In short film Blinky AI robot takes fatal cues from its human family

March 28, 2011 by Sarah Black

The new short film Blinky, by Irish film writer/director Ruairi Robinson, takes place in the not-so-distant future, where robotic household helpers are everywhere.

In the broken home of a couple who are constantly fighting, their emotionally distraught young son takes his rage and frustration out on an AI robot companion toy named Blinky.

He urged his parents to buy him the factory-fresh bot after seeing the TV ad promising that Blinky can “bring families together.”

But he’s soon disappointed when nothing in his family life actually changes — and Blinky pays the price. The delightfully obedient and friendly robot, abused to the point of breaking, loses its “mind” and goes postal on the human family.

This film is probably a commentary on the plasticity of the intelligent, emotional mind, from the perspective of behavioral psychology. Meaning, a truly lifelike artificial intelligence, capable of emotional and social interaction, would be just as affected by psychological and physical abuse as a human would be. The parents’ constant fighting warps the mind of their son, who in turn rages against the robot, in a sort of psychotic transference. 

Ironically, the same advanced mental capabilities that allow the AI robot to interact in a humanlike way with its owners, also make the AI vulnerable to the real impact of psychological abuse — and just like the human boy, the robot cracks. Only it cracks homicidal.

Or maybe this film is mocking the grotesque denial of the profound cognitive dissonance that we humans routinely “live with.” Like emotional zombies, the parents carry on with their daily dysfunctionality, turning a blind eye to their kid’s cries for help, and avoiding any recognition of what that sick climate is doing to him. They treat their son like nothing is actually wrong.

But seen through the lens of the uncorrupted, childlike mind of the AI, the actual impact of abuse on mental health is writ large. The AI ultimately reacts overtly to the torture, while the humans continue to deny the emotional disease that has infested their home. Kind of an elaborate “canary in a coal mine” theme. The AI isn’t really broken, in one sense, Blinky is just accurately mirroring the humans, like a mental health barometer.

The film’s ultimate message is intriguing: you can’t tell an emotional AI (much less a sentient one) “do as you’re told, not as I do.” A real AI mind will be just as observant, sensitive, and plastic as a human mind.  And a childlike AI, designed to learn from (and mirror) its human companions… well, make sure you put the kitchen cutlery away.

The film makes one assumption: that either Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics (which specifically program an intelligent robot to be incapable of harming humans) have been incompetently left out of Blinky’s source code, or else Blinky has experienced a reset of his own programming, overriding these fail-safes — either as an unintended consequence of his self-evolving algorithims, or through the logic-shock of the trauma Blinky experiences, causing a system failure.  

Credits | Starring Max Records from Where The Wild Things Are. Written, directed & edited by Ruairi Robinson. Cinematography by Macgregor. Music by Ólafur Arnalds courtesy of Erased Tapes. Funded by Bord Scannán na hÉireann/Irish Film Board.

Wikipedia | The Three Laws of Robotics, are a set of rules written by science fiction author Isaac Asimov and later expanded upon. The rules are introduced in his 1942 short story “Runaround,” although they were foreshadowed in a few earlier stories. The Laws are:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Ruairi Robinson official website