Science fiction is a unique kind of conversation. It’s not about what is, it’s about what might be. As a literature of the extraordinary, SF does three things well: it is prophetic, it is prophylactic, and it is prescriptive. It predicts the future, it warns against the future, and it suggests remedies for the future.
The computer, even before it was known as “the computer,” has almost always been imagined as the most powerful tool human beings could have. While all of our other tools have been about expanding muscle power, the computer is the only one that expands our brain power.
Expanding human intelligence and taking us to the next level of evolution has long been a staple of science fiction. As we saw in the beginning of this list, from the very beginning, speculative authors have been predicting, warning and attempting to cure the various possibilities of advanced computing technology.
Completing the list, here are the final 25 most memorable computers in science fiction.
Deep Thought. In “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy,” Douglas Adams mordantly hysterical radio series from 1978 (and eventually a series of books), Deep Thought is the ultimate computer built to answer the ultimate question of “Life, the Universe, and Everything.” Deep Thought constructs the Earth to work out the results. The answer is 42. Unfortunately, the question is “What is 6 x 9?”—which explains why the universe is so screwed up.
Marvin, the Paranoid Android. Also from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy,” Marvin may very well be the single most useless—and annoying—machine in science fiction.
MU-TH-R 182 model 2.1 terabyte AI Mainframe/“Mother”. MU-TH-R is the shipboard computer of the spaceship Nostromo, in Ridley Scott’s 1978 movie, “Alien.” Known by the crew as “mother,” the script is by Dan O’Bannon and MU-TH-R is the literary descendant of Dark Star’s “Mother.” (2.1 terabytes?!! Is that all? Ha!)
KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand). From the 1982 TV series “Knight Rider,” KITT was the brain and operating system of a heavily modified Pontiac Trans-Am, voiced by William Daniels, who was simultaneously starring on “St. Elsewhere” and wisely asked not to be credited in this series. This series starred David Hasselhoff.
Master Control Program. “TRON,” from 1982, was the first motion picture to use computer-generated imagery throughout. A human programmer gets trapped inside a computer world and discovers that programs are self-aware. He must get to the Master Control Program—a gigantic operating system with a very bad attitude (no jokes please, we know what you’re thinking)—and disable it if he is to escape back to his own world.
WOPR (War Operations Plan Response). Once again, some idiot thinks it would be a terrific idea to put the nation’s nuclear arsenal under the control of a supercomputer. In John Badham’s 1983 movie “War Games,” a teenage (of course) hacker gets online access to the WOPR system and invites it to play Global Thermonuclear War, but after running through all the various scenarios, WOPR wisely realizes that thermonuclear war is a very strange game: “The only winning move is not to play.”
Banana Jr. 9000. In 1984, Berkeley Breathed parodied the first generation of Macintosh computers with the Banana Jr. 9000 in his comic strip “Bloom County.” The computer is also known as the Banana Jr. 6000.
Edgar. In the 1984 movie “Electric Dreams,” a personal computer (named Edgar) gets into a love triangle with its owner and an attractive neighbor who plays the cello. While the movie itself is mostly harmless and not on anyone’s must-see list, the soundtrack remains extremely listenable, especially the signature track, “Together In Electric Dreams” by Phil Oakey.
Skynet. Doesn’t anyone ever pay attention?! Didn’t we learn anything from “Colossus” and “War Games”?! Once again, in James Cameron’s 1984 film “The Terminator,” some deranged descendant of Dr. Strangelove thinks it would be a terrific idea to put the nation’s high-tech military resources and nuclear weapons under the control of a supercomputer, which promptly wipes out most of the human race. A small band of rebels, led by John Connor, remains to fight Skynet, so Skynet starts sending super-robots called Terminators back through time to kill Sarah Connor before John is born. For a supercomputer, it sure isn’t very smart. Four films and a TV series later, it still hasn’t managed to finish the job.
Neuromancer and Wintermute. In William Gibson’s Hugo and Nebula award-winning novel from 1984, “Neuromancer,” it is illegal to build machines that can pass the Turing test. To get around this, the Tessier-Ashpool dynasty creates Neuromancer and Wintermute, each only one-half of a super-AI entity. The novel ends with the combined Wintermute/Neuromancer intelligence discovering another AI transmitting from Alpha Centauri.
Max Headroom. First appearing on British TV in 1985, then in an American television drama, Max is a super-stylized artificial intelligence, visible only on TV screens. Max exists in a surreal universe of his own and speaks in staccato and sometimes incomprehensible raps. A visionary show, at least a decade ahead of its time.
Holly. “Red Dwarf” was a BBC comedy series from 1988 set on a huge 22nd century mining ship, six miles long. A radiation leak kills everyone on board the Red Dwarf except David Lister, a technician held in suspended animation. Three million years later, after the radiation has died down, the spaceship’s computer, Holly, finally thaws him out. Holly also resurrects his former bunkmate as a hologram. The rest of the crew is evolved from the offspring of Lister’s pregnant cat during the three million years that Lister was in stasis.
Ziggy. The unseen computer from “Quantum Leap.” Voiced by co-executive producer, Deborah Pratt, Ziggy runs the project and tries to figure out the purposes of Sam Beckett’s (Scott Bakula) weekly leaps. Ziggy was finally revealed in the fourth season.
Solace. Hugo and Nebula award-winning author Spider Robinson has published multiple science fiction stories and novels taking place in “Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon,” noteworthy as a nexus for bizarre aliens, mirror-world realities, lost time-travelers, and other displaced entities who need help and healing. Solace is a distributed intelligence, accessible via a possessed Mac. (Yes, we know that last part is hard to believe.)
Emergency Medical Hologram. From the 1995 TV series “Star Trek: Voyager.” Played by Robert Picardo, the Emergency Medical Hologram is known as The Doctor, and functions as the starship’s own McCoy.
The Matrix. From the movie of the same name, the Matrix is a gigantic virtual reality simulator that uses humans to power itself so it could create a virtual reality for the humans that power it. Not the most logical supercomputer, but at least this one didn’t want to kill everybody.
iFruit. In the “FoxTrot” comic strip, Jason’s iFruit computer is a self-aware machine resembling Apple’s godawful iMac series.
343 Guilty Spark. The Monitor of Installation 04 in all three Halo games. Appearing at the end of Halo’s sixth level, it asks Master Chief to help activate Halo’s defenses, conveniently forgetting to tell him that this will destroy all intelligent life in the galaxy.
A.I. From the 2001 movie of the same name, starring Haley Joel Osment—only this time he sees living people. Based on a Stanley Kubrick adaptation of a Brian Aldiss story, directed by Steven Spielberg. Osment plays an android boy who, like Pinocchio, only wants to be human, only wants to be loved. In this picture, humans are shown to be incapable of love, only robots know how. Not a feel-good film.
Red Queen. In the 2002 movie “Resident Evil,” the Umbrella Corporation has built a top-secret genetic research facility underneath Raccoon City. The facility is called The Hive and its purpose is to develop nerve gas, so obviously the best place to put it is underneath a city. The Hive is controlled by an AI called the Red Queen. When a vial of nerve gas breaks, it turns almost everyone into a murderous zombie. (Are these places designed to fail, or what?!) Milla Jovovich has to fight all these zombies to escape, only to discover that the gas has escaped into the atmosphere—thereby guaranteeing multiple sequels.
VIKI. The supercomputer artificial intelligence in the 2004 movie “I, Robot,” starring Will Smith, and (allegedly) based on the works of Isaac Asimov. VIKI has apparently decided that in order to protect humanity as a whole, some humans must be sacrificed. Will Smith is the cop who is tasked with pulling the plug. (Doesn’t anybody ever stop to ask, “Is it really a good idea to give a machine that much power and authority?”)
GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System). The Intelligence Engine at the Aperture Science Enrichment Center in the 2007 game Portal. GLaDOS kills everyone in the Center, then lies about the existence of cake.
Auto. The autopilot of the starship Axiom in the 2008 movie “WALL-E.” Voiced by Sigourney Weaver, the star of the “Alien” movies, this was her opportunity to finally get to be “Mother” (see the top of this list).
JARVIS (Just A Really Very Intelligent System). Tony Stark’s personal A.I. in the 2008 movie “Iron Man.” JARVIS runs the internal systems of Tony Stark’s home. He talks to Stark with considerable sophistication, even to the point of sarcastic observations on Stark’s recklessness. Peter David created the acronym for JARVIS in his novelization of the film.
GERTY 3000. From the 2009 film “Moon.” A single astronaut runs a lunar mining station with the help of an exquisitely polite computer voiced by Kevin Spacey. The art direction looks like leftovers from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and Gerty sounds a lot like HAL 9000. Like HAL, Gerty cannot be trusted. But despite the obvious echoes of the Kubrick film, the script is a lot closer to the work of Philip K. Dick.
Ten years from now, we’ll probably have to add another 25 computers and robots to this list. I can hardly wait.
David Gerrold is the author of over 50 books, several hundred articles and columns, and over a dozen television episodes, including the famous “Star Trek” episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles.” He is also an authority on computer software and programming, and takes a broad view of the evolution of advanced technologies. Readers may remember Gerrold from the Computer Language Magazine forum on CompuServe, where he was a frequent and prolific contributor in the 1990s.