Buffy Predicted the Future of AI

In today’s world it doesn’t take us long to make things weird. Right now, teenage girls are using ChatGPT to make AI boyfriends. Who could have seen that coming? Apparently, the writers at Buffy the Vampire Slayer did while working on an episode that aired April 28th, 1997.


Anyone of a certain age remembers what a cultural impact Buffy made when she arrived on the scene with her stake and her stylish, yet affordable, boots. After Joss Whedon’s movie version of the character failed at the box office, he was given the rare opportunity to resurrect the teenage slayer for television, this time with complete creative control. The show ran for seven seasons, 144 episodes, and across two networks. Buffy was a feminist icon, a figurehead of the nascent geek culture, and a topic of conversation amongst theologians and philosophers.



As the story goes: Since the dawn of time there has always been a Slayer, a teenaged girl bestowed with supernatural gifts to fight demons in all their various forms, including (but not limited to) vampires. Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) might be the most vacuous slayer in history, seemingly more from the world of Clueless than Fright Night. Over the run of the series she grows into her role in the world, which is all well and good, but what does that have to do with AI boyfriends? Don’t worry, I’ll tell you.


The eighth episode of the first season, “I, Robot…You Jane,” gets its name from a combination of Isaac Asimov’s short story collection that envisaged a future where robots were commonplace, and a famous line misattributed to Johnny Weismuller’s movie character: “Me Tarzan. You Jane.” Aside from being a clumsy combination of pop culture references, the title is not really relevant to the story. Asimov’s Three Rules of Robotics don’t come into play, nor does the robot in question have a poor grasp of the English language.

We kick things off in 15th century Italy with a horned demon named Moloch living his best (worst?) life. Rather than representing the pagan god of the same name, this Moloch is supposedly a reference to the programming function “malloc,” which is short for “memory allocate.” Meanwhile, a group of priests perform a rite that transfers the demon’s essence into text and binds him into a book. Once Moloch is trapped, a priest explains that if the book is ever read, the demon will escape.

[Spoiler: the demon escapes]


Jumping ahead to 1997, we find Buffy and her high school computer club digitizing books in the school library. Not just any books, of course, but grimoires, demon-trapping books, and whatnot. Totally normal high school library stuff. Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), the school librarian and Buffy’s mentor in all things occult, isn’t one to embrace technology, but Fritz (Jamison Ryan), one of the computer club students claims, “The only reality is virtual. If you’re not jacked in, you’re not alive.”



After everyone else calls it a day, Willow (Alyson Hannigan) continues scanning and unwittingly allows the computer to “read” the book holding Moloch. Text appears on the computer screen: “Where am I?” But I’m sure it’s fine, ominous musical cue aside. The next day Willow arrives at school with her head in the clouds (but not “the cloud” because that’s the demon—pay attention). She was up all night on AIM, or something, chatting with a guy named Malcolm Black, who is probably not evil. Right? Except when Buffy expresses concerns about his authenticity someone accesses Willow’s webcam to eavesdrop and then messages Fritz to take out Buffy. And I don’t mean for coffee.



In 1997 this was written as a cautionary tale about meeting strangers online. The internet was so new Buffy and Willow have a “Who’s on First”-style exchange over the word “online,” and everyone unironically refers to “the web.” And yes, Willow’s computer is connected to the web and now Moloch is a digital deity with worldwide reach! In 2024, given recent reports of AI being used to translate ancient texts, claiming to be gods, and romancing teen girls, “I Robot…You Jane” suddenly takes on new significance.


We’re also treated to this interesting exchange between Jenny Calendar (Robia LaMorte), a “techno pagan,” and Giles.



Ms. Calendar: Oh, you are a *big* snob. You, you think that knowledge should be kept in these carefully guarded repositories where only a handful of white guys can get at it.

Giles: Nonsense! I simply don't adhere to a, a knee-jerk assumption that because something is new, it's better.

Ms. Calendar: This isn't a fad, Rupert! We are creating a new society here.

Giles: A society in which human interaction is all but obsolete? In which people can be completely manipulated by technology, well, well... Thank you, I'll pass.


I too, will pass on that on “new society,” thankyouverymuch.


After an attempted murder, and then a successful murder, which I won’t get into, Buffy and company end up at the local tech research and development center. Your town has one of those, right? Moloch has conveniently worked out how to give himself a robot body. The idea of our tech being possessed by demons, who go on to manipulate humans into making them corporeal, is something many of us are wondering about right about now, but I’m not sure how many people were considering that in 90’s, besides the writers of Buffy of course.



All that said, I don’t believe “I Robot…You Jane” is an example of Revelation of the Method. This episode was written with a pretty obvious purpose: to warn against talking to strangers online. Buffy was simply a supernatural horror teen comedy, especially in the early days, and there was plenty of uncertainty around the newfangled internet to mine for some laughs. I doubt anyone involved ever dreamed that anything like this might become literal reality. But are we still laughing? 



Find more writing from Trevor Denning at https://meanwhilewithtrevor.locals.com/

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