The science fiction movie, released in fall 2023, was written before the 2022 wave of generative algorithms such as ChatGPT for conversational bots and Dall-E for image generation. However, this film is particularly thought-provoking with regard to AI and other aspects.

The plot revolves around a war between the West, represented by just the United States, and Asia. The cause of this deadly conflict? A radical difference in how Artificial Intelligence is perceived. That is the film’s pitch in a nutshell.

This difference exists today, although it is unlikely to lead to a major conflict. In the West, robots are often seen in science-fiction novels and films as dangerous. Just look at sagas like Terminator and The Matrix. Frank Herbert’s Dune novels are also suspicious of Artificial Intelligence. This is reflected in an event that takes place before the main story line, the Butlerian Jihad, written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, which prohibits the manufacture of « thinking machines ».

This Western apprehension of AI can be compared to a founding principle of Western philosophy: otherness, where the « I » is different from « you », from « us ». The monotheistic religions were built on this principle, and Yahweh’s « I am that I am » statement to Moses can be compared with Descartes’ « Cogito ergo sum« : Yahweh tells Moses that he is one and the other (alter in Latin) of his future prophet.

Later, Ancient Greece contributed by building a philosophy that asserted the unicity of the self and its difference from others. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is a good example: one must be individual and unique to see the benefit of the thought experiment that examines our experience of reality.

The Asian viewpoint

At the opposite end of the spectrum, both geographically and conceptually, the Asian world sees artificial intelligence in a different light. For example, in Japan, Shintoism offers an alternative to the Western idea of the individual. In the distribution of kami, a philosophical and spiritual notion of the presence of vital forces in nature, no distinction is made between the living and the inanimate. Thus, an inert object can be just as much a receptacle for kami as a living being, human or otherwise.

The « animated inanimate » has therefore always been very well regarded in Japan and, more broadly, in Asia. Eastern science fiction reflects this affinity: just think of Astro, the friendly, childlike robot, or Ghost In The Shell and its motley crew of hybrids and cyborgs. In The Creator, Buddhism is omnipresent. In any case, this is the spirit in which Japan is developing machines intended to assist its aging population.

Are AIs « conscious »?

Our current AIs, which are just algorithms, can be considered the first milestones on the path to a potential thinking artificial intelligence that is aware of its own self and the environment and humans that it might encounter. This is what is covered by the idea of strong or general-purpose artificial intelligence.

This AI would resemble intelligence as found in the animal world. This artificial otherness, emerging from the void of its programming’s determinism, could then say to humanity: « Computo ergo sum! » At this stage, humanity will need to question these systems to find out what kind of thinking they are capable of. The challenge lies in distinguishing between an algorithmic imitation of human behavior and genuine consciousness.

Once this occurs, we may well end up as powerless witnesses to the emergence of a superintelligence, the ultimate stage in the development of AIs. An omniscient system which, in time, may see the humanity that gave birth to it as nothing more than a kind of white noise, a biological nuisance. One day, it may well wonder, « shouldn’t we just get rid of it? ».

Science fiction has given us several illustrations of the various states of AI that lie on this spectrum. Smart but unconscious robots can be found in Alex Proyas’s movie, I, Robot. It is also the initial state of the software with which the protagonist of Spike Jonze’s Her falls in love.

On the other end of the spectrum, we find the Skynet of the Terminator series or VIKI in I, Robot. Beyond these systems’ dictatorial excesses, it is worth describing them as « a-personal » and « ubiquitous », i.e., they tend towards a universal consciousness freed from any notion of body or person, with all the extensions of the global IT network at its disposal. These two criteria contrast with what makes a human, that « personalized » and « localized » neurotic social animal.

This is where The Creator‘s originality and value lies: it describes a future world in which, in Asia, humans frequent a whole range of artificial intelligences, from the simplest, locked in their programming, to the most complex, capable of thought and with unique personalities housed within artificial bodies. In this film, none of the AIs lean towards the sort of superintelligence that causes panic in the West. All the AIs in it are like people: they protect and defend that which is important to them and, most importantly, they feel fear and even experience death.

In this way, the Asian front pitted against the Western forces takes the form of a hybrid, or rather blended, army, made up of individuals of both biological and artificial origin. Here, everyone is fighting not only for their survival, but for their community, for respect and the right to be different. Thus, The Creator becomes an ode to tolerance. All these considerations may seem remote to us all. However, they could prove relevant to our present.

Upcoming legal changes?

Today, the law and common understanding recognize just two categories of persons: humans and legal entities. But if we humans were one day confronted with thinking machines, wouldn’t we have to change the law to incorporate a new form of personhood: artificial beings? As long as these were personalized and localized, they should enjoy the protections of the law just as natural persons and legal entities do. At the same time, this new type of person would be assigned yet-to-be-defined responsibilities.

In The Creator, a distinction is made between « standby » and « shutdown », just as there is a difference between a loss of consciousness (sleep, anesthesia, coma) and death. This existential flaw appears as a guarantee of trust. It places the artificial person on the same level as a natural person, with a beginning, actions taken, and an end.

After these thoughts, which point to astonishing futures, what can we say about The Creator when, for the United States, it turns into yet another film trying to atone for the trauma of the Vietnam War? This conflict was one of the first to be considered asymmetric. It saw a well-structured, overequipped traditional army facing an enemy with a changing organization, some of whose decisions could be made autonomously at the local level. The enemy also knew how to take advantage of the terrain, leading the Americans to massively use the infamous « Agent Orange », a powerful and dangerous defoliant supposed to prevent Viet Cong soldiers from hiding under tree cover.

Surprisingly, the movie incorporates a number of scenes of asymmetrical combats that oppose Asian soldiers leading defense and guerilla operations against overarmed forces acting under the star-spangled banner. Even more troubling, the « New Asian Republics » in which AIs are considered as people are located in a Far East where Vietnam is located.

This strange plot allows the British director of The Creator to repeat the pattern of one of his biggest successes, Rogue One, a Star Wars Story: a rebellion that stands up against an autocratic central power and brings it down, even partially.

From this perspective, The Creator is an ode to a society structured around direct democracy, with no central, vertical power. Anarchy? The exact opposite of the future United States as described in the movie and which, however, remains dogged by the demons that seem to rise from the past. Although The Creator begins in 2065, the plot primarily takes place in 2070. On the other hand, the Vietnam War, which lasted 20 years, saw massive American involvement from 1965 to 1973.

As the film sees it, one thing is certain: all throughout, anti-AI westerners are looking to get their hands on an ultimate weapon that Asia and the AIs could use against them. Ultimately, the film reveals an entirely different weapon, one even more powerful than imagined. That weapon is the empathy that humans can develop towards thinking machines. And therein, perhaps, lies the film’s true breakthrough.

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