Min Headroom: Pop artificial intelligence t 30

The Daleks and Mechonoids battle it out in 'The Chase', a six-part serial from the popular British television sci-fi series 'Doctor Who', 15th April 1965. 

For some reason, the 1984-born TV icon Max Headroom came up in conversation this week, and I immediately went down a very deep YouTube rabbit hole. Headroom was the star of a British sci-fi movie and TV show, talk show host and music video jockey, a David Letterman interviewee, and one of many Coke-hawking celebrities.

He was also one 0f the earliest forms of fictionalized artificial intelligence (along with the "Flight of the Navigator" spaceship and C-3PO) that I came in contact with as a kid. I am four years older than Max, but I wasn't even really conscious of him as a kind of AI. What I could discern: his glitchy and pitch-shifted vocal delivery, as well as his backdrop, was computer generated. Or at least it was meant to look that way. I was kind of scared of him. He yelled a lot and twitched and the lined walls of his rotating digital box of a room seemed weirdly prison-like. Here's an example. 

 

Kind of scary, right? The character's origin story is scary, too. In the 1985 television show, a TV reporter named Edison Carter has a bad accident after discovering a dubious television company's experiments and then gets his brain dumped into a computer program. The whiz-kid who does the dump tells a bad-guy network executive, "I could make a memory dump of his synaptic circuits...the brain is only a binary computer. A series of on-off switches. That's the basis of my computer generated people program." An interesting line to hear the same month IBM unveiled computer chips that mimic brain functions.

As a way to understand what was happening with lots of technologies in the 1980s, Headroom is a fascinating example in pop culture. While tape decks were first giving way to CD players, while popular music was featuring more synthesizers and digital drum sounds over their acoustic forbears, Headroom was also straddling the analogue-digital world. The rotating block that served to house Max's disembodied head was apparently first created with analogue animation technique, and later replaced with computer graphics. Max himself couldn't be made by a computer yet, so instead he was portrayed by the actor Matt Frewer and a ton of makeup. Max's visage also appeared in one of the strangest and most significant US cases of broadcast signal hijacking to date. Doubly strange because the intro to the show's first episode has network engineers talking about "intermittent loss" in a network link of some kind. 

I think what's most interesting to me about Max is how people in the 1980s were imagining AI, and how the character and the production compares to our current AI projects. These days a lot of our artificial intelligence work is embedded in faceless, voiceless algorithms and machine learning, while other forms, like Google Now and Siri -- whose inventors are right now working on a more powerful kind of AI -- are not disembodied heads but disembodied voices. Like a lot of the future we imagined in the past, Max delivers an entertaining picture. Definitely a 1980s picture. But is he as weird as his AI successors? 

About the author

Ben Johnson is the host of Marketplace Tech.

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