This horror film doll is dancing her way into viral fame
01:00 - Source: CNN Business

Editor’s Note: Reader beware, this article contains minor spoilers for “M3GAN.”

CNN  — 

There is no shortage of robot uprising fiction in the Western canon (see: the works of Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick; classics like “The Terminator”; family-friendly spins like “The Mitchells vs. the Machines”). It’s a conceit that preys on one of mankind’s great fears, that robots will replace us.

But there’s just something about M3GAN that makes for an ideal monster and the film in which she stars a particularly chilling cautionary tale. (And a popular one at that – “M3GAN” has already made over $91 million globally with a sequel on the way.)

True, M3GAN is an immaculately coiffed humanoid doll with killer instinct and distinct fashion sense. A robot that advanced and, frankly, insolent seems unlikely to take over the world anytime soon. But her eponymous film has also come out during the advent of advanced AI that can hold conversations and write essays or create intricate works of digital art.

“M3GAN is a metaphor for a lot of stuff happening in our lives, (including) the unintended consequences of autonomous robotics,” said Daniel H. Wilson, a science fiction author and erstwhile roboticist, in an interview with CNN.

M3GAN, an advanced AI product who goes rogue, is an ideal villain for our times.

“M3GAN” raises questions about our human tendency to rely on technology including artificial intelligence, which is already seamlessly integrated into many of our lives, even if it’s not in the form of a well-dressed robot tucking children into bed. We regularly consult Siri or Alexa, the built-in assistants of Apple and Amazon products, respectively; many consumers clamor buy Teslas, with their semi-self-driving capabilities; and most of us can spend hours scrolling through social media thanks to algorithms meant to maximize the amount of time and attention we give to those platforms.

Much of “M3GAN” is pure fiction – there are not currently robots that can move as fluidly as M3GAN does when she’s charging at enemies at full speed. But the AI model that powers M3GAN is real, if not immediately available, said Shelly Palmer, professor of advanced media in residence at Syracuse University and expert in fields including emerging tech.

“The tech is absolutely coming – but the real wild card is human beings,” Wilson said.

So, could M3GAN be real?

Mechanically, no, technology has not caught up to make M3GAN in real life, both Palmer and Wilson said. Making a bipedal robot who fluidly runs and flips and perfectly executes TikTok dances before executing humans she perceives as threats is not yet possible.

Maybe you’re familiar with the work of Boston Dynamics, the company whose four-legged robots are able to walk with relative ease and carry heavy items (and which inspired a man-vs.-machine episode of “Black Mirror”). Wilson and Palmer both pointed to the company as one leading the robotics field, with fully mobile bots already in use in industries including construction and law enforcement (the company says Spot is used to assess potentially toxic materials or dangerous environments). Even it hasn’t created a robot comparable to M3GAN.

But the AI systems that power M3GAN in the film are already in the works, Palmer and WIlson said. In a blog post, Palmer wrote that the “AGI systems,” or “artificial general intelligence,” which describes a bot’s ability to learn anything that a human can, will soon be ready to be implemented.

“The tech for a doll like M3GAN is absolutely here, and an affordable version will be coming down the line at some point,” said “Robopocalypse” author Wilson. “The question is whether we want it.” (Based on humankind’s well-documented fears of dolls and a robot-dominated future, it’s likely many of us won’t.)

The tech to worry about is already here

Wilson’s “How to Survive a Robot Uprising” was published in 2005 and technology has evolved tremendously since then. At the time, he said he did not believe a robot uprising was inevitable. But there is tech that worries him today, he told CNN, and it’s not robots who take a physical form but AI products that mimic the reactions of humans.

“We’re fundamentally afraid that robots will replace us,” Wilson said. “For a long time, we were afraid they were going to replace our jobs … but now I think they’re going to replace us in intimate places, in relationships.” (Some may recall this being a key theme in the 2013 film, “Her.”)

He pointed to M3GAN – she acts as a friend to young Cady, who loses her parents in a car accident. M3GAN fills the comforting role ceded by Gemma, a chilly roboticist who struggles to adequately console her orphaned niece. But advanced AI does not expect reciprocity. Humans may not seek friends in fellow humans, those foible-prone folks, because they can get everything they want from robots, who are designed to serve, Wilson said.

Gemma, played by Allison Williams (right), gifted her grieving niece a M3GAN doll to help fill the girl's emotional needs.

AI already harms people “every day,” Palmer said, albeit in less visible ways than, say, M3GAN knocking a young bully into oncoming traffic. Social media addiction, he said, is powered by AI, as is the “prolific dissemination of misinformation.

“The science fiction version of robots or AI falling into a ‘man vs. machine’ conflict is embellished to make good visuals – the truth is far more subtle and is and has been going on for years,” Palmer said.

New tools like the popular chatbot ChatGPT can closely replicate human speech, but as with any form of social media, it also wants to keep users’ attention, Wilson said.

“What I’m scared of is social media combining with generative artificial networks – ChatGPT could take a whole generation of people down a conspiracy theory rabbit hole,” he said. “Social media just wants to dominate your attention and will say or do anything it can to maximize those interactions.”

ChatGPT and other forms of AI are not inherently evil, Palmer said, but they will almost certainly be used in ways their creators did not intend. If there’s a form of technology widely available, be it a rock or a gun or a cell phone, someone will attempt to misuse it.

“Most technology is neither good nor bad,” Palmer said. “That distinction is reserved for people.”

But if M3GAN were real …

Wilson put himself in Allison Williams’ characters’ sensible shoes to explain how a roboticist could avoid making a hypothetical M3GAN into a killing machine.

“If I wanted to make M3GAN as a product and make sure she did not go on a deadly robotic rampage, I would integrate some design characteristics that make it so the robot can’t kill people,” he said.

He’d make his M3GAN physically weak so she isn’t capable of hurling humans or heavy objects. He wouldn’t implement a black box model, which prevents users from understanding how an AI product operates, making it easier to run diagnostics on the robo-doll. But most important, he said, is ensuring M3GAN is hacker-proof. If a malevolent hacker is able to infiltrate M3GAN, they could use it to access private information information or cause physical harm, he said.

And on the off-chance that M3GAN does in fact go rogue, Wilson said some advice from his first book still stands: “Always go for the sensors first.” Take out the cameras that your robotic enemy uses to see you and you’ve already won.