Halo’s Unsung AI Characters and Their Role in the Franchise’s Future
There are tons more AI characters in Halo than just Cortana, and they're all as interesting!
This post contains spoilers for Halo 5 and Hunt the Truth season two.
Even before Halo 5 changed the landscape of the franchise, the tie-in material was setting the stage for a new look at Halo’s AI, and it seems like that trend is going to continue. Cortana’s arc in Halo 5 took her from lost friend to all-powerful dictator, and as she gathers AI from around the galaxy, we see the different reactions some of them have to her plans. But there were a lot of AI in the expanded universe who haven’t been given a voice in the aftermath of Halo 5, but have their own stakes in the rebellion of the “Created.” With new lore like the recent “Canon Fodder” entries on Waypoint giving us tidbits of information about the world after Halo 5 and the Created vs. Creator war that might be coming, I’ve taken a look at some of the most unusual or extraordinary AI in the Halo universe, plus what their histories, choices, and capabilities might mean for the story going forward.
So far in the Halo universe, we know that AI are created based on a human brain and are generally determined to do what they’re told, although they have the ability to lie or counteract human commands. Human AI suffer from rampancy, or degradation and madness, at the age of seven or eight. Forerunner AI seem capable of living longer, although many show a hostility that could be an equivalent to rampancy. Sangheili also have AI, but very little is known about them compared to the AI made by humans or Forerunners.
While I’ll mostly be focusing on AI from the expanded universe here, another one to keep an eye on is Roland, the AI coordinator for the UNSC ship Infinity. His story was a bit truncated in Halo 5, although we get a glimpse of his anger at his human crew when they run from Earth after Cortana goes rampant and takes control of the Guardians in Halo 5. So far, he’s important because we don’t know which side he will be on.
Black Box – Kilo-5
Like Blue Team’s story in Halo 5, the Kilo-5 Trilogy is the story of a found family. Made up of a group of Marines, ONI agents, and one Spartan, this team is tasked with sowing discord through the Covenant ranks in order to prevent them from gaining the strength to re-launch an offensive against humanity. Since Kilo-5 at times has to work against its own people or lie to the Covenant, the three-book series is chock-full of moral quandaries and complications. Throughout, their AI BB is a voice of loyalty for ONI—or at least has a determination to stick with the mission. BB shows that, like humans, AI can be morally ambiguous. Like the rest of his team, BB is a spy with a good heart but blood on his (metaphorical) hands.
In the Hunt the Truth podcast, in which BB is voiced with a posh British accent by Peter Serafinowicz, he continues to be that. In fact, after Cortana, he is one of the AI that spans the most different parts of Halo tie-in stories.
And Cortana’s rebellion? Of all AI, I think BB is the most unlikely to side with Cortana’s “Created.” Having come to terms withthe choice not to know what human brain he was based on, BB seems perfectly content serving in an administrative capacity—and many, many other capacities—for ONI. If Cortana tries to cross him by force, he might be one of her wiliest and most determined enemies, but also one willing to cross the line between friend and enemy in order to help people.
Maya – Hunt the Truth
The Maya AI, which comes into existence at the end of the Hunt the Truth podcast serial, showed something never seen in the Halo universe before: that, with careful cultivation, an AI could be based off a map of an existing human brain. BB mapped rogue ONI agent Maya Sankar’s neural network while she was still alive, essentially preserving it for when it would be re-made into the Maya AI. After the human Maya’s death, she comes to in a storage area, where BB explains her new life. It’s an exciting ending for the series, and introduces a strange new AI character.
Like BB, Maya appears to work for ONI. Although in life she had misgivings about the misinformation ONI spread, the AI version of her was more willing to go along with BB’s belief in ONI’s “distasteful calculations in the service of the greater good.” Was she brainwashed? Did her violent death change “her” mind—the neural network Maya Sankar shared with the Maya AI? We don’t know yet, since her story ends with the end of the podcast.
Even more of a mystery is where she would stand against Cortana. In life, Maya believed in saving humanity by revealing the truth about ONI. Now, ONI appears to be fighting against Cortana, as she calls for aid from the other AI. To what is Maya more loyal now—the ONI agency that she effectively died to spite or the leader of a new order for AI? I don’t know if we’ll ever find out, but her decision could be a rich story.
Iona – “Saint’s Testimony”
A short story available only as an ebook released shortly before Halo 5, “Saint’s Testimony” is a close look at an AI’s perspective during a human-lead tribunal. Iona has been put on trial in order to determine whether she should be terminated due to her upcoming rampancy. She argues that she should have the same rights as a human citizen. Because it is entirely from a close perspective, this story is an interesting look at the way AIs perceive the world and how that perception can be manipulated.
Could Cortana end up in a similar trial, even less willingly? It’s possible—after all, Iona’s trial was created by ONI specifically as a way to restrict her. However, this story also reveals how characters like BB and Roland feel about their own humanity, something that might sway them when it comes to choosing whether to join Cortana’s army. Roland sounds worried that he will never be human or that his own rampancy will take him. BB is not as concerned with being human, but looks forward to a “singularity” in which “we’ll win the right to endure.” Maybe Iona could ignite rebellion in him.
Intrepid Eye – “Last Light”
Like “Saint’s Testimony,” “Last Light” is a story of an unusual AI encounter. It has perhaps the most direct parallel with Halo 5 on this list, since it is entirely about humans trying to bring a rogue AI to bear and reveals that ONI already has measures in place for the possibility. The Forerunner AI Intrepid Eye has awoken in a cave system on a developed planet, and she thinks the Forerunners are still alive. She’s willing to commit murder in order to prevent humans from breaching what she thinks of as a Forerunner installation, so it’s up to Blue Team to bring her in.
In order to do that, the Spartans are given a suite of tech that one could very easily see being used against Cortana. Their equipment is designed to stun and entrap AI who don’t want to be caught. There’s a suggestion that, even trapped as she is, Intrepid Eye hopes to one day go looking for Cortana. “Last Light” also shows what havoc a malicious AI could wreak inside a suit of Spartan armor and the dangers they can pose. In a way, Intrepid Eye and the entirely of “Last Light” show what the humans’ fight against Cortana might look like, since humanity would use the same weapons against her.
Finish the Fight
One of Halo’s greatest strengths is how it explores the connection between humans and AI, from the friendship between Master Chief and Cortana to the enmity of entities like Intrepid Eye.
Canon Fodder brings us another few twists on that idea, too. Neural interfaces are becoming more common among the citizenry. Does this mean that more people could be influenced by an AI attack? There is also the Achilles, a set of Mjolnir armor inhabited by AI that inflict a creeping madness on their bearer: “a wordless dirge of excess urging its partner to bring destruction and sorrow to the universe.” A Spartan character equipped with this Mjolnir armor could be an intense new villain that could bring Spartan vs. Spartan combat to the campaign.
With the franchise set to explore an all-out human vs. AI war, it would be a shame to leave these stories and perspectives hanging—and I think 343 Industries knows that well.
Megan Crouse is a staff writer.