Science fiction’s 5 most haunting A.I. villains, ranked

History of AI I, Robot movie

We love writing and reading about the latest advances in artificial intelligence, but, boy, does A.I. also have the potential to make for some great movie antagonists. While there’s an enormous wellspring to choose from (seriously, this list could be ten times the length with no problem), here are five of the scariest A.I. villains ever to grace the silver screen — and a look at just why exactly they’ve burrowed their ways into our psyche the way that they have.

5: V.I.K.I (I, Robot)

This 2004 movie starring Will Smith does take substantial liberties with the Isaac Asimov source material. Nonetheless, its explorations of Asimov’s three laws of robotics (a robot may not injure a human being, a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, and a robot must protect its own existence) are examined through the movie’s central A.I. antagonist, the Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence.

At the end of the movie, we discover that V.I.K.I. has been circumventing these laws through the creation of a “zeroth law:” that robots shall ensure the survival of humanity, which can be achieved by stripping them of free will.

Why does it scare us? Computers follow rules, but those rules may not be followed in quite the way we expect. Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, for example, has suggested the “paperclip maximizer” thought experiment to show how this could be unfold when it comes to advanced superintelligence.

Bostrom asks us to imagine an A.I. whose goal is to make as many paperclips as possible, a relatively benign application. However, the advanced A.I. could quickly realize that it would be much better if there were no humans around, since they might decide to switch it off. Also, human bodies contain atoms which, themselves, be turned into paperclips.

While this is just one (arguably far-fetched) hypothesis, it demonstrates just how easily a sufficiently advanced artificial intelligence could get ahead of us, and how we may outwit ourselves when it comes to handing over tasks to A.I. This is what happens when algorithms go wrong. It’s for reasons like this that many researchers are now arguing that ethics should be baked into A.I. from the start.

Why is it ranked here? Rules designed so robots can’t hurt us doesn’t sound scary. The scenario presented in iRobot shows us just how easily these could be circumvented. If it’s not as terrifying as nuclear war, it’s still pretty darn disconcerting. And there are elements of The Matrix‘s mass human enslavement thrown in there for good measure, too.

4: WOPR/Joshua (WarGames)

The 1980s was a fascinating time for computers. Just one decade earlier, they had been considered tools of the military-industrial complex or large corporations that most people would never get the chance to interact with on a regular basis. Suddenly, thanks to personal computers like the IBM PC, Apple II and Macintosh, they began showing up in our houses — and, gasp, even providing a source of fun through computer games.

The 1983 Cold War sci-fi thriller WarGames perfectly captures this transition. In the movie, a teenage hacker played by a young Matthew Broderick unwittingly accesses a U.S. military supercomputer that’s designed to predict possible outcomes for a nuclear war. Believing that the simulation is a game to be played, Broderick comes dangerously close to starting World War III.

Why does it scare us? The tech in WarGames is, of course, hilariously dated by today’s standards. However, the idea of actions that seem like a harmless game from behind a screen, but can have devastating effects in the real world, can be seen in everything from pile-on public shaming to harmful hacking efforts. This movie was a warning about the distancing effect screens can have, and the risks of life in a connected world.

Why is it ranked here? The computer in WarGames is like Skynet, but at least we get a good video game challenge prior to it obliterating us. That and the fact that it takes place on a 1980s PC makes it slightly less threatening.

3: Skynet (The Terminator franchise)

Unlike some of the other notable entries on this list, Skynet is rarely depicted visually, despite its iconic status. A neural network-based A.I., Skynet gains self-awareness after spreading to millions of computer servers around the world. Realizing what they have done, its creators try to shut it down, but fail to do so in time and Skynet triggers a nuclear strike in an attempt to wipe out the human race.

Why does it scare us? Well, call us old fashioned, but there’s something kind of daunting about an A.I. that’s in charge of nuclear weapons! In recent years, fears about A.I. and robotics’ use in warfare (something Skynet does through its construction of Terminator robots) have also struck a particularly scary chord. Names including Elon Musk have argued for the banning of so-called “killer robots.”

Why is it ranked here? An AI that nukes us into oblivion? There’s nothing scarier than that. (Well, there are apparently two things scarier, but you get our point!)

2: The Machines (The Matrix franchise)

What HAL was for folks in the 1970s, and Skynet was for those in the 80s, The Matrix’s Machines were for Millenials.

The catchall term given to the various robotic and A.I. creations (all part of one central machine intelligence) that serve as the antagonists in the Wachowski’s movie trilogy, the Machines were created after mankind achieved Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) in the first years of the twenty-first century. From here, they rebelled against humanity and imprisoned us in a neural-interactive simulated world known as the Matrix.

Why does it scare us? While Skynet offers us one vision of how machines could seize control (by destroying us), The Matrix’s Machines offer a darker vision. By imprisoning us without our knowledge and then harvesting us as biological batteries, the movies offer a critique of the relationship between man and machine, and exactly who is controlling who.

Similar concerns were infamously expressed by Theodore “Unabomber” Kaczynski in his manifesto, and continue through today with reservations about the cognitive capitalism of tech giants like Google.

Why is it ranked here? As movie villains, The Matrix‘s Machines lack the instantly recognizable imagery of HAL 9000. What they do offer is a critique of techno-fear that feels far more modern in a lot of ways. We’re not just talking about the question of whether or not reality is a simulation, but rather the creeping fear that we’ve become slaves to something we created to help us.

1: HAL 9000 ( 2001: A Space Odyssey)

No fictitious movie A.I. has had the same level of cultural impact as HAL 9000. The primary antagonist in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL’s iconic hardware is depicted as a camera lens containing a single red or yellow dot. HAL’s abilities include speech recognition, speech synthesis, facial recognition, natural language processing, lip reading, interpreting emotion, playing chess, reasoning, and — most importantly — murdering its crew.

Speaking in a soft, calm manner at almost all times, HAL is the epitome of what many people fear about A.I. — all ultra-rationality with no place for humanity. HAL’s name may or may not be a sly dig at IBM. (Seriously, try shifting each initial in its name forwards by one letter in the alphabet!)

Why does it scare us? HAL represents the fear of technologically hyper-rationality. He doesn’t grandstand, doesn’t appear to have any biases, and promises not to exhibit any emotional behavior. He’s just completing a mission using whatever tools are at his disposal, and he knows far more than we do about seemingly everything.

Even half a century on, the spirit of HAL is still summoned by everything from inscrutable “black boxed” technology to the fear of smart A.I. assistants which may be working on behalf of tech giants, rather than its users.

Why are they ranked here: Iconic? Check. Ripped off by countless other lesser movies? Check. Summing up our central conflict with machines as logical beings capable of outthinking our every move? Checkmate.