I walked into the theater expecting a typical villain in the latest installment of Mission Impossible starring the inimitable Tom Cruise. And at the film’s beginning, you’re definitely led to believe that the pale, sour-faced Russians are behind yet another espionage program destined to thwart America and conquer the world. But that’s only a front. The real villain in the new blockbuster movie is an artificial intelligence known simply as “the entity.” The impossible mission, tasked to Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is to track down a mysterious key, made of two separate parts, that apparently can unlock the entity and reveal what it’s capable of.
God in the Machine
Hunt and his usual gang of expatriates find themselves at odds with every government in the world, since the entity seems to promise world domination and control depending on which authority wields it. The Americans want it, the Russians want it–everybody wants it. Hunt, however, simply wants to kill it, knowing that an AI that sophisticated, powerful, and all-knowing is too much for any one person (or state) to wield. Lord Acton’s remark that absolute power corrupts absolutely rings true.
It was interesting to watch a film dealing with the possibility of sentient AI. The entity, in the film, truly is a God-like machine, able to predict outcomes, set up situations, and interfere with the mission by replicating voices, erasing security tapes, and more. It’s even referred to as “God” at one point by Hunt, denoting the religious undertones of an unrestrained AI gone mad.
Of course, while an entertaining concept, AI can’t manage sentience, or consciousness (at least, that’s what we believe here at Mind Matters, but others, like former Google employee Blake Lemoine, kindly differ). It can’t, as the entity does, claim a mind of its own. Nonetheless, with AI systems getting all the more powerful, it’s plausible that they could issue real chaos in the world if put in the wrong hands.
What is Truth?
One of the ways this plays out in the movie that has real-world implications is the struggle to discern truth from falsehood. Whoever owns the entity “owns the truth.” Just this week, Elon Musk announced his new company venture xAI, which he said was going to counteract ChatGPT with its curiosity and eventual ability to “understand reality.” Musk wants an AI system that will tell the truth and nothing but the truth.
But what does that mean? And what would that look like? A machine that tells the truth according to who? Someone has to program the AI, and it has to draw its resources from the fickle land of the Internet, where all of humankind’s fantasies, debaucheries, wisdom, and folly lie waiting to be scraped up and mashed into something presentable.
It’s a bigger question about what “truth” is, and whether AI could ever grasp truth, synthesize it, and communicate it to the world. It almost sounds like Musk is looking for a kind of computerized God who we can all go to for reliable answers to life’s biggest questions and worries.
The problem, then, may not be that AI can become a God-like center of consciousness, but that we’re duped into thinking it can, and begin to worship it accordingly.
Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning (Part One) is in theaters everywhere now.
Read the new review of the movie from Robert J. Marks here.