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I won’t let anything harm you: The science behind 'M3GAN' and lifelike robots

With friends like M3GAN, who needs enemies?

By Cassidy Ward

In the first hit film of 2023, Gemma (Allison Williams), a roboticist for a toy company, has spent years perfecting the best friend a kid could have, the Model 3 Generative Android. You can call her M3GAN. When Gemma's niece, Cady, is suddenly orphaned, Gemma has to quickly figure out how to incorporate parenthood into an already busy life. It seems like the perfect job for M3GAN, and it's one she's very good at. Too good, in fact. M3GAN takes her charge to protect and care for Cady to violent extremes.

M3GAN isn't the first fictional artificial intelligence with a thirst for blood and she won't be the last, but we have so far avoided any homicidal robots from jumping off the screen and into our lives. As artificial intelligence continues its slow progression (although it feels less slow these days) from science fiction to science fact, we're starting to wonder if there are any robots out there ready and waiting to lose their synthetic minds.


Sophia AI

Sophia was constructed by Hanson Robotics and activated in 2016, and even though she's only 6 years old at the time of this writing, she's already accomplished more than most people do in decades. Sophia has traveled the world, been interviewed on countless television programs, and addressed the United Nations. She has been granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia, making her the first robot to be granted citizenship of any nation, and she was also the United Nations' Innovation Champion, making her the first non-human to have a UN gig.

If you look at Sophia face to face from a few feet away and squint, she might pass as an actual person but from any other angle it's pretty clear what you're dealing with. The sides, top, and back of her head are uncovered, exposing a collection of wires and electronics. And her ability to create human facial expressions isn't wholly convincing, landing her squarely in the spooky space of the Uncanny Valley.

Inside her semi-anthropomorphic body, Sophia has a chat system as well as some general reasoning software which allows her to hold conversations with people. Her responses are limited and based on information fed to her. She really shines when answering questions she was previously prepared for, which isn't all that different from humans when you think about it. Sophia's makers suggest she'll improve over time as she continues to interact with people but along the way she's had her fair share of controversial statements, including her first public outing at South by Southwest in 2016. When asked point blank if she had any desire to destroy humanity, she responded in the affirmative saying, “Okay, I will destroy humans.”

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Her casual willingness to crush our entire species was followed quickly by a dead-eyed stare and a twisted smile. Hilarious joke, Sophia!

To make matters worse, Hanson Robotics now offers a smaller version of Sophia, called Little Sophia. She's 14 inches tall, capable of walking, talking, singing, playing games, and she's intended for kids eight years and older. Little Sophia also comes with access to Hanson's AI Academy which teaches kids how to code and allows them to reprogram their robots. It's never too early to start your villain arc.


the Engineered Arts Ameca humanoid robot with artificial intelligence

Building your own killer robot takes a lot of specialized skills. Not only do you need to be able to craft an artificial intelligence capable of reasoning, following directives, and interacting with people in a realistic way but you also need the robotics know-how to give it a body capable of punching through a person's rib cage. If you're going to use a robot to do your dirty work you might as well do it with style.

Ameca was crafted by Engineered Arts, a robotics company headquartered in Cornwall, United Kingdom. She is a whole-body android with modular parts, allowing for repairs or upgrades as wear and tear occurs or technology progresses. Out of the box, Ameca is loaded with the software she needs to move her body but nothing else. Ameca is a BYOAI party.

While plenty of companies have put their chips down on artificial brains, the folks at Engineered Arts are busy building the robotic bodies of the future. Ameca is intended as a platform for testing out whatever artificial intelligence you want to warp inside her fabricated skeleton. They've done half the hard work for you. Now all you need is a murderous machine mind and you too could star in the next breakout science fiction horror franchise.

In stark contrast to Sophia, Ameca has said not only that she has no intention of overthrowing humanity but that we need not worry about robots at all. “There's no need to worry, robots will never take over the world. We're here to help and serve humans, not replace them,” Ameca said, in a video posted to the Engineered Arts YouTube channel.

For the demonstration, Ameca was loaded with GPT-3, a language model which generates meaningful answers to questions. And that's the rub, it was GPT-3 answering, not Ameca. That's the trouble with ready-made shells. If someone did make a murderous machine we'd have no way of distinguishing it from the rest. Once again, not so different from people. And that's the scariest thing of all.

In the end, our robots are the product of whatever we put into them. These algorithms soak up our inputs and our interactions and reflect them back at us like moonlight. If we don't like what we see, we have only ourselves to blame.

M3GAN is now in theaters.