The Machines Will Save Us: Robots, Artificial Intelligence and Eco-Fiction

Contained within the rich history of science fiction cinema, there are nine words which have come to define the very existence of robots and artificial intelligence – “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”. 

Spoken, of course, by Discovery One’s homicidal AI assistant HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s visionary 1968 science fiction opus 2001: A Space Odyssey, these words have permeated throughout our culture. 

Screencapture from 2001: A Space Odyssey. In a red room, a man in a space suit is looking directly at the camera.
Image courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

This is most clear cinematically, with countless films based on the concept of a malevolent world-dominating rogue AI. From cerebral independent thrillers like Alex Garland’s Ex Machina to big budget multi-decade-spanning franchises like James Cameron’s Terminator series, these concepts clearly strike a chord with audiences.

Even the cinematic behemoth that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe explores these themes in its adaptation of the artificially intelligent supervillain Ultron storyline. Originally created in the 1960s, Joss Whedon’s updated version of the character for 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron closely followed the classic science fiction trope of a supposedly protective AI realising that humanity is its own biggest threat, and must be annihilated by any means necessary.

This cultural touchstone has also seeped into our day-to day-lives, especially with the creeping rise of ‘digital assistants’ over the past few years. It has become an almost running joke in society that these devices are listening into our conversations and exerting a malign influence on us. Although this is usually referenced in jest, it is genuinely a little harder to listen to Amazon’s Alexa giving you your morning briefing after watching HAL 9000 dispatch the entire crew of a spaceship by fairly grim means the night before.

Within the discourse of the preconceptions surrounding artificially intelligent robots in science fiction, there is a particularly interesting exchange between British film critic Mark Kermode and director Duncan Jones during a post-screening Q&A about Jones’ 2009 film Moon. The film follows Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), a miner who is effectively trapped on a lunar base, and his interactions with a faceless robot called GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey). This concludes by inverting the usual rogue AI trope and making GERTY’s co-operation essential to Bell’s eventual escape.

Screencapture from Moon. A man in overalls looks at a bloodied version of himself standing at the opposite side of the room.
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

During the Q&A, Kermode and Jones discuss the influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey on the character of GERTY, and whether the knowledge of HAL 9000 pre-conditions audiences to be automatically fearful of robot assistants. They also begin to speculate over whether a cinema-goer in 1968 would have felt any kind of unease at all towards HAL 9000 if they were unaware of the film’s plot beforehand. Whilst this is an immensely challenging thesis to prove at this point, it does ask the question of whether there are circumstances in which these preconceptions can be disregarded.

One of the most prominent examples of this can be found in the eco-fiction sub-genre of science fiction. This refers to films where the catalyst for social collapse has been initiated by an apocalyptic environmental cause such as freak weather events, climate change and pollution.

The first, and probably the clearest, inversion of the evil AI trope in eco-fiction can be found in Douglas Trumbull’s 1972 film Silent Running. The film centres around Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), a botanist who, following the extinction of all plant life on Earth, is part of a team tasked with maintaining a collection of plants housed in enormous greenhouse-like geodesic domes on-board a spaceship orbiting Saturn. During the course of the film, the ship’s crew is ordered to destroy the domes and return to Earth causing Lowell to rebel in an attempt to preserve the plants for future generations.

Following his rebellion, Lowell is left alone on the ship with only three robot drones for assistance, who he named Huey, Dewey and Louis. Throughout the rest of the film, these robots become Lowell’s companions and he slowly reprograms them to provide medical assistance and even play card games with him. This culminates in Lovell realising that he must sacrifice himself to save the biomes, so entrusts Dewey to care for the plants after he sends it out into deep space to hopefully be rediscovered one day.

Screencapture from Silent Running. A man stands in a forest wearing a robe next to two small robots.
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

Trumbull’s avoidance of the obvious choice to use the trio of robots as secondary antagonists is particularly interesting, given that he is best known for his work as a special effects supervisor on 2001: A Space Odyssey. His decision to portray robots as eventual environmental saviours, at a time when most audience members were primed by 2001: A Space Odyssey to distrust robots was ground-breaking, and has since served as the inspiration for numerous films.

One of the clearest examples of Silent Running’s influence can be found in the plot of Pixar’s 2008 film WALL-E. Directed by Andrew Stanton, the film follows the eponymous sole remaining trash compacting robot, who is tasked to clean up the Earth after decades of consumerism and environmental neglect have rendered the planet uninhabitable. During the film, WALL-E discovers the final living seedling and meets EVE, another robot whose function is to assess whether the Earth is safe for humanity to return from space.

Although one of the most commonly appreciated aspects of WALL-E is the charming relationship that forms between the two robots, the film also has a profound message about environmental conservation and stewardship. The film concludes with WALL-E and EVE delivering the seedling to the remaining humans who now reside on a distant spaceship and becoming the catalyst for mankind to return to Earth and begin to restore the natural environment.

Throughout the film, both WALL-E and EVE act in humanity’s best interest and act totally independently from humans. This theme of artificial intelligence is also seen in the film’s main antagonist AUTO, the ship’s AI lieutenant. Although he initially appears to be preventing the pair from delivering the seedling in a manner similar to HAL 9000, it is later revealed that he has been programmed to do so by one of the corporations responsible for the destruction of Earth.

Screencapture from Wall-E. Two robots, one dirty and old and the other clean and new hold hands in a deserted wasteland.
Image courtesy of Pixar

There are also a variety of eco-fiction films that take inspiration from the robots in Silent Running to a less obvious extent. For example, the tactical support robot TARS in Christopher Nolan’s 2014 film Interstellar possess a clear personality and functions as a robotic companion as well as an assistant. TARS is instrumental in helping the crew of Endurance survive and is ultimately used to send the data required to evacuate humanity from the Earth, which has been rendered uninhabitable by chronic crop failures.

The reasons for the predominantly saviour-like role of robots in eco-fiction result from frequent cause of the apocalyptic environmental events seen in these films, and indeed in real-life as well, being humanity itself.

However, in contrast to the view of Ultron, the ongoing crises of pollution, fossil fuel depletion and deforestation are not the fault of humans on an individual level. They are instead primarily caused by large-scale corporations, who are being massively facilitated by global governmental inaction. 

This leads to a quandary for the average person. We are constantly told to “do our bit” by changing our dietary choices, to include less meat, and using public transport over our own personal vehicles, but what do we do about the gigantic corporations causing more damage in a few hours than the average person can in a lifetime?

This feeling of helplessness is tapped into by these films as they allow audiences to briefly breathe a sigh of relief and reduce our collective feelings of guilt and dread towards the current state of the environment. It is no coincidence that these films invariably have optimistic endings that hint at a future that is free of environmental catastrophe.

The greatest evidence for the resonance of these themes in society is the way we have begun to embrace them and look to them to provide real-world solutions. During the last decade, there was significant interest in the field of robotics to use technology to solve issues such as pollution. This research has led to development of actual trash collecting robots – à la WALL-E – and aquatic robots designed to not only clean up pollution, but also to generate electricity from it and is likely to lead to more innovation in the future.

Ultimately, in many ways, eco-fiction films represent a total 180⁰ inversion of the rogue robot trope. It eschews the idea of humanity fighting to save itself from the machines, and embraces the hope that it’ll be the machines that will somehow save us from ourselves.