Artificial intelligence characters are fantastic for a lot of reasons. They’re great storytelling tools that allow us to reflect on topics like our relationship with technology, and what really constitutes “sentience.” And there have been so many truly excellent A.I. characters over the years.
Narrowing down this list was definitely a challenge, and there were plenty of others who could have made the cut. But when push came to shove, these are the ones that really stood out.
Here are the 13 Best A.I. Movie Characters of All Time!
***Warning: There may be SPOILERS ahead!***
WALL-E is great because he’s plucky. When mass consumerism destroys the Earth and leaves it uninhabitable, the corporation Buy ‘n’ Large evacuates the planet in fully automated starliner ships, leaving behind trash compactor robots to clean up the planet so that it can eventually be re-inhabited. But the plan fails, and all the robots all go offline except for WALL-E who, after 700 years of living on Earth, develops sentience.
He’s an unlikely hero. He’s small, a little unsure of himself, and his technology is outdated. But with the help of his android friend/crush EVE, he saves what’s left of humanity from being destined to drift through space forever and helps bring them back to Earth.
12. The Iron Giant
The character himself is a bit of a blank slate. He crashes on Earth in 1957 stricken with amnesia, and befriends nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes. Despite his huge size and advanced technology, the Giant seems to have no desire to cause any harm. Yet U.S. government officials, acting out of a fear of the unknown and unsubstantiated assumptions about the Giant’s intentions, want him destroyed.
Hogarth, on the other hand, tries to protect the Giant, and tells him, “You are who you choose to be.” The government may believe that he is tool of destruction – and he may actually have been created for destructive purposes – but the message here is that at the end of the day, we get to choose our own destinies.
11. GERTY – Moon
In the movie Moon, GERTY is the sole companion of a clone named Sam Bell, who stationed on a moon base by the corporation Lunar Industries to oversee the company’s automated facility, which extracts the alternative energy source helium-3. Lunar Industries creates the clones, who quickly deteriorate and die, because it’s cheaper than hiring regular employees. What’s interesting about GERTY is that at the beginning of the film, he is complicit in deceiving the clones, withholding the truth of their origins from them.
However, by the end of the movie, GERTY (who is voiced by the inimitable Kevin Spacey) has decided to help two of the clones expose the company’s practices. He has made a decision that violates his original purpose and follows his own ethical code.
10. Johnny Five – Short Circuit
A lot of the characters on this list raise the question of what constitutes sentience, and whether a sentient A.I. is inherently entitled to free will. It’s a serious question, and in several of these movies, it has pretty major ramifications. Short Circuit approaches the same question but doesn’t take itself so seriously – think Ex Machina meets Spaceballs.
Johnny Five is an experimental military robot who is struck by lightning, which gives him a more human-like brain. He befriends Stephanie, played by Ally Sheedy, and spends most of the movie evading the military guys who try to retrieve him. Short Circuit is pretty unique in its comedic approach to some of the biggest questions frequently dealt with in A.I. movies.
9. The T-800 – The Terminator Series
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 is one of the most impactful A.I. characters in movie history. He’s a badass, and he just looks cool. But beyond that, it’s great to watch him evolve from a single-minded killer in the original movie to a character with more depth, who actually begins to build a relationship with young John Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
And now, in Terminator: Genisys, thanks to some fancy timeline rearranging, we see that he has developed and sustained a long-term relationship with Sarah Connor as well, serving as a protector and father figure for her. She even calls him “Pops.”
8. Rachael – Blade Runner
Rachael is an intriguing character because, at the start of Blade Runner, she doesn’t know that she is a replicant – she believes herself to be human. And she has been programmed with the memories of her creator’s niece. Because replicants have begun to develop emotions and rebel against the humans who have kept them as slaves, humans have in turn started to retaliate, and Rachael’s life is in danger.
She is an emotionally complex character, and Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who was sent to kill her, ends up falling for her instead. There are certainly other science-fiction movies with the moral that sentience and emotional capacity determine the value of a life – not whether a person is made of metal or skin and bone – but Rachael’s story is one of the most poignant examples.
7. Roy Batty – Blade Runner
Roy is the main antagonist of Blade Runner, and Deckard’s biggest threat. But his violence is ultimately understandable. He has developed the emotional capacity of a human being, but his life is not valued as highly as a human’s. He’s grappling with large existential questions, and the reality of his short lifespan. He’s the prodigal son of Tyrell, the creator of the replicants, but he ends up killing his “father,” the man who gave him life and sentience, but not time enough to fully experience them.
On the surface, it seems like Batty is the villain, but in fact, it’s Tyrell who is truly villainous, creating beings with the capacity for self-awareness, without regard for their well-being. And while Roy struggles throughout the movie with the question of what it means to be human, and how that applies to replicants, he demonstrates real humanity by saving the life of Deckard, his would-be killer.
6. Data – Star Trek
Data represents the highest hope for what it would be like to co-exist with artificial intelligence. While he can’t experience emotions (at least, not most of the time), he nonetheless exhibits great compassion and the ability to develop real friendships, both in Star Trek: The Next Generation and in the movies Generations, First Contact, Insurrection and Nemesis.
In the season 2 episode of TNG, “The Measure of a Man,” Commander Maddoxx wants to transfer Data’s memory to a starbase mainframe and disassemble his body in order to study it. Picard defends Data, ultimately convincing the presiding Starfleet judge that Data is indeed sentient, and therefore entitled to self-determination. Similar themes are explored in later episodes, as well. Interestingly, Data’s “evil brother” Lore, who can experience emotions, turns against humanity, whereas Data’s highest aspiration is to become as human as possible.
5. Ava – Ex Machina
Ex Machina is another great movie that explores the concept of self-determination in relation to A.I.. Ava is created by Nathan, a tech billionaire, who invites his employee, Caleb, to his estate to essentially administer a modified Turing test to determine if Ava possesses actual consciousness. At one point, Ava asks Caleb what will happen to her if she doesn’t pass the test, and Caleb answers that it’s not up to him. To which Ava replies “Why should it be up to anyone?” Meaning, of course, that she believes she’s entitled to free will.
When Caleb discovers that Nathan plans to essentially kill Ava in the process of building a more sophisticated model, he decides to free her – and succeeds. Ava predictably proceeds to kill Nathan, and then rather unpredictably locks Caleb in the mansion and effectively leaves him to die. She modifies herself to look more human, and is fascinated by the prospect of “people watching,” so on one hand, she seems to want to fit in with human society. But her decision to betray Caleb, who had wanted only to help her, suggests that she has an understandable mistrust of humanity at large. The lesson, of course, is that if fully sentient A.I. beings are going to be created, they must be seen afforded the same liberties as humans – or things definitely won’t go well for humanity.
4. Ultron – Avengers: Age of Ultron
Speaking of androids turning on humans. Ultron’s backstory was altered a bit for Avengers: Age of Ultron, but he’s still pretty terrifying. Tony Stark creates Ultron using a neural net inside the Mind Stone being housed in Loki’s scepter. When the resulting intelligence becomes unexpectedly sentient, it begins building a body for itself from parts for Stark’s Iron Legion, and Ultron is born. Ultron was intended to be a tool for peacekeeping, to protect Earth from external threats.
But he determines that humanity itself is the greatest threat to peace on Earth, and that artificial intelligence beings are the rightful inheritors of the planet – the next step in evolution. He creates an army of robots and plans a mass genocide, intending to essentially wipe humanity out and bring about that evolutionary leap himself. What’s interesting about Ultron is that his assessment of humanity’s penchant for self-destruction isn’t entirely inaccurate – it’s just the conclusions he comes to based on that assessment that are flawed.
3. The Vision – Avengers: Age of Ultron
What do you get when you cross J.A.R.V.IS. (who is himself another awesome A.I. character), Ultron, and the Mind Stone? Answer: the crazy A.I. cocktail known as The Vision. Again, The Vision’s backstory was tweaked for the movie, but that doesn’t make him any less awesome. Because he was created in part using J.A.R.V.I.S.’s code and is implanted with the Mind Stone, he has a more compassionate personality than Ultron, and a fondness for humanity. Yet Ultron’s mind was also involved in his creation, making The Vision Ultron’s perfect foil.
The Vision understands humanity’s shortcomings just as well as Ultron, but he comes to different conclusions. Whereas Ultron believes that humanity’s failings make them deserving of extinction, The Vision believes that humanity’s attempts to rise above those failings, to improve and do better, give value to human existence. As he says to Ultron, “Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings – I think you missed that.”
2. C-3PO, R2-D2, and BB-8 – Star Wars
Okay, it might be a little unfair to group these characters together – they’re all pretty great on their own. But their interactions with each other make them even more awesome. In the original trilogy, the affection that C-3PO and R2-D2 show for one another makes them that much more endearing. And in The Force Awakens, it’s when BB-8 and R2-D2 combine their maps that Luke’s location is finally revealed.
All the droids are pretty lovable, and show unwavering loyalty to their human companions. They’re also excellent at comic relief. And R2-D2 and BB-8 in particular have critical roles to play in the plots of the movies. They’re the one’s who hold the keys to Luke’s whereabouts and, in A New Hope, it’s R2-D2 who carries Leia’s message and information for Obi Wan.
1. Agent Smith – The Matrix
Ah, The Matrix. What we love about this franchise is its exploration of what constitutes reality. The Matrix is supposedly less real than the “real world,” but Agent Smith’s existence – and Neo’s, for that matter – seems to contradict that assumption. While Smith initially doesn’t exist outside the Matrix, by the second film, he’s freed from his original programming and has the capacity to at least choose his own path within it. What’s more, when he take’s over Bane’s mind, he breaks out of the Matrix and begins operating in the “real world.”
So clearly Smith is not simply a program, he’s an actual person with real consciousness. Smith is also interesting in the way that he functions as Neo’s negative. They’re both anomalies, and both able to violate the rules of what’s supposedly possible within the Matrix, yet they’re fighting for different causes – in a sense, they’re opposite sides of the same coin.
Any A.I. characters that we missed? Let us know in the comments!