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Gallery: Famous Intelligent Computers from Television and Film

With IBM's "Watson" taking the stage this week to compete against the two greatest Jeopardy! champions in history, Jason Perlow takes a look back at the iconic fictional computers from film and television that helped define the human vision of Artificial Intelligence.
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1 of 20 Jason Perlow/ZDNet

With IBM's "Watson" taking the stage this week to compete against the two greatest Jeopardy! champions in history, I thought I would take you through a look back at the iconic fictional computers from film and television that helped define the human vision of Artificial Intelligence.

First up -- the "forgotten" cast member of Star Trek. 

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2 of 20 Jason Perlow/ZDNet

Since the original series debut in September of 1966, Star Trek has been filled with numerous examples of  intelligent robots and computers. But only one of them has been in every single incarnation of the iconic Sci-Fi franchise's TV and Film versions -- the shipboard computer.

 
Known simply as "The Computer", or "Main Computer", and voiced by actress Majel Barrett (who married Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and starred also as Nurse Chapel and recurring character Lwaxana Troi) the crew members frequently interacted with it in order to solve complex problems. While it had no distinct personality and was not known to volunteer information or instigate conversation, it was clearly capable of advanced cognitive thinking.
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While not as far-reaching into public consciousness as Star Trek, 1970's Colossus: The Forbin Project was the first film to feature an intelligent computer that was designed for peaceful purposes but eventually decides that it could better serve mankind by making us subservient to it ... under penalty of total annihilation should we not obey.

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While not given a name and only depicted in a few scenes, the Central Computer is the central figure in the 1976 film Logan's Run. Controlling all aspects of dystopian, pleasure-centric society including population control, it sends the main character, Logan, out on a quest to find and infiltrate de-stabilizing elements that threaten the existence of the status quo.

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Dr. Theopolis, voiced by character actor Eric Server, was the "Straight Man" in a comic relief pair with Twiki, a wise-cracking pint-sized robot, in the 1979 TV series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. In this campy 80s depiction of the SF classic, Theo was part of a "Computer Council" which was the ruling body of 25th Century Earth.

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In the 1974 SF parody Dark Star, directed by John Carpenter, ultra-powerful nuclear weapons known as "Exponential Thermostellar Bombs" are given artificial intelligence as the crew of the ships that carry them are known to go crazy and have impaired judgment from years of boredom working in the far reaches of space. The movie comes to a dark but hilarious end when "Bomb 20" aboard the ship Dark Star decides that it is God.

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Before there was Jeff Bridges, there was the MCP, or Master Control Program, in the 1982 Disney film TRON. The MCP was the dictator and rogue AI which ruled the electronic virtual world controlled by the evil corporation ENCOM, and forced "Programs" to engage in gladiatorial video game combat.

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Depicted in the Film, Television and in the BBC Radio versions of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as the most powerful computer ever created by mankind, it was tasked with coming up with the answer to "Life, the Universe, and Everything." Unfortunately, the answer would take seven million years.

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Witty and stuttering, Max Headroom was the AI of the MTV generation. Originating in a 1985 British film and then eventually branching out into American television, he was more of an icon and a virtual actor for the modern age than anything else, doing advertisements for Coca-Cola and hosting music videos. Max was portrayed by Canadian-American actor Matt Frewer.

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10 of 20 Jason Perlow/ZDNet

Before the Transformers, KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand) was every kid's dream car: It was a souped-up 1982 Pontiac Firebird with a Cylon eye scanner on the hood loaded with high-tech gadgets that would give even the Batmobile an inferiority complex, including a wry AI that had no problems stealing the show away from David Hasselhoff on Knight Rider. KITT was voiced by character actor William Daniels, but was never credited with the role at his own request.

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Holly, which appears as a disembodied floating head on a black background, is the central and ONLY intelligence behind the mining ship Red Dwarf, the namesake of the BBC TV series that ran between 1988 and 1999. With an IQ of 6000, he controls every aspect of the ship's operations and likes to make frequent and humorous conversation with the ship's crew, which consists of a curry and lager-loving two million year-old janitor, a hologram of a long-deceased navigator, a humanoid creature descended from a cat (which talks like a combination of Prince and James Brown) and a subservient android. 

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Joshua, or WOPR as he is more formally known, nearly brings the planet to complete annihilation because Matthew Broderick decided he'd rather play Global Thermonuclear War instead of Tic-Tac-Toe or Chess in 1983's WarGames. Like IBM's Watson, which was taught to play Jeopardy!, Joshua was taught to play different games in order to become a true thinking machine. "SHALL WE PLAY A GAME?" 

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Although the computer never actually talks to the audience until the final Terminator film, SKYNet is the ultimate embodiment of man's fear over intelligent machines. Whereas Colossus wishes to prevent man from destroying himself by keeping him under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, SKYNet actually pulls the trigger, destroying civilization in the process, and then creates killer robots to eradicate whatever is left behind.

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While the EMH isn't the most famous AI in the Star Trek franchise -- that distinction belongs to Commander Data -- the "Doctor" as he is eventually called on Star Trek: Voyager is one of my favorites. Unlike Data, who is already pretty much "baked" when he starts out as a character and yearns to become a human being, the EMH was never intended to be a true crew member.  By contrast, he was designed to replace the ship's physician only in the event of an emergency and only for temporary circumstances. Due to the Voyager's isolation in the far-reaches of space, the EMH eventually has to perform his function for several years, learning to become more and more human-like on the way.

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While not a "character" or a single consciousness per se, The Matrix -- a collective of intelligent machines so sophisticated that it is a universe onto itself -- is so intelligent that it is able to completely fool human beings that they are living in a virtual reality simulation of 20th-Century earth, completely unaware they have become slaves of the technology they created hundreds of years ago. The Matrix can create complex virtual characters and avatars that are indistinguishable from the real thing -- unless you take the Red Pill.

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 "Rommie" as she is more casually known, is the sentinent computer consciousness behind the Starship Andromeda Ascendant, featured on the TV series Andromeda and played by actress Lexa Doig. Portrayed as a sexy female avatar on the ship's computer screens, Rommie controls all aspects of the ship's operation including navigation, weaponry and life support, and in holographic and robotic form is also the prime love interest of the ship's captain, Dylan Hunt, played by action actor Kevin Sorbo. 

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Playing on long-time SF themes of "Ghost in the Machine", Zoe Graystone is the Virtual Reality avatar of a real-life girl on Caprica, the short-lived SyFy Channel TV series. When Zoe dies in the first episode from a terrorist attack, her "V-world" avatar which is a carbon copy of her living consciousness takes her place. While the show never went beyond its first 18-episode season, eventually Zoe becomes the template for the Cylons, the intelligent robots that bring about the end of the Colonial civilization on Battlestar Galactica.

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GERTY, the operations computer in the 2009  film Moon (directed by Duncan Jones) and voiced by actor Kevin Spacey, is the only companion that the film's main character, Sam Bell, has to talk to and interact with for his solitary, three-year stint mining for helium-3 on the Sarang moonbase.

 
Inevitably, due to a number of obvious similarities, GERTY is going to be compared to another iconic computer portrayed on film which we'll get to shortly -- but where the other is flawed and eventually murders his crew due to being forced to lie and follow orders, in Moon, GERTY eventually redeems himself in order to save lives, in order to uncover lies and disobey the orders of his creators.
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Where IBM's Watson is the first computer to be a contestant on a TV game show, Val is the first computer to actually host one.

 
Val, whose sultry female voice is the only entity that contestants are allowed to interact with on FOX's Solitary -- is responsible for inflicting the various "treatments" which contestants must undergo in the form of mental and physical challenges. At any time, the the contestants can leave the confines of their small cells and end their "treatments" by simply pressing a button -- but that eliminates them from the game. Val serves to taunt them, as a form of computerized jailor and tormentor.  
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We've saved the big Mac Daddy for last. HAL, which stands for "Heuristic ALgorithm" is the iconic ship's computer gone haywire from the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey which was co-written by Sci-Fi author Arthur C. Clarke, It is the intelligent computer from which virtually all that exist in modern Science Fiction are based and ultimately compared to. 

 
Sent on a long deep space exploration mission to the planet Jupiter, HAL is forced to lie to the crew in order to keep a secret programmed by the mission's designers, causing his programming to go awry. When the crew notices HAL is acting in erratic matter and making mistakes, they plot to disconnect him -- ultimately resulting in  the murder of most of the crew by the psychotic machine, with the exception of astronaut Dave Bowman, who is eventually forced to deal with HAL by himself at the end of the film
 

HAL 9000’s murderous schizophrenia may have been caused by faulty programming, but the film instilled paranoia about computers and technology into an entire generation of baby boomers that persists to this very day.

 

In the early 1980’s, HAL did eventually redeem himself, by saving the crew and sacrificing himself in the sequel novel and the second film, setting the stage for Personal Computing and the Internet. Computers were no longer scary – Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak further sealed the deal by putting a fruity logo on them, and eventually a smiley face on the boot-up screen. 

Even H.A.L. “One step ahead of I.B.M.” could be a friend, and a tool that could be harnessed by regular people, not just pasty-faced white-collared grosgrain pocket-protected computer scientists locked in some huge room with giant humming pieces of machinery and banks of winking and blinking lights.

This week we'll see if HAL's real-life relative, Watson, can impress Alex Trebek. 

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