Bad Sci-Fi Movies and Real-World AI

LifeContinuing my theme of doing things other than fret about Donald Trump, I have spent some time fretting about other existential threats to humanity. So, that’s healthy.

Specifically, I’ve spent the last half day thinking about the threat of alien invasions and runaway artificial intelligence. One of them you can consign to the bottom of your worry list; the other probably deserves a higher spot on the list, somewhere below Donald Trump but above death panels and “radical Islamic terrorism.”

The topic of alien invasions is the overt theme of the movie I saw last night: Life, directed by Daniel Espinosa and starring, among others, Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds. Without giving away the plot, it explores the question of what happens when humanity encounters a lifeform that turns out to be smarter and more dangerous than it appears. Suffice it to say not all ends well for our gender- and ethnic-balanced crew aboard the International Space Station.

Despite the title of this post, the movie is not actually bad; it’s suspenseful and engaging. As I watched it, though, I was struck by how shitty the science was. As the investigators probed the alien lifeform, they repeatedly demonstrated all sorts of stupid, unrealistic practices. They let a single investigator engage in isolation with the lifeform to the extent he loses perspective. They do not do carefully measured experiments to determine both what sustains the organism and what kills it. When it demonstrates exponential growth and unexpected abilities, the researchers don’t react to this with caution but instead step on the accelerator. And, when things go wrong, they discover that their failsafe mechanisms are either non-existent or simply failures. Any epidemiologist or biologist working with potentially hazardous organisms would have been appalled.

The good news is that we’re not out scooping up biomass from other planets and bringing it back to Earth. There’s also every reason to think that the product of other evolutionary forces would not be particularly compatible with Earth’s. And, finally, there’s the fact that – despite the fact that we’ve been actively looking for decades, there’s very little sign of life – particularly intelligent life – outside of our little blue ball despite the fact that it’s a very, very big universe. This is known as the Fermi Paradox. My best guess is that you can put this issue way, way down on your list of things to worry about.

Which brings me to the other one, the existential threat of runaway artificial intelligence.

AIAs I was driving home from the theater, it occurred to me that the movie was actually a commentary on the how we – not you or me, but some VERY smart people – are approaching the field of AI. As near as I can tell, we are using the same shitty scientific methods – the ones that would make any life science researcher cringe – to develop this technology. We have researchers all across the world laboring in secret, scientists who are less objective researchers and more would-be parents who are enraptured with the idea of strong AI or even the Singularity. Instead of running carefully controlled experiments and building in rigorous “kill steps,” AI is being deployed today in the real world – in Teslas, in fraud detection systems, in your washing machine, writing both press releases and news stories, in your favorite search engine, in the warehouses of your favorite retailer, as robo-calls and a thousand other ways. And, even though these creations are demonstrating unexpectedly rapid growth and ability (an AI-driven computer recent beat the world’s best Go players – widely considered an incredibly hard game – 60 games to none; a computer program performed a similar fear against some of the world’s best poker players), researchers are plowing onward at even faster rates.

This is perhaps not the smartest thing we’ve ever done. And, it’s not just me, your friendly blogger, who thinks so. Smart guys like Bill Gates and Elon Musk are worried about this. So are really smart guys like Stephen Hawking.

By way of fair disclosure, there are plenty of very smart people – Ray Kurzweil perhaps foremost among them – who believe the coming era of big AI will usher in an unprecedented era for humanity, giving us access to pretty much everything and an infinite lifespan to experience it. That seems like a better outcome, but this point of view is a little cultish and perhaps optimistic without hard, objective reasons. Life – whether artificial or otherwise – constantly finds ways to break out of whatever boxes it gets put into. Including the boxes we build.

If you’re inclined to read more on this, Vanity Fair coincidentally published a long interview with Musk on this topic. It is worth the 20 minutes or so it will take you and give you something to worry about instead of Trump.

There. Doesn’t that make you feel better instead of worrying about the latest cluster fuck from the White House? Next week, I’ll write about the threats of pandemics and global warming. Just call me Mr. Good News.

  • Austin

 

 

 

The (Propaganda) Road We’ve Traveled

Unlike a lot of liberals, I don’t just tolerate President Obama. I don’t just like him better than the dismal alternatives. I admire him more than any other President in my lifetime. Not because he is black, a Democrat and articulate, as I my conservative friends charge. I admire him because he had a breathtakingly difficult economic, political and foreign policy assignment that he has done better than I imagined anyone could. Not perfectly by any stretch, but, given the difficulty of the tasks, very well.

So because of my man crush, I recognize I’m not an objective observer. But trying my best to judge it as a communications professional rather than an Obama admirer, I have to say the video the Obama campaign released yesterday tells the story of the Obama first term better than any communications tactic I’ve seen from Team Obama.

Love Obama or hate him, this is extremely good story telling, or propagandizing, depending on your point-of-view. It sets a context that makes an objective swing voter feel better about only having 8.5% unemployment and one sunsetting war.

Seeing this took me down another road I’ve traveled. I vividly remember despising every second of President Reagan’s masterful Morning in America ad, because it was so effective. Twenty-eight years later, I still hate watching the propaganda film that cemented President Reagan’s reelection, and his version of history.

President Obama’s film isn’t nearly as good as Reagan’s, mostly because it is 16-minutes longer, which severely limits the audience that will see it. But if I were a conservative, I would hate watching this film as much I hated watching “Morning in America” back in the day.

Maybe this isn’t saying much, but Obama’s film is the best political storytelling I’ve seen a Democrat do in a very long time. Base, if this won’t rally you, I don’t know what will.

– Loveland

The Kids Aren’t All Right

There was just about a half an hour of red-carpet time left before the start of last night’s Oscar telecast when ABC cut to an interview featuring  Reese Witherspoon with the “west coast editor of Vanity Fair,” a title that really does say a lot. What followed was dim-witted enough–Ms. Witherspoon was pleasant but utterly without anything to say–that I was all but tuned out when the west coast editor asked this: “So, tell us…does Oscar night ever get old?”

Now the odds of the answer to that question being either a surprise or even slightly interesting were, of course, zero.

Too bad there isn’t some way the viewers of the program could have responded instead, as I’m pretty sure the answer would have been a resounding yes.

As a matter of fact, last night’s show wore out its welcome fast…pretty much the instant a vaguely wasted-looking James Franco and the stunning but vapid Anne Hathaway came onstage for the first ever slacker hosting of the Academy Awards. Dudes, it was awful.

In what now seems to me almost another life, I used to write about the movies and even imagined myself something of a student of the Oscars. What I could never figure out back then was why an event celebrating the pinnacle of show business was invariably such a rotten bit of show business. Well, the beat goes on.

Part of the problem is that the Oscar telecast never takes advantage of its biggest asset: Access to miles and miles of film footage from this year’s movies and from those of years past. I mean, what would you rather watch: Francis Ford Coppola standing mute on stage for a round of applause…or five minutes of The Godfather? Jeff Bridges telling Jennifer Lawrence how cute she is…or a longer scene from her brilliant performance in Winter’s Bone?

I thought the low point was the presentation of the bloated list of Best Picture nominees…ten of them no less. In the interest of time but not actual interest, this was compressed into a montage of outtakes shown with the  big speech from The King’s Speech as a kind of weirdly appropriate soundtrack. Colin Firth’s disembodied words were, after all, a warning to the public that it should brace itself for something terrible.

I say, spot on sir!

In’venting Na’vi

You’re making a movie about “people” from some fantastical, far-off land, you have a $300 million budget, and you want your made-up characters to be convincing. These blue creatures who star in the movie Avatar are computer-generated, so there’s not much of a need for acting classes. Instead, why don’t you pay a linguistics professor to invent a language?

That’s what director James Cameron did.

“He wanted a complete language, with a totally consistent sound system, morphology, syntax,” Frommer says. And “he wanted it to sound good — he wanted it to be pleasant, he wanted it to be appealing to the audience.”

So now, the Na’vi language exists. And if this movie is as successful as it promises to be, we should soon see the proof that Na’vi has transitioned from fictional word gimmick to legitimate language: a Hamlet of its own.