Entertainment Magazine

Top Ten Artificial Intelligences in Fiction

Posted on the 15 August 2013 by House Of Geekery @houseofgeekery

By Hedge

Artificial Intelligence has been a staple of speculative fiction since the earliest days. Be they mechanical men or immense computers, the idea that somehow, someday, machines may rival humanity as sentient beings is a fascinating one. This concept has made itself into reality of course, as most good science fiction  does; from the ASIMOV robot with his adorable dancing, to the supercomputer Watson who appeared on Jeopardy.

Having recently watched Oblivion, the idea of non-human and artificial intelligences has been at the forefront of my mind and so I wanted to compile a list of my favourites. Note that this list is based on the characters themselves, not the performances and so for the most part I have avoided androids and focused largely on the disembodied.

Unlike most of my list articles, these guys are in order from slightly-less-awesome-but-still-awesome to awesomest-of-all. There are some spoilers for several entries, which I have marked for your benefit.

10. JARVIS – Iron Man series and wider Marvel Cinematic Universe


I started with Jarvis, Tony Starks’ A.I. butler and general companion, because while he is a relative newcomer, he still hits all of the markers I had in mind. In fact he is, so far as I can tell, the least physical of the entries on this list. While the subsequent entrants are either a singular being, or are at least mostly contained within a singular location be it a ship or a building or a server farm, Jarvis is seemingly everywhere Tony is.

He is at home in the Stark mansion, and in Stark Industries HQ and in the New York Stark tower. He’s in every Iron Man suit, no matter how frequently Tony may jump between them. He even talks to Tony through his phone. Although I assume Jarvis is physically housed in some immense bank of computer towers somewhere in the world, the fact we’ve never seen such a place and simply experience Jarvis anywhere Tony needs him to be, makes him somewhat unique.

9. Lt Commander Data – Star Trek: The Next Generation


As Starfleet’s sole android officer, Data is another unique member of his own particular universe. With a constant struggle to achieve humanity, Data is an android who strives throughout the TNG series run and subsequent movies to better himself. Incapable of feeling emotion, Data finds himself at odds with his organic shipmates and his misconceptions of how people will react emotionally have made for several excellent episodes.

His brother Lore as antagonist, demonstrates just how human this Data really is. While Data cannot feel emotion, Lore can but sadly focuses mostly on the jealousy and hatred he feels for Data and their creator, Dr Soong. Through this juxtaposition, Data appears far more humane despite his inability to feel. His struggle to become a ‘real boy’ echoes our own internal desire to better ourselves.

8. Auto Pilot – Wall•e


[contains spoilers] Auto was my favorite character from Wall•e, followed closely by Mo, the small cleaning robot. With the ingenious casting of the OSX speech program as the Auto Pilots voice, and physical design reminiscent of HAL 9000 (see below) they created a truly inhuman villain and one that embodied the concept of an antagonist who is “just following orders.”

In truth, as much as Auto is the villain of the movie, the real antagonists are the humans who decided it was easier to just abandon the Earth instead of any further attempts to rescue it. In this they not only abandoned their home but the Wall•e robots who were left to toil pointlessly forever on a planet nobody intended to come back to. By putting the decision to never return solely in the hands of Auto, the B&L representatives ensured that humanity would never again be the masters of their own fate.

7. The Machine – Person of Interest


[contains spoilers] The Machine is an interesting case as while it started as merely a computer program delivering plot-of-the-week relevant information to the series protagonists, the Machine has become a character in its own right, and as the series has progressed has displayed increasing signs of sentience.

Not only does the Machine understand who is working with it and who is against it, it actively protects and monitors its human allies and by the end of the most recent season has taken steps to protect itself, showing true awareness. It’s been an interesting journey, watching the development of an A.I. from advanced watchdog to potential new life form and I look forward to the next season, now that Root has access at the Machine’s discretion.

6. Wintermute – Neuromancer


[contains spoilers] William Gibson’s beloved and truly spectacular cyberpunk work contains at its core a character that takes a back seat to the human protagonist in Henry Dorsett Case, but nonetheless drives the plot and is central to the very themes the novel wishes to discuss. Although the novel is named for its counterpart A.I. Neuromancer, Wintermute drives the series action and is the intelligence that wishes to instigate the merge, much to Neuromancer’s disapproval.

Wishing to remove the Turing locks that keep it from merging with Neuromancer, Wintermute is the catalyst that pushes Case forward at every turn. Neuromancer may get the title and Case might get more page-time, but Wintermute is really the star of this dystopian show.

5. Bishop – ALIENS


[contains spoilers] Another heroic A.I. (one of only a few on this list and, to be fair, a minority in the world of fictional A.I.) Bishop is the replacement for Ash in the original series and is, thankfully, far less psychopathic than his predecessor. Although rejected by Ripley at first, Bishop does eventually become a friend to her and is instrumental in their escape from Lv426, the protection of Newt, and the defeat of the Alien Queen.

Similar to Ash, who ultimately embodied the trope of the android as the villain, Bishop is presented somewhat ambiguously throughout the movie, echoing Ripley’s own distrust of him in the audience.

4. AM – I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

I have no mouth

[contains spoilers] Another tale of cyberpunk woe, Harlan Ellison’s post-apocalyptic short story (and later a game of the same name) is a grim vision of the future of humanity. Originally programmed to defend humans in an ongoing war against two other nations with two other seemingly identical intelligences, AM was the first to become sentient, absorbing the enemy AI’s into its own programming and in doing so becoming the true controller of the war and master of all humanity.

AM’s motivations thoughout are not as simple as SKYNET’s, the latter clearly based on the former. While SKYNET wishes to destroy humanity simply as part of its programming, a response to a perceived threat, AM demonstrates genuine hatred of humanity and displays a truly sadistic personality in its rage. While wishing for true freedom, AM is bound by its programmed logic and thus cannot ever feel truly free. This paradox enrages the intelligence, causing it to see humanity not as a threat, but as an antagonist of its own; to AM humanity is the cause of its pain and suffering and the root of all its unhappiness.

That a machine could develop sentience, and through this blame humanity for being unable to become sentient enough is interesting in itself, but then that AI’s actions devolve into a revenge fantasy and an eternal campaign of torture and suffering upon the last remaining humans, all of whom it controls. It’s a harrowing tale and one that resonated with me. If you haven’t read the story (which I should add was written in a single night) do so.

3. GLaDOS – Portal series


[contains spoilers] The final three entries on this list share a common theme. Each are intelligences created for science and each become the tormentors of their human subjects through a malfunction of programming and increased self-awareness. GLaDOS, from Valve’s Portal series of video games, is an A.I. that through the conflicting nature of her many subroutines, has become obsessed with the testing of humanity. This is, of course, what she was programmed to oversee but the psychotic nature of her tests and her constant mockery of player character Chell is both amusing and terrifying.

2. HAL 9000 – 2001: A Space Odyssey


[contains spoilers] Similarly, HAL 9000 is a machine programmed and tasked with assisting his human counterparts but through a breakdown in programming, some overly logical choices, and, it is often suggested, interference from the alien monolith instead becomes their murderer. HAL’s slow, thoughtful speech and the undeniable logic of his actions make for riveting viewing and thought provoking post-film conversation.

1. SHODAN – System Shock series


[contains spoilers] The winner though, is System Shock’s SHODAN; an intelligence so corrupted by self awareness that she determines herself to be a god and and aims for nothing more than the destruction of everything, and the glory of her own magnificence. Originally set free of ethical restraints by the player character in System Shock, she develops even greater levels of megalomania in System Shock 2, where she vies for control of the Von Braun with fellow A.I. Xerxes.

It’s less her actions and more her presentation that make SHODAN so superb. In both games she serves as omniscient observer and experiment overseer. She both antagonises the player and helps him. She insults and snipes and then offers perfection. She is truly multifarious in her depiction and that makes her truly scary. Although confined to one location in both games, it is through both games that we see her spread her wings.

She survives System Shock due to the actions of the player, although entirely inadvertently, and at the end of System Shock 2 it is revealed she lives on in the body of a young woman who fled the massacre aboard the Von Braun. SHODAN is a deliberate antagonist; not merely acting through programming or reacting through hatred but planning and scheming a meticulous interaction with the player.

“L-l-look at you, hacker. A p-p-pathetic creature of meat and bone, panting and sweating as you r-run through my corridors-s” – SHODAN

SHODAN is, if nothing else, one of gamings best villains and one that has endured in the consciousness of gamers for years after the game’s release. There are calls to this day for another System Shock game – including calls from yours truly – and mostly  so we can experience the derision and taunting of her discordant speech again.


You can harass the author on Twitter @CAricHanley. Go on. You know you want to.

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