Five things 'Chappie' gets right, and wrong, about AI

Take Johnny 5 from Short Circuit, add a dash of Wall-E and a bit of badass swagger from RoboCop and you've got Chappie, the star of Neill Blomkamp's latest film. He's the first robot to achieve consciousness in a near future where other, less smart bots are taking on the grunt work of policing. But instead of being recognized as a major scientific breakthrough, he ends up being raised by a group of gangsters (led by Ninja and Yolandi Visser of Die Antwoord), after being created in secret by a brilliant engineer (Dev Patel). While the film, unfortunately, isn't quite up to par with Blomkamp's breakout hit, District 9, it still brings up some interesting points when it comes to the eventual rise of artificial intelligence.

We won't have any clue how to train AI

Once Chappie is "born," he's like a scared and helpless animal -- which doesn't make much sense when you think about it. After all, why would he even be afraid of humans? And it wouldn't have been hard to give him access to basic language skills. A quick jaunt around the future internet could be enough to teach an AI about most languages in an instant. Of course, there will be plenty about training AI that will totally catch us by surprise -- we'd effectively be creating new lifeforms, after all -- Chappie just seems to tackle that in a very simplistic way.

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We're actually going to care about our intelligent machines

It doesn't take long for Chappie to make us empathize with its starring bot. He's neglected, and even abused, by the people closest to him. And his childlike demeanor makes his struggles throughout the film truly heartbreaking. Humans have the fascinating ability to anthropomorphize and empathize with just about anything. If you've ever named your car or computer, or if you've yelled at your Roomba for misbehaving, you've done it too. The film is a reminder that we won't have any trouble bonding with AI-powered machines -- that is until they get way too smart.

General AI may beget super-intelligent AI on its own

There are three different ways we can classify AI. Artificial narrow intelligence (ANI), also known as "weak AI," can be found in plenty of modern gadgetry, including your smartphone and car. It describes things like Siri, which is smarter than traditional software, but only up to a point. Artificial general intelligence (AGI), or "strong AI," matches human intelligence, and it adds in things like true consciousness and self-awareness. Obviously, that's something we're still working toward. And then there's artificial superintelligence (ASI), which describes something that's vastly smarter than genius-level humans in every respect. ASI is the driving force behind the technological singularity, the notion bandied about by futurists that tech will eventually surpass human capabilities and understanding. (Want to learn more about AI? Check out this excellent primer from Wait But Why, as well as Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom.)

The dumb robot cops in Chappie are a decent example of weak AI, whereas Chappie himself is the stronger counterpart. It's not spoiling much to say that he eventually gets smarter over the course of the film -- to the point where we may even consider Chappie superintelligent. And while it may just seem convenient for the film's plot, many researchers believe that's AI will be able to evolve itself through a process called recursive self-improvement, which describes their ability to constantly make their software better.

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They're going to piss off a lot of humans

This one's pretty obvious, as computer automation is already taking away plenty of jobs from humans. In Chappie, Hugh Jackman's character has a blinding hatred for the widespread use of robots. His solution? Create a hulking, man-powered monstrosity that resembles the ED-209 from RoboCop, and pitch it as a more humane alternative to soulless robots. It's just too bad that the robot cops in the film, from what we see at least, seem to be doing a fine job.

AI will create things we've never even dreamed of

For a movie about one cute robot, Chappie ends up diving into some seriously intriguing metaphysical territory in its last act. I won't spoil it entirely here, but let's just say it really makes you question the nature of consciousness. It's a reminder that, while many are worried about the negative impact of superintelligent machines, including the likes of Bill Gates and Elon Musk, they'll likely end up making significant technological breakthroughs of their own. Let's just hope we're able to keep up.

[Photo credits: Columbia Pictures (Chappie)]