With Humans returning to our screens tonight (if you're in the UK - the US will have to wait a little longer I'm afraid), and Westworld season 2 continuing to confound and confuse everyone, we're spoilt for choice when it comes to our favourite fictional AI characters. Often more compelling and interesting than the humans they frequently tussle with, there's a reason why AI series are so popular right now.
It's fair to say we've come a long way since the days of Robby the Robot and, as the science of artificial intelligence continues to develop in the real world, storytellers are able to take more plausible leaps with presenting lifelike AIs in television, each with their own hopes, motivations, and flaws.
Still, not every sentient machine has to look or sound like a human, and our list of the best AI TV characters features plenty of classic sci-fi icons, as well as some more contemporary counterparts. If you can't be bothered to read on for yourself, just get Siri it to read it aloud to you; I'm sure it won't get any ideas...
TV show: Westworld
Sure, Dolores might be the closest thing that Westworld has to an actual protagonist but, let's be honest, Maeve is really the robot we all want to be when we grow up. She's smart, confident, and fiercely independent, even if her total lack of regard for human life is a little worrying for those of us with non-mechanical innards. Long story short, if Maeve wants something, she's going to get it, and you'd do well not to get in her way if you know what's good for you. Heavens knows what will become of her as Westworld continues to upend expectations with its cleverly splintered and wholly unpredictable narrative, but fingers crossed that Maeve won't be leaving our TV screens anytime soon.
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: 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 to be 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 run 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 his BFF 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: 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: 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: Terminator: 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: Black Mirror
AI characters aren’t just about spaceships and funny-shaped heads. The tear-jerking Black Mirror episode, Be Right Back, 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.
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: 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 when the starship Voyager got lost in space. 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.