Concluding here our rundown of my 60 Favorite Fictional Artificial Intelligences.
This means things like robots, holograms, sentient computers, and so on from movies, TV shows, comics or books.
You can have a look here for Part One, which includes some of the rationale for this list, as well as some of the explanations and qualifications, and here for Part Two and here for Part Three and here for Part Four.
So here we go!
12. Wall-E & EVE
These guys are our last “double act”, where we have two characters in the same listing. They get this honor (or dishonor, take your pick) because it’s hard to separate the appeal of one from the other.
Both are robots of roughly the same dimensions, and both demonstrate an extremely limited vocabulary, but that’s about where the similarities end. Wall-E is messy, clumsy and ramshackle. EVE is sleek, elegant and dangerous. Wall-E slowly trundles over the dirt, attempting to clean up a devastatingly polluted earth. EVE glides through the air, looking or signs of life. Wall-E craves connection above everything. EVE is committed to her work directive. Together they are the perfect set-up for a classic romance storyline, which is exactly what plays out over the course of the 2008 Pixar movie. Each is interesting in their own right, but it’s the contrast of the two of them together that really makes them special.
One of the things that makes so many Robots and other A.I.’s interesting is the way display deep levels of humanity in spite of the built-in limitations which prevent them from being fully human. This is definitely the case with Wall-E and EVE–two diminutive creatures that are only vaguely humanoid, with personalities that are reduced to just 1 or 2 traits each. And yet, they both feel like fully developed, emotional beings. Maybe it’s something about the simple and archetypal nature of figures like these which allows us in the audience to project such depth upon them.
Wall-E is voiced by famed sound designer Ben Burtt, while EVE is performed by Elissa Knight.
Lost in Space (2018-2021)
The classic 1960’s Lost in Space gave us a Robot who was pretty iconic, but in 2018 we got a revival series that was pretty much better in every way, including offering a more interesting version of Robot, performed by Brian Steele.
In this series, Robot was an alien-created war machine who attacks humanity on their mission to establish a new home on a distant world. He ends up damaged during the attack, and befriended by young human survivor Will Robinson, which unlocks a new part to his programming. He physically reshapes himself to look more human, and becomes a part of the Robinson’s crew. The connection between Will and the Robot is one of the emotional centerpieces of the series.
Robot is powerful but also vulnerable, and in many ways quite child-like. He is almost instantly bonded with Will, but as a programmed A.I. his identity and loyalty are at risk. Dr. Smith manipulates the situation to make the Robot to serve her, and at other times his combat programming is re-activated and he becomes a threat to everyone.
Ultimately, though, Robot sacrifices himself to save Will Robinson, but is ultimately re-created in the body of another, antagonistic robot (known as S.A.R.–“Second Alien Robot”). As the series draws to a close, we see that Will and the Robot have embarked on a new mission to explore deep space together, signalling a very hopeful future..
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Marvin is a popular character throughout all the different iterations of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy–the radio show, record album, TV series, novels, computer game, film and so on. Often described as a “Paranoid Android”, he is in fact a a creation of the Sirius Cybenetics Corporation outfitted with a Genuine People Personality which left him perpetually depressed. He continually complained about a pain in all the diodes down his left side, and bemoaned the menial tasks he was given to do, especially given that he had a brain “the size of a planet.”
Marvin reluctantly joins Arthur Dent, Zaphod Beeblebrox and the other feature characters of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on their many adventures, and at one point laments that due to various time travel shenanigans he is 37 times older than the universe itself, and that all his parts have been replaced multiple times except, ironically, all the diodes down his left side.
He is a hilarious presence in the story who is voiced primarily by actor Stephen Moore, although James Broadbent played him in a later radio series and Alan Rickman provides the voice in the 2005 movie. Amongst his most iconic dialogue are such gems as, “I think you ought to know I’m feeling very depressed,” and “Life…don’t talk to me about life.”
Star Wars franchise
Was R2-D2 the first ever cute robot buddy? I don’t know, but he’s certainly the most iconic and famous. Some of those he inspired, such as K9 and Skeets have made it onto this countdown. Others, like V.I.N.CENT and 7-Zark-7 have not. But they all owe debt of gratitude to R2-D2 for making their existence possible, or at least profitable.
R2-D2 debuted in the first minutes of the first Star Wars movie back in 1977, along with his more humanoid counterpart, C-3P0. He’s an “astromech” droid who in is definitely one of the heroes of Star Wars. Whether he is figuring out which cell a Princess is being kept in or smuggling lightsabers into shady gangster’s den or electro-shocking that icky Salacious Crumb off of his buddy’s face, R2-D2 is awesome. His debut appearance in the first Star Wars prequel movie was one of that film’s best moments.
R2-D2 is an surprisingly effective character, in spite of (or is that because of?) his completely non-human appearance. He is played in the early days by Kenny Baker, but looks more like a rolling garbage can than anything else, and never speaks in words (only beeps and whistles), and yet has such a clear and developed personality.
Or does he? Am I just projecting upon the simple template that R2-D2 provides? Either way, it’s impressive work
8. Maschinenmensch (“Machine Human,” aka “False Maria”)
One of the oldest Artificial Intelligence’s on this list, and one of the oldest ones that I know about in cinema, is the robot from Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s expressionistic masterpiece from 1927. In the story, Rotwang is an inventor who has created an unnamed robot, with the intention of using her to re-create his lost love, a woman named Hel.
Rotwang is tasked by the leader of the city, Fredersen, to use the robot to discredit Maria, a woman his son is in love with who is becoming a prophetic voice to the workers of the city. However, secretly the embittered Rotwang intends to use the robot to destroy Metropolis.
To both of these ends, Maria is kidnapped and the robot is given her image. What follows is an absolutely insane performance as from Brigitte Helm as she basically seduces the city and drives them into a frenzy of murder and violence.
At her urging the workers of the city rise up to destroy the machines that the city runs on. However, when they believe this has led to the death of their children, they turn on the false Maria and burn her at the stake. Even as she is dying, “Maria” continues to display the same gleeful insanity that she did in life.
Before it is turned to look like Maria, the robot is resembles a feminine metal person. The design is so iconic that it has been re-created and homaged many times, perhaps most famously in the early designs for C-3PO from Star Wars. Bizarrely, and by all accounts extremely uncomfortably, Birgitte Helm played the Maschinenmensch in its metallic form as well, even though I don’t think it was ever seen to move. Man, that Fritz Lang must have been a trip to work with!
Battlestar Galactica (2004-2008)
There are actually lots of Number Sixes in Battlestar Galactica. That’s part of the point–there are only twelve models of humanoid Cylons, but there many copies of each (actually, neither of those statements are strictly true, but in this case it’s close enough). But in this case we’re focusing in on Caprica-Six, hero of the Cylons, who gained her nickname after being instrumental in the success of the attack on the 12 Colonies. She did this by seducing government scientist Gaius Baltar and gaining access to some of the Colonies most critical defense systems.
However, her extended times amongst humans and her involvement in their near-annihilation had a profound effect on the artificial person. She became disillusioned with the Cylons cause and eventually denounced the attack, becoming a force for political change amongst her people. However, this was Battlestar Galactica, and thus things were never staightforward. Caprica’s attempts to be more conciliatory toward humanity was still steeped in all sorts of injustice.
Caprica’s storyline took her in many surprising directions, including a failed pregnancy with Colonel Tigh. Ultimately, Caprica was reunited with Dr. Baltar, who had been on his own complicated journey. All throughout the series, both characters had been “plagued” by visions of the other which were eventually revealed to be some sort of angelic messengers guiding them on their ultimate mission, which was the protect Hera Agathon–the first Human-Cylon hybrid.
Tricia Helfer played Caprica-Six, and of course played all the other copies of Number Six as well. The Sixes, it is revealed, were far more individualistic than the other Cylon models, meaning there was a lot more variety in the different characters that Helfer portrayed compared to the others of her species.
6. Iron Giant
The Iron Giant
Like Lost in Space’s Robot (see #11, above), the Iron Giant was a war machine who found a new persona and identity by being co-opted and befriended by a young boy. The boy was 9 year old Hogarth Hughes, who found the robot from space after he landed in his small town in Maine. The boy befriends the 50 foot tall metal man and keeps him hidden, teaching him about life on earth and in particular, about a a comic book hero that he enjoys–Superman.
This being 1957 and the height of the cold war, the presence of the Iron Giant leads to all sorts of problems. A paranoid US government sees him a Soviet threat and things quickly spiral out of control. The Giant struggles between his pre-programmed identity and the new purpose he has learned from Hogarth. Ultimately, he chooses to model himself after Superman, sacrificing himself to save Hogarth and the town from a nuclear missile. Of course, The Iron Giant is a family film and in the end he constituent parts are seen slowly repairing themselves.
Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant (from 1999) was based on the 1968 novel The Iron Man (also known as The Iron Giant) by Ted Hughes, but it’s the film that I know this character from. He’s voiced by Vin Diesel, quite early in his career, and he squeaks ahead of the similarly-themed Robot for me probably because of the greater emotional range that animation allows for a character like this.
Bishop was an android (or “synthetic”, as he prefers), a model 341-B to be specific (according to a trading card set!) Serving as a technician with the United States Colonial Marine Corp, he was part of the mission to LV-426 seen in Aliens (1986), to find out had happened to the colony at Hadley’s Hope. Unfortunately, what had happened was that the place was overrun by an infestation of Xenomorphic Aliens, leading the entire population to be killed except for one small girl, Newt.
The movie’s main character (and the survivor of a previous encounter with the Aliens) was Ellen Ripley, who didn’t trust Bishop at first thanks to her experiences with Ashe (see #59 earlier on this list). But Bishop proved himself courageous and loyal, undertaking a dangerous mission to remotely pilot their vessels reserved dropship in order to pickup the survivors of the unit. He then was instrumental in getting Ripley and Newt off the world and back onto their main ship. Unfortunately the Alien Queen then surprise attacked the group, and Bishop was violently dismembered–but owing to his artificial status he still survived, and even saved Newt once more.
Bishop was an admirable character played with a quiet dignity by Lance Henriksen. Bishop also briefly appeared in Alien3–but the less said about that, the better.
Kryten is a “Series 4000 mechanoid” from “DivaDroid International,” full name Kryten 2X4B 523P (although he admitted to not liking his middle name). He was programmed to serve humans in any way possible, specifically as a sanitation officer. Usually, this involved doing duties such as cooking, cleaning and ironing. As such, he was the latest in a long line of “servant” and “butler” A.I.’s, which includes some characters who are on this countdown and others (like Pneuman from Tom Strong or Rosie from The Jetsons) who are not. After coming aboard the Red Dwarf, Kryten automatically transferred his loyalty to the crew, especially Dave Lister.
Kryten is extremely intelligent and capable, and thus often fulfilled both the “technical expert” requirements of the crew, and also delivered much of the scientific exposition. He was drive, however, largely by guilt and a desire to serve which was so strong that Lister regularly encouraged him to break his programming and find his own sense of fulfillment as a person. Specifically this mean encouraging Kryten to think for himself and engage in the more unsavory parts of human behavior, such as lying and being rude.
Kryten was originally played by David Ross in a Series II episode of Red Dwarf, entitled “Kryten.” The character was intended as a one-off but was popular enough to call for a return appearance. Ross wasn’t available so the role went to Robert Llewellyn, who ended up even more popular. He so quickly became such a core part of the show’s dynamic that it’s hard to imagine that he wasn’t there from the beginning.
Robert Llewellyn was the only original actor from the show who reprised his role in the failed pilot for an American version of Red Dwarf, apparently because they couldn’t imagine anyone being funnier in the part. In this alternate continuity, Kryten was already on board the Red Dwarf from the beginning, and was integrated into a new version of the first episode’s story.
3. The Doctor
Star Trek: Voyager
The Doctor was the Emergency Medical Hologram (EMH) of the Starship Voyager, an emergency protocol that was programmed with an extensive medical database. It was built into new Intrepid class starships like Voyager, which could be activated if the ship’s regular medical crew were unavailable or incapacitated. However, owing to the unique situation that Voyager found itself on on its first mission, the EMH ended up continually functioning as the ship’s medical staff for year. Given this, he began to deliberately find ways to expand and enhance his programming. Known only as “the Doctor”, he added to his medical knowledge, but also began to expand his scope as a person: developing hobbies, outside interests and personal friendships. He even acquired a “mobile emitter” which allowed him to basically go wherever he wanted, after previously having been confined to sickbay or the holodeck.
The Doctor was played by Robert Picardo, who relished the role. He brought huge amounts of personality to his performance, and seven full seasons of Star Trek Voyager gave him plenty of opportunity to develop the character, turning him into one of the series’ most intriguing presences. Over that time we got to see the Doctor as acerbic and unpleasant, as childlike and playful, and heroic and dedicated. The show was also not afraid to occasionally get into his less admirable qualities, including his egotism, insecurity and pride.
The Doctor was shown in a couple of early episodes playing around with possible names for himself, but this storyline was quickly dropped. It wasn’t until the show’s finale, in a flash-forward to a future that was eventually changed, that we learned that the Doctor had wound up calling himself simply, “Joe.”
Robert Picardo also played the Doctor’s human creator, Dr. Lewis Zimmerman, in several episodes of Voyager (and one of Deep Space Nine).
2001: A Space Odyssey
In 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey came out, both the movie directed by Stanley Kubrick, and the novel written by Arthur C. Clarke. Interestingly, neither of them were adapted from the other. Instead, they both came out of discussions of the two men, and were loosely based on some of Clarke’s earlier writing.
In both, the central antagonist is eventually revealed to be HAL, the super-computer which overseas all aspects of the mission of the spaceship Discovery, on an exploratory voyage toward Jupiter (or, as depicted in the novel, Saturn). According to the novel, HAL stands for “Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer,” though a popular theory has been out there for years that his name was chosesn because it’s a one-letter shift from IBM (Kubrick and Clarke both have denied this).
Physically, HAL is represented by nothing by a glowing red “eye”, although he speaks with an unnervingly calm and even-keeled voice, provided by actor Douglas Rain. However, he is surrounded by people who are so dis-passionate in their delivery that he is almost the most emotionally relatable character in the movie.
As the story continues, both in the movie and the novel, HAL shows signs of malfunctioning, and when the human astronauts decide to de-activate him he reacts and attempts to kill them off. He nearly succeeds, but is ultimately shut down by the mission commander, Dave Bowman, in a scene full of surprising amounts of pathos.
There’s no explanation given in the film 2001 for HAL’s behavior, but in the novel and in the sequel film 2010, it is said to have resulted from contradictory instructions that he received–to serve the human crew while also keeping secrets from them about the real purpose of their mission. HAL does reappear in that sequel story where he is largely redeemed, and ultimately transcends normal existence along with Dave Bowman, becoming part of an intelligence beyond regular human comprehension.
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Some of the listings on this countdown were tricky to decide on, but some were easy. And Data was one of the easy ones.
Data is a “Soong-type” android (as in, created by cyberneticist Dr. Noonian Soong), created on the planet Omicron Theta. After that world was destroyed by a mysterious entity, he was found and reactivated by a Starfleet vessel, which eventually led him to attending Starfleet Academy, graduating with honors. Over the years he was promoted from Ensign to Lieutenant and eventually Lt. Commander, when he was assigned to the Enterprise (NCC-1701-D) as its operations officer, and third-in-command.
Right from the beginning of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Data was one of the most compelling presences amongst the crew. Even as the series overall was still finding its footing, there was something about Data that just worked. Even though he was incredibly capable and almost always right in any ethical debate, he did everything with such a likable innocence that he avoided becoming tiresome to the audience.
By way of contrast, consider fellow character Wesley Crusher, who is often derided for being “too perfect” and for saving the ship too frequently. Someday I’ll do a tally, but Data certainly saves the ship more than Wesley, even if you take into account the number of episodes that both appeared in. But with Data it just endears the character to us more, rather than put us off.
One might say this is because we know that Data is a super-capable android and so it makes sense, but it’s just as plausible to say that Wesley is a super-capable child, so the difference is more than that. Certainly a big part of this is due to the writing, which was just so much more assured and polished with Data. But a lot of the credit has to be given to actor Brent Spiner and his restrained and nuanced performance. He was able to capture the contrast of Data’s android-nature with his pursuit of humanity in his body language and vocal tones, imbuing him with a child-like curiousity while still making him incapable of experiencing emotions.
Brent Spiner ended up playing Data in nearly every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, as well as four feature films, a voiceover cameo in Star Trek: Enterprise, and in several episode of Star Trek Picard. Data heroically sacrificed himself in the film Star Trek Nemesis, and then died again ater a fashion in Picard. Spiner has also played two other Soong-type androids (most notably Data’s evil twin Lore–see # on this countdown), and numerous members of the Soong family, including Noonian Soong himself.
The vast amount of screentime that Data has had (arguably he’s the second lead of his show, even though he’s not billed as such) has allowed us to see Data in a multitude of situations and has provided more opportunity to explore the character than any other android, robot, hologram, or shipboard computer on this list, making him an easy choice for my favorite fictional A.I. of all time.
And that’s the list!
It’s interesting to me that here, on the highest part of the list, there are only a few villains–only two that are undisputedly so (HAL and the False Maria), plus Caprica-Six who starts out as one but ends up a hero. It shows, I think, my general preference for heroes.
Thanks for reading! Feel free to comment on any key ones you feel I missed!