SC3 A.I. at the Movies: The Science and Fiction of Artificial Intelligence


Modern technologies, no matter how disruptive, rarely colonize virgin territories of the imagination. Rather, the creators of speculative fiction – whether cinematic, theatrical or literary – so often get there first, to establish the first beachheads in the popular psyche and to draft the first maps of these new worlds of possibility. Though it is easy to critique these speculations for what they get wrong, we must always be careful to tease text from sub-text: for much science fiction uses future science as a means to talk about current society, to set out plausible concerns for how the artificial may one day influence the real. Blade Runner, for instance, with its focus on what it is to be a machine, ultimately concerns itself with what it means to be human in a society where machines do our bidding. The moral, emotional, spiritual and societal dimensions of artificial intelligence have long been explored in literature and film, to anticipate the ways in which our machines will be humanized and human beings will be mechanized. In this course I draw on literature and cinema (and creative media generally) to show how past fiction anticipates future fact, allowing us to understand how our new AI technologies can be used and abused, to adapt our tools to our needs and to adapt us to our tools. We will look at the science and promise of artificial intelligence through the eyes of a film lover, and look at films and their source texts with the scientific mindset of an AI researcher.
This course will take participants on a guided tour of landmark works, from Čapek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots (which gave us the term “robot”) to Lang’s Metropolis (AI and class conflict), Godard’s Alphaville (AI, the atom bomb and the mechanization of society), Clarke/Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (with its homicidally-conflicted AI, H.A.L) to Crichton’s Westworld (offering the earliest musings on “computer viruses”) to Scott/Dick’s Blade Runner (which imagined synthetic intelligences as pleasure objects and slaves), to recent films that speak directly to modern conceptions of AI, such as Ex Machina and The Imitation Game. We will also visit some forgotten gems that are worthy of reconsideration for their ideas if not for their acting or their visuals (such as 1962’s remarkable Creation of the Humanoids and 1970’s chilling Colossus: The Forbin Experiment). Along the way, we will use insights from AI’s real achievements to deepen our appreciation of these fictional worlds, and use the ideas explored in these works to understand how real progress in AI may dramatically change our relationship to our machines and to each other. These ideas include empathy, emotion, free will, morality, autonomy, responsibility, rigidity, restraint, humour, creativity, rule-breaking, reliability, memory, individuality, learning and experience; we shall explore each of these topics from the perspective of what it is to be human and was it is to be a machine. At each step, we will consider how the popular perception of these topics is shaped by film and literature and judge the extent to which it differs from the reality of actual AI research. Discussion and debate is encouraged throughout.

Each of the following topics to be explored in the context of relevant films and other speculative fictions
Lecture I: Better Than The Real Thing
AI and the perfectability of the human condition
Idealization, cliché, stereotype and norm as a foundation for AI
Memory, artificial and otherwise, as the fabric of personality and AI
Substitution anxiety: Replacing humans with artificial creations
The Machine with all the answers
Reliability and trustworthiness in fully autonomous systems
Lecture II: Mechanical Muses
Pure Whimsy (and the What-If Machine)
Algorithmic generation and the possibility of creative computers
A sense of humour and the parameterization of human personality
Goal-directed versus Serendipitous exploration
Divergent versus Convergent thinking
Incongruity and the logic of creative illogicality
Lecture III: Apt Pupils
Computers that learn for themselves
Artificial memories and training data
Learning the wrong lessons: Over-generalization and over-fitting
Opacity and understanding in machines that build machines
Autonomy and loss of control: when machines “know better than we”
Lecture IV: Divine Sparks
Empathy and emotion
Sensor data versus internal states and feelings
Lex Machina: Morality for AIs and their creators
Deadly drones and Machiavellian machines
Human-like programs vs. Programmable Humans
Yes We Can! Free will and Inevitability (“Because we can”)
Consciousness and the “soul”: inside the Cartesian Theatre





Course location

Forum 1

Course requirements


Instructor information.

Instructor's name

Tony Veale


cf. website


Tony Veale is a senior lecturer in the department of Computer Science at University College Dublin (UCD), Ireland. He has been a researcher in the areas of Computational Linguistics, Cognitive Science, Cognitive Linguistics and Artificial Intelligence since 1988, both in industry and in academia. He obtained a B.Sc (hons) in Computer Science from University College Cork (UCC) in 1988, and an M.Sc in Computer Science in 1990, before joining Hitachi Dublin Laboratory in 1990. He received his Ph.D in Computer Science from Trinity College, Dublin in 1996. He has divided his career between academia and industry. In the latter, he has developed text-understanding and machine translation systems for Hitachi (in particular, the translation of English into American Sign language, ASL), as well as natural-language-processing tools for the CYC project in Cycorp at Austin, Texas, and patented web-based question-answering technology for Intelliseek (Cincinnati, Ohio) and Coreintellect (Dallas, Texas), where he held the position of Chief Scientist. During his tenure on the CYC project in Cycorp inc. he developed a model of analogical reasoning for CYC and contributed to the DARPA-funded High-Performance-Knowledge-Bases (HPKB) and Rapid-Knowledge-Formation (RKF) projects. He was, from 2002 -- 2007, the academic coordinator for UCD's unique international degree programme in Software Engineering, which UCD delivers in Shanghai at Fudan university; he continues to deliver courses on this degree. He is the author of Exploding The Creativity Myth: The Computational Foundations of Linguistic Creativity (Bloomsbury Academic, 2012) and a founder member of the international Association for Computational Creativity (ACC). He organized the ACC's annual conference, The International Conference on Computational Creativity (ICCC) in UCD in May 2012.