Hands-free Computing & the Silver Screen

Hands-free computing has been around longer than you think.Ten years ago, Tony Stark’s computerized artificial intelligence assistant, Jarvis, woke him up by saying, “Good morning. It’s 7 A.M. The weather in Malibu is 72 degrees with scattered clouds. The surf conditions are fair with waist to shoulder highlines. High tide will be at 10:52 A.M.” Sitting in the theater watching the greatest Marvel franchise film (okay, that’s just my opinion), I definitely did not envision a world in which I would be woken up in the same way.

But here we are, in 2018, where I can wake up and say “Okay Google, what’s the weather in Norwalk today?” and my Google Home will tell me what the weather is before I even open my eyes. Artificial intelligence as portrayed in Hollywood has shaped our views of the future of technology more than anybody could ever have imagined. Through the usage of computer-generated imagery (CGI), green screens, and post-production magic, Hollywood crews have been able to depict a reality where robot assistants and hands-free computing are the norm.

Hollywood may have beat real life to the technology by some ten odd years, but we have caught up and hands-free computing is very much a part of everyday life now.

But here’s the kicker, this kind of technology has not always been portrayed as a good thing. When Hollywood first envisioned this kind of technology, it was with a negative connotation–that of robots getting out of control and revolting against those humans that they were created to assist. Has this affected the overall views of hands-free computing today? Probably. But in more recent Hollywood representations of this technology, the portrayal has made a definite switch. Now according to Hollywood filmmakers, maybe these computerized assistants, sidekicks, and servants aren’t necessarily trying to destroy humankind, but rather come up with their own code of ethics and way of living. Let’s break down some examples of how pop culture through the years has shaped our views of artificial intelligence and hands-free computing.

 

Westword (1973)

Description (as written by IMDb): A robot malfunctions and created havoc and terror for unsuspecting vacationers at a futuristic adult-themed amusement park.

hands-free computing westworld

Elaboration: Westworld is an amusement park where wealthy people can go and live out any fantasy they may want. The park is full of robots that look and act as if they are humans that are there to serve the vacationers and cater to their every need. The park is set up so that the vacationers can do whatever they please to the robots with no repercussions but the robots can in no way harm any of the guests. That is until one robot starts malfunctioning, goes rogue, and jeopardizes the lives of the vacationers.

Westworld was one of the first widely released portrayals of this kind of technology in Hollywood. Understandably, after seeing these robots stalking humans when they weren’t supposed to be able to cause them any harm, a lot of people were iffy about technological advances. In 1973, this kind of technology seemed like something purely through up in filmmakers imaginations, but it shaped the way that people thought about what technology could be able to do in the future. Without knowing it at the time, Westworld was laying the foundation to the hands-free computing technology that we know and use today (just in a less deadly way).

 

Smart House (1999)

Description (as written by IMDb): A teenager wins a fully-automated dream house in a competition, but soon the computer controlling it begins to take over and everything gets out of control. The teenage Ben must calm the computer named PAT.

hands-free computing smart house

Elaboration: Ben, his sister, and his father move into this fully equipped “Smart House” run by Pat. At first, everything runs smoothly–Pat is there to make their lives easier and cater to their every need. But then she overhears Ben’s father talking about how the kids needed a more motherly influence in their lives so she takes it upon herself to learn how to be a mother. One thing leads to another leads to another to the point where Pat has them locked in the house and is threatening to keep Ben and his family there forever.

At the beginning of this film, I wanted nothing more than to win a smart house and have it be able to cater to my needs. A house that could make dinner for me, and pick out what I wanted to wear, and transport me to any location in the word through it’s changing facades seemed like the perfect situation. But by the end of the movie, I like many others, was completely fine with my normal, not technologically advanced house. Again, this kind of advanced technology was portrayed as something that could easily become a danger and something that was not worth the risk for the reward.

 

Smart House operates on a very similar plot line to Westworld. In both films, computerized technology that are designed to help the protagonist’s malfunctions leaving them trying to find a way to escape danger and get things back to normal. At this point, Hollywood was shaping our views of hands-free computing, but not in a good way. Hollywood’s portrayal had left the general public more scared of what could go wrong than excited for the future of technological innovations. But, as perspectives and ideas of what could be possible in the technological space changed, so did Hollywood’s representation of artificial intelligence and hands-free computing.

 

Iron Man (2008)

Description (as written by IMDb): After being held captive in an Afghan cave, billionaire engineer Tony Stark creates a unique weaponized suit of armor to fight evil.

hands-free computing Iron Man

Elaboration: Tony Stark is involved in an attack that gets him captured and requires him to have a magnet implanted in his chest so that pieces of shrapnel don’t pierce his heart. While there, he builds a weaponized suit of armor to break out. Once he gets back home, he along with help from his computerized assistant, Jarvis (Just A Rather Very Intelligent System) build a whole fleet of advanced, flying, weaponized, suits. Jarvis is there to assist Tony Stark at every turn and to monitor his health and the status of the magnet keeping him alive.

For one of the first times in a major motion picture, a computerized assistant was portrayed in a positive light, helping to switch the portrayal of advanced technology in the public eye. Jarvis helps Tony in every way–it’s unlikely that Iron Man exists without Jarvis’ help. But what is it about Jarvis that makes people drawn to him as opposed to scared of him? The Hollywood representation of this technology in Iron Man shows computerized assistants as helpful, caring, diligent, and in this case with a touch of humor thrown in. None of those traits are consistent with a robot that is trying to revolt against humans. At this point, we were much closer to developing this technology for real so it was much easier to be able to pinpoint what it would and would not be able to do. Hollywood was a bit ahead of the curve, but Marvel’s creation of Jarvis on the big screen laid more groundwork for the creations of hands-free computing that would be available to the masses, not just billionaires like Tony Stark.

 

The Good Place (2016)

Description (as written by IMDb): A woman struggles to define what it means to be good.

hands-free computing The Good Place

Elaboration: Let’s definitely elaborate on that a bit. The Good Place is a town that people can go to after they die. While living, a person accrews points based on how good of a life they lived while they were alive. The best of the best go to live at The Good Place while the rest go to the Bad Place. After Eleanor Shellstrop dies and ends up in The Good Place, she realizes they made a mistake in taking here there. She, along with the town’s computerized assistant, Janet (who takes a human form) search for ways to make Eleanor a good person so she can stay in The Good Place.

Throughout this series, Janet is a constant source of knowledge and dry humor. The way that she is portrayed is interesting because she is always making it clear that she is not a human, she is not a girl, she is only intelligence. Whereas Jarvis is shown as having a personality and being more natural, Janet is clearly just intelligence generated by a computer. With The Good Place being such a new show, it’s portrayal of artificial intelligence and hands-free computing is the closest to the technology that is in circulation today. In many ways, Janet is representative of the ideal way that the Google Assistants and Amazon Alexas of today should operate.

 

Let’s face it, what we see in movies and on TV influences us. After watching Grey’s Anatomy, I wanted to be a doctor. After watching Criminal Minds, I wanted to be a detective. After watching Iron Man, I wanted a suit fully equipped with Jarvis. And while watching The Good Place, I wanted Janet to be there anytime I had a question. I may not be a doctor or detective or have an Iron Man suit, but I kind of have my own Jarvis and Janet. Hollywood generated this technology with the help of their “movie magic” but we have it for real. They laid the groundwork for what might be possible and then countless engineers and innovators made it happen.

Now, do they operate perfectly and without any issues? Of course not. But do you think that Jarvis or Janet did either? Definitely not. Just recently, many people’s Amazon Alexa personal assistants have been spontaneously laughing. A little strange, yes. But Alexa is not going to get up and start revolting against the people that own her. No technology is going to be without bugs, but the fact that it is even on the mainstream market and able to understand the amount that it does is incredible.

Now people have this type of technology sitting in their homes. Maybe it’s not at the point where they are up and walking and taking a human form, but the concept is the same. And if you really think about it, the hands-free computing technology that is sitting at all of our fingertips is truly amazing.


What are your thoughts? What was your first interaction with hands-free computing? How has your perception of the technology evolved over time? Leave your comments below and check out Botsociety for similar content!


Also published on Medium.

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Tricia Surber

Technical Communication and Media Studies Graduate from Mercer University.