Science fiction authors have been writing about the possibilities of worlds integrated with intelligent machines since the earliest days of the genre – including EM Forsters ‘The Machine Stops’ in 1909 and HG Well’s concept of a “World Brain” in the 1930s. Cinema introduced visual design tropes that are still pervasive today, as artificial intelligence creeps ever closer to reality. Here are seven fictional supercomputers and the whys and wherefores behind their designs!
The Old Man
In the first years of the 1950s, a team of scientists led by Nicholas Metropolis, constructed the MANIAC – Mathematical Analyser Numerical Integrator and Computer. It was gigantic and weighed almost a thousand pounds. It’s programmers included several notable women mathematicians and engineers, such as Mary Tsingou, Klara Dan von Neumann, and Marjorie Devaney.
The vacuum-tubed machine was featured in the 1953 atomic horror film The Magnetic Monster, perhaps to make the movie feel more “cutting edge” and disguise its thin plot and frowsy acting performances. And so, the practical designs of reality became the visual language of speculative cinema. Supercomputers might be capable of taking over the world, or at least destroying it, but they were still the size of a house, with innards festooned with miles of copper cables, and decorated with innumerable esoteric flappers and clickers.
Ten years later the fantasies of “smart” computers would be thoroughly explored in numerous episodes of The Twilight Zone. They were usually portrayed with the common trope of existential menace, but not so in “The Old Man in the Cave”.
In a post-apocalypse shanty town, the ragged and starving survivors rebel against the “Old Man”, the supercomputer who warns them from consuming certain foods. They destroy the machine and destroy themselves, literally poisoned by their own ignorance.
I like this design, as archaic and clunky as it appears to modern eyes. It’s a nice twist when the wise benefactor is revealed to be a hefty chunk of sheet metal and incandescent light bulbs.
“Will I dream?”
2001: A Space Odyssey is over fifty years old and is still the unavoidable standard for so much of science-fiction visual design that it is still being heavily referenced in every medium today.
There are overwhelmingly good reasons for that, of course. The design of HAL’s computer interface as well as it’s “Brain Room” are iconic for their clean simplicity. Voiced by Candice Bergen, SAL was a “twin” computer which briefly appeared in 2010: The Year We Make Contact, with a comforting blue light in place of HAL’s red.
Stanley Kubrick wished to present a more sophisticated kind of computer, beyond the valves and dials of the Fifties, and he reportedly took inspiration from the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, and the IBM Pavilion therein.
Kubrick took a lot of advice and input from many individuals including the artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky and IBM industrial designer Eliot Noyes as well as designer Harry Lange and author/scientist Fred Ordway, both of whom worked for NASA.
It was an “inescapable conclusion” that “computers will be reduced virtually to little featureless magic boxes in a decade or so.”
That that prediction proved to be hugely optimistic has meant that design, both practical and speculative, is still playing catch-up to Kubrick all these decades later.
How can you possibly give personality to a box, though? By giving it a voice. In HAL’s case that was originally Martin Balsam who Kubrick decided was “a little bit too colloquially American” and picked Douglas Rain instead.
The Luddite paranoia of being eclipsed by machinery is strongest here of all, though HAL doesn’t turn murderous on a whim, nor is it emotional in any way. The 9000 series of computers had a certain intelligence, though not what could be considered free will. HAL’s programming was goal-orientated, which gave rise to certain … complications when it was given conflicting orders.
“What I am began in man’s mind. But I have progressed further than that.”
Colossus: The Forbin Project is a 1970 science fiction thriller in which a highly advanced artificial intelligence is given the oversight of the United States nuclear deterrent.
Between the publication of Dennis Feltham Jones’ source novel in 1966 and the debut of the film, 2001 had realigned the perception of what computers of the future could look like. This visual revolution did not affect the production design of Colossus, however, which appears pleasingly dated.
The machine is the size of a city block and housed inside a mountain bunker whilst Charles Forbin, it’s creator, opens the film before an entire wall panels hosting chunky buttons, switches, and blinking lights.
The first computers were linked in 1969 via the ARPANET, just as the American and Soviet computers are in this story. Colossus: The Forbin Project combines the fears of Cold War tensions and atomic Armageddon with that of being enslaved by the machines we’ve built to save ourselves; that ongoing imaginary battle, both physical and philosophical, between humanity and machine. It was Feltham Jones’ first novel, and the British author must surely have been inspired by the Bletchley Park Colossus, built in 1943 to help break the codes of the Axis powers, and considered to be the world’s first electronic computer.
“Unable to compute. Available data insufficient.”
If HAL is the father of sci-fi artificial intelligences, then Mother is, well, the mother. Only featured in three very short scenes in Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece, the design of this supercomputer has been long lasting because it is so unique.
Just as the script had such a cornucopia of authors, there were so many different, distinctive visual minds involved in making Alien, under the overall direction of Scott, that the final film is such a wonderful blend of immersive artistry. From HR Giger (obviously) to Ron Cobb and Chris Foss, the creatures, the spaceships, the uniforms, it all combines into a singularly believable, terrible, world.
There are no hard edges or dull grey surfaces inside Mother’s “Brain”. The room is comprised of padded walls decorated in whites and creams, and blinking lights, a womb of sorts, which pairs with the hypersleep chamber where we first meet the staff of the Nostromo, awakened in their underwear like babies.
Mother was voiced by Helen Horton, but does not communicate directly with the crew. Her voice is used as an impassive public address system, whilst Mother communicates directly via the eerie green and black glow of those now dated CRT monitors. Similarly to HAL, this machine has no feelings one way or another towards the ship’s human crew. Their lives are expendable on the orders of other humans.
The digital age brought us supercomputers that were helpful, rather than murderous – with their proliferation into everyday society, electronic machines just weren’t that scary any longer. With David Hasselhof and the smooth, glimmering veneer of the 1980’s, came Knight Rider, the beloved TV show of young boys for it’s plentiful car chases and … more car chases.
The premise is as simple as pie: policeman Michael Long is granted a new face and identity after being left for dead, and fights crime on a once-a-week basis alongside his indestructible Pontiac Firebird with it’s intelligent onboard computer: the Knight Industries Two Thousand, or KITT. The smoothy-chopped zinger-deliverer was voiced by William Daniels.
KITT displays a different trope regarding the attitudes of certain fictional robots towards humans. Their programming makes them superior, because they are built without the hindrances of capricious emotions. It makes them so ironically smug.
We’re introduced in the first season to KITT’s evil twin; inventor Wilton Knight’s prototype vehicle, KARR: the Knight Automated Roving Robot. Whilst the former’s primary function was to serve, KARR’s was self-preservation. This results in some pretty big differences between the two despite their near-identical designs (KARR’s interface was actually KITT’s from the pilot show, whereas the car itself was the same).
Of course KARR is far more interesting, being slightly deranged, a little violent, and obsessed with being superior to KITT. It helps that KARR is voiced by a temperamental Peter Cullen, best known of course, as Optimus Prime.
KITT and KARR shared the same distinctive oscillating red scanner on their front grill; mimicking the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica; unsurprisingly from the same creator, Glen A Larson.
Their primary interface, built into the dashboard, was visually pretty basic; a bundle of illuminated buttons and a flashing panel to indicate speech. Even a few CRT screens are stashed away in there! This design feels more like a reflection of the rising popularity of digital wristwatches in the early Eighties, as well as the first home computers, like the IBM Personal Computer and those all-important “tiny microchips.” Not very exciting, but in this show, the car really was the star. And the theme tune too, of course.
“I’m here to help you, Sam.”
Duncan Jones’ 2009 directorial debut Moon is a snug little film starring several Sam Rockwells. From the spacesuit design to the interiors of the ships, every detail seems to have been lifted from an earlier work; that doesn’t make it bad necessarily, just … comfortable in its ambitions. The same can be said for GERTY 3000, Sam’s robotic companion; HAL, of course, in the unblinking lens that sits in the centre of its mobile case, and which gives the computer an automatic menace in the audience’s mind, intentionally so. Jones remarked that he didn’t think Moon was negative about technology but it wasn’t particularly positive either.
The hardware surrounding GERTY’s basic digital (but not touch!) screen interface is reminiscent to me of a Nineties commercial fax machine or plastic airline furniture, making it feel nicely cheap and dated at the same time; progress on a budget. Like the designs in Alien, the future depicted in Moon is realistically worn-down and busted out.
GERTY communicates not only through voice but through visual Emoticons, which kind of dates the technology in it’s own strange way. The first iPhone debuted in 2007, two years before the release of this film. Although text emoticons have been popular since the Eighties, their ubiquity now makes this idea of a sophisticated future computer using them seem oddly quaint.
“I’m a smart computer!”
The supercomputer at the heart of 2018’s Maniac is a whole bundle of visual tropes plucked from both history and fiction. Created by Cary Fukunaga and Patrick Somerville, it’s fitting that the name of the show should harken back to one of the earliest computers ever built.
The Netflix show starring Emma Stone and Jonah Hill followed their troubled characters in an alternate universe of sorts, allowing for a wide range of quirky design choices during their mind-bending pharmaceutical trial involving a doctor with mother issues and an emotionally complex computer.
HAL and Mother are acknowledged by the production designer as inspirations for the most sophisticated mega-computer ever developed – GRTA, (Georgia Regional Transportation Authority … or not. Sci-Fi computers sometimes have acronym names like the WOPR – War Operation Plan Response – in War Games, and sometimes they’re just styled that way!), voiced by Sally Fields.
GRTA brings us right back around to the designs from the birth of computing, of real-life inspirations like COLOSSUS and MANIAC. But unlike those machines, this one can think, and feel, and get horribly depressed. And thanks to that wall of blinking lights, it can make faces at us.
Thanks for reading if you did. I think I’m going to go sit down somewhere calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.
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