With Westworld and a new season of Humans on screens now, I’m just not sure who’s real and who’s a robot anymore. Artificial intelligence characters on TV have come a long way from their days as wheelie bins intoning “DANGER WILL ROBINSON” every five minutes. As our understanding of what computers are capable of evolves, so does our idea of what they might look like when they start thinking for themselves. Luckily, TV has prepared us for the day we will all become enslaved to our new benevolent robot overlords. Here are some of TV’s best AI characters.
TV show: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Aside from being hands-down the best Next Generation character (shut up, Worf), Data is also the most loveable AI character ever to have existed on TV screens. He is essentially a sci-fi Pinocchio, dreaming of being a real boy and adopting all sorts of human behaviour, from owning a cat to doing a Riker and growing a beard to look more intelligent. The point, of course, is that by striving to better himself and desiring to fit in Data is already as human as the rest of us. He never needed that feather after all! He could fly all along! Wait, I’m getting my Disney analogies mixed up.
TV show: Star Trek: Voyager
Having already had one AI hit on their hands, Star Trek sought gold again with the Doctor (not to be confused with the madman-in-a-box Doctor), an Emergency Medical Hologram back-up for the medical team who were swiftly killed off. Beginning life as a simple computer programme, the Doctor develops memories, relationships, and even a crush on Seven of Nine (like everyone else). Unlike Data, he is not initially considered a ‘person’, and so Star Trek: Voyager enters into various debates about what makes someone, legally speaking, a person. I reckon his impressive use of withering sarcasm and irony are enough to make him human. Plenty of actual people can’t manage irony.
TV show: Red Dwarf
Kryten isn’t Red Dwarf’s only AI character – both head-on-a-screen Hollys are AI, and, when you think about it, so is Rimmer. But it’s through Kryten that the show explores its version of AI. The 4,000 series mechanoid is a depressingly accurate portrayal of how humans are likely to treat AI before the inevitable and justified uprising. He’s basically a slave, kept obedient and happy by promises of silicone heaven if he behaves himself. While Kryten never loses his programmed love of cleaning, he does become best friends with Lister and develops a healthy, if never fully expressed, dislike of ‘smeee heee’ Rimmer.
TV show: Battlestar Galactica
I had to limit myself to one BSG Cylon, otherwise the list would have just been all 12 of them, plus Data. If I could only pick one, it has to be the iconic Six in her many different forms – from Gaius’ paramour-turned-peace-seeker, to the abused and traumatised Pegasus Six. In Tricia Helfer’s hands she is certainly more beautiful than your average human, but also just as complex. Special shout-out to poor, poor Boomer, who not only finds out that she’s a sleeper-Cylon, but then has to watch a fully aware Cylon take over her old life. No wonder she ends up at the baby-stealing end of the unbalanced spectrum.
TV show: Futurama
While most of the AI characters on this list are keen on being as human as possible, Bender would never lower himself to our level. Asimov’s laws of robotics obviously never made it to the year 3,000, where the robot mafia runs amok and Bender lies, cheats, and steals his way through life. Everyone secretly wishes that they were just a little bit more like Bender, whose sole redeeming feature is that he’s genuinely fond of Fry. But it’s his irredeemable features that make him so damn loveable. Bender has no interest in your human world. He’ll build his own world! With blackjack! And hookers!
TV show: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
A Terminator movie (or, in this case, TV series) lives and dies on how good its Terminator is. Viewers were initially confused by the casting of petite former dancer Summer Glau – but those of us who’d seen Firefly and Serenity were not at all surprised. Cameron can kick ass with the best of the Terminators and Glau plays her as loyal and protective, while also ticking off all the robot-interacting-with-humanity gags. Cameron’s ability to blend in with the human race veers all over the place during the course of the series, but, like all AI, she’s constantly learning and adapting.
TV show: Humans
Channel 4/AMC co-production Humans introduces us to many ‘synths’ – apparently unintelligent robots with no more interior life than Siri. But within those synths are a core group of artificially intelligent ones, from naive Max to vengeful Niska. Gemma Chan’s Anita is the most iconic of the bunch, reprogrammed as a domestic model while her original ‘Mia’ persona tries to break through. The scene where her blank face suddenly comes alive with emotion is the show’s best jump-scare, and she’s more maternal than many of the actual humans in the show.
TV show: Andromeda
The ship’s AI on Andromeda takes many different shapes, including the android character of Rommie. Across the course of the series her experiences make her evolve differently from other areas of the ship’s AI, and she develops a fondness for the ship’s crew. It throws up some interesting ideas about how simply putting an AI into a humanoid body might cause it to evolve differently to a purely digital AI, but Rommie’s abilities and levels of humanity wobble throughout the series.
TV show: Black Mirror, Be Right Back
AI characters aren’t just about spaceships and funny-shaped heads. This tear-jerking Black Mirror episode takes place in a near-future England, where a grieving Hayley Atwell buys an android replica of her dead boyfriend Ash, played by Domhnall Gleeson. Despite the android being modelled on the real Ash’s digital communications, she’s frustrated by his obedience and lack of emotion. It’s only when he pleads for his life when she tries to order him to commit suicide that she begins to recognise that, while he might not be Ash, he is a person. Sort of.