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Science can’t keep up with pop culture when it comes to artificial intelligence

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Artificial intelligence entered pop culture long before its development.

Books, old-time radio shows, television and particularly movies explored the concept decades before ChatGPT gave the world its first personal look at AI for everyday public use.

Mathematician John McCarthy coined the term “artificial intelligence” at the Dartmouth Summer Research Project in 1956. A few months earlier, “Forbidden Planet” became the first movie to feature AI in the form of the character Robby the Robot.

Robby gave moviegoers a look at a benevolent AI that could not kill the monster at a critical moment because it spotted humanity in the creature and couldn’t violate its programming.

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Little more than a decade later, “2001: A Space Odyssey” explored a runaway AI, the HAL 9000, a stone-cold killer that struggles with conflicting orders and ends up slaying most of its ship’s crew.

Then came the “Terminator” franchise and later “The Matrix,” taking the theme of runaway AI to extremes with apocalyptic conflict between humans and machines.

“AI films respond to the cultural climate in which they’re in. For example, AI films in the ’50s and ’60s link AI to the space race and the Cold War,” said Paula Murphy, author of “AI in the Movies” (Edinburgh University Press), which is scheduled for release in April. “But films about AI have always imagined possibilities far beyond their time of release and continue to do so.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger, star of the early “Terminator” movies, said the franchise only “scratched the surface of AI, artificial intelligence.”

“Now, after all those decades, it has become a reality,” he said at a June forum in Los Angeles. “So it’s not any more fantasy or kind of futuristic. It is here today.”

Before the advent of Alexa and Siri, the Amazon and Apple digital vocal assistants, HAL was the talking onboard computer that stole the show in Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking “2001” film.

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The HAL 9000, short for Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer, operates the spaceship flying to Jupiter, but it becomes paranoid after orders for secrecy conflict with its programming directive to be open and honest.

The movie, written by Mr. Kubrick and acclaimed science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, was well ahead of its time technologically and futuristically but not ahead of the culture.

“2001” was inspired by short stories Mr. Clarke wrote years earlier, including the 1951 tale “The Sentinel,” and Swiss director Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 film “Alphaville,” about a sentient supercomputer.

Some contend that the first depiction of AI in film was in “Metropolis,” the 1927 black-and-white silent movie by German director Fritz Lang. Not everyone agrees.

“Back in 1927, Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ featured a robot that acquired human form, but not enough is known about her makeup to allow her to be categorized as an artificial intelligence,” Ms. Murphy, an assistant English professor at Dublin City University in Ireland, said in an email.

Before AI movies came onto the scene, popular novels were published. They included Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” the classic 1818 tale of a scientist who creates an intelligent being, and “Erewhon” (1872) by Samuel Butler, about a society that bans all machines over fears that they would reproduce and enslave humanity.

Such novels paved the way for a golden age of science fiction in which AI emerged as a popular theme. Authors grappled with the ethics and perils of human-robot interactions in novels such as “I, Robot” (1950) by Isaac Asimov and “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (1968) by Philip K. Dick.

Both would serve as rough outlines for later films: “I, Robot” (2004) starring Will Smith and “Blade Runner” (1982) starring Harrison Ford.

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