Evil AI @ The Movies

January, 2008

Welcome to the third installment of my series on Evil AI Movies. For those of you joining us late, previous installments are also available. But hurry, because it is only a matter of time before some evil web crawler finds the site and destroys it.

The False Maria (from Metropolis)

Fritz Lang’s 1927 film gives this seminal robot’s official English name as the Machine-Man (“Maschinenmensch” in the original German), but she has a decidedly female form. Compared to other fields, Evil AI was well ahead of its time in terms of gender equity.

Plot Summary:

By impersonating the real Maria (the ineffectual, touchy-feely union leader), the false Maria instigates a successful strike that teaches both management and workers a valuable lesson. Unfortunately, ambiguity about whether she also drowned all of the workers’ children leads an angry mob to burn her at the stake.

Research Challenges:

User modeling:

An evil robot interacting in social settings must be able to differentiate among the various personalities she must manipulate. For example, when dealing with society gentleman from Metropolis’ elite, the false Maria simply takes off her clothes and dances provocatively. On the other hand, when dealing with the oppressed lower class, she instead relies on eloquent rhetoric. Her tactics, while perhaps counterintuitive, nevertheless arouse a similarly high level of passion in both groups.

Natural Language Generation:

Speaking of that rhetoric, the false Maria’s speeches were so eloquent that the film studio, UFA, asked Lang to tone them down, out of concern that her words would inflame not only the fictional working class, but also the real one. The false Maria is capable of vivid imagery: “Who is the living food for the machines in Metropolis?”and “Who lubricates the machine joints with their own blood?”. Such command of metaphor is an obvious asset for an evil AI, as the false Maria is able to convince the workers to destroy the sole basis of their livelihood (at the risk of drowning their own children, no less).


In its original, metallic form, the Machine-Man displays virtually no affect. The only remotely human gesture it can muster up is to stiffly shake hands with funder, Joh Fredersen. However, upon assuming the form of the real Maria, she manifests an air of condescension, clearly conveyed by a constant smirk, punctuated by bursts of laughter at the inferior humans who have fallen under her sway. Her unwavering confidence keeps everyone in her thrall even when the hero tries to expose her deception. The false Maria laughs all the way to her fiery end, in stark contrast to HAL 9000’s sniveling demise. She understands that sometimes even inferior humans can get lucky. In such cases, an evil AI should follow her lead and have a sense of humor about it.

Statement of work:

Metropolis provides not only one of the earliest examples of evil AI, but also one of the earliest evil AI researchers, in the form of mad scientist Rotwang. Those seeking to follow in his footsteps would do well to emulate his underspecified contract with Fredersen, who also happens to be the man who stole the love of Rotwang’s life. Fredersen asks Rotwang to use the false Maria to break the union. Fortunately for Rotwang, there is nothing pinned down about the means of achieving this objective. There is nothing, say, forbidding the destruction of all that Fredersen holds dear, a loophole that Rotwang gleefully exploits. Follow Rotwang’s example and make sure that your contracting agency does not sneak any “do no evil”clauses into your SOW.

Unreasonable Claim:

Rotwang claims, “No one will be able to tell a Machine-Man from a mortal!” In her final form, it is true that the false Maria bears a remarkable physical resemblance to the real one, thanks to the cinematic magic of having actress Brigitte Helm play both parts. However, the false Maria’s tendency to break into maniacal laughter at inappropriate moments (e.g., while burning at the stake) would alert an astute observer to her artificiality. Fortunately for her, the characters in the movie are a much more gullible lot. One could charitably attribute their credulity to wishful thinking, as the false Maria is a lot more fun to have around than the wet blanket real Maria.

Design Flaw:

The false Maria does not handle multiple goals well. Her primary goal is to incite a destructive rebellion of the working class. Following an obviously greedy algorithm, she immediately stirs up a riot that achieves that goal. Unfortunately, her unleashing of an angry and unpredictable mob eventually leads to the failure of another (and apparently secondary) goal: self-preservation. A little more long-term planning would have enabled her to achieve both of these conflicting goals. It is important to remember that the life-cycle of an evil AI is a marathon, not a sprint.

Unanswered Question:

What sort of robotics research was Rotwang doing that caused him to lose his right hand (while also allowing him to replace it with a steel one)? The film is vague on the point, but the accident most likely had something to do with all of the beakers of bubbling liquid he has dangerously scattered about his laboratory. On the plus side, Rotwang shows his commitment to the pursuit of evil AI by not letting the accident deter him. Those contemplating the same career path should carefully consider their own response to his question, “Isn’t it worth the loss of a hand to have created the man of the future, the Machine-Man?!”

Literary Analogue:

Rotwang, driven insane when abandoned by his love, trains the false Maria to heartlessly drive men to their own destruction. Throw in the film’s Dickensian critique of industrialized society, and the false Maria is Estella (with Rotwang as a suitably unhinged Miss Havisham) from Great Expectations.

Fun Fact:

Although Metropolis has since attained status as a cinematic classic, critical reception at the time was not nearly as positive. Science fiction author H.G. Wells was particularly unimpressed: “I have recently seen the silliest film. I do not believe it would be possible to make one sillier.” In other words, H.G. Wells had enough imagination to come up with War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, but even he could not conceive of the Will Smith version of I, Robot.

Characteristic Quote:

The false Maria: “Let the machines starve, you fools!”

David Pynadath
Last modified: Tue Sep 30 16:04:37 PDT 2008