One of our goals in MACHINE VISION is to analyse how machine vision is represented in art, stories, games and popular culture. A really common trope is showing machine vision as hostile and as dangerous to humans. Machine vision is used as an effective visual metaphor for something alien that threatens us.

My eight-year-old and I watched Ralph Breaks the Internet last weekend. I found it surprisingly satisfying – I had been expecting something inane like that emoji movie, but the story was quite engaging, with an excellent exploration of the bad effects of neediness in friendships. But my research brain switched on in the computer virus scene , towards the end of the movie, because we see “through the eyes of the virus”. Here is a shot of the virus, depicted as a dark swooshing creature with a single red eye:


And here you see the camera switch to what the virus sees. It is an “insecurity virus”, that scans for “insecurities” (such as Vanellope’s anxious glitching and Ralph’s fear of losing Vanellope) and replicates them.

And of course it uses easily-recognisable visual cues that signify “machine vision” – a computer is seeing here.

I noticed an almost-identical use of this visual metaphor at another visit to the cinema with the kids, though this time in an ad from the Australian Cancer Council. Here, the sun is presented as seeing human skin like an alien.

The way humans see skin is not the same way the sun sees skin. And each time the sun sees your skin, when the UV is 3 or above, it’s doing damage beneath the surface. It builds up, until one day, it causes a mutation in your DNA, which can turn to skin cancer. Don’t let the sun see your DNA. Defend yourself.

The visuals are different. While Ralph Breaks the Internet uses an overlay of data, the ad shifts from a “human” camera angle to zooming in, black and white, fading around the sides of the image, a shaky camera, and then appears to penetrate the skin to show what we assume is the DNA mutating. The sound effects also suggest something dangerous, perhaps mechanic.

Certainly machine vision isn’t always represented as hostile. It’s often presented as useful, or protective, or simply as a tool. This year we are going to be tracking different representations and simulations of machine vision in order to sort through the different ways our culture sees machine vision. Hostile is definitely one of those ways.

If you have suggestions for other examples we should look at, please leave a comment and tell us about them!

2 thoughts on “Hostile machine vision

  1. Tama

    Back in the early 2000s when I was writing about the Terminator films, it was always when of the odd quirks that the POV of the Terminator always showed similar scenes and readouts inside the washed red tint of the Terminator’s vision. There was no logical reason for a machine to visualise inside itself, but it’s a persistent plot device to explain their threatening perspective.

    The odd thing, was that in the mid-2000s, there were a bunch of nature documentaries that used the same technique. I remember a really odd image of a polar bear’s “sight” showing miltary stype vision POV, just like a Terminator. I’m glad nature docos seemed to stop doing that after a year or two!

    1. Jill

      Oh yes, I’d forgotten how nature documentaries do that. Hm, maybe it’s more about using a camera to express different ways of seeing than being a reflection upon machine vision itself.

Leave A Comment

Recommended Posts

Machine Vision

Cultural Representations of Machine Vision: An Experimental Mixed Methods Workshop

Call for submissions to a workshop, Bergen, Norway
Workshop dates: 15-17 August 2022
Proposals due: 15 June

The Machine Vision in Everyday Life project invites proposals for an interdisciplinary workshop using qualitative approaches and digital methods to analyse how machine vision is represented in art, science fiction, games, social media and other forms of cultural and aesthetic expression.

Digital Humanities Machine Vision

What do different machine vision technologies do in fiction and art?

For the Machine Vision in Everyday Life project we’ve analysed how machine vision technologies are portrayed and used in 500 works of fiction and art, including 77 digital games, 190 digital artworks and 233 movies, novels and other narratives. You can browse […]

AI and algorithmic culture Presentations

My talk on caring AIs in recent sci-fi novels

I’m giving a talk at an actual f2f academic conference today, Critical Borders, Radical Re(visions) of AI, in Cambridge. I was particularly excited to see this conference because it’s organised by the people who edited AI Narratives A History of Imaginative Thinking […]