Photo of some handwritten text which says: "Tess blog …into their image. We pray too for film makers who work in such a powerful industry. Please raise up those who can make a difference for the good."

An Opportunity for Public Education and Understanding:

Exploring the Filmmaker’s Role in the Perception and Reception of AI

Opinion: By Tess Buckley

I went to church in Cambridge last month to visit a distant relative who lectures as a theologian and philosopher. Although not religious, I was curious about what the church service would entail. During the service, a prayer was delivered that illuminated a thought so clearly in my mind – one that had been rattling around my brain for several months. 

This prayer was shared by an elderly member of the community, all dressed in blue (my favourite colour). She spoke with such profound clarity that her words moved me to tears. I rushed to her after the service to ask what inspired her prayer. The woman in blue told me about an interesting practice that she and her husband use to select the films they watch. They pick one director, and then proceed to follow their body of work, watching all the movies that person directed in their lifetime, before moving on to the next. In so doing, they develop an understanding of the director’s worldview, which in turn provides a new perspective on their own conceptions of reality/the world. 

The woman in blue kindly shared the notes she used in her prayer. They read as follows: 

“…Lord we would pray now into a beautiful and dangerous world, asking you please to work might into the hearts and minds of world leaders … [and] into the technological elite who would want to make the world and your human creation into their image. We pray too for filmmakers who work in such a powerful industry. Please raise up those who can make a difference for the good.”

I considered the opportunity for filmmakers in how we collectively perceive artificial intelligence (AI). Namely, the impact of narratives on our perceptions and cultural understanding of various objects. That is what this piece is about. This piece should not read as a call for creative censorship, it is not arguing for the moral necessity of realism in film. Ideally, this piece is instead a showcase of the opportunities (rather than a responsibility) for filmmakers to depict current ethical risks of AI. 

The piece begins by introducing ‘processing fluency’ – the ease with which information flows through the cognitive system and influences memory judgements, and how film and television can heighten perceptions of processing fluency. I will share the current concerning narratives of AI in mainstream film, depicting Hollywood’s fetishisation of AI. Finally, an acknowledgement of filmmakers’ impact and influence on mainstream narratives of AI and their opportunity to guide better practices in and perceptions of AI. 

Through their art, filmmakers possess the profound ability to simplify complexities, instil understanding, and foster hope. Embracing this potential educational mechanism in film, they can pave the way for a future where AI is not feared but comprehended, opening doors to meaningful discussions and informed decisions. Therefore, filmmakers are not just creators; they are educators, shaping a world where AI literacy prevails over fear. “…By defining itself almost exclusively as entertainment, the movie industry conceals the political and ideological nature of the pedagogical work it performs.” Filmmakers can contribute to a more educated public discourse of AI, dispelling unfounded fears and encouraging a more informed, nuanced understanding of AI-related issues. In fulfilling this pursuit of more diverse narratives of AI, filmmakers can support a future where AI is embraced with knowledge and caution, rather than fear due to misinformation and sensationalism.

The Power of Films and Opportunity in Shaping AI Narratives

In the era of AI, the narratives we consume play a pivotal role in shaping our perceptions and perceptions of emerging technologies. “…As a form of public pedagogy, film combines entertainment and politics, and a claim to public memory.” This influence is not just entertainment; it impacts our collective consciousness. However, the current portrayals of AI in mainstream cinema are sometimes oversimplified and/or sensationalised, leading to misconceptions and fears of AI. This essay explores filmmakers’ opportunity to create more informed and nuanced narratives about AI.

Visual information presented in films is easier for the human mind to process than other media forms. The power of images to shape perceptions is well-documented. Through two experimental segments involving a total of 399 and 337 participants, it becomes evident that various cinematic elements in television reports, such as visual content and background scores, contribute to an enhanced sense of processing fluency. Moreover, heightened perceived fluency notably impacts metacognitive judgments, leading viewers to overestimate their grasp of issues depicted in the television report. This cognitive bias is particularly pronounced in situations of low viewer engagement, emphasising the role of the ease-of-processing heuristic in shaping these effects. Viewers tend to trust and believe in what they see, making films a potent tool for influencing public opinion and understanding. 

Mainstream narratives concerning AI & filmmakers’ particular influence are currently dangerous. Having influence entails being in a position to ensure best practices.

Presently, mainstream films often depict AI in crude and exaggerated ways, emphasising dystopian scenarios, humanoid robots, and world domination. These narratives evoke fear, loneliness, and confusion, reinforcing negative stereotypes about AI. Such portrayals can misinform viewers and contribute to public anxiety and apprehension surrounding AI technologies.

Can you remember watching a film where the villain was AI, emerging technology or an embodied form? If so, how did it make you feel, and has it influenced your current perception of AI?

Given their influence, filmmakers have an opportunity to portray AI in a more responsible and accurate light. These narratives may take shape in showcasing tangible harms. This pursuit extends beyond mere entertainment; it encompasses educating the audience about the complexities and nuances of AI, including its benefits, challenges, and ethical implications. 

The power of influence inherently carries the opportunity to inform and educate. Filmmakers, aware of their impact on public perception, must strive for depth in their portrayals of AI. Ethical storytelling demands a comprehensive understanding of the subject matter and a commitment to fostering a balanced discourse.

Filmmakers: Opportunity to create better-informed and more nuanced narratives about AI

And so, I bring us back to the prayer: “…We pray too for filmmakers who work in such a powerful industry. Please raise up those who can make a difference for the good.”

The elder in that Cambridge church service who wore blue was acknowledging how much films had shaped her perspective of the world. The prayer acknowledges the power of storytelling and touches on my concerns about the impact of how AI is presented in movies. 

The influence of films on our perceptions cannot be overstated. As society hurtles toward an AI-driven future, filmmakers bear a significant opportunity. They must transcend the clichés and stereotypes prevalent in mainstream cinema. By crafting narratives that are grounded in reality, and addressing present and tangible AI risks such as bias and privacy concerns, filmmakers can contribute to a more informed public discourse. Embracing this potential responsibility enriches the cinematic landscape and fosters a society that comprehends, appreciates, and engages with technology in a more thoughtful and responsible manner. 

Through storytelling, filmmakers have the power to shape a future where AI is understood, respected, and harnessed for the betterment of humanity. Presenting informed, empathetic, and multidimensional narratives can guide society toward a more nuanced perception of AI. Moving beyond the scapegoating and dystopian pictures prevalent in mainstream media, filmmakers can empower audiences to engage with AI critically. 

Narratives simultaneously give/create meaning and foster hope. Film can be used as a tool to simplify the complexities of AI and empower audiences to attain AI literacy rather than remain fearful of it. 

Recommended Reading

Finally, I would be amiss not to pause and suggest an incredible book titled “AI Narratives: A History of Imaginative Thinking about Intelligent Machines” by Stephen Cave, Kanta Dihal, and Sarah Dillon. It is the first of its kind to delve into the historical evolution of imaginative thinking surrounding intelligent machines. As real AI becomes increasingly integrated into various facets of our lives, this extensive historical narrative significantly influences technology development, deployment, and regulation, making it a vital social and ethical concern. Now, this blog has focused mainly on the influence of film narrative. Still, the suggested novel offers a comprehensive historical overview from ancient Greece to the onset of modernity, exploring the foundational pre-history of contemporary AI discourse. This suggested read showcases the intertwined nature of AI narratives with the actual development of robotics and AI, providing valuable insights into how society might coexist with these machines. 

Read More 

Asimov, I., & Dufris, W. (2007). The caves of steel. Library ed., Unabridged. Tantor Media. 

Bohn, A., & Berntsen, D. (2011). The reminiscence bump reconsidered: Children’s prospective life stories show a bump in young adulthood. Psychological Science, 22(2), 197-202.

Butler, A. C., Zaromb, F. M., Lyle, K. B., & Roediger III, H. L. (2009). Using popular films to enhance classroom learning: The good, the bad, and the interesting. Psychological Science, 20(9), 1161-1168.

Cave S, Dihal K, Dillon S (2020) AI narratives: A history of imaginative thinking about intelligent machines. Oxford University Press, Oxford

McLuhan, M., & Fiore, Q. (2001). The medium is the massage. Gingko Press.

Smith, G. M. (2003). Film structure and the emotion system. Cambridge University Press.

Speer, N. K., Reynolds, J. R., Swallow, K. M., & Zacks, J. M. (2009). Reading stories activates neural representations of visual and motor experiences. Psychological science, 20(8), 989-999. 

Umanath, S., Butler, A. C., & Marsh, E. J. (2012). Positive and negative effects of monitoring popular films for historical inaccuracies. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 26(4), 556-567.

Williams, J. (2018). Stand out of our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy. Cambridge University Press. Doi: 10. 1017/9781108453004

Zacks, J. M. (2015). Flicker: Your brain on movies. Oxford University Press, USA.

Watch More 

Cameron, J. (1984). The Terminator. Orion Pictures.

Curtis, Adam. Lambert, Stephen. (2002). The century of the self. RDF Television, BBC. 

Garland, Alex. (2014). Ex Machina. A24.

Proyas, A. (2004). I, Robot. Twentieth Century Fox.

Ridley Scott, Vangelis & Vangelis. (1982). Blade Runner. Warner Bros.

Spike, Jonze et al.. (2014). Her. Warner Home Video.

Steven Spielberg. (2001). ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: A.I. USA. Wachowski, L., & Wachowski, L. (1999). The Matrix. Warner Bros.

Tess is an Artificial Intelligence (AI) ethicist, strategist and musician. She completed a Master of Arts in AI and Philosophy from Northeastern University London, where she specialised in biotechnologies and ableism. Her primary research interests include AI literacy, AI music systems, the impact of AI on disability rights and the portrayal of AI in media. In particular, she seek to use philosophical principles to make emerging technologies explainable, and ethical. Her personal website can be found here.