Continuing here our rundown of my 60 Favorite Fictional Artificial Intelligences.
So here we go!
The “Knight Institute Two Thousand” was (usually) a black Pontiac Firebird Trans Am car built with advanced technology and armor which housed a high tech artificial intelligence who was independently mobile but fiercely loyal to his driver. Designed by the late (as of the end of the pilot episode of the original show) Wilton Knight, KITT comes into the ownership of Michael Knight, a former police officer turned agent of FLAG–the Foundation for Law and Government. Michael Knight and KITT travel about the United States combating corruption and criminals who think of themselves as being above the law.
KITT was a powerful car with all manners of special features, including the ability to take control of nearby electronic machines, to track anything around the car, to deploy special defenses such as smoke or oil slicks, and to fire weapons such as magnesium flares or flame throwers. Most exciting of all was the Turbo Boost, which would allow him to shoot forward at incredible speeds and even to leap into the air over obstacles.
KITT was voiced by William Daniels, who was being nominated or Emmy’s for his work on St. Elsewhere at the same time. For a young boy like myself, KITT was just about the coolest thing ever.
DC Comics, especially Superman
Marvel has Ultron, but DC has had Brainiac for a lot longer. Superman’s second most popular adversary first appeared in Action Comics #252 from 1963, by Otto Binder and Al Plastino. Most versions of Brainiac have him a computerized android, origins uncertain, who traveled around the universe collecting cities from different worlds, shrinking them and storing them in bottles! Most famously, he was known for stealing the Kryptonian city of Kandor, inadvertently saving its residents from destruction.
There have been a lot of different takes on Brainiac over the years–my favorite might be the version presented a storyline by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank in 2008, collected simply as Superman: Brainiac by DC Comics. In this one Brainiac is as much as a physical threat as he is anything else. This version was a big inspiration for the most successful live-action adaptation of the character so far, which was in the TV series Krypton.
But whatever the changes that been made to the character over the years, the idea of him as a “collector of worlds” has remained, making him one of DC’s most memorable villains.
Holly is the third of four (I think) shipboard computers to make it on this list. He/she is the tenth generation A.I. that oversees the basic operations of the Jupiter Mining Corporation vessel Red Dwarf. Holly was of course extremely advanced and had an IQ of 6000, but had spent three million years on his own due to a radiation leak which killed most of the crew and thus had developed a bit of “computer senility”. His role on the show was to basically be stupid and deliver exposition, something which actor Norman Lovett did hilariously. Apparently, it’s thanks to Lovett’s petitioning the producers that Holly became a face on a screen, rather than just a voice-over character.
After two seasons, Holly had had a “head sex change” and was recast as a woman played by Hattie Hayridge, who had also played an alternate universe version of Holly in one episode, and who also did a good job with the part. Hayridge played the character for three years before Holly became somewhat redundant–although Holly returned in later years, again played by Lovett.
Battlestar Galactica (reboot)
Athena was a human-looking Cylon–one of many model Number Eights, all played by Grace Park. She had given the mission of drawing close to Helo, an officer on the Battlestar Galactica who was trapped alone planetside. She did this by impersonating Sharon “Boomer” Valeri, another Number Eight model that had long been serving as a Galactica fighter pilot, with whom Helo was in love with.
However, while Boomer’s life ended up taking her down a darker road, this new Number Eight ended up falling in love with Helo and defecting from the Cylons to join humanity on their quest to find earth. Proving herself to her crewmembers, she was granted the nickname “Athena.”
Athena’s story ends up being one of the most redemptive aspects of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. She and Helo have a child (Hera) who is the first and only known human-Cylon hybrid, and is ultimately implied to be an ancestor to all human life on earth.
Big Hero 6
Baymax is a large inflatable robot who appears in the film Big Hero 6, as well as the comic book that inspired it. I’m not familiar with the comic but the movie version of Baymax, voiced by Scott Adsit, is sweet and funny. He basically looks like vaguely humanoid balloon who is created by Tadashi Hamada to service people’s medical needs. He has a polite and caring personality, and is a great example of an occasional trope that we get with robots, where they end up fulfilling something of a fathering role for the main character. In any case, he ends up being a great comfort to Tadashi’s brother Hiro after the inventor’s death.
Baymax is tremendously strong and contains a vast database of medical information. He is also outfitted with extensive health care equipment. Hiro also upgrades Baymax so that the robot has superhero-combat abilities. Baymax then becomes part Hiro’s superhero team (which comes to be known as “Big Hero 6”), although he resists the more extreme attempts to shift him away from his core programming. Baymax sacrifices himself in a heartfelt moment, but by the end of the movie he is fully restored once again and ready to appear in Big Hero 6: The Series.
Floyd is a NPC (Non-Player Character) from the early interactive computer game Planetall, by Steven Meretzky. Planetfall was produced by Infocom, who were early pioneers in the field of advanced text-based adventure games. In the story, you played a low-level space-explorer (a janitor, if I remember properly) who crashes on an unknown world and has to repair the systems of an abandoned complex in order to survive.
Aiding “you” on this mission is Floyd, a archetypal cute robot, which is all the more impressive given that he exists completely in a non-visual medium (Planetfall and games like it did not feature graphics). There is some description of Floyd but I cant actually remember what he specifically looks like—but his behavior in the game gives the impression of cuteness. He would run in and out semi-randomly and do playful things, and he would have quirky responses to various player-actions (Floyd would say something like, “Ooh, are we going to do something dangerous now?” whenever you saved the game).
Floyd was a little like a virtual pet. Thus, it’s pretty impacting when he actually sacrifices his life to save you! Pleasantly, it doesn’t stick, and Floyd is repaired at the conclusion of the game’s happiest ending.
Floyd reappears in the game’s sequel, Stationfall, which is all about machines turning evil and antagonistic. This includes Floyd, who ends up sadly dying again, but this time permanently, and tragically killed by the player himself when there is no other option. However, at the very end of the story another robot named Oliver, very similar to Floyd when he was first activated, joins the player in a moment of partial redemption.
Solaris, the Tyrant Sun, is a character on this list not so much because of his actual appearances in stories, but more because just I love the concept so much. Solaris is an evil, artificial sentient star who is first introduced in the DC Comics crossover event One Million from the far-out imagination of Grant Morrison. This story was built around the idea of the Justice League and other DC heroes meeting their distant descendants. It features Solaris and an extremely old version of Vandal Savage as the main villains.
Solaris is revealed in the story to be an antagonist of many of the super-powered descendants of Superman throughout the centuries, having made efforts to replace the sun and to become the center of our solar system. Part of his evil plot is to interact with the 20th century and to manipulate events to force the heroes of the past to actually create him in the first place.
The only other story that I’m aware of that features Solaris is All-Star Superman, which is again by Morrison. In this one, Solaris corrupts the sun (turning it blue) and helping Lex Luthor to attack Metropolis before being defeated by Superman.
Solaris was exactly the sort of far-out idea that Grant Morrison is great at–I wish either he or someone else would do another big story featuring the Tyrant Sun as the primary threat.
17. Optimus Prime
It’s popular opinion that Michael Bay’s first Transfomers film was pretty good, and that all the ones that followed were disappointments. I disagree–I think all the Transformers movies are bad. And I’m not the biggest follower of the cartoons either, or the comics. But even I know about Optimus Prime, and think he’s pretty cool.
It’s probably just that he represents the whole idea to me, as silly as it is–big robots that bother to re-shape into cars, trucks, planes and the rest. There is backstory for it all, but really, has a line of toys ever before demanded so much work to make fit into a narrative? It doesn’t matter–Optimus Prime is, in most iterations of Transformers, the leader of the Autobots, who regularly takes the form of a truck (a Peterbilt 379, to be specific, or so says the internet). He brave and sacrificial, and a powerful warrior (the one thing that some of those terrible Transformer movies really highlighted to me). He’s also intensely committed to stopping Megatron and the Decepticons from carrying out their various evil plans (which would generally involve the destruction of life on earth, and maybe life everywhere).
A big part of Optimus Prime’s appeal is due to voice actor Peter Cullen, who played him in the original cartoon and in most other iterations of the character. He gives Optimus a super-deep voice which is quite iconic and cool.
16. Max Headroom
Max Headroom is actually kind of confusing. I first encountered the character via appearances on MTV and for commercials for New Coke, and I thought he was ridiculous. It was only later (if memory serves) that I became aware of the near-future cyberpunk TV series that he featured in, that I came to think of Max Headroom, or at least his world, as being super-cool. In reality the TV show was a revamp of a British TV movie, Max Headoom: 20 Minutes Into the Future, and it was here that the character first appeared.
Max Headroom was a virtual reality character that was supposedly created in real-life virtual reality, but in reality was actor Matt Frewer in a bunch of funny makeup, with a bunch of vocal distortions and jump-cuts added to the mix. He was a bizarre variation on a typical boring old white guy, but distorted through the lens of ultra-hip youth culture.
In the context of the series, Max was a virtual avatar of TV reporter Edison Carter, who had been critically injured while pursuing a story. With his memories needing to be accessed, an imperfect virtual duplicate is created, resulting in Max Headroom. The show, which aired in 1987, was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, with fast-paced filming and editing, its focus on computers and technology, and its outrageous plots (the pilot episode is about TV commercials that are cut so rapidly they cause certain viewers to explode). Unfortunately, it didn’t last long, and truth be told, Max Headroom himself not my favorite part of it–but he was an innovative and unique character who deserves a solid spot on this list.
Marvel Comics, Marvel Cinematic Universe
Once upon a time, I hated the Vision, the Marvel character created by Roy Thomas and John Buscema. That time was back in the 1970s, when I read a random Avengers comic and for some reason was put off by this funny looking android guy.
Later, I grew to appreciate the Vision, and the emotional pathos that was such an effective part of the character. I don’t remember any specific stories that I read with him; it was just that as I got older the character made more sense to me.
Of course, in the last few years, I’m very aware of the Vision thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, starting with Avengers: Age of Ultron, and then continuing on in Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. In these presentations, the filmmakers, along with actor Paul Bettany, was able to infuse the Vision with a meaningful level of humanity. Visions’ death in Infinity War is a bit overshadowed by all that immediately followed, but the character really got his due in the WandaVision Disney+ series, when he was brought back to life, after a fashion, by his beloved Wanda, who was failing to come to terms with his loss. The series gave a chance for the audience to get to know Vision on another level, even though ironically it was not actually “him.”
14. Master Control Program & Tron
Tron was a movie from 1982 that spawned a number of other material, including a number of video games, some comics, an animated TV series, and one sequel film. The movie postulates that inside the world of the computers is a virtual environment just known as the system–in reality, the internal computer mainframe of the computer technology company ENCOM, in which all programs (which are basically sentient beings played by actors) are ruled by the tyrannical MCP, aka the Master Control Program.
The MCP had had started its existence as a chess program but had since then grown in power and ambition the point where it threatened the security of external computer systems, such as that of the Pentagon. The MCP is stark, imposing presence–largely just an animated face, but voiced by an David Warner (who also plays his lieutenant, Sark).
Concerned by computer security, ENCOM software designer Alan Bradley creates Tron, a security program designed to monitor activities inside the system, including that of the MCP. In the world of the ENCOM mainframe, Tron becomes a revolutionary figure and a folk hero, known as the one who “fights for the Users” (in other words, the human programmers, whose existence is denied by the dictatorial MCP. Played with pluck by actor Bruce Boxleitner, Tron becomes instrumental in the defeat of the MCP in the first movie, and then goes on to have a reduced presence in a lot of the sequel material, even though it continues to be named after him.
I disproportionately love the original Tron, and even though Tron Legacy was not a great movie, I’d merrily trade most post-1983 Star Wars projects to get Tron 3.
Also, full disclosure, these characters are given a single entry simply because I realized late in the game that I had messed up something in my counting and I didn’t want to go back and fix everything.
13. Tom Servo & Crow T. Robot
Mystery Science 3000
This is another joint entry, but in this case it’s because these two characters would certainly be back-to-back on the listings, and I don’t really have much to say about one than I do the other.
In the story of Mystery Science 3000, Crow T. (the) Robot and Tom Servo are the “robot friends” of Joel Robinson, a low-level Gizmonics Institute employee who also happens to be a talented inventor. Joel is launched into space (onto the “Satellite of Love”) by his bosses, who turn out to be Mad Scientists. They proceed to subject him to torturous experiments–he is forced to watch bad movies so they can monitor his mind. In order to survive, Joel turns some of the control components of the movie system and turns them into companions for himself. Chief amongst these are Crow and Servo, who usually watch the movies with him, cracking jokes the whole way through in order maintain their sanity.
Mystery Science Theatre 3000 has produced over 200 episodes over the decades, although not consistently. The human host of the show and the mad scientist tormentors have gone through many changes, but there have always been Crow and Servo (although they have been voiced by a variety of actors.) Keeping with the style of MST3K, as it is known, the ‘bots are obviously made of fairly common objects, mixed and matched and painted in new colors. For example, Tom Servo clearly has a gumball machine for a head, while Crow is made up of (amongst other things) a lacrosse mask, ping-pong balls, a bowling pin, and pieces of Tupperware.
Crow and Servo’s personalities differ somewhat–Servo is more condescending while Crow is more prone to random inappropriate outbursts. It’s hard for me to know which one I like better. If I had to pick I’d say I prefer Crow’s personality, but Servo’s look. Mystery Science Theatre 3000 has some other robots in it, especially Gypsy (later renamed GPC) and the little-seen Cambot, but Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot are in a class by themselves.
Different actors have operated and voiced the ‘bots over the years, including Trace Beaulieu, Bill Corbett, Hampton Yount and (soon) Nate Begle, all as Crow T. Robot; and J. Elvis Weinstein, Kevin Murphy, Baron Vaughn and (soon) Conor McGiffin as Tom Servo.
And that’s Part Four. Coming soon…the Top Twelve!