Fiction Science Club

‘The Creator’: Get a reality check on AI at the movies

Over the next 50 years, will humanity become too attached to the artificial-intelligence agents that dictate the course of our lives? Or is forming a deep attachment the only way we’ll survive?

Those are the sorts of questions raised by “The Creator,” Hollywood’s latest take on the potential for a robo-apocalypse. It’s a subject that has inspired a string of Terminator and Matrix movies as well as real-world warnings from the likes of Elon Musk and the late Stephen Hawking.

How close does “The Creator” come to the truth about AI’s promise and peril? We conducted a reality check with a panel of critics who are familiar with AI research and the ways in which that research percolates into popular culture. Their musings are the stuff of the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast.

Semi-spoiler alert: We’ve tried to avoid giving away any major plot points, but if you’re obsessive about spoilers, turn away now — and come back after you’ve seen “The Creator.”

“The Creator” is directed and co-written by Gareth Edwards, who previously achieved box-office success with the Star Wars spin-off movie “Rogue One.” During a Los Angeles preview event, Edwards joked that the plot of his latest movie was ripped from the headlines.

“The trick with AI is to get the timing,” he said, “and there’s a sweet-spot window where it’s like before the robo-apocalypse and not after that, which I think is in November, maybe December. And so I think we really got lucky, you know?”

Edwards said he tried to avoid writing a date into the film’s script. “But at some point you had to, and so I did some maths and I picked 2070 … and now I feel like an idiot, because I should have gone for 2023.”

There’s a germ of concern in Edwards’ joke: AI chatbots like ChatGPT and Bard are taking the tech world by storm. One of Elon Musk’s ventures, Neuralink, is developing implantable brain-computer interfaces (and generating controversy). Autonomous cars and humanoid robots are on the rise. Will autonomous weapons be next?

“The Creator” imagines a world where various breeds of robots and humanlike androids (known as “simulants”) explode a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles, and then take refuge from a U.S.-led counterattack in an AI-friendly nation called New Asia (which incorporates settings in Asian countries ranging from Thailand to Nepal).

Ranjay Krishna, an assistant professor at the University of Washington who specializes in studying AI-human interaction, says he found the movie to be entertaining, even though the technology doesn’t reflect current trends in AI applications.

“There were a lot of explosions, a lot of fighting. It’s definitely an action movie,” he says. “I found the general sort of depiction of AI quite different from how we typically build the AI models and think about AI today. For example, what I found most interesting was, in the movie, every single AI was embodied. They were in a specific body and were disconnected from all the other AIs.”

In the movie, the AIs show no evidence that they could link up through the cloud, or that they could hook into a surveillance network robust enough to track down the human hero of the movie (played by John David Washington).

But the AIs do show themselves to be capable of religious observances — including funeral rites for those who fall in battles with the humans. In one scene, a New Asia villager tells the human marauders that they have less humanity than the AIs. “They have bigger hearts,” the villager says. “You can’t beat AI. It’s evolution.”

Speaking of evolution, Kurt Schlosser, who covers the Geek Life beat for GeekWire, was hoping to see a more way-out vision of AI. “I wanted to see that technology taken to 2065, or whenever this was supposed to be set,” he says. “I mean, it’s moving at such a fast pace right now, at least seemingly so in our current world. How could it not be so much further along 40 years from now?”

Cathy Yuan — a designer and researcher who co-wrote a paper on large language models as part of a team including Krishna, her husband — appreciated the style of the movie more than its substance.

“It was very beautiful, but it was clumsy,” she says. “It was clumsy in its treatment of technology. It was clumsy in its treatment of plot and character. But very, very nice to watch. In some parts, it felt like if I turn my brain off a little bit and think of it as a music video, then I was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing.'”

Schlosser, Krishna and Yuan
The film review panel for “The Creator” includes GeekWire’s Kurt Schlosser, University of Washington computer scientist Ranjay Krishna and Cathy Yuan, a designer and researcher. (Credits: GeekWire, UW and LinkedIn)

So how does “The Creator” rate? Here are the edited comments from our reviewers, with separate grades given on a 1-to-10 scale for relevance to today’s AI trends and for sheer entertainment value:

AI researcher Ranjay Krishna: “I would give it a 1 out of 10 in terms of how it depicts AI vs. what AI actually is, and where it’s headed and what kinds of problems we think about. I was entertained, so I would give it a high entertainment score. I would easily give it 7 out of 10.” Krishna’s hot take: “I didn’t understand why some of the technology was so advanced, and a lot of it was so far back. We were looking at cathode ray monitors … and then we were looking at these mouse-and-keyboard things, and then it would jump to these AR/VR interactions.”

Designer and researcher Cathy Yuan: “One out of 10 in terms of how accurately it portrayed AI. Five out of 10 in terms of entertainment, though I do really like Gemma Chan, so I feel a little bit bad about that score.” Yuan’s hot take: “All the AI should have been able to communicate with each other telepathically, because they don’t need to talk. That would’ve been a cool technology.”

GeekLife correspondent Kurt Schlosser: “I would defer to the AI experts on the grading of where we’re at, but I guess I’ll go a little higher. I’ll give it a 2 or 3, just because I think all the Amazon robots are going to rise up and break out of the warehouse. From an entertainment perspective, I’m in the 7 to 8 range. I wanted it to go a little deeper and get rid of some of the cliche stuff, like the goofy army leader and the throwbacks to ‘Aliens’ where they’re all hyped up to go raid this village. But I love the way it looked and sounded.” Schlosser’s hot take: “The tech was at times a little rudimentary, considering that we are so afraid of it. Some of the robots, it was like Keystone Cops in certain scenes. Shouldn’t these things be programmed without any error potential to just kill at will, if that’s what they’re designed to do?”

For what it’s worth, I’m giving “The Creator” a 5 on the AI applicability scale, because it can spark the kind of deep discussion you can listen to in the podcast — including my musings over whether the AIs could someday become a new type of cyber-biological species. In the movie, the goofy Army captain (played by Allison Janney) hints at just such a scenario when she brings up the case of the Neanderthals. “We raped and murdered them out of existence,” she says.

As for entertainment value, I would give it a 7. If you’re a fan of “Rogue One,” “Avatar” or “Westworld,” you’ll like this movie, especially if you see it at an IMAX theater.

One caveat: The way the New Asia villagers are treated in the movie by fictional U.S. soldiers reminded me too much of scenes from Vietnam War coverage — which makes me wonder how modern-day Asian audiences will react. That concern has nothing to do with the present state of AI, but everything to do with the present state of humanity.

“In terms of the coherence of the plot itself and the lack of respect for other cultures, I think that’s something the movie could work on,” Krishna said.

Cosmic Log Used Book Club

For more than two decades, the CLUB Club has highlighted books with cosmic themes that have been around long enough to show up at your local library or secondhand book shop. This time, we’re passing along a couple of video recommendations from Yuan.

Psycho-Pass poster
“Psycho-Pass” is a Japanese anime series. (Production I.G.)

“There’s a really great anime that Ranjay and I love called ‘Psycho-Pass,’” she says. “Essentially, they have this all-knowing AI that supposedly knows everything and makes a decision about whether or not someone is a criminal. If anyone’s interested, that’s a pretty great series. Mostly Season 1 and 2. Season 3 was pretty bad.”

Yuan’s other recommendation is “Ghost in the Shell,” which made its screen debut as a Japanese anime film in 1995 and was remade as a live-action movie starring Scarlett Johansson in 2017. Yuan thinks “Ghost in the Shell” has a visual style similar to “The Creator.”

“I’m a huge anime nerd, so I felt like I saw a lot of callbacks or inspiration from things like ‘Ghost in the Shell,'” she says.

If anime isn’t your cup of tea, “Her” and “Ex Machina” are movies that deliver great AI sci-fi without bringing on the apocalypse.

“The Creator” is playing in theaters nationwide. “AI Gets Real” is the theme for this year’s GeekWire Summit, which is scheduled Oct. 19 at the former Cinerama Theater in Seattle. One of the sessions will be a fireside chat with Oscar-nominated “Arrival” screenwriter Eric Heisserer and award-winning sci-fi author Ted Chiang. Check out the Summit website to learn more and register for the event.

Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify,, Pocket Casts and Radio Public. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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