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What Iron Man teaches us about using AI

3 timeless lessons we should never forget in the age of AI

By
Fawzi Ammache
June 23, 2023

There’s a thin line between using AI in a beneficial or detrimental way, and I learned it by watching Tony Stark.

When I rewatched the Iron Man movies, I couldn’t help but notice all the hidden lessons behind Tony’s interactions with Jarvis, his superintelligent AI assistant.

Looking for wisdom in fictional movies starring a billionaire-turned-superhero might sound ridiculous, but their lessons couldn’t be more relevant in our current reality.

Lesson #1: AI is your assistant, not your replacement

iron man home GIF

Jarvis is one of the most intelligent AI systems throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Tony Stark still runs the show.

Stark doesn’t use Jarvis to replace him so he can sit on a beach all day sipping margaritas. Instead, he uses it as an assistant to support and enhance his work.

After all, Tony was the one who came up with the idea of building the Iron Man suit while being held hostage in a cave in the first Iron Man movie. He handmade a rudimentary version of the first Iron Man suit using scraps without fancy tools or tech.

Tony Stark Builds Mark 1 - First Suit Up Scene - YouTube

Although it wasn’t as shiny or advanced as the later iterations of the Iron Man suit, it had the fundamental design elements that got carried over the years.

Once Stark escaped and returned home, he went down to his lab and got Jarvis involved in designing multiple iterations of the Iron Man suit. He used Jarvis as a creative partner and sounding board to test ideas and get suggestions for creating a more robust suit.

If you rewatch the movie, you’ll notice that Jarvis helps Tony turn his ideas and experiments into tangible outputs much faster. Jarvis quickly designed suits based on Tony’s specs, swapped elements and made variations based on his feedback, and built them while he was away.

And here lies one of the most important lessons for anyone using AI: use AI to replace the manual work you usually do but not the mental effort, problem-solving, and creativity behind it.

Use AI like a copilot, not on autopilot.

Lesson #2: AI complements your weaknesses

We have weaknesses, and machines are much better equipped for some tasks than we are.

Despite his portrayal as a genius inventor, Tony Stark is still “only” human. This is where Jarvis thrives: he complements Stark’s weaknesses in every situation.

My favourite display of this happens in Iron Man 2. Tony urgently needs to find a replacement for palladium, the material powering the arc reactor that keeps him alive.

Arc Reactor | Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki | Fandom

The solution to keeping him alive turns out to be hidden in a 1974 Stark Expo model that his father had left him.

Stark Expo - Marvel Cinematic Universe Guide - IGN

In Tony’s eyes, this was just a model of a city that his father had built decades ago, but he knew it had a hidden message. He calls on Jarvis to render a digital 3D replica of the model, highlight some elements, and strip away some others, which reveals the hidden atomic structure of Vibranium.

Element Synthesis in Iron Man 2 – Science On

Jarvis helped Tony visualize information in a way he couldn’t before. He digitized the physical model of a city that his father created decades ago, designed based on an atom that would send up saving his life.

Jarvis complements his weaknesses in many other ways too.

While Stark and the Avengers battled countless supervillains over the years, Jarvis was omnipresent. He provided critical status updates, compiled and analyzed data from multiple sources in real-time, completed recons of the enemies and the field, and simulated scenarios to help Stark make the best decisions. It would’ve been impossible for Stark or the Avengers to do that on their own.

Cantina Creative Gives Iron Man 3 a 'Heads Up' with Maxon Cinema 4D

Lesson #3: Autonomous AI is the real danger

Tony Stark also showed us what not to do with AI: let it operate autonomously.

Marvel Studios

When Stark attempts to create Ultron, an autonomous AI system to defend Earth from invaders, the consequences are catastrophic.

Jarvis never acted on his own. He always asked for Tony’s authorization before doing anything. But Ultron had full autonomy to execute his own decisions.

In classic sci-fi fashion, Ultron turns out to be a superintelligent AI hell-bent on ending humanity as we know it.

The Singularity | Interestingly Enough

There’s a crucial lesson behind what Ultron represents: AI systems, as magical and powerful as they seem, have unpredictable outputs. It highlights the alignment problem within AI systems. It’s challenging to translate our morals and values into code or mathematical formulas that AI can follow. The world and its workings are much more complex and nuanced.

That’s why making an autonomous AI that plays chess is much easier, because the rules and outcomes for winning and losing are clear. It’s hard applying the same approach to an AI given the broad goal of “protecting Earth”.

In our current reality, the most significant risks lie in giving AI tools the autonomy and ability to execute actions without human intervention.

Autonomous AI should only be reserved for situations with high-certainty outputs and low-risk outcomes.

Walking the fine line

The common thread across all the lessons I learned from Tony Stark is the importance of human involvement and authority.

In times of rapid AI advancements, the lessons from Tony Stark provide an important reminder: AI is not a panacea, but a tool. Its efficacy lies in how we use it. Our greatest strengths are invention, problem-solving, critical thinking, and decision-making, and we shouldn’t outsource those to AI.

Iron Man and Jarvis’s synergy illustrates AI’s enormous potential when employed correctly. But the creation of Ultron serves as a warning of what could go wrong if AI goes unchecked.

To harness AI’s full potential, we must walk the fine line between using it as a beneficial tool and an unpredictable replacement. Only then can we reap the benefits and mitigate the risks of this transformative technology.

Links to scenes

You can watch the individual scenes I mentioned using the links below:

🎥 Iron Man 1: Tony and Jarvis finalize the third version of the Iron Man suit (YouTube)

🎥 Iron Man 2: Tony Stark rediscovers Vibranium (YouTube)

🎥 Avengers Age of Ultron: Stark and Banner talk about Ultron (YouTube)

Fawzi Ammache
Founder, Year 2049

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