“M3gan” and the Ethics of the AI Toy Shop

The new sci-fi horror film ties in to recent debates in the creative world about artificial intelligence.

2023 is off to a particularly strong start at the movies, with this year’s first major release, the sci-fi horror film M3gan, proving itself quite auspicious. The film has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 94% and earned over $30 million domestically in its opening weekend.

The movie’s title character is a human-sized doll, engineered as a lonely child’s companion, the latest invention at a company specializing in artificially intelligent toys. As the movie progresses, M3gan takes creative and violent interpretations with her protective programming.

This places her in the company of numerous other fictional AIs before her. Skynet from Terminator, Ultron from the MCU, they all achieved infamy for turning against the humans who created them. M3gan, however, sets herself apart by aiming for smaller destructive goals than wiping out the world. Instead, she targets those who threaten her human companion, and eventually, those who threaten her.

Not every AI tale in the sci-fi world is necessarily a story of a malevolent entity. Los Angeles screenwriter and sci-fi and horror enthusiast Blake Jackson (“Blake the Book Eater”) commented, “I think there are numerous stories and films where AI is good as well as ones that are bad ([a] recent example is After Yang.) I think we typically view it as negative because we know how we treat the machines and can only imagine if they treated us the same way. Our fears are more emblematic of how we feel about our own natures.”

Jackson’s remark rings true in light of the movie itself. One of the primary reasons for M3gan’s turn to violence is the humans around her disregarding her autonomy, repeatedly ordering her to shut down or submit to diagnostic tests of varying intensity. Not only that, but while she is engineered to acquire knowledge at an impressive rate, she is essentially left alone to interpret the data she learns in her own way.

In the real world, machine learning serves as the source of much current debate on the subject of AI.

In the last few months, there has been considerable proliferation of AI art generators, some of which have become popular memes, like DALL-E Mini. People have taken to this and other such programs like toys, an idea which M3gan satirizes as the doll herself is only the latest AI product her company has made.

AI art has proven quite controversial in the creative field. Author Christopher Paolini, whose upcoming sci-fi novel Fractal Noise has come under fire after his publisher Tor revealed the book to have an AI-generated cover, has suggested that AI will become part and parcel of the art world in the coming years, “much like Photoshop.”

On the other hand, filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has spoken against AI artwork: “I consume, and love, art made by humans.” He has also quoted fellow filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, who as far back as 2016 declared AI art “an insult to life itself.”

In addition, Vladimir Petkovic, Creative Director at Adobe, points out that “[the] vast majority of these algorithms are trained on uncontrolled data sets. Copyrighted artworks…are simply ingested without any respect to the legitimate authors…I personally believe that it is not ethical to use [AI] to produce ‘art’ concepts.”

Jackson, for one, hews closer to the opinions of del Toro, Miyazaki, and Petkovic: “I don’t think AI art will ever replace human artistry because we would need AI to be sentient in order for it to do anything other than collate and steal other artists’ work.”

For all the ludicrousness M3gan leans into with its marketing, it isn’t just fluff entertainment. It tells a story that knows it’s not in a vacuum, and while the title character behaves more violently based on what she learns, she still calls to mind the ethical failings of real-world AI’s which come by their knowledge by theft.

“I don’t truly know which direction AI in the future will take,” Jackson concludes, “but I hope we can reach a future where humanity is kind to everything that it creates.”