The director of Disney’s benchmark Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One, has come back from a galaxy far, far away to tell a new tale about earth’s not too distant future. The Creator asks us to imagine a world in which humanity is in a life-and-death struggle with a sentient robotic race that has spread across large parts of the globe. At the centre of this fictional story is a very real feeling that our creations are destined to surpass us, becoming as—if not more—human than we are. But real-world science reveals we can only mimic, not recreate, the Creator’s work.
The Creator’s story opens in 2065, 10 years after a nuclear detonation in Los Angeles, a catastrophe that leads the developed world to recoil from artificial intelligence (AI). The globe is now divided into Western nations like the United States and a range of less-developed countries that have merged into what is now called New Asia. This conglomerate has so embraced AI that it has become a haven for a range of robots from mechanical automata to life-like human replicants. Here, various types of AI live in harmony with human beings. However, the rest of the world is desperately afraid of where this technological evolution will end and a war begins with the right to exist as the prize.
This grand scheme is the setting for one man’s struggle to understand what it means to be human. John David Washington plays Joshua, a former special forces agent who is recruited to hunt down and kill “The Creator”. This shadowy figure is thought to be the architect of all advanced AI and more importantly, the inventor of a new weapon capable of ending humanity. Joshua’s mission takes him deep into New Asia, where he discovers that the weapon that will end the war is a robot child. Alphie, short for Alpha-Omega, is a powerful innocent played by Madeleine Yuna Voyles. She and Joshua set out in search of the Creator and, in so doing, map out the common territory held by humans and AI.
It all led to this
Writer/director Gareth Edwards is no stranger to this journey of human discovery. He says his development of The Creator’s storyline was inspired by films like Apocalypse Now, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Rain Man and Blade Runner. Rather than shoulder the cost of creating expensive sets, Edwards decided to set his film in Thailand and layer in the science fiction elements afterwards. This gives the film a heightened real-world feel, with the added benefit of anchoring its storyline in current AI debates.
At the heart of The Creator is the question of how deserving its robots are of being said to possess “life”. Joshua is a biological human with inhuman actions burdening his conscience. Alphie exudes holiness but has a computer where her core self should be. Their conversations regarding their humanity rise to the level of religious reflection:
Alphie: “Are you going to heaven?”
Joshua: “No, you have to be a good person to go to heaven.”
Alphie: “Then we’re the same. We can’t go to heaven, ’cause you’re not good and I’m not a person.”
Edwards says this is no accident. His advanced creations struggle to understand the implications of being alive in much the same way their human counterparts do. “There are a bunch of concepts and ideas that used to be the sole realm of religion and spirituality that now, because of the way AI is heading, are going more into the reality of these advancements in science,” Edwards told Total Film.
“For instance, reincarnation is alluded to in our film, the idea that you can essentially copy and paste yourself.”
This is part of what Edwards refers to as today’s “melting pot” that contains both the ancient past and the advanced technological future. Edwards’ robots worship their creator and are interested in deep questions of being—some even becoming monks. The idea is that if we progress far enough, we will create beings that are confronted with the same metaphysical questions that face every human being—and maybe even lead us to the truth. But is AI really likely to bridge the gap between the purely mechanical and the inherently spiritual? Or, to put it another way, will a robot ever rise to the level of becoming human?
Unfortunately for a science fiction addict like myself, the experts suggest not.
Ghosts in the machine
The first problem is self-awareness. Regardless of the stunning breadth of knowledge and computational power, current AI are much more like tools than people. Diagnostic programs can compare millions of lung scans with your own medical imagery and better diagnose the early stages of life-threatening conditions than your doctor might. But that does not mean they possess the same type of intelligence as human beings. Professor John Lennox is Emeritus Professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford and Emeritus Fellow in philosophy of science at Green Templeton College and the author of 2084: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity. He says it all comes down to consciousness:
“Some people think that they’re going to construct a conscious artifact. Now that is so far away from any reasonable hope, for a very simple reason: no-one knows what consciousness is. And so it’s very difficult. That’s the big barrier in the way of truly constructing something that represents the kind of intelligence we humans have.”
He says current AI might give the impression of consciousness because of the way they respond to questions, but when it comes to even the most advanced AI, there’s “no-one home”. The best they can do is imitate humanity.
In The Creator, Edwards imbues the child Alphie with emotional reactions. She sees a village of robots and humans being attacked by Western forces and she desperately wants to help them. But emotion, it seems, is another uniquely human characteristic that technology is unable to replicate. Dr Rosalind Picard is Professor of media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—MIT. She is also the founder and director of the Affective Computing Research Group at the MIT Media Lab. She says she is an optimist but believes that movies have ultimately misled us about what robots will be capable of doing. Some can express emotions, a few can detect emotions but them experiencing emotion is as unlikely as achieving consciousness:
“Human emotion is much more than a set of small signals that our technology can detect. We can infer what you might be feeling through outward expressions, but we don’t know exactly what you’re feeling. We do not have, through technology, insight into your innermost feelings, into your experience. The technology does not give that. Even through brain scanning, we can see changes in blood flow, changes in electrical activity. But it does not mean that we know what you’re really feeling inside.”
For some, technology offers the hope that human beings will one day be able to lift themselves out of whatever present condition we find ourselves in. In The Creator, technology is the key to discovering a renewed form of humanity. Alphie replaces the love that Joshua has lost—through her, he finds his way to a better self. But in reality, created things do not surpass their creators. Robots will not replace human beings, and neither will we replace our own Creator. The mysterious way in which God has woven us together is not something people can piece together. And it is the very mystery at the heart of our creation that is meant to lead us, like Alphie and Joshua, to seek Him out. As the apostle Paul puts it in Acts 17,
“God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’”
Mark Hadley is a media and cultural critic who lives with his family in Sydney. Please note that discussion of a media product in Signs of the Times does not imply an endorsement or recommendation.