AI in Popular Culture: How Much Do You Remember?

Artificial intelligence has been a feature of popular culture since long before the term was coined in 1955.

It makes an appearance in “The Iliad” of ancient Greece, where we meet the robotic helpers of the god Hephaestus, as well as in the Middle Ages, when the legend of the golem as a powerful creature brought to life by a rabbi emerged in Jewish lore. More generally, AI has been a staple of science fiction for something like 200 years.

The appeal of thinking machines, particularly those that seem human, is understandable. If we could create an intelligent being, it might relieve our loneliness, protect us from our enemies, cure our illnesses, comfort our griefs. Then again, it might just as easily turn on us, destroy us, and take over the world. Books, movies and other cultural representations of AI are shot through with this tension: Will the being we create be our savior or our crucifier?

Test your knowledge of AI in culture by answering these questions.

Many people are more familiar with Frankenstein movies like the 1931 film starring Boris Karloff than they are with the book.


1. Thanks to the sentient creature at its center, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (1818) is a landmark of AI literature. But the actual title was, “Frankenstein, or…” Or what?

A) the Modern Prometheus

B) the Man Who Would Be God

C) How Toys Become Real

D) Optimism

ANSWER: A. The subtitle has caused some debate among readers. Shelley’s book is often read as a critique of scientific hubris—a reading that seems to some at variance with the idea of the scientist (the eponymous Frankenstein) as Prometheus. Both the scientist and his creation have their say in the novel.

2. “Erewhon” (1872), a satirical science-fiction novel by Samuel Butler, is one of the earliest to deal with smart machines that can (rather ominously) make more of themselves. Which of these is believed to have influenced Butler’s thinking about this subject?

A) Sigmund Freud

B) Jean-Jacques Rousseau

C) Gottlob Frege

D) Charles Darwin

ANSWER: D. “Erewhon” deals with a people who, fearing a technological revolt, have banned most machines. The author explores how evolution can apply to technology in a playful section of the novel called The Book of the Machines. Butler eventually came to repudiate Darwin’s ideas.

3. In Fritz Lang’s silent film “Metropolis” (1927), the likeness of an activist on behalf of workers is transferred onto a robot in the service of an evil dictator. Name that activist/robot.

A) Artemesia

B) Joan

C) Maria

D) Zenobia

ANSWER: C. The false Maria of “Metropolis,” instead of rallying the workers, inspires them to chaos until they burn her at the stake. Restored to something like its original glory thanks to a 16mm print discovered in Buenos Aires, the movie, in the words of film critic Roger Ebert, “fixed for countless later films the image of a futuristic city as a hell of material progress and human despair.”

In “2001: a Space Odyssey,” HAL the computer is up to no good.


4. HAL is the famously malevolent computer in the film “2001: a Space Odyssey” (1968). What does the acronym HAL stand for?

A) Heuristically Programmed ALgorithmic Computer

B) Higher Ability Language Synthesizer

C) Hyperintelligent Artificial Logician

D) Helping All Legacy Beings

ANSWER: A. “2001” was directed by Stanley Kubrick, who co-wrote the script with Arthur C. Clarke based on some of the latter’s short stories.

5. Which director, persistently interested in artificial intelligence, made “Prometheus,” “Blade Runner” and “Alien”?

A) Tony Scott

B) Ridley Scott

C) A.O. Scott

D) Byron Scott

ANSWER: B. The British director Ridley Scott (whose late brother Tony was a film director too) is also known for the feminist classic “Thelma and Louise.”

6. William Gibson’s landmark AI novel “Neuromancer” (1984) is the first book of a trilogy—called what?

A) The Foundation Trilogy

B) The Dune Trilogy

C) The Sprawl Trilogy

D) The AI Trilogy

ANSWER: C. “Neuromancer” was Gibson’s debut novel as well as the first book of the Sprawl Trilogy. The others were “Count Zero” and “Mona Lisa Overdrive.”

“The Terminator,” the first film in the series, has achieved recognition beyond the adoration of its fans.


7. In the first “Terminator” film, a cyborg played by Arnold Schwarzenegger has been sent back in time—to accomplish what?

A) Head off social media

B) Kill the future mother of a resistance leader

C) Prevent the development of lethal anticyborg technology

D) Save humankind from a nuclear holocaust

ANSWER: B. Made on the cheap, this AI classic has since been included in the National Film Registry, a list of movies considered “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” and designated for preservation by the Library of Congress.

8. Scarlett Johansson played Samantha, the disembodied virtual assistant who becomes the object of a human’s affections—in which movie?

A) “She”

B) “Her”

C) “Adaptation”

D) “Lost in Translation”

ANSWER: B. In the 2013 movie, directed by Spike Jonze, lonely Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with Samantha, an AI assistant played by Johansson, in a future Los Angeles.

9. In which of these movies does a Turing test figure prominently?

A) “Transcendence”

B) “An Education”

C) “Ex Machina”

D) “The History Boys”

ANSWER: C. Named for mathematician Alan Turing, the test requires a computer to act so convincingly human—in live chat, for example—that a person can’t tell if it’s human or AI.

10. Which author, in which work, invented the term “robot”? Hint: the story involves (what else?) robots who come to dominate the human race.

A) Daniel Defoe in the satire “Atalantis Major”

B) Karel Čapek in his play “R.U.R.”

C) E.M. Forster in the story “The Machine Stops”

D) Jules Verne in his novel “Journey to the Center of the Earth”

ANSWER: B. We get the word “robot” from the 1920 hit “R.U.R.” by Čapek, who derived it from rabota, an Old Church Slavonic term for forced labor. It is rooted in the historic Central European system of serfdom. In the play, the robots do all the work and eventually rise up to kill nearly all the humans.

Mr. Akst is a writer living in New York’s Hudson River Valley. He can be reached at

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