancement for the bleak irony of unintended consequences; in such a dystopia, science is the problem, not the solution.

This is the problem that TechCentralStationeers confront: how do we put forth a rational vision of the future-when the folks atop the commanding heights of the culture, in contradiction, are putting forth an irrational vision of the future?

This is no small challenge. But it's a challenge that must be undertaken, because the stakes are enormous. If today's culture-vultures and movie-mavens get their way, the future will be a place where science and technology are mistrusted; our descendants will live, if they can, in a randomly demon-haunted world, where pessimistic fiction has triumphed over optimistic fact.

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