The Science-Fantasy of Artificial Intelligence, part IV

by Jennifer Rezny
on 10 March 2016
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When Neil deGrasse Tyson first started tweeting about the portrayal of science in pop culture, it was a hit. He filled his Twitter feed with live commentary on various movies, the first being Alfonso Cuarón's 2013 film Gravity, with the following statement:

"My Tweets hardly ever convey opinion. Mostly perspectives on the world. But if you must know, I enjoyed #Gravity very much."

While initially Tyson's fact-checking exercised proved to be a viral hit, especially amongst science-fiction fans and nerd culture, within the year a vocal opposition developed. While Tyson himself chalked this up to fans "losing their minds", it does reflect a certain rejection of the killjoy mentality. Science is cool, Mr. Tyson, we get it, but it is called science-fiction for a reason. Similarly, his complaint about Star Wars: The Force Awakens' BB-8 droid fell flat with many people simply because BB-8 isn't just a CG droid or an actor in a costume –– it's a functioning gyroscopic robot. Tyson's declaration that BB-8 "would have skidded uncontrollably on sand" crumbles next to video footage of the real-life robot following at Daisy Ridley's heels across a sandy set. 

I may know how Tyson feels. I'm a killjoy myself –– I often watch movies with the intention of picking them apart into tiny, digestible bits, prodding at character motivations and plot devices to see if they shatter under too much contemplation. I am a chronic Googler. I can't play a video game about war without stopping to ask if that completely unrelated one-eyed character could really survive in that time period with an empty eye socket; wouldn't it constantly be at risk of infection? I am that person. I don't even try to hide it.

But I also greatly enjoy science fiction. I may have a lot of strong feelings about cheesy plot devices and how most science-fiction ends up so ludicrously out of the realm of possibility that it should be called science-fantasy, but the quality factor is a whole different world than the enjoyment factor. I enjoy a lot of objectively low-quality movies, like Jurassic World. I also hate a lot of objectively fantastic movies, like Interstellar. Tyson might feel the same, as he hardly ever tweets his opinions, but if Twitter's shift against him says anything, it's that sticking to objective facts can make one a target for derision. 

Many people don't obsess over scientific fact, and they probably enjoy movies quite a bit more for it. For other people, knowing that something is ludicrously impossible ruins the experience of a movie. I'm sure we can all think of a scene that completely took you out of a movie as soon as you realized it didn't entirely work –– like the dinner party scene in The Dark Knight, where Batman appears completely unnoticed out of an elegantly dressed crowd to punch the Joker. He then freefalls hundreds of feet out a window onto a car and gets right up again after. (If you hadn't previously noticed that, I'm sorry.)

These days, for me, it's always robots that triggers the biggest feelings of disconnect. I can't watch these futuristic, emotionally-sensitive AI and not think about having to occasionally reboot them because of a software failure, or how HAL9000's first cryptic statement should have been taken as an excuse to tinker under the hood. But I work with software: I can see software quirks for what they are, and dispassionately reboot them. 

I want this to illustrate something: when we watch a movie like i,Robot, even if we acknowledge that Sonny is largely just a CG character with a convincing voice actor, even if we reminds ourselves that robotics are nowhere near this level of detail, we still form an idea of what a humanoid robot is like. As such, when we imagine modern robotics, we likely assume it is much further ahead than it really is. It also means when we see novel applications of robotics, such as Jordan Wolfson's Female Figure [mildly NSFW], we tend to see the articulated fingers and the largely-realistic, smooth movements and follow-me eye effects, but we forget those fingers are programmed to beckon at the audience but not actually grasp anything, and that the figure is completely incapable of standing upright unassisted. 

Science-fiction changes how we feel about robotics. While it might make us notably more open to artificial intelligence –– weird, considering all the cautionary tales about getting murdered by AI –– it also makes us forget that modern robotics are really kind of comedic.

I present a collection of robots to counterbalance the Sonny you used to know:

Suffice to say, when robots are ready to kill us, they'll probably look more like Boston Dynamics's Big Dogs than humans. (Who am I kidding, Spot already looks ready to kill us.)