The Artificial: Artificiality Life and Reality in Film

The Artificial: Artificiality Life and Reality in Film

The goal of the class is to examine the concept of the artificiality through science-fiction films. Each week will examine a different aspect of the human experience and the ramifications of them being artificially created. Along with philosophical aspects, there will be as many real world examples as possible.

The class will examine two main focuses:

  1. What role can artificial intelligence/beings do with our lives. Will they be properly implemented or will we become estranged to our creations?
  2. Beyond that I want to explore the metaphysical aspect. What can the artificial tell us about our everyday lives?

For the purposes of the course, the artificial refers to something that is created by humans or indirectly by humans through computers. Examples would include artificial intelligence or artificial beings. Androids or man-made machines capable and thinking like humans. Beyond the mechanical we will look at the how altering the mind with human-created memories can alter someone’s perception of reality. Then we will move beyond the body and examine how reality could be artificially created using computer simulation.

The dawning of computers has brought on a new form philosophy that would have been hard to imagine before computers. As a result, this is a contemporary look at the artificial and what possibilities could arise in the future.

Already we have seen real world simulators with video games like The Sims, Second Life and Civilization. Currently we are living in times where technology innovations happen quicker. As result computers are moving faster and faster. What possibilities lay ahead if computers get exponentially faster and faster? Will the artificial life, memories and realities become facets of our every day lives?

Another reason that it is important to look at this topic idea is that computers and technology is advancing at a rapid pace. It is important to discuss where technology leading and is that really a good thing. While fear of science outpacing us is a fear established in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we are seeing new and wondrous ways that science could actually develop into terrible scenarios. Is advancement in technology at any cost good for human civilization? In the course we will move from individual beings like androids to larger scope like the creation of simulated worlds and realities. Are we creating a monster that will end up destroying us?

Also, does creating life-like beings with the same mental perceptions as us devalue the human experience? To take it a step further, what if life is only artificial? If the possiblity comes along that we could create a reality, would humans be able to decipher between a simulation or reality? The concept of creating artificial life and reality has long rearching effects because no one is really sure where computers and technology will advance to.

Through the course I want to explore how artificial elements can alter our lives and our perception of reality. There are four internal different aspects – intelligence, consciousness, memories and our perception of reality. All these elements are actually part of the brain. We all understand what we mean when we say those words but what about if we took a look at it in hypothetical situations. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Spielberg 2001) shows a real life scenario of how intelligence would work within a machine. A.I. Is a good place to start because while the character of David is capable of emotions, it is because he is programmed that way. He is seeking for his mother because that is prime his directive; to love and be loved. In the second week we take it a step further, what if artificial life could think and feel for it self? I Robot (Proyas 2004) explores the idea of a machine having self-awareness. Intelligence is one facet of the human mind, what if they were able think like us? I, Robot is of course an extreme example but it does begin to show that questions of morality and responsibility when it comes to the development of thinking robots. Within the first two weeks the readings are introductions into both artificial intelligence and artificial consciousness. They explain the possibility in a real world setting, why these technologies would be developed and possibly how. Most importantly they look at the philosophical aspects of creating and using the artificial into society.

Total Recall (Verhoeven 1990) and Dark City (Proyas 1998) both examine with the idea of artificial memories. Total Recall is more about how memory shapes our identity and reality. In Dark City there is a much more metaphysical aspect to memory, that on top of artificial memories, we begin to see a reality that is also artificially created. While both deal with memories, we moving away aspects of the mind into the construction of reality. The films show the implications of what artificial memories and how important memories are to our identity. Both films provoke the question, what if your memories were implanted? While this may not be a dangerous real-life scenario one has to ask is there a need for artificial memories? If so, what are they. Both articles examine the idea of memory within the film but also have further real-life implications and the role of memory plays in media. They also discuss specifically how memory plays well into both films

Following the lead of Dark City we begin to move into the creation of reality. In the fourth week we look at The Nines (August 2007) which is a film about the realities that computer can create. Everyone within the realities, including the main character are artificial beings. In order to ground this concept into real world applications, we turn to the concept of parallel universes which is a prevalent theme in The Nines. We take a look at the theory of those universes and one can draw an analogy of a computer running multiple programs at once which is exactly what the read is about. We look at the idea that if the reality is a computer program, it could account for the multiple universes, they are artificial simulations. And if there are many of these simulations, would it not be possible that we are in fact a simulation as well?

In our last week we look at that very question, is life a computer simulation? The Matrix (Wachowski and Wachowski 1999) is the accumulation of all material we have looked at through in the course. There is artificial intelligence and consciousness which are the Sentientals and the Agents. Artificial and collective memory are a major theme in the film through the construction of the Matrix. People see what is programmed into their mind. Finally it is about different realities and computer simulation. The Matrix, which to most people is reality, however there is a universe outside the Matrix that is terrifying. Despite all these far-out ideas, The Matrix handles all them in a way that is easy to understand. It shows the danger of letting technology getting too far ahead of us and end up enslaving us. Besides the fear of domination from artificial really questions what is real and what is artificial.

When it comes to the assignment, I would like students to make a campaign to oppose or support robot rights. I wanted to make the interactive activity something that would prove we really exist. However, that concept is too big and complicated to even tackle. Instead, the best time for the assignment would be after week two before we move into artificial applications within the human mind and the possibility of artificial reality. Instead, the assignment will be to focus on issues raised in the first two films dealing with artificial intelligence and artificial consciousness. The assignment will either be a campaign speech or video either promoting or fighting against equal rights for robots. Along with that, they need to pick a media object to re-appropriate for propaganda.

I chose this activity because it has real world applications. It is taking a process, like an electoral house and adjusting it to the idea of artificial life. It allows students to explore further the difference between organic intelligence and artificial intelligence. It allows them to either justify or condemn the moral dilemma of the responsibility in creating an artificial consciousness that is able to think on its own.

By doing it in a campaign style it also allows students to expand their knowledge of artificial minds and expanding the moral complications into other fields of expertise instead of just film. It can reach into more real world applications. Also, students can make other comparisons that were unfortunately outside the scope of course.

The second part of the assignment relates more to the film. It allows students to take any media object they would like and explain why it speaks for their position on robot rights.

The assignment targets the first two weeks of classes, however it does carry on into later weeks. One of the themes that begins to appear in the final three weeks of class is the idea of superior being that can manipulate time and reality because of their skills. Does promoting robot rights and advancement lead to this danger?

Week 1: Introduction


  1. McCarthy, John and Patrick J. Hayes (1969). “Some Philosophical Problems from the Standpoint of Artificial Intelligence.” Computer Science Department. Stanford, CA : Stanford University. P. 1-9
  2. Youtube (2011). IBM Watson: Watson After Jeopardy!. IBM. Uploaded February, 2011. (Runs 4.36 mins)

Screening Assignment: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (Spielberg, 2001)

Syllabus Explanation:

In this first week we take a look at the very basic question of what is artificial intelligence. This is to explore the limits and boundaries of development of this intelligence. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence will be screened because it is a good application of artificial intelligence. The film shows what possibilities could possibly arise from developing technology that thinks similar to the way we do.

The film follows an prototype-android named David who learns how to love. The child is never meant to grow old and love the parents unconditionally. The film is excellent for show the ambiguity of the morality when it comes to artificial intelligence. The film questions what separates humans from artificial beings, especially when it comes to the heightened intelligence of a being.

As for the readings, I chose the first one as a basic understanding of artificial intelligence and how it was hopefully going to be developed first. It is an older article, (40 years old) but I think that makes it all the more interesting. It explains why philosophy is important when looking at artificial intelligence. Then it goes on to explain what would be needed for artificial intelligence to be work and functional in society. It sets the fundamental assessment and gives an interesting historical aspect.

The Youtube video that is assigned is about IBM’s Watson computer which is probably the most sophisticated example of A.I. In a real-world setting. The short video discusses the possibilities and the future of A.I. When it comes to things like health care and customer service.

Week 2: Artificial Consciousness


  1. Chrisley, Rob (2008). “Philosophical foundations of artificial consciousness.” Artificial Intelligence in Medicine. Brighton, United Kingdom : Elsevier B.V. P. 119-137.

Screening Assignment: I, Robot (Proyas, 2004)

Syllabus Explanation:

This week we move away from intelligence to the consciousness. Artificial consciousness (AC) and self-awareness is a major theme that runs throughout dystopian rise of the machine films like in our film this week I, Robot. What if a robot could do more than just think? What problems arise from giving consciousness to an artificial mind?

I, Robot deals with the idea of robots or artificial life becoming conscious and self-aware. The film is about Del Spooner, a detective who is investigating a murder which may have been committed by a robot. The story is famous for introducing Isaac Asimov three laws of Robotics

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

In the film it raises an interesting question that was also raised last week. Do artificial life have any rights? If they were conscious, would they have the right to self-preservation? If they are conscious and can think for their self, would we even have a choice if they want survival?

In Chrisley’s article he begins to examine the philosophical and practical problems of dealing with artificial consciousness. During the first part of the essay, he examines the difference between AI and AC which is important because the mind is more than a set of intelligence. Consciousness involves learning and the awareness that one exists. Another important aspect that Chrisley talks about is the difference between Strong and Weak AC which is a big debate amongst AI philosophers. Strong AI/AC would entail creating intelligence or consciousness that would match or exceed human levels. Chrisley, introduces a theory of “lagom” AC. Which roughly means creating AC that is the best fit for society. Not stopping at weak AC but not getting into Science-fiction horror that is suggested in this week’s film.

Chrisley then goes on to talk about the motivation for creating AC would be. It is important that he highlights that we do not understand how human consciousness involves but points out with the development of AC, we could better understand our own minds. He also points out that the field of AC, like consciousness itself has many facets and many purposes. Therefore there is not clear motivation but the vastness of the options gives are interesting perspectives on our own consciousness and the possibilities that science may give us in the future.

One of the things that sets humans apart from other animals is our intelligence and our consciousness. If both can be artificially created what would separate humans from machines? If a robot can think like we do, should they have the same rights as people? What role will they play in our society? Is Chrisley correct when choosing lagom style of consciousness? Is there even reason to create artificial consciousness?

Assignment: Appease the machines?

Scenario: The rise of the robots has happened. A lot more peaceful than depicted than in this week’s class. Androids of all shapes and sizes (not just humanoid) are capable of thinking and acting like a human. Because of Robot Activist, any machine created that has consciousness and intelligence to make decisions has been given the right to vote.

Of course, this is incredibly controversial and there many people on the fringes. It is a given that Robots will vote for a party that will favour them. The only thing left to do to ensure equal rights for machines is for them for the pro-robot party to win.

Your task: You are a highly sought after Campaign manager when it comes to the Robot vote. You just have to decide what campaign you are going to join. The Robot and Android Collation (RCA) or Humans Come First (HCF). There is no wrong party to join as long as you can justify your beliefs.

Your campaign involves two different parts:

  1. Create a credible speech or campaign video for your candidate. Remember, he or she is going to be speaking to the public so all sources must be accredited. Your goal is to convince people to vote for your party. Feel free to be as outrageous and be as inflammatory as you like, as long as you can back up what you say with valid arguments (false arguments could be more devastating to your own campaign). Also, any subject related to the rights of robots is fair game. If you can effectively argue beyond morality please feel free to use economic, cultural, historical examples. Your speech or video should be about ten minutes long.
  2. Propaganda can be the most effective tool in an election. For your party pick a media object (movie, TV series, music, book and etc.) and re-appropriate it for your party’s needs. Write about 1000 words explaining why you chose the item and what is effective from it. Explain what themes you will focus on and how you will ingrain that your campaign.

Week 3: Artificial Memories


  1. Landsberg, Allison (1995). “Prosthetic Memory: Total Recall and Blade Runner.” Body & Society 1.3-4. London, United Kingdom : SAGE. P. 175-89.

Screening Assignment: Total Recall (Verhoeven, 1990)

Syllabus Explanation:

This week we will look at that is part of the brain and another part of the human experience that separates our existence from most other creatures: our memory. I want to explore the concept that memories could artificially be implanted. Of course there is the concept that we are shaped and molded by our memories. It is indelible part of the human experience.

Total Recall is about a man named Doug Quaid who constantly dreams of Mars but has never been there. He goes to a company “Rekall” which specializes in implanting memories, to have a memories of a vacation to mars implanted. Things go wrong when the Rekall technicians accidentally uncover memories that had been erased. This of course causes Hauser to question his identity and reality. This film is a great introduction into ideas later in the week because it shows how fragile our understanding is. With a few alterations to our brain, we could be living a vastly different life.

Total Recall is a great example of this because it shows two very different aspects of false memory. There is the aspect that there might be a benefit for altering someone’s memories. For example there is the idea that training simulation can be implanted in someone’s head. Or horrific memories could be erased from someone’s mind to help victims of post-traumatic stress. However, it also shows the dangers of it because our identity is linked so closely to identity.

This week we begin to move away from the technical and practical aspects of mind and technology and into more philosophical applications of the artificial.

To guide this week, we will use an unprovable philosophical concept: is the first today the first day your life? All the memories you have are simply implanted and everything around you are just props for the false memories. This week is on the philosophical aspects and the theme of memory in both Total Recall and Blade Runner.

This article is a nice hybrid of themes. It not only involves the idea of fake memories, but the history of the concept in films. Including the Fredric Jameson’s notion that films that are more nostalgic and they “invoke a sense of ‘pastness’ instead of engaging with ‘real history’” (177). Then she also presents Jean Baudrillard’s notion, which is that media has altered our memories because of its invasive influence. In addition to that it also talks about how fluid are “real” memories can be influenced by the images and ideas. Are those memories still “real” even if they have been altered by your own mind? An interesting idea that also arises is that, that movies are “events” in our mind. It also touches on Postmodern theory without getting too in depth.

An important idea that Landsberg discusses is how important memory is to our lives . “We rely on our memories to validate our experiences. The experience of memory actually becomes the index of experience; if we have the memory, we must have had the experience it represents.” (176) Meaning how we identify ourselves is because of the things we have experienced. “…memory emerges as a generative force, a force which propels us not backward but forwards” (176). It is important for humans to remember and learn from our experiences, it is one of the reasons the human species has evolved to the point where we are now. Landsberg goes into detail about the the philosophical aspects of false memory.

In his discussion of the film Total Recall makes a case for why memory is such an important part to identity. It also presents an interesting concept, does it matter if identity is authentic? If you do not have any concept that it is artificial, does it matter?

It is also important to read the section on Blade Runner despite it not being screened in class. One major reason is that both source texts were written by Philip K. Dick and both show the bond between identity and memory. Also Blade Runner deals with androids which of course ties in with movies we have already watched in the weeks prior.

Week 4: Collective Artificial Memory


  1. Blackmore, Tim (2004). “High on Technology; Low on Memory: Cultural Crisis in Dark City and the Matrix.” Toronto, Ontario. Canadian Review of American Studies 34.1 : P. 13-54

Screening Assignment: Dark City (Proyas, 1998)

Syllabus Explanation:

This week we begin the shift away from the individual mind into our own perception of reality. One flaw from the prior week is that we can prove our past happened because other people have shared memories with us. That is why this week we will take it a step further, what if all everyone’s memories were implanted and reality is staged? This of course is the existential problem that arises in Dark City.

Dark City moves away from the interior artificial that we saw in Total Recall to the more elaborate staging of reality. Dark City is about John Murdoch who is struggling with memories that do not seem quite real. Through the course of the movie, Murdoch discovers that there are aliens behind the scenes of reality that alter our everyday life. Dark City is a good introduction because it has a very mechanical, gear driven reality machine before moving into the complexities that computers can introduce. The themes students should take into consideration is the construction of reality mixed with influence artificial memories.

Building on the concepts from last week, Blackmore adds a new concept that will begin that will run through the remainder of the course – collective memory. In Total Recall Hauser/Quaid has been injected with memories so he questions his own identity. With collective memory, it is the idea that everyone’s memory is connected in some artificial way like we have seen in Dark City. Is it possible that our existence only happened because of memory was implanted in everyone?

In Blackmore’s essay, we are introduced to the concept of the world “world machine” Which is exactly what it sounds like, there is a machine/computer that has created our reality and this concept will be explored in more depths during the final two classes.

Similar to last week there is no proof to back up this theory so this week takes a look at the theme and the imagery within the film. “The point now is that like each morning’s waking, these moments of return to the world are psychic acts of turning, from passivity to action, from horror to the daily business of staying alive— as if one turned one’s actual gaze from left to right, from darkness to possible light” (Des Pres 98 in Blackmore 21). A major focus of the writing is the concept of sleep and the idea of waking up. The recollection of where we are and who we are in the morning before facing the new day.

Blackmore continues to discuss how the working pieces of Dark City shows a different form of reality. “The city, a postmodern collage (‘stolen memories, different eras, different pasts’), reveals the human interior in its variety, conflict, personality, habit, and ritual. There is no escape from the memory city, except in personal forgetfulness” (Blackmore 34). We see reality as time always moving forward, but Dark City presents the idea of a patchwork of time and places that can be adjusted by the time machine. It also presents the idea that we would have no concept of this because

Blackmore points out what type of being do we have within our culture that could alter time and space? Who has that much control over our lives and with all possibilities, created us? Of course, I am speaking of God (or the at least the concept of God). This is where Blackmore delves into the concept that technology is religion, which explains how a data-hacker can be a considered a Christ life figure and programmer could be considered God-like. This will be an important concept that will be continued in next week’s class.

Week 5: Computers and the Multiverse


  1. R.R. Dantas; A. Burlamaqui; S.O. Azevedo; J. Melo; C.A. Schneider; J. Xavier; L. Goncalves (2009). “Virtual multiverse: Interperception in multiple virtual universes.” IEEE International Conference on Virtual Environments, Human-Computer Interfaces and Measurements Systems. Piscataway, New Jersey : VECIM. P. 277-281.
  1. The Universe 3.2: Parallel Universes (Berkemeier, 2008)
  2. Youtube (2009). Quantum Computers and Parallel Universes. ForaTV. Uploaded August 19, 2009. (Runs 4.19 mins)

Screening Assignment: The Nines (August, 2007)

Syllabus Explanation:

In the prior weeks, we have looked at possible scenarios with philosophical implications. This week we will return to the realm of the ‘real’ to look at quantum physics. This week we will look at the concept of parallel universes and the role that computers may play in them.

The Nines has three characters all played by Ryan Reynolds as they begin to deal with metaphysical problems like alternate realities and the nature of identity within those reality. The end of the film we discover that the three characters are actually one being, which is a Nine. He has been playing a video game for 4,000 years, creating a different being to interact with humans in a computer simulated world. This film was chosen because it moves to a more complex reality machine and presents the idea of parallel universes which is an actual theory in quantum physics and will be explored in the documentary for this week’s assignment.

From last week, we read about the notion of technology as a religion and a programmer as God. However, The Nines has another concept that physicists believe to be real – parallel universes. The idea of parallel universes is not a foreign concept to computers. For example, a computer program that can run multiple simulations at once is a good analogy to parallel universes. They run with the similar material but do not interact with each other.

This week there are three different texts that can all be linked together through the notion that computers and parallel universes may have an actual relationship. This week the

The essay is a good place to start because it explains where contemporary thought on having one avatar to play different games. It explains the concept of using the same avatar to go on to different computer programs. It is an interesting concept and a computer is a good analogy for multiverse theory. A computer can run different programs at different times, but none of them really interfere or mesh together (unless the product is designed that way). For example, if you are watching a movie and playing a game, the characters from one cannot appear in the other because they are separate universes.

From video games, it is now important to make a jump to the quantum physics theory of parallel universes. The History Channel’s program The Universe and the episode entitled “Parallel Universes” will be assigned because it is a fairly recent documentary that explains the complexities of the theory in an easy to understand language. It goes into detail about the four types of possible parallel universes. One includes the idea that there is another earth just like us but so far away we cannot see. The second scenario is each universe is in a soap bubble surrounded by other universes (similar to blood cells). Another is that we cannot see the parallel universes because they are in different dimensions. This is the many world scenario that is similar to the analogy of a simulation being run. Microscopic changes, like alterations in the simulations can alter reality can change the path completely. Finally there is the idea the physics in other universes that we cannot recognize it.

Which leads to the second video, quantum computers, which uses atoms to do it’s calculations. As a result, the more powerful it gets it will do it in alternate realities. This of course leads to the second example where computers and parallel universes come together. A quantum computer uses atoms instead of binary code. How quantum computers do calculations is possibly by using parallel universe, with atoms disappearing into other dimensions.

The idea of the computer simulation and the multiverse can be seen as complimenting theories. One perhaps can be used to explain the other. This should tie back into the film because of the many worlds that theory that is played out in the movie. However it is set in practical grounds before asking the ultimate question, is life a computer simulation?

Week 6: Is life a computer program?

Reading: 1) Bostorm, Nick (2003). “Are we living in a computer simulation?” The Philosophical Quarterly. Malden, Maine : Blackwell Publishing. P. 243-255

Screening Assignment: The Matrix (Wachowski and Wachowski, 1999)

Syllabus Explanation:

From artificial intelligence to collective consciousness to computer generated reality, no movie embodies these themes more than The Matrix. While the film is one of the most popular of recent times, it is important to focus on the techno-philosophic questions that arise in the film. The movie asks the question more boldly than any other on this syllabus. Is reality just a computer program?

Going back to the first three weeks, we looked at the possibilities that facets of the human mind could be computer generated. So you and everyone you could be artificially created by a programmer. That everything you know and the collective history of the world was just programmed into our memories. Is it possible our life started the last time we blinked? Avatars in video games are not aware they characters. If the game is paused, stop or started they would have no concept like if time was frozen. Then last week we looked at the parallels between computer programs and the multiverse theory. This week we read an article that questions those parallels between reality and computers.

Bostorm’s article has three guiding questions: “(1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation” (243). With those three guiding principles he sets about exploring the possibility that are reality is really a world machine.

Bostorm starts off the article by explaining that our minds work very much like a computer does, our brain has electricity with synapses turning on and off to send code to the rest of our body to do something, not unlike binary code. He even gives computer figures as to what it type of computer would be needed to run a simulation that would encompass the human brain. If then goes beyond to what it would take to create a computer system that encompasses a solar system. “While it is not possible to get a very exact estimate of the cost of a realistic simulation of human history, we can use ~1033 – 1036 operations as a rough estimate” (247).

One argument he uses against the idea we are living in a computer simulation is that extinction of humankind could happen and it is not possible we can make it to posthuman to run any computer simulations of the past. He calls this simulations which he calls ancestor-simulators. Meaning that a simulation of the past can be run like a computer program and for us, that is reality. Since it is possible more than one of ancestor-simulators could be run links to the multiverse theory. Different ancestor-simulators are being run at the same time.

In his interpretation section he discusses the possibility of all three of his scenarios but spends most of his time on the third. Explaining that there must be a convergence of society on certain matters, such as is it immoral to create human existence? To put it into perspective, are we concerned in how we treat video game characters?

Another possibility that he points out with ancestor-simulators is the idea that the simulation is only run for one person or a small group of people. Everyone else would simply be “zombies”. Like Dark City we see that the only home you have may be your own mind. The article gives a pretty comprehensive look at what possibilities lie ahead and philosophical look into why we might be in a computer simulation. Because the theory is impossible to test or confirm, it simply gives the reader something to ponder in regards to their own existence.


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