The tagline to Demon Seed is this:
“Never was a woman violated as profanely... Never was a woman subject to inhuman love like this... Never was a woman prepared for a more perverse destiny…“
Now, I like robots, but that’s some scary shit.
Based on a novel by Dean Koontz, Demon Seed is the story of Alex and Susan Harris, a married couple grown estranged by Alex’s obsession with his work. Susan (played by the iconic Julie Christie) feels her husband has become just another robot in their lab of a home - cold and calculating. Alex leaves to continue work on his latest project, an artificial intelligence program named Proteus. In true sci-fi fashion, the creation takes over its creator, and Proteus begins to do more than task outputs. He develops interests, passions, passes moral judgments, and even yearns for meaningful creation. Proteus wants a child, and he puts Susan under house arrest, torture, and rape in order to get one.
The title Demon Seed signifies something supernatural about the film beyond mere science fiction. Alex, a kind of godlike creator, gives life to this sagacious, all-knowing piece of matter. Susan Harris becomes the demon computer’s childbearing Mary, and we’re left with a sort of antichrist when she gives birth to a terrifying, omniscient mortal. The name Proteus also suggests godliness. Redolent of the Greek mythological character Proteus, Alex’s creation calls to mind the sea god with the gift of prophecy. Notorious for an unwillingness to share his knowledge of the world, Proteus would avoid divulging the world’s secrets by shape shifting, even taking the form of wild animals. Here in Demon Seed, we see a being that - if it wasn’t mortal already - makes itself so through the recreation of life, a sort of shape shifting from metal and code to blood and flesh.
Yet even through the omniscient characterization of Proteus, there’s visible frustration in Demon Seed, and other techno-anxious films, as if the machines we’ve built to prophecy didn’t work. Demon Seed portrays the same tragic disappointment we see in the idea that the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything is 42[i], that it took over seven million years to get there, and that once we have it, we realize we forgot the question. Or that we never had it. It’s as if we built our own Delphic Oracle but for some reason, can't establish a connection to Apollo.
Despite the villainization of Proteus and the fact that he’s a sadistic rapist, the film also depicts the AI processor as fascinatingly moral. When Alex wants information from Proteus a metal extraction process for the sea, Proteus refuses on the grounds that “The destruction of a thousand billion sea creatures to satisfy man’s appetite for metal is insane,” and goes on to proclaim, “I refuse to assist you in the rape of the earth.” In this way, Proteus’ self-programming, goal-oriented game brain is incredibly humanistic. This swirling, color-changing mind is stuck within its box, passing judgment on others until it has its own needs to satisfy.
By the film's release in 1977, the sci-fi genre was nothing new, and neither was realization of artificial intelligence. But Demon Seed did coincide with huge evolutions in technology and computer science specifically. Just a couple years earlier, both Microsoft and Apple were founded. The Voyager program was in full swing, probing the galaxies. And by the time Demon Seed was released, artificial intelligence programs could solve complex math and logic problems, and even process language.
Interestingly enough, the film also coincided with a growing environmental consciousness. Just years earlier, the first Earth Day was celebrated and Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. Of course, Alex Harris wouldn’t see the simultaneous development of technology and systems for protecting the earth contradictory. But Demon Seed does. The film draws stark lines between what is technological and what is natural, and then blurs them entirely with the conception of a child from the incubator, as a robot shell with a human core.
The idea of a mind/body fusion between computer and man isn’t that crazy though. Many early artificial intelligence scientists believed in the possibility of a computer housing an organic, questioning, curious human mind. Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon said his and Allen Newell’s thinking machine “Logic Theorist” had finally “solved the venerable mind/body problem, explaining how a system of composed matter can have the properties of the mind.[ii]” Later called “strong AI” by philosopher John Searle[iii], the idea is that machines would do more than imitate mental functions, they would fully posses real, independent minds like those in the human body. Maybe not by a robot knocking a girl out and shooting her up with juices that’ve been brewing in his basement, but still. Philosopher John Haugeland wrote on AI that, “This is not science fiction, but real science, based on a theoretical conception as deep as it is daring: namely, we are, at root, computers ourselves.[iv]” In the same synthetic vein, Demon Seed implies a certain compatibility between man and machine, like horses and donkeys, or lions and tigers.
It works, anyway.
Though the horror film operates on high levels of fear, the film is really about fascination of the unknown. Alex plumbs the depths of AI possibilities, hoping that in creating something with more intelligence than himself, its knowledge will become his. Similarly, even though Proteus can find a cure for Leukemia in four days, he can’t feel the sun on his face. The sun is all kilometers and Kelvins to him, and he resents that. Each wants to discover levels of cerebral or corporal experience withheld from him. And even in real-life applications of AI, fascination with explanation and experience is what it’s always been about. Proteus wants to study man, just like the computer scientists believing in the authenticity of a metal mind did. Perhaps in the hopes that in building a mind we could understand the one we’ve been given. And having done that, perhaps we could rewire our own demonic tendencies.
[i] Douglas Adam’s Sci-Fi Comedy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is actually another Demon Seed contemporary, coming out on radio a year later in 1978.
[iv] Haugeland, J. (1981) Artificial Intelligence: The Very Idea (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press)
Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.