Demonstration of the Shifting Societal Perceptions toward Artificial Intelligence in the film Moon

By Joshua Randall

Complicated, contradictory depictions of Artificial Intelligence (AI) dominate science fiction narratives, but the character Gerty from Moon demonstrates a recent trend toward more positive depictions. Gerty takes a supportive role as main character Sam’s caretaker and subverts many conventions of AI established by films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey. His ultimate sacrifice of his memory on Sam’s behalf highlights this positive shift, a shift echoed in subsequent films like Robot and Frank.

The subject of Artificial Intelligence (AI), the concept of computers developing to a point that they gain human levels intelligence (or greater) has played a large role in science fiction narratives over the past fifty years. Capturing the imagination of the public and critical community, the topic has proved fertile ground for science fiction. One such recent narrative, and the topic of this essay, is the film Moon, directed by Duncan Jones. Moon and other science fiction narratives serve as helpful apparatuses through which to understand certain societal anxieties concerning AI, as well as the general and critical perception of AI. The first reactions seen in science fiction toward AI were generally positive, for these narratives viewed AI as a way to solve problems. Over time, however, the discussion took a more contradictory turn. In narratives, AI was a complicated subject, with depictions ranging from AI becoming malevolent and overthrowing its human overlords to humans merging with AI. James Bell defines this merging of technology and humanity as “the technological singularity” (when artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence), a theory that makes up a significant portion of the critical discussion concerning AI. The discussion hinges around a theoretical moment in which AI advances to a point where it is more intelligent than its creator (humans). Will AI replace humans? Merge with them? Transcend to a new species? Much of the ambivalence toward AI and technology is related to this discussion, and Bell embodies a large, pessimistic portion of this conversation.

Some recent science fiction narratives have shown a shift in attitude toward AI and a turn from pessimistic attitudes regarding singularity. These narratives have portrayed AI in positive light, a reflection of the increasing prevalence and acceptance of technology in society. This perceptual shift is powerfully demonstrated in Duncan Jones’s 2009 film Moon. The film’s positive treatment of an AI character is most indicative of this perceptual shift. The film consists of two main characters: Sam, a human overseeing mining operations on a moon base who is, unbeknownst to him, a clone (one in a series of clones discarded and replaced every three years by the mining corporation); and Gerty, an AI who operates as Sam’s caretaker. Moon takes advantage of many assumptions that the audience brings to the theater concerning AI to better illustrate Gerty’s ultimately revealed good nature. Gerty represents a perceptual shift in several ways. Gerty is a strong AI, capable of making decisions and thinking for himself, yet operates solely to help Sam. Gerty makes his decisions based on Sam’s own personal welfare, even when it means revealing the corporate apparatus that has kept the clone Sams hostage. At the film’s conclusion, Gerty even chooses to wipe his own memory instead of turning Sam over to their corporate bosses. Gerty reflects the changing audience perceptions of AI by subverting many of science fiction’s AI tropes that have been present in films from the 1950s onward and by setting the film in a world where singularity is a non-issue despite the presence of strong AI.

Gerty’s classification as a strong AI and Gerty’s behavior contrary to strong AI precedents (precedents which will be discussed shortly) are major signifiers of the positive shift of audience perceptions of AI. AI are grouped into two classifications, definitions of which are provided by Alexander Wiegel: “There are therefore two types of AI: Strong AI and Weak AI. Weak AI refers to AI that uses predetermined rules to accomplish predefined goals, such as navigating a maze. Strong AI refers to AI that has cognitive ability similar to that of a human, such as the ability to reason and evaluate based on past experience” (Wiegel 1). Technology necessary to construct strong AIs does not currently exist, but strong AI have been represented in science fiction literature for a long time. As early as the 1940s, authors such as Asimov and Bradbury were discussing the possibilities of robots and artificial intelligence, as well as positing rules and guidelines to govern the actions of such beings. Asimov’s three rules are among the more well-known: first, a robot must not intentionally harm a human, or through inaction cause a human to come to harm; second, a robot must obey any order from any human except where it would conflict with the first law; and third, a robot must prevent injury from coming to itself, except where it would contradict with the first two laws. These laws have played a large part of critical discussion concerning AI and have evolved in subtle ways as technology has come closer to providing actual AI. Understanding these rules is helpful in examining Gerty’s behavior.

Gerty operates under similar parameters as Asimov’s rules because his first priority deals with Sam’s welfare. Robin Stoate offers an extensive analysis of this care-based relationship between Gerty and Sam. In contrast to typically cold or mechanical AIs, Gerty warmly greets Sam each day, noticing Sam’s emotional state and offering support. Gerty fulfills many traditional caretaker roles, from feeding Sam to cutting his hair. As Stoate notes, Gerty is not the only AI to have taken on a caretaker position with responsibilities for humans. Hal-9000, a strong AI from 2001: A Space Odyssey, serves as a navigator for the spaceship and looks out for the safety of Dave and Frank, as well as the other astronauts in stasis. Hal even attempts to interact personally with the crewmembers, but the crew is unreceptive. The main difference between Gerty and Hal’s interactions is in the reaction these AI engender from those under their care. This difference is indicative of the perceptual shift toward AI. Sam responds to Gerty’s inquiries, jokes with Gerty, and interacts as he would with another person. Another difference is that Hal’s directive and interactions are centered on the crew’s voyaging mission. Gerty’s mission is Sam.

Gerty also has several advantages over Hal concerning personal interactions with humans, advantages that allow the audience to better build empathetic connections to Gerty. Gerty has a definite physical manifestation and he has a main chassis as well as several robotic arm attachments connected to tracks in the ceiling. These characteristics allow him the mobility and the capacity to interact with Sam and the environment. In interactions with the environment and crew, Hal is limited to operating within the ship’s computer, being able to manipulate doors and other devices but having no physical manifestation except for the red eye-like cameras dotted throughout the station. The ominous and lingering cuts to this red eye portend the danger Hal represents to the crew, a premonition realized when Hal kills everyone but Dave.

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Gerty’s avatar (Moon) Hal’s avatar (2001: A Space Odyssey)

Gerty’s physiognomy is far less threatening. A simple display on Gerty’s chassis allows him to depict an emotion with an emoticon, which changes in his interactions with Sam. Some of the expressions include smiling, frowning, puzzlement, and even crying. Although limited in comparison to a human face, Gerty is allowed a far greater range of expression than seen not only with Hal, but also with many of Gerty’s other strong AI counterparts. Stoates posits that Gerty’s range of expression resonates with audiences because humans have a need to recognize faces in others (207)Indeed, this sort of personification is a major signifier of positive perceptual shift. AI is no longer a blank, cold machine but, in this case, a caring person. Gerty may be limited in mobility and physiognomy, but he still emotionally connects with Sam, and by extension the audience, breaking the convention of AI as faceless or unemotional.

Gerty also subverts many other conventions dealing with strong AI. These conventions have been established by a host of science fiction narratives, some of which include the previously mentioned Hal-9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Colossus from Colossus: Forbin Project, Master Control Program from Tron, Skynet from the Terminator series, among many others. These intelligences all have significant cognitive ability and were originally programmed to aid humans in some fashion, whether by navigating a spaceship, controlling defense programs in the United States, or helping to manage a corporation. All of these AIs function as the antagonist in their respective films. Hal suffers a cognitive malfunction and kills nearly all of his crew as a result. Colossus discovers another supercomputer in Russia and joins forces with it to subdue the United States and Russia, with the purpose of establishing worldwide dominance so that they can control the humans and prevent war. Master Control Program attempts to dominate its programmer and take over the corporate network. Skynet gains awareness and then wages nuclear war with the human race, creating Terminator robots designed to hunt humans.

With all of these precedents, the schemas are in place for the viewers of Moon to expect Gerty to follow the behavior of his sordid contemporaries, and indeed, director Duncan Jones plays to those expectations. Several moments directly reference 2001, such as when Sam prepares to leave the station to investigate a broken mining vessel, an investigation that would reveal that Sam is actually a clone. Gerty faces conflicting orders at this moment, since he was ordered to prevent Sam from discovering this fact, but was also ordered to provide for Sam’s health and well-being. When Sam asks Gerty to open the doors to let him outside, Gerty replies, “I can’t let you go outside, Sam,” echoing Hal’s iconic line from 2001. Hal responds to a request to open the pod bay doors by saying, “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.” Hal also faces conflicting orders at this point, but kills the crew as a result of his inability to reconcile the conflict. Gerty chooses differently. He acquiesces to Sam, a decision that leads to Sam’s discovery that he is a clone. Gerty’s character arc reaches a pinnacle when Sam attempts to access the computers and discover the complete truth of his existence. Gerty can either turn against Sam, kill him, and awaken a new clone, or help Sam. As Sam struggles with the computer, one of Gerty’s robotic arms ominously comes into the background, reaching toward Sam . . . and then the arm passes over Sam’s shoulder to enter the password for the information Sam seeks. He makes the decision in favor of Sam, subverting the expectation that Gerty will act as a corporate henchman, killing or somehow silencing Sam.

Indeed, there is an ironic quality to this twist. Sam’s ultimate savior is, in fact, the AI given to him by the corporation that has exploited the Sams so ruthlessly over the past fifteen years, disposing of and awakening new clones every three years. Gerty, who has been party to this scheme, ultimately sacrifices the fifteen years of memories and experiences he has acquired on the moon base so that one of the Sam clones can return to Earth. In this final altruistic act, Gerty’s true character is revealed, indicating the film’s ultimate attitude toward AI, which in turn reflects a positive societal perceptual shift. Though it may be argued that this behavior is simply a point of his programming, that he has chosen between his conflicting directives and Sam happens to be the beneficiary, I would contend here that Gerty chose the more difficult option. Gerty easily could have disposed of the aberrant Sam, awoken a new clone, and returned to a semblance of normality, but instead, Gerty allows Sam to escape at the expense of Gerty’s own memory. Though not technically a death, such that his physical apparatus ceases to exist, Gerty experiences a loss of identity, the years of identity-building experiences gained in his time with the Sam clones.

Gerty faces this daunting prospect with aplomb. Gerty says to the departing Sam that he will wake up another Sam clone and “me and the new Sam will be back to our programming in no time.” Gerty recognizes the departing Sam’s deviant behavior as anomalous and seeks to fulfill Sam’s individual need by providing cover for his escape. This recognition of anomalous behavior also demonstrates Gerty’s awareness of his programmed nature and of the possibility of a return to the pre-aberrant state, fulfilling both this Sam’s needs and the subsequent Sam clone that will be awakened. The departing Sam responds with, “We’re not programmed, we’re people.” By using the plural we, Sam recognizes Gerty as a person, not simply as a programmed AI. Indeed, Sam’s behavior toward Gerty throughout the film consistently demonstrates this recognition. All of Sam’s interactions with Gerty correspond to studies done by Reid Simmons and other studies, which found that humans interacted more personably with robots when the robot communicated naturally. Though these studies were performed with robots far below Gerty’s level of intelligence, the results still apply. As people become more and more familiar with technology and the eventual possibility of AI, their apprehensions abate. Possible evidence of a reduction of apprehensions is offered by Sam’s extension of person-ness to Gerty.

However, this extension raises some interesting questions regarding Gerty’s actual person-ness. Does Gerty’s sacrifice perhaps operate redemptively, erasing those fifteen years of compliance with the corporation? What does labeling Gerty as a person require from our definition of person-ness? Does Gerty have a soul? Many have opposed the idea of AI having souls. Uncertainty abounds in this discussion as it does in other discussions concerning AI. Deborah Haynes, in her article ”On The Need For Ethical Aesthetics” argues in the negative, saying that technology is slowly consuming the natural and that art is now more concerned with technology and progress than with nature or history. She finds something viscerally attractive about this new frontier but is skeptical about its eventual end. For her, Gerty is a technological conundrum, a mechanical creation that embodies a naturalistic desire, that of caring for others. This blurring of natural and technological lines is what Haynes and others sharing her ideology fear, a harbinger of the singularity. For those with these leanings toward AI, Gerty is not a person, but a machine; worse yet, Gerty is a machine that acts as a person, albeit devoid of a soul.

Others, such as Arnold Brown, see robots and AI as inevitabilities, but helpful ones, and don’t fear the extension of person-ness to AI. Brown worries about the current attitude toward AI and robots in today’s society. They operate basically as slave laborers, which Brown is not opposed to, as AI and robots don’t yet have the capacity to think and feel. However, Brown feels terms must be redefined. He wonders, if robots are consistently defined by their existence of servitude, then what will happen when they begin to acquire more intelligence and human attributes: to think, to feel? For Brown, Moon defines robotic roles in more constructive and positive ways. Though Gerty is taken for granted by Sam at the beginning of the film, there is a lighthearted moment at the end that signifies Sam’s own perceptual shift. After Sam’s declaration of Gerty’s person-ness, Gerty turns so Sam can reboot his memory, and Sam sees a “kick me” sticky-note, placed by a previous Sam as a joke. Sam removes the note as a final gesture of respect for Gerty. Sam’s eventual recognition of Gerty as a “person” reflects this forward-looking attitude toward AI, again signifying a perceptual shift. As robots and weak AI become more common in society, this idea of person-ness in AI becomes less ominous. Sam’s attitude toward Gerty offers a possible model for societal behavior in the future, which is a common function of science fiction narrative.

Other science fiction narratives have also addressed AI in positive ways, a comparison of which is helpful in addressing Moon. One example is the film Robot and Frank. Frank is an elderly man whose son provides him with a robot to look after him. Despite Frank’s initial Neo-Luddite inclinations, he and the robot eventually develop a positive relationship. This relationship eventually extends well beyond the robot’s original parameters, as the robot helps Frank pull off heists. When the two are discovered, Robot the robot offers to wipe his personal memory so that Frank will not be incriminated. The most bittersweet moment in the film comes when Frank, now in a care center, sees Robot, who no longer recognizes Frank.

Again, we see an AI sacrifice out of its personal responsibility to its human, creating a positive view of AI as altruistic and self-sacrificing. Both Robot and Gerty had programming in place that they overrode in order to fulfill their personal mandates. In the development of their personalities, both AIs were faced with conflicting goals and both chose in favor of the humans they were caretakers of, acting against previous science fiction conventions. Sam and Frank show considerable trust in their AI companions, and that trust is validated by the AIs’ final actions. In both cases, Gerty’s and Robot’s actions drive the emotional catharsis of the audience, another marked difference from past AI narratives, and again signify a positive perceptual shift toward AI.

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Frank and Robot (Robot and Frank)                                                             Sam and Gerty (Moon)

Is it possible to quantify this positive shift? Though these AIs are positively depicted, their value as individuals remains subject to the humans they serve, which dependence may problematize the question of their person-ness. Sam is the qualifier of Gerty’s person-ness. It is because Gerty cares for Sam and sacrifices for Sam that we care for Gerty. Gerty’s groundbreaking role, asserts Stoate, is that he is “a figure that concentrates previously often disconnected discourse of technology and care, emotion and rationality, in a manner that is productive, non-exceptionalist, and always materially and discursively contingent” (211). For Stoate, Gerty is the apparatus through which these elements are combined, elements that again come into play with Robot and Frank, released three years after Moon. Although Gerty’s and Robot’s relationships and worth are dependent upon their human counterpart, so also are many character arcs in narratives dependent upon other characters. In Moon, Sam is the main character and Gerty is the unassuming sidekick who the audience finds has aided Sam all along and who sacrifices for the good of the hero that the audience has followed from the beginning.

In conclusion, Moon signifies a positive perceptual shift in societal attitude toward AI. It offers a model for depicting AI that some narratives, like Robot and Frank, have chosen to follow. As an AI, Gerty productively subverts many of the associations we have with strong AI characters. The features of Gerty’s mechanical apparatus allow the audience to emotionally connect with the AI in a more positive fashion than with past narratives such as 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unlike Hal or many other strong AI characters, Gerty develops a personal relationship with the human character in the film. In this relationship, the positive nature of Gerty’s identity is defined. The eventual sacrifice of his identity that Gerty makes (his fifteen years of memories on the moon base with the Sam clones) highlights his caring attitude toward Sam and counters the traditional role of AIs as antagonists. This positive depiction in the prevalent medium of film serves to highlight the shift in societal perception toward AI. The reasons for this positive shift, perhaps a product of the increasing ubiquity of technology in everyday life, merit further examination, especially as we move into a future that is fraught with technological uncertainty. Moon and science fiction narratives offer invaluable insights into societal attitudes and help us face that technological uncertainty.

Works Cited

2001: A Space Odyssey. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Douglas Rain, Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood. MGM, 1968. Film.

Bell, James John. “EXPLORING THE ‘Singularity’ (Cover Story).” Futurist 37.3 (2003): 18-24.

Brown, Arnold. “The Robotic Economy.” Futurist 40.4 (2006): 50-55.

Haynes, Deborah J. “On The Need For Ethical Aesthetics.” Art Journal 56.3 (1997): 75-81.

Moon. Dir. Duncan Jones. Perf. Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey. Liberty Films UK, 2009. Film.

Norton, Feargal. “Duncan Jones and his Exploration of Profound Philosophical and Scientific Theories through his own highly Derivative Take on Science Fiction Cinema, which is aided by the Application of Digital Technology.” Huston School of Film and Digital Media National University of Ireland, Galway. August 2011.

Robot and Frank. Dir. Jake Schreier. Perf. Frank Langella, Peter Saarsgard, James Marsden, Susan Saradon. Dog Run Pictures, 2012. Film.

Simmons, Reid, et al. “Believable Robot Characters.” AI Magazine 32.4 (2011): 39-52.

Stoate, Robin. “‘We’re not programmed, we’re people’: Figuring the caring computer.” Feminist Theory August 2012 vol. 13 no. 2. 197-211.

Wiegel, Alexander. “AI in Science-Fiction: A Comparison of Moon (2009) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).” Aventius Visio 28.4 2012.