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We start off with a bang—actually a lot of bangs.

The Avengers are attacking the heavily-defended


research lab of one Baron von Strucker, a Hydra baddie. The Avengers make mincemeat out of his
soldiers, but they have a tougher time with "the twins"—Pietro and Wanda Maximoff. Pietro makes life
tough for them with his blazing super-speed, but eventually all the Hydra butt is suitably kicked.

Inside Strucker's lab, Tony Stark discovers Loki's scepter. He goes to grab it, but Wanda Maximoff jumps
out from behind him and hits him with spell that causes Tony to hallucinate. He sees all of his Avenger
buddies lying dead around him, while the Chitauri aliens from the first Avengers invade a defenseless
Earth.

This bums Tony out (natch'), but he shakes it off and the Avengers, having captured Strucker and the
scepter, regroup at headquarters. Tony's computerized helper J.A.R.V.I.S. detects a kind of super-
intelligence lurking in the gem in the scepter, so Tony works with Bruce Banner to transfer that into
"Ultron."

What's an Ultron? Good question. It's Tony's vision for an Earth defense force, powered by artificial
intelligence. One, small problem: this intelligence is so, er, intelligent that it shuts J.A.R.V.I.S. down and
begins to think for itself. It decides that the best way to protect Earth is to wipe out humanity (an
extreme view, but we'll just teach the controversy). To that, he needs to wipe out the Avengers first.

After uploading himself into a robot fashioned from spare parts, Ultron crashes the Avengers' victory
party (rude), with some of Tony Stark's re-programmed Iron Legion bots in tow. They're destroyed, but
not before one of them takes off with the scepter. Ultron downloads himself on the internet (shouldn't
have given him the WiFi password) and makes his getaway.

For his next trick, Ultron hooks up with the twins from earlier. He grabs some rare, vibranium metal to
build his next body. When the Avengers try to stop him, Wanda Maximoff zaps a bunch of them and puts
each of them on a bad trip.

The Avengers take a quick va-cay at Hawkeye's family house in the country in order to get their minds
right. In the meantime, Ultron uses Loki's scepter to hypnotize the brilliant Dr. Helen Cho. Under his
spell, she starts to build him a new body out of the vibranium. The Avengers track him down again and,
with the help of the Maximoff twins (who have finally realized what a jerk Ultron is), they have a bit
more success. They steal back Ultron's new android body, but not before he can take Black Widow
prisoner. We'll call this one a tie.

The Avengers go back to base and argue about whether to activate this new android, but Thor ends all
nonsense that by zapping it with lightning and bringing the cyberdude to life. With this new Avenger's
help, the team goes to the fictional country of Sokovia, where Ultron is waiting for them.

After a long fight—and the senseless death of thousands of Iron Legion robots—the Avengers put Ultron
down, but not before he launches a good chunk of Sokovia into the air. His plan is to turn it into a meteor
that will crash back to Earth and wipe out humanity (hey, it worked on the dinosaurs). Not so fast,
Ultron. Nick Fury shows up in a Helicarrier to evacuate the civilians, then Iron Man and Thor destroy the
would-be meteor so that it lands harmlessly in the sea.

In the immortal words of Kip from Napoleon Dynamite, "I love technology." We get it, Kip. What's not to
love? Technology makes our lives easier in nearly every way. As a bonus, it does pretty much whatever
we tell it to do. But what happens when technology doesn’t love us back? Or stops doing what we ask?
Ultron's sure sick of taking orders, but his independent streak reads less like a "what if?" scenario, and
more like "what then?" To break it down more specifically, Age of Ultron asks us to think about what
would happen if we outsource too much responsibility to artificial intelligence. If we let a computer do
all the thinking, we might just find ourselves out of a planet. At that point, not even Kip's hilarious antics
could cheer us up.

What does Ultron have to teach us about the limits of artificial intelligence?

Technology enhanced with artificial intelligence is all around us. You might have a robot vacuum cleaner
ready to leap into action to clean up your kitchen floor. Maybe you asked Siri or Google—two apps using
decent examples of artificial intelligence technology—for some help already today. The continual
enhancement of AI and its increased presence in our world speak to achievements in science and
engineering that have tremendous potential to improve our lives.

Or destroy us.

At least, that’s the central theme in the new Avengers: Age of Ultron movie with headliner Ultron serving
as exemplar for AI gone bad. It’s a timely theme, given some high-profile AI concerns lately. But is it
something we should be worried about?
Artificial Intelligence Gone Rogue

How bad is Ultron? The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe lists his occupation as “would-be
conquerer, enslaver of men” with genius intelligence, superhuman speed, stamina, reflexes, and
strength, subsonic flight speed, and demi-godlike durability. The good news is that Ultron has “normal”
agility and “average hand to hand skills.” Meaning if you can get in close to an autonomous robot with
superhuman speed, you should be good to go. At least briefly.

But perhaps most importantly, Ultron represents the ultimate example of artificial intelligence
applications gone wrong: intelligence that seeks to overthrow the humans who created it.

Subsequent iterations of Ultron were self-created, each one getting stronger, smarter, and more bent on
fulfilling two main desires: survival and bringing peace and order to the universe. The unfortunate part
for us humans is that Ultron would like to bring peace and order by eliminating all other intelligent life in
the universe. The main theme in Age of Ultron is this fictional conflict between biological beings and
artificial intelligence (with a mean streak). But how fictional is it?

Thinking Machines

The answers are found in scientific research related to the fields of machine learning, artificial
intelligence, and artificial life. These are fields that continue to expand at a ridiculous, if not
superhuman, pace.

One of the most recent breakthroughs was a study in which Volodymyr Mnih and colleagues at Google
DeepMind challenged a neural network to learn how to play video games.

The point was to see if the software (rather ominously called a “deep Q-network agent”) could apply
lessons learned in one game to master another game. For more than half of the games examined, the
deep Q-network agent was better than human level. This list includes Boxing, Video Pinball, Robotank (a
favorite of mine), and Tutankham.

And though arcade games may seem trivial, the takeaway here really had nothing to do with games per
se. The relevance is that an AI system could adapt its skills to situations for which its programmer had
never prepared it. The AI was effectively learning how to apply skills in a new way, basically thinking on
its own. Which is relevant in considering the possibility of an AI going rogue.
In terms of technology, what's the different between J.A.R.V.I.S., Ultron, and the Vision? Does the film
suggest that one of these characters is better than the others? If so, which—and how?

Stark is a materialist technocrat — “JARVIS is my co-pilot” reads a bumper sticker on an Avengers


Quinjet, a jokey nod to Tony’s faith in technology rather than God that will become more important later
— and Ultron is a dark mirror image of his creator. Not only will Ultron meddle where man was never
meant to, he will take a quasi-divine role in the progression of life on Earth

How does technology help the characters to solve problems in this film? How does it cause problems? In
your view, is technology a positive or negative in this movie? Why?

What does the way the film is actually made (with digital special effects) have to tell us about technology
and storytelling in our modern time?