Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

Artificial intelligence is often depicted in films as the scientific floodgate to apocalyptic doom, a “Terminator,” “The Matrix” or “I, Robot” scenario where machines quickly turn on humanity. “Chappie,” the latest sci-fi parable from director Neill Blomkamp, portrays an AI being that learns and interacts with the world in ways that are innately human.

“Chappie” takes an inside-out look at the swirling mass of conscious code inside an artificially intelligent mechanical being, or as Wolfgang Fink calls it, a sentient autonomous and synthetic reasoning system. Fink, a researcher at the University of Arizona and the California Institute of Technology, is studying and developing systems that can react to and explore environments independent of human control.

“We’re not dealing with what is commonly known as artificial intelligence,” said Fink, who was given information about the film’s production to assess how it portrayed AI. “That’s often used in the wrong context. AI is exclusively rule-based, meaning a machine encounters a situation and reacts a certain way. In Chappie’s case, it has the capability to learn and self-modify. In that way, [in the film] it grows up like a child, modifying itself as it goes. The hallmark of an autonomous system is being influenced by its environment, rather than being pre-programmed.”

Fink’s work includes research with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to develop autonomous systems for landing on and exploring the terrain of Mars. According to him, Chappie represents the evolution of autonomous systems in the way the machine ingests diverse data sources and combines them abstractly to develop reasoning in any given situation.

(Related: Can we code conscious programs?)

In the film, Chappie—a decommissioned police robot in Johannesburg, South Africa—has its standard rule-based AI software reprogrammed with an experimental consciousness program by Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), the coder who developed the software powering the police bots. “Chappie” follows the curious autonomous being as it learns from the world around it, the humans it meets and the experiences it has to ultimately become self-aware.

By depicting both the autonomous freedom of Chappie and the rules-based logic of the standard police robots, Fink pointed out that the film confronts the traditional expectations associated with artificial intelligence.

“Chappie has a self-sustaining drive,” he said. “He doesn’t want to die. He calls himself Chappie. That aspect of it is the Holy Grail, if you will. That’s where we need to make a major jump in self-awareness. Also to be sentient, where you have the ability to think and experience in a subjective way. Unlike the police robots, Chappie is not governed by a specific set of rules by which he has to act. Humans don’t have mathematical laws in our heads. We think. We use deductive reasoning, which is the foundation of true autonomy.”

About Rob Marvin

Rob Marvin has covered the software development and technology industry as Online & Social Media Editor at SD Times since July 2013. He is a 2013 graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University with dual degrees in Magazine Journalism and Psychology. Rob enjoys writing about everything from features, entertainment, news and culture to his current work covering the software development industry. Reach him on Twitter at @rjmarvin1.