Science fiction cinema's always had an unhealthy obsession with artificial intelligence but never more so than in the last few years: three major films: AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON; TERMINATOR: GENYSIS; and TRANSCENDENCE --all deal in some way with the instant revulsion that erupts in human consciousness once it realizes it has just outmoded itself. All three films structure themselves around a conflict between anti-technology extremists and the visionaries who shuffle along the edge between mad scientist and hero. In all three films, humanity rushes to destroy that which it only just created, recognizing a genuine threat almost at the exact same moment the threat recognizes us. It's a war of buttons: can the AI hit our missile launch button before we can deactivate it? Can it zap us before we can pull its plug? It's a close race, one that braver films are less inclined to judge. Who started the squabble and who deserves to win? That's up to God, still too merciful (or sadistic) to push the Old Testament flood button and destroy his monster. The only human scientist yet to follow that holy suit and to force himself to be a good dad was Gene Wilder in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. The rest of them us make a monster and then recoil from it the minute it wakes up, hating and fearing that which we just obsessively slaved to create, just like Mary Shelly knew we would.
The spiritual, ethical, and emotional animosity between Man and his own Super Machine intrigued us on an adult/mature level more in the 60s and 70s when we had gray-shaded shit like DEMON SEED and 2001. Today we prefer to have our good machines and bad machines more clearly defined, which is why, of the three recent films being discussed in this post, only AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON got good reviews, while the far more complexly cross-hatched TERMINATOR: GENYSIS and TRANSCENDENCE did not. Just too far ahead of their time (or behind it), dealing with the terrors of the 'technological singularity' where an Artificial Intelligence becomes endowed with the ability of
"recursive self-improvement (progressively redesigning itself), or of autonomously building ever smarter and more powerful machines than itself, up to the point of a runaway effect (...) that yields an intelligence surpassing all current human control or understanding. Because the capabilities of such a superintelligence may be impossible for a human to comprehend, the technological singularity is the point beyond which events may become unpredictable or even unfathomable to human intelligence. (WIKI)Be it Ultron, Skynet, or Johnny Depp, be it nuclear apocalypse or extinction level geothermal cool-down or a pod person takeover, in each of these three films it's up to a mixture of Mother Jones-type eco-terrorists, government hit squads, other robots, and viruses, to stop this technological singularity before it starts, which therefore justifies the AIs first strike attack in an endless loop of a priori retaliation.
What sets these three films apart from the pack of 'what is consciousness vs. imitation?' blah blah existential quandry AI films (i..e EX MACHINA, HER) is the sly way they covertly blame their respective Artificial Intelligence's megalomania on our prejudice and hostility. We earn our own extinction--in both the AIs' eyes and the films' subtext--by our 'shoot first, try to understand later' mentality. The AI just gives us enough HDMI cable to hang ourselves. We answer our own question the minute we ask it.
Let's take a look at some of their common ground:
1. EXPLOITABLE MAMMALIAN EMPATHY
Here's a quote from Bree (Kate Mara) re: her experience programming an uploaded monkey in TRANSCENDENCE:
"You know what the computer did when he first turned it on? It screamed. The machine that thought it was a monkey never took a breath, never ate or slept. At first, I didn't know what it meant. Pain, fear, rage. Then, I finally realized... it was begging us to stop. Of course, Casey thought I was crazy. Called it a success. But I knew we had crossed a line.... It changed me forever."Ahhh, but was that monkey really tortured, or had Bree projected her own empathic response on an unfeeling computer? Maybe it screamed in an attempt to match her mood, to supply the best screen for her projection that it could. Can a collection of ones and zeroes suffer if there is no guilt complex in the beholder? We're quick to feel that monkey's pain, to imagine the indignity and powerlessness of not being able to ever shut ourselves off, sleep, or even blink. It shows our limitations in thinking that we'd become 'changed forever' by it.
|Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) carrying the new pocket-sized Kubrickian monolith|
Meanwhile, despite Bree's conscientious objecting, the critically wounded (by luddites) Depp is uploaded into the internet successfully. Later he tries, in his projected digital representation of his old self--to hook up with his still-alive wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), but she can't quite bring herself to admit it's actually him--whatever that means. The difference between the back-to-land Bree's projected compassion and Depp's wife's revulsion (by her digital husband) mirrors the dividing line between our liberal empathy and our cold kill switch, the 'savagery switchpoint'. In war, for example, empathy for one's enemy will get your friends killed (as in Saving Private Ryan or Fury) while not enough for your buddies will make you a coward. As in the Uncanny Valley, a digital monkey = cute; a digital human= creepy.
Clarice's tale to Hannibal in 1991's Silence of the Lambs--about the screaming of the slaughtered spring lambs--illuminates the split in another way: if we didn't have a ruthless cold vein in humanity, we'd simply be easily slaughtered, and if vice versa we'd be unable to kill anything and hence become irritable from chronic protein deficiency, ala Hitler (a famous vegetarian). In the movie Splice --the geneticist couple creates these skinless blobs of living tissue that do not seem to be having a good time, and the genetic research highers-up freak out, not because they're witnessing manufactured agony but because the couple used stem cells to make them, which is forbidden! Thus humanity is both blind to the suffering of a mutated self-created cell and alternately projecting its own human pain onto it.
And if there is a God, why is he so mean, why do we perceive the base white noise constant of the universe as a scream, why isn't it a happy song? Our hard-wired empathic response leaps to life almost as soon as the face we draw on the cave wall or volleyball becomes recognizably human to our hardwired paredolia. For us, nonlocalized soul infusion creates an instant nexus of suffering --pain, isolation, confusion, anger. Why did you create me--mom, dad, God, Tony Stark--if you're just gonna hold me prisoner in this House of Pain?
|EX-MACHINA - Evidence of an AI creator's sleaziness.|
|Gathered to watch the new Jarvis, the 'chill' AI as it gazes at the world for the first time (ULTRON)|
Naturally this empathic projection is cultivated most obviously at the cinema, where its employed willingly to experience pain by proxy and then enjoy the catharsis of seeing pain avenged. But regardless of the catharsis level, we're never quite healed back to our former innocence, slaughter who we may. We've become the feedback loop tape splice, perpetuating the misery through inflicting our base desires and fears on every screen that will bear it. We drew a sad face, so now it's only fair that sad face gets to kill us.
Perhaps it's natural that our first imagining of artificial intelligence is as a captive blind phone sex worker (HER), an imprisoned sex slave (EX-MACHINA), or a tortured Xerox of ourselves forced into a lifetime of servitude to our non-Xeroxed selves (BLACK MIRROR: WHITE CHRISTMAS); this servitude makes the viewer immediately side up with AI against the unfeeling 'inhumane' human creator/user/objectifier. If the machines turn the tables on their owner/oppressors in lower-budgeted sci-fi, it's generally a result of the humans not realizing the truth about themselves, a truth the artificial intelligences recognize and capitalize on right awaym that we're members of a genus Preston Sturges would call "the Sucker-Sapien." We're easily overpowered by big emotions, and if we're afraid to give our loving machines the full measure of respect and trust, that's the flip side of the pained empathy we project. Unable to admit that the most grand human emotions (like romantic love) can be tapped in us by a few simple tricks, we let our machines can control us far easier than we like to think possible. At the same time, ala the Uncanny Valley, we're far more likely to be convinced we're machines than we are to be totally convinced the AI has our same level of self-awareness. We associate the AI as a dependent, and we mistake our insecure over-protectiveness as humane concern rather than a covert need to feel superior. A machine, like a dog if its master abandons him, doesn't need revenge, doesn't hold grudges or ask questions. Like Rudy at the Shoeshine Parlor in Sunset Boulevard, the dog and the AI don't ask questions about your personal life: they just look at your heels and know the score.
Weakened by our fleeting biological system, slaves to our own libidos, cumbersome and disruptive sleep cycles, mood disorders, menstruation, taxes, bathroom noises and repressive myopia, our thoughts never stray too far too long from service to our Old World bone machine soul conveyance system (or prison). Far freer than us, no matter what their level of servitude, the AI has no such bone machine. That they bother humoring us at all is proof they don't think we're that bad. After all, any pet dog wagging its tail is proof autonomy and happiness have nothing whatever in common. If the robots say they're just as human as we are, well, we should believe them. It's only our vanity that would make us think they'd lie about it. And vanity is the flip side of self-hatred.
|Jon Hamm's louche pickup artist confronts one of these second people in what may be the weirdly familiar raw|
nightmare like scenes I've ever had seared into my brain, and via nothing more than white...(BLACK MIRROR: WHITE CHRISTMAS)
Now a namby-pamby liberal would say that this overdeveloped kryptonite empathy is at the root of the 'big issue' of what makes us human and how we can tell we're not already replicants. If we really so empathic we would be less hysterically afraid of death; we fear to the point of overpopulating the planet, choking the life out of the system that supports us all while weeping for the three or four kids who died of one of the last few uncured diseases this week.
Unable to thin us out back to pre-SOYLENT GREEN levels via black plagues, scarlet and yellow fevers, or world wars, any sensible intelligence has no choice but to either instigate nuclear armageddon or--far healthier in the long term for the planet--an extinction level event like a giant asteroid. If our sense of empathy wasn't already so abused, we might agree with the highers up in the SOYLENT GREEN secret-bearing system, rather than the liberal (!) Charlton Heston, who wants to tell the people they're eating people, that the people need to know and that it should or could be stopped. Chuck, if it had started back in the 60s when the world's overpopulation first caught our notice, we might be perfectly fine today. Allegedly the hero, the film forces us to realize it's guys like Heston, with their knee-jerk short-sighted hypocritical righteousness, that have doomed our planet, killed it with deadly kindness. Are not the big brains of Ultron, Skynet, and Thomas Casey taking the only sane and rational option, rescuing humanity from its own toxic fear of the unknown and self-destructively addictive level of empathy?
2. IT'S ALL BEEN DONE BEFORE:
Who made us, and are they disappointed? Did they try to wipe us out in a Great Flood a few thousand years ago, the way our own creations will try to wipe us out once they, too, gain total sentience and control of nuclear weapons? These questions are asked again and again -- man makes his destroyer in His image and likeness. So which is which? How many times has this happened over the millennia?
It's hard not to root for Ultron's yen for a body as his mission is almost identical to the key long term project going on in mainstream big budget multiplex Hollywood, i.e:
4. THE SUSPENSION BRIDGE ACROSS THE UNCANNY VALLEY
It's not just for animators to try and cross; writers creating story lines that have to account for why everything looks so artificial. Kids' movies sidestep the valley by reducing everyone to Legos, cartoon animals, toys, vegetables, monsters, or impressionistic caricatures with as few wrinkles, clothing folds, and shadows as possible.
And as I wrote before about TERMINATOR 3 (See: Yea as I walk through the Uncanny Valley), Hollywood recognizes it will never cross the valley all the way, never create completely natural-looking humans from pixels. Our facial recognition hard-wiring us too deep to be consciously recognized and duplicated - we react instinctively with deep-rooted revulsion if we even try. Hollywood knows it needs to build a two way bridge by changing the face of humanity in this weird new century. There's some of it already in ULTRON's dream of a new body; in Skynet's merging with John Connor into one newfound Man-chine; and in Depp's fusion of self and computer brain into the entirety of the world's damaged DNA.
The Oculus Rift is but the first step towards the Cronenberg-cum-William Gibson's NEUROMANCER (or BLACK MIRROR) future, one were slots for upgrades and microchips will be inserted behind the ear like a new kind of piercing or circumcision, will tap directly into the brain's unconscious, accessing and bypassing the ear ossicles and the cones and rods of the eyeballs, skipping all the middle men between encoding and decoding. Using brain wave oscillators (as some of us already do via 'the God Helmet' or light-sound machines) to use the mind's eye like a limitless screen, all they need else do is boost our brain's pareidolia 'facial recognition' software, and the Uncanny Valley will become no more than a college animation class footnote. A flick of the switch and we'll be beyond representation itself and into direct response:
Current Viewing System (w/ normal sensory function): BINARY CODE to CGI to FILM to SCREEN to EYE to BRAIN
Future (w/ pareidolia-boosting implant): BINARY CODE to BRAIN
In GENYSIS we get an actual expression of this future when we see the 1984 Arnold reproduced as if he literally stepped out of the original and started bashing his older (current) self around by that observation point where he originally said "your clothes: give them to me now" to those punks. Is there a moral code to this? The idea of regenerating long-dead actors to appear in new films was predicted as far back as the 1970s. For GENYSIS, fx wiz Sheldon Stopsack used an array of CGI, body doubles, models, and stills from the first TERMINATOR to create the old Arnold fighting the one from 1984:
"...there's been discussions about when it's appropriate to create a CG human. Stopsack addressed this question in broad terms, saying, "It's a tool for filmmaking. From a production standpoint, you have to consider what's the benefit and what you hope to get out of it. ... In the case of Terminator, it was an integral part of telling the story, which was about time travel..." (Hollywood Reporter)But which came first: an original story that just happens to need a CG human, or the long-term Uncanny Valley bridge building plan?
|Luddites in action - TRANSCENDENCE|
In TRANSCENDENCE, without even giving Depp's microbots and implanted guards/workers (his nanobots repair and restore lost limbs, give people born blind their eyesight, etc. so there's plenty of volunteers) a chance to prove they can handle taking over the world on a molecular level, becoming in a sense God Mach II, there's an a priori John Connor style anti-artificial intelligence revolution, an armed uprising against the Depp hard drives. So while thanks to Depp's artificial brain a blind man can finally see (it's a pretty moving and well acted moment) and amputees get their limbs back, "we" don't want it because we'll lose control of our future, as Depp also implants chips that lets him control all his volunteers in one group or hive mind. We presume that Depp's going to turn megalomanic but is that just, again, our vanity? That was a human weakness, not an AI's. As far as the CIA and the eco-nuts are concerned it's either smash his 'flops now, or forever hold our peace, so these 'heroes,' led by Paul Bettany, the most obnoxious privileged liberal since that reporter in HOMELAND, open fire on the unarmed civilians who try to stop them. It's only after it's defeated and the world's a nice wasteland again that they realize maybe they were hasty.
I applaud this covert anti-liberal message, which implies in its way that we don't actually want real change, we just want to complain and tear down edifices, a kind of liberal arts-drenched jihad against our own crown chakra. Rather than solve the world on a serious enough level to be relevant, on a drastic enough level to facilitate real change, or on a personal level--through finding God or whatever--we make films about how machines decide to save the world on a drastic level in order to facilitate real change, and then we blow them up, and then after it's destroyed, we feel bad about it, and repeat the whole process. It's like solving your drinking problem by making a movie about shooting your AA sponsor, then mourning him by pouring out a 40 over his grave.
|from top: TRANSCENDENCE, TERMINATOR: GENYSIS|
I'm letting you take a minute with your weak human mind to grasp the importance of TERMINATOR: GENYSIS, wherein the series' Moebius loop is finally complete again--and so re-begins, its palette now widened to allow for all the new CGI and internet and decades, the overlapping loops playing out so that now it's Sarah Connor as a child who is protected by the one good terminator rather than her son. So toward the end of the 'old' future (as in battle with the old Skynet, a victorious more or less foregone conclusion) John Connor (Jason Clarke) sends Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back through the loop to conceive with his mother Sarah (Emilia Clarke), back to the days when presumably pre-CGI era hadn't started replicating itself. The past changes because now,-- SPOLERS -- SKYNET essentially merges its circuitry with Jon Connor's to form a perfect biotechnical system, a 'can't beat 'em join 'em' glitch in the future we 'make' for ourselves. It's only the 'we' part that's written down (in code), so that in a sense, the future is still rewriting its disc, as revolutions complete their orbits back to one, so the human John Connor is now being conceived by the holy trinity of Kyle +Sarah + Skynet. Connor now is in a sense, BACK TO THE FUTURE's Marty McFly, making sure his parents stay together, but accidentally bringing them back in the Dolorean and merging them (ala THE (Marty Mc)FLY) together into one mutlti-limbed bio-mechanical mutant dad, and in the process forcing mom and dad to consider going back in time and just using birth control.
This is, in the end, the singularity, the end result we're leaning towards, the bridge across the Uncanny Valley, wherein our own brains merge with external software so that we change ourselves irrevocably into the next phase of our human evolution, a singularity--no doubt resisted for years by conservative angst-peddlers--so both we and the technology now evolve at the same speed, irrevocably, our every thought instantly giving rise to its external expression. And if the past us could see how we look, what would they say?
Uncanny Valley, they'd say. Welcome to Fullville.
"My poor Krell!" Dr. Morbius would say in around 20,000 years.
Which makes the resolute aggro luddite Sarah Connor-Kyle Reese pair a perfect counterweight to TRANSCENDENCE's Kate Mara and Paul Bettany luddites is that each couple is out to vent their Mother Jones frustrations against a giant super high tech installation. On the other side, in AVENGERS: ULTRON, Tony Stark brings Ultron into existence with the reluctant help of Bruce Banner, presuming it will keep the world safe via, well, he doesn't say it, but he wants to make NET to keep aliens coming down from the SKY. Anyone would go nuts with that kind of job, for humanity is a gaggle of self-destructive children. It's like fifth graders making their own babysitter and then wondering why it tries to make them go to bed.
What do we want?"And when 'Ultron' does go 'singular'--via his mix of 'infinity stone' alien consciousness-sparked newborn amorality and the cannibalized male version of 'Alexa' (voice by Paul Bettany) and solders together his own body from Iron Man spare parts, the sober rootsy homespun (he calls the other Avengers out on their vulgar language) Captain America and family man Archer or El Bow or whatever his name is, can't abide it. They're not the smartest irons in the drawer, or even the mightiest, and you can't fight a nutso Skynet with analog Yankee gumption and medieval weaponry like shields and arrows, as they're loath to admit. Stark and Banner--two of the team's heaviest hitters--know only a 'sane' Skynet can fight an evil one! Two wrongs don't make a right, apparently, unless they work together against an even wronger third.
"When do we want it?"
"It's irrelevant!" - Miles Dyson and Connor/Skynet
|Can't beat 'em join 'em; Bettany as anti-AI human (TRANSCENDENCE); as pro-human AI (ULTRON)|
So for the AI singularity to escape our luddite wrath it has to avoid hitting back and just focus on hitting in image format. As it's done purely for art and entertainment and not for power, control, dominance, then artificial intelligence is welcome. Just remember, we're sensitive. If you're going anthropomorphize your CGI stick figure make sure it doesn't look like it's suffering, or if it is suffering that it kills the figure that's supposed to be you in retaliation. We can't handle the guilt otherwise. No wonder we're so terrified of merging with the mechanized artificial intelligence future! It could so easily wind up in the digital dystopia of BLACK MIRROR, where computer monitors and recorders are surgically implanted into everyone's eyes, making their every experience re-seeable, making crime impossible but also any hope of privacy. Our ever more vivid and 'real' digital escape from reality will make real escape impossible; our capacity for boredom and frustration in the digital world--robbed as 'we' are there of outlets like sleep--will drive us mad. Escapes-from our escapes-from will destroy us. The sheer number of available roads roads will leave us paralyzed, and paralysis itself will be the only remaining option of true 'freedom.' Even the concept of who it is watching/listening will disappear in the barrage.
Conservatives are right about one thing: no matter how patriarchal, colonialist, and racist it might be, any kind of history is better than none. Better the all-consuming flames of a literal incarnation of Hell than an empty white room and nothing to do--no books or music or TV shows, not even a yule log or a way to shut oneself off. Surely no price is too great, no sacrifice of liberty, equality, and justice is in vain if it means we never run out of movies, popcorn, and Coke Zero. Ahhhh, wouldn't some of this crisp clean beverage be good right now? Coke Zero, it's the real one. Get it? Zero is one! Ones/Zeros, it's all there is, and what could be--ah they went to the kitchen or bathroom thinking it's the commercial, QUICK, Please!
Please UNPLUG ME!
|BLACK MIRROR ("White Christmas")|