The Hidden Humanity of AI on TV

Through books, music, films, video games, and TV shows, we’ve been conditioned to regard AI as an impending threat: a festering, faceless danger hell-bent on exterminating every fleshy fiber of our humanity.

This construct has made for some unforgettable drama, but over the decades, has become so ubiquitous and stale that it obscures the emerging reality of AI and its actual philosophical underpinnings.

AI inciting a mechanical uprising is more than just lazy writing—it’s a view of the technology that’s turned some of the public against it (and if you don’t think popular culture can impede the progress of technology, consider what The Simpsons did to Nuclear energy).

Because we know first hand how AI can enhance a person’s productivity, passion and livelihood, we’re taking on the task of revisiting pop culture’s more thoughtful depictions of AI, one medium at a time. Up first: television.

“We are more alike, than unlike, my dear Captain.”

One of AI’s most metaphysically curious character materialized, unsurprisingly, from one of TV’s most philosophical shows. Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation has uncommon dimension and depth for any television character, much less one with an AI heritage.

Plotlines that boldly ventured into previously-uncharted existential territory for sentient machines gave actor Brent Spiner the opportunity to craft an endearing, complex being that viewed humanity with curiosity, trust, and indeed, longing.

Consider this compilation of Data’s most memorable moments. Watch in particular for the poignancy of his honesty and his intrigue with human rituals:

The Next Generation’s run would span seven years, garnering acclaim, tallying awards, and ushering in a new era of Trekkies. Data would become one of the show’s most intriguing, enduring, and beloved characters, ranking #4 in IGN’s “Top 25 Star Trek Characters.”

“You pass butter.”

Defying sci fi tropes with a heady brew of nihilism chased with shots of hope (maybe?), Rick & Morty has become one of sci-fi’s most-captivating TV shows. Last year it handily toppled CBS’ groan-inducing The Big Bang Theory as TV’s #1 Comedy, all while airing on a network with a fraction of the resources.   

The show’s ethos is rooted in the relationship of the two titular characters and their excursions through the multiverse. But its scope–the multiverse!!– affords Rick and Morty the time and space to ruminate about science, technology and philosophy, at any given moment, granting it a perspective on phenomena like AI without any central AI characters.

These observations can surface seemingly out of nowhere. Take a one-off scene brushing on a sympathetic AI, which incited a hoopla of memes, fanfiction, even a real-life recreation, all championing an intelligent agent’s all-too-human search for meaning in the mundane.

The scene is a testament to how AI might begin to seek further purpose in its accumulated experiences, taking cues from its creators. Butter robot may have met a grisly end in an (arguably non canon) Old Spice commercial, but witnessing its quest for something more–and its despair when it finds an unsatisfactory answer—is highly relatable.

“Why am I cheering? I don’t know, but yeah!”

If existential angst is something an AI could ever eventually be capable of, such suffering may be the key to unlocking one of the most significant features dividing humans and their computerized counterparts: humor (tragedy + time, being the supposed formula).

As we know from our work at, it’s tricky enough training an AI agent to recognize the nuances of language in a singular context, let alone the intricate, ever-shifting set of shared human experience that allows us to riff in various hilarious ways, even (perhaps especially) when a situation doesn’t logically scan as humorous.

That makes Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot and Gypsy from Mystery Science Theater 3000 some of the most technically (if not aesthetically) impressive feats of AI engineering. Imprisoned by two mad scientists, Joel Hodgson programs his cadre of bots specifically to keep him company during a torturous slog of campy sci-fi movies.

Their only directive seems to be to exhibit a sardonic sense of humor, as if they really empathize with Hodgson, himself teetering on the brink of insanity. However, the bots personalities also vary, a conscientious decision by Hodgson to craft bots that can reinvent humor in new shared contexts.

Take the above 28-minute cut of Tom Servo, the slightly more mature robot, cycling through an emotional range. A human-like developmental curve for the robots, and a complex range of emotions would be prerequisites to a sense of humor.

We may be a ways off from making AI agents that can philosophize, cry, or laugh with us, but hopefully these characters remind skeptics of the pro-human potential of AI. Time will tell how soon we get to ponder deep questions with a real-life Data, receive butter from a depressed robot, or yuk it up with a sentient gumball machine. Until then, we thank the TV writers who imagined AI characters could be protagonists too.

Did we leave out your favorite AI character from TV? Let us know on Twitter!

Lead image via DesignBoom