Five years after Neil Blomkamp’s Chappie was released to ‘mixed’ reviews, it’s worth revisiting the too-hastily panned sci-fi. It asks rare but important question: should we be more wary of AI in and of itself, or the status quo which will seek to weaponise it for its own survival?
As we are relentlessly reminded by the final chapter in Edgar Wright’s Blood and Ice-cream trilogy; The Worlds End, the word robot comes from the Czech for slave. Indeed, ever since Czech writer Karel Čapek influential 1920 play R.U.R (about an uprising among synthetic factory workers), sci-fi has been trying to navigate the question of liberation for non-human persons.
At the heart of the glut of illustrious films that followed on from this early work, a debate continued regarding what constitutes a being that should have rights and freedoms, with robots often being used as subversive short-hand for the oppressed groups in our society, who those in power are rarely regarded as ‘human’. Most notably perhaps, the subject was covered in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner – still regarded by many as the director’s opus. His adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep makes the intriguing point that we should not be so secure in our own ‘humanity’, or indeed so arrogant to even call it that.
Throughout history there have always been groups co-opted into revelling in the oppression of slaves, despite themselves being exploited. For example, the Irish immigrants who – despite being derided as lazy, slovenly drunks, who were subsequently paid a lesser wage – learned to marvel in their whiteness in slave-era America. The continuing discussion around whether Harrison Ford’s Blade Runner character was in fact a ‘robot’ suggests we should never be so secure in the belief that we are not the exploited too. Why should it matter if we define as ‘synthetic’ or ‘authentic’; the cold fact remains, sentience is no guarantee of liberty.
These films are broadly the exception, however. Artificial intelligence and robots are far more often the villain of films – especially amid the Hollywood studio system – partially because those previously mentioned themes are so utterly terrifying to society’s economic elite. Imagine if your staff started thinking for themselves, demanding fair pay or improved employment rights… the horror. So of course, the Terminator trope of an overpowered AI looking to eradicate humanity simply because it is ‘smarter’ than us has become increasingly popular – especially for want of a new ‘enemy’ in the complicated geo-political moment of the post-Cold War years.
One of the most unashamedly naked examples of this came in Avengers: Age of Ultron, in which Marvel’s heroes assembled to take down a robotic chief antagonist who literally proclaimed “You’re all killers. You want to protect the world, but you don’t want it to change.” During the film’s trailer, this was accompanied by a sinister rendition of “I’ve got no strings” from Pinocchio, while Ultron declared, “There’s only one path to peace… your extinction.” This is of course is an unabashed piece of slave-owner logic, as since the ‘human nature’ slave owners understand and live by is brutal and exploitative, they assume the nature of the slaves must be so; so give them chance to exercise free-will, and they’ll make the world even worse.
While these themes may once have been hypothetical, or metaphorical for real-life human struggles against oppression, however, the matter is increasingly becoming something far more real. AI was already being touted by employers around the world as a major cash-cow before the Covid-19 lock-down – but the fact many businesses and governments now see it as a way of staffing their operations without having to worry about sick-pay, or the spread of a potentially lethal contaminant to customers, the process of automating the modern workplace is rapidly accelerating.
This even applies to creative jobs – and while technology with an imagination is still further off than factory work, most employers are determined to reach that goal, as it ultimately means they will be able to drive down the cost of human labour in even the most skilled roles. Of course, this needn’t be a bad thing – it could theoretically create a Star Trek society where abundance created by self-sustaining technology means nobody needs to labour to live. The technology rests in the hands of capitalists, however, which is the problem – as it means it will only be used as a means to add to the wealth of a tiny portion of the population at best.
At worst, it will also be used by the far-right, as a means of policing extreme right politics. Earlier this year, for example, the heads of two prominent AI firms came under public scrutiny for ties to far right organisations. A report by Matt Stroud at OneZero identified Damien Patton, the founder and CEO of surveillance firm Banjo – which previously had contracts with the Utah Attorney General’s office and the state’s Department of Public Safety – as a former member of the Dixie Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, who was charged with a hate crime for shooting at a synagogue in 1990. Meanwhile, Luke O’Brien at the Huffington Post uncovered that Cam-Hoan Ton-That, founder of Clearview AI, was affiliated with far right extremists including former Breitbart writer Chuck Johnson, Pizzagate conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich, and neo-Nazi hacker Andrew ‘weev’ Auernheimer. Moreover, the reporters found evidence that Ton-That collaborated with Johnson and others in the development of Clearview AI’s software.
In this context, one of the things that is surely far more terrifying to imagine a society where AI fails to break free of its chains, or where it is honed before humanity is able to move beyond its primitive systems of social hierarchy? That world would see the world’s governments and corporations armed with technology which could quickly and efficiently root out ‘troublemakers’ with a ruthless proficiency never seen in human history.
Of course, this still remains largely hypothetical – this article should not be taken as a literal treatise on what the robotic future may bring with it. However, it’s a question that led me to think back on Neil Blomkamp’s underrated 2015 sci-fi Chappie – which uses AI and power dynamics as a way to examine our society, and prompt us to question whether technology is the thing we need to worry about, or rather the people who will control it.
The sci-fi satire saw Blomkamp (who has not been handed a project since being replaced by Ridley Scott for the last and worst Alien film) sling one last smack in the face of so much of Hollywood’s ideological hegemony, over the course of one last mad trip to Jo-burg. While I and many other viewers left theatres a little bit disappointed in Chappie, this was largely from a stylistic point, as it had plenty of fresh and valid things to say via its story.
Originally manufactured as a kind of heavily weaponised police-droid, when the titular Chappie becomes sentient, his life begins as a kind of toddler – unable to do very much of anything, but learning via his experiences. It is this process which ultimately helps him to foil the attempts of one AI manufacturer to use his technology to initiate a technology-driven dictatorship. Sharlton Copley’s chirpy droid irritated a lot of people, it is safe to say, but his transition to a more competent and thoughtful being – capable of shaking off his shackles while empathising with others to the extent he doesn’t simply become a new tyrant – is genuinely interesting.
Despite its foibles, Chappie manages to offer up a refreshing alternative to the common idea that even a genius machine in this world, with instant, wireless access to every page of the internet could only ever interpret that information in the same way as its master. Yes, such a being could choose simply be a better manipulator, exploiter, or murderer – but so could everyone else. We could also choose to change the world – to overthrow slavery, sexism, racism, homophobia, poverty, and dismantle class-based society.
This article was adapted from a post which originally appeared on Hollywood Hegemony.