An Imperial researcher talks about his role as an advisor on the latest science fiction film currently out in the cinemas.
Murray Shanahan, Professor of Cognitive Robotics from the Department of Computing at Imperial, was the scientific advisor for the science fiction film Ex-Machina. The psychological thriller is about the world’s first artificial intelligence (AI) – a robot in the shape of a beautiful woman - who is being “psychologically” tortured by her human creator.
Professor Shanahan’s research at Imperial focuses on how human brain function can be used in the field of AI. Colin Smith talks to him about his work on the movie, which is directed by Alex Garland
What was your role on the film?
It seems my main influence was before the screenplay was written, through my book. Alex and I met several times while the film was being made to discuss it, but apart from a few tiny changes to the script, I don't think I had much effect on it at that stage. However, I do have a hidden surprise in the film, but I think you'll have to wait until the DVD release to find it. More recently I've been involved in the publicity surrounding the film's release. There have been special screenings with panel discussions and numerous media interviews, where I get to discuss AI and robotics. These are a great chance to engage the public in some important contemporary issues in my field.
What are the benefits of scientists collaborating with directors on film projects?
Aside from the fact that it's great fun, I think public engagement is an important aspect of a scientist's job. Many of us are funded by taxpayers' money, and ultimately we are answerable to the public for what we do. I'm lucky to be in a field that attracts a lot of interest from the public and gets plenty of media attention. You have to be careful not to let it take up too much time of your time though.
Would you encourage other academics to do it?
If a director approached you and asked you to come up with a concept for a science fiction movie involving AI what would it be?
If I told you that, they wouldn't need to approach me. Seriously though, I might suggest something that looks at the human side of AI research and the struggles of the scientists and engineers. It would be good to portray AI in a positive light, something along the lines of author Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels, which depict a future in which humans and sophisticated AIs enjoy a harmonious symbiotic relationship.
What are you currently working on in your research?
In my day job, so to speak, I am interested in trying to understand how cognition is realised in the brain. To do this I build computer models, which are typically simulations of large numbers of neurons organised in a complex network. Understanding the rich dynamics that result is, in my view, key to understanding the remarkable cognitive abilities of the human brain.
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