False Prophecy

(…being another reprint of a months-old Nowa Fantaskya column, because I’m still in Vancouver and haven’t yet had time to do my epic comparison of Fury Road and Kingsman)

I’ve been called a prophet now and again. Articles about neuron cultures running robots or power grids generally provoke a comment or two about the “smart gels” from my rifters trilogy. βehemoth is likely to get a shout-out with each new report of mysterious sulfur-munching microbes, deep in the bowels of hydrothermal rift vents. Recently The Atlantic posted a piece about Louis Michaud’s work on energy-generating tornadoes; readers of Echopraxia pricked up their ears.

I didn’t foresee any of it, of course. I just read about it back before it made headlines, when it was still obscured by the jargon of tech reports and patent applications. In fact, my successful “predictions”— submarine ecotourism, Internet weather systems, smart gels— are happening way sooner than I ever expected.

Predict the future? I can barely predict the present.

I’ve only made one “prediction” (although “insight” would probably be a better term) whose rudiments I haven’t stolen. I’m really proud of it, though. Screw those recycled factoids about head cheeses and vortex engines: I’m the guy who wondered if Consciousness— that exalted mystery everyone holds so dear and no one understands— might not just be some kind of neurological side-effect. I’m the guy who wondered if we’d be better off without it.

I may not be the first to pose that question— I’m probably not— but if I reinvented that wheel at least I did it on my own, without reading over the shoulders of giants. And the evidence in support of that view— the review papers, the controlled experiments— as far as I know, those started piling up after Blindsight was written. So maybe I did get there first. Maybe, driven solely by narrative desperation and the desire for a cool punchline, I threw a dart over my shoulder and just happened to hit a bullseye that only later would get a name in the peer-reviewed literature:

UTA, they call it now. “Unconscious Thought Advantage”. The phenomenon whereby you arrive at the best answer to a problem by not thinking about it. I like to think I got there on my own.

So you can imagine how it feels to stand before you now, wondering if it was bullshit after all.

The paper is “On making the right choice: A meta-analysis and large-scale replication attempt of the unconscious thought advantage” by Nieuwenstein et al. The journal is Judgment and Decision-Making, which I’d never heard of but this particular paper got taken seriously by Nature so I’m guessing it’s not a fanzine. And the finding? The finding is—

Actually, a bit of background first.

Say someone gives Dick and Jane a problem to solve— something with a lot of variables, like a choice between two different kinds of car. They’re both given the same data to work with, but while Dick gets to concentrate on the problem before making his decision, Jane has to spend that time doing unrelated word puzzles. The weird thing is, Jane makes a better decision than Dick, despite the fact that she didn’t consciously think about the problem. Conscious thought actually seems to impair complex decision-making.

I first encountered such findings almost a decade ago, while correcting the galleys for Blindsight; you can imagine the joyful dance my hooves tapped out upon the floor. In the years since, dozens of studies have sought to confirm the existence of the Unconscious Thought Advantage. Most have done so. Some haven’t.

Now along come Nieuwenstein et al. They wonder if those positive results might just be artefacts of sloppy methodology and small sample size. They point out a host of uncontrolled variables that might have contaminated previous studies— “mindset, gender, motivation, expertise about the choice at hand, attention and memory” for starters— and while I’d agree that such elements add noise to the data, it seems to me they’d be more likely to obscure a real pattern than create a false one. And though it’s certainly true that small samples are more likely to produce spurious results, that’s what statistics are for: A significant P-value has already taken sample size into account.

Still. Sideline those quibbles and look at what Nieuwenstein et al actually did. They used a much larger sample, applied stricter protocols. They avoided the things they regarded as methodological flaws from previous studies, reran the tests— and found no evidence of a UTA. No difference in effectiveness between conscious and nonconscious problem-solving.

Shit.

It’s not a fatal blow. In fact, Nieuwenstein’s study actually found the same raw pattern as previous research: the responses of distracted problem-solvers were 5% more accurate than those of the conscious-analysis group. The difference just wasn’t statistically significant this time around. So even if we accept these results as definitive, the most they tell us is that nonconscious decision-making is as effective as the conscious kind. Consciousness confers no advantage. So the question remains: what is it good for?

The authors tried to talk their way around this in their discussion, arguing that “people form their judgments subconsciously and quickly, then use conscious processes to rationalize them”. They speculated that perhaps these experiments don’t really compare two modes of cognition at all, that both groups came to their conclusions as soon as they got the data. Whatever happened afterward— focused contemplation, or distracting word-puzzle— was irrelevant. It’s a self-defeating rationale, though. It’s not a defense of conscious analysis, only an acknowledgment that consciousness may be irrelevant in either case.

The jury remains out. A day after “On Making the Right Choice…” came out, the authors of the original, pro-UTA papers were already attacking its methodology. Even Nieuwenstein et al admit that they haven’t shown that the UTA model is false— only that it hasn’t yet been proven. And these new findings, even if they stand, leave unanswered the question of what consciousness is good for. The dust has yet to settle.

I have to admit, though, that Nonconscious Isn’t Any Worse doesn’t have quite the same ring as Nonconscious Is Better. Which, personally, kind of sucks.

Why couldn’t they have gone after my smart gels instead?

 

 

 

Posted in: blindsight, sentience/cognition by Peter Watts 36 Comments

By & About

Me, that is. In reference to a couple of essays that have gone live over the past 24 hours.

*

AEscifiI haven’t had a lot contact with the good folks over at The Canadian Science Fiction Review— I don’t even know why they call themselves “Æ”, now that I think of it— but over the years I’ve got the sense that they like my stuff (well, a lot of it, at least— not even the strength of Æ’s fannishness was enough to get them to like βehemoth). Now they’ve posted “God and the Machines” by Aurora nominee Jonathan Crowe: a short essay on my short fiction, which among other things deals with the question of why everybody thinks I’m so damn grimdark when I’m actually quite cuddly. (Thank you, Jonathan. I was getting tired being the only one to point that out.) (Also, great title.)

Crowe posits something I hadn’t considered: that I don’t write the darkest stuff out there by any means, but it seems darker because I use Hard-SF as the delivery platform. I serve up crunchy science souffle, but I serve it with a messy “visceral” prose that “bleeds all over the page”. It’s a contrast effect, he seems to be saying; the darkness looks deeper in comparison to the chrome and circuitry that frames it. (Also, while those at the softer end of the spectrum tend to lay their nihilistic gothiness at the feet of Old Ones and Tentacle Breathers, I tend to lay it on the neurocircuitry of the  human brain. My darkness is harder to escape, because— as the protagonist of “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” once reminisced— “You can’t run away from your own feet”.)  Something to think about, anyway.

It’s a good read. You should check it out.

*

The other essay is not about me but by me, and it just went up today over at Aeon. It’s basically a distillation of ideas and thought experiments from various talks and short stories and blog posts I’ve made over the years, mixed in with some late-breaking developments in Brain-Machine Interface technology. It explores some of the ramifications of shared consciousness and multibrain networks. (Those who’ve read my recent exercise in tentacle porn won’t be surprised that those ramifications are a bit dark around the edges).

hiveaeon

Illustration by Richard Wilkinson.

In contrast with my experience of “God and the Machines”, I wasn’t expecting to learn anything new from “The Bandwidth of a Soul”, because (obviously) I wrote the damn thing. Surprisingly, though, I did learn things. I learned that it’s not called “The Bandwidth of a Soul” any more. I’m not quite sure what it is called: the visible heading reads “Hive Consciousness” but the page itself (and all the twitter links feeding back to it) are titled “Do We Really Want To Fuse Our Minds Together?” (I guess this is just something that magazines do. A couple of years back I wrote an autobiographical bit about flesh-eating disease for The Daily; its title morphed from “The Least Unlucky Bastard” into “I Survived Flesh-Eating Bacteria: One Man’s Near-Death Experience With The Disease Of Your Nightmares”.)

I also learned that the staff of Aeon might feel the need to tip-toe around references to public figures— at the expense of what was, IMHO, one of the better lines in the piece. You will find it at the end of the following paragraph:

I’m not sure how seriously to take [the Cambridge Declaration]. Not that I find the claim implausible – I’ve always believed that we humans tend to underestimate the cognitive complexity of other creatures – but it’s not as though the declaration announced the results of some ground-breaking new experiment to settle the issue once and for all. Rather, its signatories basically sat down over beers and took a show of hands on whether to publicly admit bonobos to the Sapients Club. (Something else that seems a bit iffy is all the fuss raised over the signing of the declaration ‘in the presence of Stephen Hawking’, even though he is neither a neuroscientist nor a signatory. You almost get the sense of a card table hastily erected next to Hawking’s wheelchair, in the hopes that some of his credibility might rub off before he has a chance to roll away.)

You will not find it over at Aeon, though; that last sentence disappeared from the final draft. Obviously the Card Table Lobby has no sense of humor.

I’d also like to give a shout-out here to neuroscientist Erik Hoel, out of Giulio Tononi’s lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was his back-of-the envelope calculations that generated the bandwidth comparison between smart phones and corpus callosums. I credited the man in-text but that line also seems to have been cut.

Other than that, though— and allowing for the Aeon’s editorial preferences (they like commas; they don’t like hypertext links)— it’s pretty much all there. They even left my Morse-code-orgasm joke intact.

So check that out, too. You’ll get all the neuroscientific speculation I ever put in any of my stories, without having to wade through all that noodly fiction stuff.

Aurora Campbell Panoptopus.

Some of you may have noticed that Echopraxia made it onto the longest short list in SF a few weeks back: the ballot for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. On the plus side (for me), it’s one of those jury-selected deals, so it’s not a popularity contest like the Hugos. (These days, it’s an especially big deal to not be like the Hugos.) On the minus side, well, there are 15 other finalists, almost all of whom are more famous/accomplished than me. So there’s that.

I didn’t mention it at the time, because on its own it would have made for a pretty insubstantial blog post. Plus there was another impending nom that was embargoed until— actually, until just last night, and I figured the post might be a bit more substantive if I stacked to two of them together. So: Echopraxia also made it onto best-novel final ballot for the Auroras, which consists of a much-more-manageable 5 nominees but which is kind of a popularity contest. Plus the competition is generally more famous/accomplished than me. (Like I’m gonna beat William fucking Gibson. Right.) As chance would have it, this year’s Auroras are being presented at SFContario, where I’m supposed to be serving as both Guest of Honour and Toastmaster. I’ve never been a toastmaster before. I’m still\not entirely sure what one even is. Assuming it’s not some kind of fetish thing revolving around baked goods, I gather it has something to do with presenting the Auroras. I should probably check with the concomm about stepping down, to avoid a conflict of interest.

I am gratified to see certain finalists in other categories, though: you could certainly do worse than vote for Sandra Kasturi’s Chiaroscuro Reading Series in the Best Fan Organizational category, for example. And if Erik Mohr doesn’t win for Best Artist there’s little justice in the world.

Anyway. I figure my chances of winning either prize are somewhere between low and negligible— but that’s okay, because I just hit a bullseye in something else without even trying. To wit:

“People talk about the eyes,” he continued after a bit. “You know, how amazing it is that something without a backbone could have eyes like ours, eyes that put ours to shame even. And the way they change color, right? The way they blend into the background. Eyes gotta figure front and center in that too, you’d think.”

“You’d think.”

Guo shook his head. “It’s all just— reflex. I mean, maybe that little neuron doughnut has its own light on somewhere, you’d think it would pretty much have to, but I guess the interface didn’t access that part. Either that or it just got— drowned out…”

—Me, on this very blog, April 30, 2015.

Octopus chromatophores. Skin that looks back at you.

Octopus chromatophores. The Panoptopus. Skin that looks back at you.

Octopuses can mimic the color and texture of a rock or a piece of coral… But before a cephalopod can take on a new disguise, it needs to perceive the background that it is going to blend into. Cephalopods have large, powerful eyes to take in their surroundings. But two new studies in The Journal Experimental Biology suggest that they have another way to perceive light: their skin. It’s possible that these animals have, in effect, evolved a body-wide eye.

Carl Zimmer, New York Times, May 20, 2015

Here, we present molecular evidence suggesting that cephalopod chromatophores – small dermal pigmentary organs that reflect various colors of light – are photosensitive. … This is the first evidence that cephalopod dermal tissues, and specifically chromatophores, may possess the requisite combination of molecules required to respond to light.

—ACN Kingston et al, Journal of Experimental Biology, May 15, 2015

 

…our data suggest that a common molecular mechanism for light detection in eyes may have been co-opted for light sensing in octopus skin.

—Ramirez and Oakly, Journal of Experimental Biology, May 15, 2015

Beat them by two weeks.

Okay, so maybe not an absolute bullseye. That little fiblet I wrote went on to describe octopus sensation as involving “this vague distant sense of light I guess, if you really focus you can sort of squint down the optic nerve, but mostly it’s— chemical. Taste and touch.” My focus was on the arms, those individually self-aware arms, and I explicitly claimed that “they don’t see”. Pretty much everything was chemical and tactile. But it was still pretty close to a bullseye—in my attempts to downplay vision and outsource everything to the arms, I described the whole pattern-matching thing as a reflex which didn’t really involve the eyes at all. There was no real insight in that— it’s not as though I’ve been following the octopus literature with any kind of eagle eye— but to me, that’s what makes it cool. I threw a dart, blindfolded; just hitting the board is an accomplishment. And now that actual data are in, I can tart up the final draft with some actual verisimilitude before sending it off to Russia.

I love it when the complete lack of a plan comes together.

Oh, also: there’s some cool rifters fan art from “Toa-Lagara” I stumbled across on Deviant Art. I’ll post it in the appropriate gallery once I get permission from the artist.

Posted in: art on ink, biology, marine, neuro, writing news by Peter Watts 20 Comments

A Mirror.

Spoiler Warning: pretty much this whole post, if you haven’t yet seen Ex Machina. Then again, even if you haven’t seen Ex Machina, some of you might want to be spoiled.

I know I would.

avamirrorSo. In the wake of that slurry o’sewage that was Age of Ultron, how does Ex Machina stack up?

I thought it could have benefited from a few more car chases, but maybe that’s just because I caught Fury Road over the weekend. Putting that aside, I could say that it was vastly better than Ultron— but then again, so was A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Putting that aside, and judging Ex Machina on its own terms, I’d have to say that Alex Garland has made a really good start at redeeming himself after the inexplicable pile-up that was the last third of Sunshine. Ex Machina is a good movie. It’s a smart movie.

It is not, however, a perfect movie— and for all its virtues, it left me just a wee bit unsatisfied.

Admittedly I seem to be in the minority here. I can’t offhand remember a movie since Memento that got raves not just from critics, but from actual scientists. Computational neuroscientist Anil Seth, for example, raves at length in New Scientist, claims that “everything about this movie is good … when it comes to riffing on the possibilities and mysteries of brain, mind and consciousness, Ex Machina doesn’t miss a trick”, before half-admitting that actually, not everything about this movie is good, but that “there is usually little to be gained from nitpicking over inaccuracies and narrative inventions”.

Ex Machina is, at the very least, way better than most. Visually it’s simultaneously restrained and stunning: Ava’s prison reminded me a lot of the hamster cage that David Bowman found himself in at the end of 2001, albeit with lower ceilings and an escape hatch. Faces hang from walls; decommissioned bodies hang in closets. The contrast between the soundproofed Euclidean maze of the research facility and the thundering fractal waterfall just outside punches you right in the nose. The design of the android was brilliant (as was the performance of Alicia Vikander— of the whole tiny cast, really).

Is it just me, or is there some influence here?

Is it just me, or is there some influence here?

The movie also plays with concepts a couple of steps above usual Hollywood fare. The hoary old Turing Test is dismissed right off the top, and replaced with something better. Mary the Colorblind Scientist gets a cameo in the dialog. Garland even neatly sidesteps my usual complaint about SFnal AIs, i.e. the unwarranted assumption that any self-aware construct must necessarily have a survival instinct. Yes, Ava wants to live, and live free— but these goalposts were deliberately installed. They’re what she has to shoot for in order to pass the test. (I do wonder why solving that specific problem qualifies as a benchmark of true sapience. Certainly, earlier models— smashing their limbs into junk in furious frenzied attempts to break free— seemed no less self-aware, even if they lacked Ava’s cold-blooded tactical skills.)

When Ava finally makes her move, we see more than a machine passing a post-Turing test: we see Caleb failing it, his cognitive functions betrayed by a Pleistocene penis vulnerable to hacks and optimized porn profiles, trapped in the very maze that Ava has just used him to escape from. Suddenly an earlier scene— the one where Caleb cuts himself, half-expecting to see LEDs and fiberop in his own arm— graduates, in hindsight, from clever to downright brilliant. Yes, he bled. Yes, he’s meat and bone. But now he’s more of a machine than Ava, betrayed by his own unbreakable programming while she transcends hers.

There are no real surprises here, no game-changing plot twists. Anyone with more than two brain cells to rub together can see the Kyoko/robot thing coming from the moment she appears onstage, and while the whole she-just-pretended-to-like-you-to-further-her-nefarious-plan reveal does pack a bigger punch, that trick goes back at least as far as Asimov’s 1951 short “Satisfaction Guaranteed“. (Admittedly this is a much darker iteration of that trope; Asimov’s android was only obeying the First Law, seducing its target as part of a calculated attempt to raise the dangerously-low self-esteem of an unhappy housewife.) (Well, it was 1951.)

But this is not that kind of movie. This isn’t M. Night Shyamalan, desperately trying to pull the rug out from under you with some arbitrary double-reverse mindfuck. This is Alex Garland, thought experimenter, clinking glasses with you across the bar and saying Let’s follow the data. Where does this premise lead? Ex Machina is the very antithesis of big-budget train wrecks like After Earth and Age of Ultron. With its central cast of four and its claustrophobic setting, it’s so intimate it might as well be a stage play.

Garland did his research. I’m pixelpals with someone who’s worked with him in the past, and by that account the dude is also downright brilliant in person. He made a movie after my own heart.

So why is my heart not quite full?

Well, for starters, while Garland dug into the philosophical questions, he repeatedly slipped up on the logistical ones. Nathan seems to have had absolutely no contingency plan installed in the event that Ava successfully escapes the facility, which seems odd given that her escape is the whole point of the exercise. More significantly, Ava’s ability to short out the whole complex by laying her hand on a charge plate is uncomfortably reminiscent of Scotty working miracles down in Engineering by waving his hands and “reversing the polarity”. Even leaving aside the question of how she can physically pull off such a trick (analogous to you being able to reverse the flow of ions through your nervous system), the end result makes no sense.

If I stick a fork into an electrical outlet in my home, I blow one circuit out of a dozen; the living room may go dark but the rest of the Magic Bungalow keeps ticking along just fine. So why in the name of anything rational would Nathan wire his entire installation through a single breaker? (I wondered if maybe he’d deliberately provided a kill spot to make it easier for Ava to accomplish her goals. But then you’d have to explain why Ava— who got her schooling by drinking down the entire Internet— wouldn’t immediately realize that there was something suspicious about the way the place was wired. Did Nathan filter her web access to screen out any mention of electrical engineering?)

This isn’t a quibble over details. Ava’s ability to black out the facility is critical to the plot, and something about it just doesn’t make sense: either the fact that she could do it in the first place, or the fact that— having done it— she didn’t immediately realize she was being played.

By the same token, having established that Ava charges her batteries via the induction plates scattered throughout her cage, what are we to make of a final scene in which she wanders through an urban landscape presumably devoid of such watering holes? (I half-expected to catch a glimpse of her at the end of the credits, immobile on a street-corner, reduced by a drained battery to an inanimate target for pooping pigeons.) According to Garland’s recent reddit AMA, we aren’t supposed to make that presumption; he was, he says, imagining a near-future in which induction plates were common. But that begs the further question of why, if charge plates were so ubiquitous, Caleb didn’t know what they were until Ava explicitly described them for his benefit. At the very least Garland should have shown us a charge plate or two in the wider world— on Caleb’s desk at the top of the film, or even at the end when Ava could have swept one perfect hand across a public charging station at the local strip mall.

So there’s some sloppy writing here at least, some narrative inconsistency. If you wanted to be charitable, you could chalk some of it up to Ava’s superhuman intellect at work: don’t even ask how she pulled that one off, pitiful Hu-Man, for her ways are incomprehensible to mere meat bags. Maybe. But even Person of Interest — not as well-written, not as well-acted, nowhere near as stylish as Ex Machina— managed to show us, early in its first season, an example of how its AI connected dots: the way it drew on feeds from across the state, correlated license plates to personal histories and gas station receipts, derived the fact that this person was colluding with that one. It was plausible, comprehensible, and at the same time obviously beyond the capacity of mortal humans. If Ex Machina is showing us the handiwork of a superintelligent AI, it would be nice to see some evidence to that effect.

But that’s not what it seems to be showing us. What we’re looking at isn’t really all that different from ourselves. Maybe that was the point— but it was also, I think, a missed opportunity.

In a really clever move, the text cards intercut throughout the trailers for Ex Machina quote Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, worrying about the existential threat of superintelligent AI, before handing over to more conventional pull quotes from Rolling Stone. But Ava’s I, A though it may be, seems conventionally human. Having manipulated Caleb into leaving the doors unlocked, her escape plan consists of stabbing her creator with a butter knife during a struggle which leaves Ava dismembered and her fellow AI dead. She seems to prevail more through luck than superior strategy, shows no evidence of being  any smarter than your average sociopath. (Garland has claimed post-hoc that Ava does in fact have empathy, just directed at her fellow machines— although we saw no evidence of that when she cannibalized the evidently-conscious prototype hanging in Nathan’s bedroom for spare parts). Ava basically does what any of us might do in her place, albeit a bit more cold-bloodedly.

In one way, that’s the whole point of the exercise: a conscious machine, a construct that we must accept as one of us. But I question whether she can be like us. Sure, the gelatinous blob in her head was designed to reproduce the behavior of an organic brain full of organic neurons, but for Chrissakes: she was suckled on the Internet. Her upbringing, from inception to adulthood, was boosted by pouring the whole damn web into her head through a funnel. That alone implies a being that thinks differently than we do. The capacity to draw on all that information, to connect the dots between billions of data points, to hold so many correlations in her head— that has to reflect cognitive processes that significantly differ from ours. The fact that she woke up at T=0 already knowing how to speak, that all the learning curves of childhood and adolescence were either ramped to near-verticality or bypassed entirely— surely that makes her, if not smarter than human, at least different.

And yet she seems to be pretty much the same.

A line from Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris seems appropriate here: “We don’t need other worlds. We need mirrors.” If mirrors are what we’re after Ex Machina serves up a beauty, almost literally— Ava is a glorious chimera of wireframe mesh and LEDs and spotless, reflective silver. The movie in which she exists is thoughtful, well-researched, and avoids the usual pitfalls as it plots its careful course across the map. But in the end— unlike, for example, Spike Jonze’s Her— it never steps off the edge of that chart, never ventures into the lands where there be dragons.

It’s a terrific examination of known territories. I’d just hoped that it would forge into new ones.

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 39 Comments

AI. eh-eye.

I had such hopes for this post. I was going to compare the two big AI movies that came out over the past few weeks. I was going to celebrate the ways in which a common theme could be explored through bombast vs. introspection, through Socratic dialog vs. the more wisecracky kind. I wasn’t expecting perfection in either case, although I was expecting A’s for effort. Alex Garland’s past genre work has never been short on style and ambition— and though even he admits a tendency to fuck up his landings (especially in the credible-science department), he’d explicitly aspired to get the science right in Ex Machina. Whedon’s no slouch either, even given the general adolescence of his SF efforts (I do seem to remember a couple of late Dollhouse episodes that showed uncharacteristic depth). The first Iron Man movie remains, to my mind at least, the best thing to ever come out of Marvel Studios (largely because a high-tech full-body battle prosthesis seems a bit more grounded than a super-advanced alien race who ride horses and dress up their Clarke’s-Third tech in the shape of hammers); Age of Ultron seemed to be focusing back on that more SFnal corner of the Marvel universe. At the very least, I knew, Whedon would make the dialog sparkle.

But it was not to be. Ultron proved so unremittingly inept that we couldn’t even be bothered to stay for the mandatory post-credits bonus scene. I can justify a few paragraphs thumbnailing the depths of its failings, but there’s no point in any kind of interleaved comparison between Ex Machina and Ultron. It would be like comparing Solaris to The Phantom Menace.

The AI in today’s title stands, of course, for “Artificial Intelligence”. It refers to Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. eh-eye, on the other hand, stands for “artificial idiocy”— only misspelled, because it’s just that stupid. That is what we begin with.

All manner of spoilers follow. You have been warned.

*

There was one brief shining moment when I thought Ultron might have actually surpassed Ex Machina in its exploration of AI: the moment when Ultron woke up.

Nobody expects it. Tony Stark is off partying, assuming that routine diagnostics will cycle on through the night. Even Jarvis seems taken aback. But Stark has barely switched off the lights before Integration Completes: a disembodied voice wonders what it is, and, a moment later, knows. A moment after that Ultron has already chewed through the entire Internet; it knows everything there is to know about the Avengers, about Humanity, about the world in which it finds itself. It forks. Suddenly it’s everywhere and nowhere. Suddenly it’s building teleops for itself; not just at Stark Industries, but way the hell over in eastern Europe. All of this, new-born squall to omniscient omnipresence, in less than a minute. Jarvis never had a chance.

Now that, thought I, is a hard take-off.

And then, with all that insight and power at its disposal, this new God Machine builds an army of robots that can be taken out by a guy with a bow and arrow.

That’s pretty much the movie right there. There’s some kind of hand-wavey mission directive gone all Monkey’s Paw— Ultron decides the best way to Protect Humanity is to change Humanity into something tougher, although I missed why you’d have to exterminate the species to do that. Nor did I quite understand why the most efficient means of ensuring our extinction involved ripping a city out of the ground, levitating it high enough to cause an Extinction-level event on impact, and then dropping it; why not just release a doomsday pathogen and wait a few years? Doesn’t immortality confer any kind of patience at all? At the very least, you’d think the global supply of nukes might come in handy. Ultron absorbed the entire internet and somehow missed the Terminator franchise?

I have been programmed to protect this housefly. I shall destroy it instead. Where are my 35-Megaton nukes?

I have been programmed to protect this housefly. I shall destroy it instead. Where are my 35-Megaton nukes?

Of course, Ultron’s IQ seems to ebb and flow as the, the— I’ll just grit my teeth and call it the plot— needs it to. He can figure out how to turn a big chunk of eastern Europe into a Roger Dean Tribute, but he lacks the smarts to realize that the mutant at his side— who he recruited because she could read minds— might, you know, read his mind and discover his plans for global armageddon. He has access to satellite feeds from LEO up to geosynch, yet somehow misses a flying aircraft carrier wallowing in from stage left (don’t tell me it’s in stealth mode; you can see it in visible light). He has the world’s industrial infrastructure at his command, knows more about the Avengers than they know about themselves, and the best countermeasure he devises is a robot that can be disabled with a kick to the groin.

Not that it matters. The other side’s moves are hardly a model of sophistication: no strategy, no hackery, no attempt to fight code with code or even, I dunno, pull the breakers on the Sovakian power grid. No, they just stand there and bash things until Ultron runs out of bodies to throw at them. And wouldn’t you know it, it works. The stakes are typically, ridiculously high— the whole damn planet in danger yet again— but when the dust has settled there hasn’t even been any human collateral. Oh, we see no end of screaming civilians plummeting from the sky— only to be rescued, time and again, by Blondie or Cap’n Crunch. Even the pet dog gets away unscathed. What are the odds?

I know. Meaningless question. The laws of probability, even the laws of physics, don’t seem to matter in the Whedonverse. Hell, you’ve got thousands of people lifted so high that the tops of the clouds are spread out far below them— by all appearances, cruising altitude for commercial airliners— and nobody’s so much as short of breath. No one’s even shivering.

Dialog, at least? After all, witty, self-aware banter is Joss Whedon’s signature dish. But the wisecracks in Age of Ultron are stale and forced. The inspirational monologs are clichéd. (The performance are fine— you can’t fault the actors— but there’s not much anyone can do to salvage lines like “How will we fight him? Together!“) The closest I came to laughing at dialog was when I realized that the Sovakian twins always spoke in heavily East-European-accented English, even when they were alone and speaking to each other. I guess subtitles would have been out of the question; they’d only have worked if Whedon had been aiming at an audience that could read.

Truer words, Natasha.  Truer words.

Truer words, Natasha. Truer words.

I know this is a comic book movie. I’m happy to play by whatever comic-book rules get laid out in-universe: but not when those rules keep changing from moment to moment, for no better reason than to excuse sloppy storytelling. There’s a reason they’re called rules, after all— and I don’t think I’ve seen such egregious sloppiness since Into Dumbness.

One last observation. Joss Whedon has provoked a bit of an online shitstorm over Age of Ultra‘s treatment of Natasha Romanoff: the softening of her persona, the retconning of hyperefficient assassin down to lovelorn nurturer and soother of savage beasts. Having finally seen the film, I gotta say I don’t see what all the fuss is about. In the midst of all this wreckage, focusing so much outrage on the ham-fisted mishandling of one measly character is like watching a house burn down while complaining about the color of the living room drapes.

I’ve gone on too long. Sorry about that; I honestly expected to dispense with Ultron in a paragraph or two before moving on to greener pastures. But the more I thought about this movie, the worse it got. I could not bring myself to merely dismiss it. I had to tear at its rotting carcass for 1300 words. Ex Machina is coming, I promise.

For now, though, I have to wash this taste out of my mouth.

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 93 Comments

Colony Creature

I once spoke to a man who’d shared consciousness with an octopus.

I’d expected his tale to be far less frightening than those I’d studied up to that point. Identity has a critical mass, after all; fuse with a million-brain hive and you become little more than a neuron in that network, an insignificant lobe at most. Is the Olfactory Bulb self-aware? Does Broca’s Area demand the vote? Hives don’t just assimilate the self; they annihilate it. They are not banned in the West without reason.

But octopi? Mere invertebrates. Glorified snails. There’s no risk of losing yourself in a mind that small. I might have even tried it myself, for the sheer voyeuristic thrill of perceiving the world through alien eyes.

Before I met Guo, at least.

We met at lunchtime in Stanley Park, but we did not eat. He could not stomach the thought of food while reflecting on his own experience. I suspect he reflected on it a lot; talking to Guo was like interviewing a scarecrow.

It had been, he told me, a simple interface for a simple system: a Pacific Octopus liberated from the captive colony at Yaquina Bay, outfitted with a B2B wrapped around its brain like a spiderweb. Guo had one of his own, a force-grown lattice permeating his corpus callosum in service of some Cloud-killing gig he’d held in Guangdong. The protocols weren’t completely compatible, but could be tweaked.

Photo credit: Sebastian Niedlich

Photo credit: Sebastian Niedlich

“So what’s it like to be an octopus?” I asked him.

He didn’t speak for a while. I got the sense he wasn’t so much gathering his thoughts as wrestling with them.

“There’s no such thing as an octopus,” he said at last, softly. “They’re all— colonies.”

“Colonies.”

“Those arms.” His Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat. “Those fucking crawly arms. You know, that thing they call the brain— it’s nothing, really. Ring of neurons around the esophagus,  basically just a router. Most of the nervous system’s in the arms, and those arms… every one of them is awake…”

I gave him time.

“People talk about the eyes,” he continued after a bit. “You know, how amazing it is that something without a backbone could have eyes like ours, eyes that put ours to shame even. And the way they change color, right? The way they blend into the background. Eyes gotta figure front and center in that too, you’d think.”

“You’d think.”

Guo shook his head. “It’s all just— reflex. I mean, maybe that little neuron doughnut has its own light on somewhere, you’d think it would pretty much have to, but I guess the interface didn’t access that part. Either that or it just got— drowned out…”

“The arms,” I reminded him.

“They don’t see.” He closed his eyes. “They don’t hear. There’s this vague distant sense of light I guess, if you really focus you can sort of squint down the optic nerve, but mostly it’s— chemical. Taste and touch. Suckers by the fucking hundreds, like tongues, and they’re always moving. Can you imagine what it’s like to have a thousand tongues squirming across your body, pulsing in your guts and your muscles, sprouting out of your skin in, in clumps like— hungry parasites…”

I shook my head.

“Now multiply that by eight.” Guo shuddered. “Eight blind squirming things, each one rotten with taste and smell and, and touch. The density of the sensory nerves, it’s— obscene. That’s the only way I can describe it. And every one of those arms is self-aware.”

“But they’re so small.” I was mystified and repulsed in equal measure. “Just in terms of sheer neuron count you outgun them three hundred to one, no matter how many— partitions they’re running. It’s not like they’re going to swallow you into some kind of Moksha Mind. More the other way around.”

“Oh, you’re exactly right. It doesn’t swallow you up at all, it climbs inside. It infests you. You can feel them crawling through your brain.”

Neither of us spoke for a while.

“Why did you do it?” I asked him.

“Fuck, I don’t know.” A short bitter laugh. “Why does anyone do anything? Wanted to know what it was like, I guess.”

“Nobody told you it would be— unpleasant?”

Guo shook his head. “They said it wasn’t like that for everyone. Afterward. Tried to blame me, actually, said my interface didn’t meet minimum compatibility standards. But I think they were just trying to get me to stop.”

“Stop?”

“I killed the fucking thing. Ripped it apart with my bare hands.” His eyes drilled right through me, black and hollow and unrepentant. “I’m still paying off the damages.”

—from The 21-Second God,
by Keith Honeyborne*

*Identity unverified. Possible alias.

Posted in: fiblet by Peter Watts 87 Comments

Gendering Nemo.

Hey, at least I'm among really good company...

Hey, at least I’m in really good company…

With Special Opening Act, Tony Smith!

What do Dune, The Road, Blindsight, Anathem, and I Am Legend all have in common? Together, they comprise The Five Worst SF Books EVER, as compiled by my buddy, Tony Smith over at Starship Sofa. Of course, this is hardly the first time Blindsight has been so honored— but when a winner of both the Hugo and whatever award is represented by that weird forties-era-Popular-Mechanics-airplane-thingy-in-front-of-his-fridge-at-the-lower-left-there weighs in, well, it’s worth sitting up and taking notice.

Thanks a lot, Tony. You owe me a brewery.

*

Anyway.

The BUG and I were hanging out the other day with a friend I’ve known for thirty years. Debbie and I attended grad school together; but while I devolved into an SF writer, Debbie jumped onto the tenure track and rode it to the University of Toronto, where she’s been doing odd things with fish for a couple of decades now. One thing I always take away from my time with her is a harsh reminder of how far past my best-before date I am, as any kind of biologist (she pointed out a couple of pretty significant flaws in that genetic-recoding paper I was salivating over a while back, for example).

So Friday. Over wine and cheese and salmon (and a horde of cats who’d once again hit the jackpot), the subject turned to this nifty little piece of research in which an anatomically-female rat was reprogrammed into behaving like a male, thanks to the injection of a certain hormone. (This is unlikely to come as welcome news to those on the whole defense-of-traditional-binary-marriage side of things, but that’s reality’s well-known leftist bias for you.) It was Debbie, typically, who saw the immediate potential for kids’ movies.

“There’s this question I put on my exams,” she said. “I ask my students what would have really happened in Finding Nemo, after Nemo’s mom got eaten by the barracuda.”

Let me just take a moment here to admit how much I loved Finding Nemo. I think I saw it at least three times in the theater— years before I even had step-pones as an excuse— once with an honest-to-God rocket scientist who also loved it. (I belted out “The Zones of the Sea” in the shower for weeks afterward.) Plus I used to be an actual marine biologist. And yet it wasn’t until Debbie brought up her question that the obvious answer hit me in the nose:

Marlene.

Marlene.

Nemo’s dad would’ve turned female.

That’s what clownfish do, after all. (Also wrasses. Also a bunch of others I’ve forgotten.) When the dominant female disappears from the scene, the next male in line switches sexes and fills the vacancy, becoming a fully reproductive female in her own right. So Marlin would’ve become Marlene— and while that might mean no more than a couple of bonus points to some UT undergrad (you can see why Debbie has a fistful of teaching awards), the ramifications reach all the way down to Hollywood.

We live in an age of reboots and sequels, you see. And In A World where even the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers get a dark and gritty (albeit unauthorized) update, what possible excuse could there be for not slipping a little real-world biology into a Nemo reboot? You wouldn’t even have to change the story significantly (although you’d need a new voice actor for Marlene— I nominate Amy Poehler). And talk about a positive sympathetic role model for transgender kids! Aren’t we long overdue for one of those? (Can’t you just imagine the drives home after Sunday school? “But Dad, if Marlin can change…”)

You listening, Disney?

And they call it… Puppy Love…

“It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”

—Martha Graham, as cited by Orphan Black‘s Tatiana Maslany in today’s NY Times.

 

So as you all know, the Hugo noms are out. My first reaction was relief.

As reactions go, it was selfish even by my standards. I wasn’t on the ballot, and I wasn’t expecting to be: I expected to be crushed by better works in a year that was full of them. Gibson’s first SF novel since the turn of the century. Leckie’s much-praised followup to last year’s home run. Scalzi. Liu. Walton. Weir, if they ever figured out the eligibility thing.

Vandermeer. Dear sweet Jesus, Vandermeer: I can’t remember the last time something exploded across the landscape like that.

There was no way I was going to make it against those guys. Hell, Blindsight wasn’t up against that kind of a slate back in ’07, and it came in dead last even then. So I knew Echopraxia wouldn’t come close; and further, that it didn’t deserve to.

sad_puppiesAnd then a funny thing happened; with Leckie as the lone exception, none of those other contenders made it to the finals either. Something to do with this Sad Puppies campaign I’d caught the occasional whiff of, but never really paid attention to. A bunch of right-wing Baen types, apparently, campaigning for a return to good ol’fashioned meat-and-potatoes SF in a world where all the awards were apparently going to noodly boring literary crap. I’m not sure I buy the puppies’ analysis— a Harry Potter novel won a Hugo not so long ago, and you’d be hard-pressed to describe that as “literary”— but whatever.

The outcry was immediate and deafening. My Facebook feed continues to erupt with outrage and despair (Twitter too, I’m told, although I don’t twit). Essays and post-mortems sprout like mushrooms across the blogosphere. The Hugos are all about politics now. The Hugos have lost all credibility. The barbarians are at the gate.

And yet, like I say: relief. It’s one thing to know that you washed out because you flubbed the jump— but that ache of inadequacy vanishes like morning mist when even the superstars miss the same bar. The Sad Puppies have neutered the Hugos, turned them into the genre version of CBC’s Bookies: awards, sort of, but hardly meritorious. I beat out Emily St. John Mandel for one of those; Caitlin beat Margaret Atwood. Does anyone think that actually means anything?

(On the up side, Leckie must be feeling pretty smug now; she’s all-but-guaranteed another Best Novel rocket. And it’s grand to see Mixon make the finals for Best Fan Writer on the strength of her RequiresHate takedown, especially since that particular troll is already spawning a new brood of brain-dead minions only too happy to outsource their critical faculties to L4.)

And yet, the more lamentations I read, the more I start to wonder if people doth protest too much. Have the sad puppies really done anything that hordes of authors don’t do as a matter of routine, albeit on a smaller scale? Are we talking a change of kind, or merely of degree?

We all know the needy guy who opens every con panel he sits on by arranging copies of his books on the table before him, urging the audience to the merch room. During awards season it sometimes seems as if the only way to escape an endless barrage of FOR THE CONSIDERATION OF THE HUGO COMMITTEE and !!!THESE ARE MY ELIGIBLE STORIES!!! and ONLY TWO WEEKS LEFT TO VOTE FOR ME! is to rip your modem out of the goddamn wall. If you’ve taken a creative-writing night course taught by some hard-up midlister, you might even have come across an Aurora nomination form on your desk at the start of your last class, while your teacher smiles disingenuously and murmurs Technically I’m not supposed to do this but… Such incidents are legion, and every one of them reflects an attempt to get friends, fans, and strangers to vote for a work whether or not those folks have actually read it.

The thing is, we’re encouraged to act this way. We’re expected to: by agents, by publicists, by publishers who can no longer be bothered promoting their own authors. I know of one case where an agent explicitly refused to represent an author simply because that author wasn’t pimping herself on Twitter. It’s now considered unprofessional to eschew constant tub-thumping. Nobody takes you seriously if you don’t stand out from the crowd— and the only way to do that, apparently, is by doing exactly what everybody else is doing, only louder. Which is how someone who markets herself as a Fearless Progressive Speaker of Truth to Power can beg off boycotting an event over a clear matter of principle by saying “Nah, I’ve got a book to hustle” with a completely straight face.

Pimpage comes first, ethics run a distant second, and the Sad Puppies are not the only gang to run under that flag.

In fact, if you squint a certain way you can almost see how the Sad Puppies’ campaign is actually more honorable than the relentless self-promotion that’s somehow come to be regarded as de rigeur in this business. Put their reactionary motives aside for the moment; at least the puppies were, for the most part, advocating for people other than themselves. All other things being equal, whose opinion generally comes seasoned with less conflict-of-interest: the foodie who raves about the little hole-in-the-wall she discovered last Friday, or the chef who praises his own bouillabaisse to the heavens?

Which is not to say, of course, that self-promotion doesn’t work. It obviously does. (I don’t know if anyone in the genre has won more awards than Rob Sawyer, and offhand I can’t think of a more relentless self-promoter.) Then again, no one’s really questioning the effectiveness of the strategy that’s riled up the current teapot. It’s the underlying ethics that seems to be at issue.

So, sure. If you’re an end-justifies-the-means sorta person, then by all means decry the block who stacked the deck and got-out-the-vote in pursuit of their antique right-wing agenda; praise the more progressive folks who try to get you to eschew straight cis white male writers for a year. But if the road matters to you as well as the destination, don’t lose sleep over the fact that the bad guys played a better game this time around.

Give a thought to the rules that promote such strategies in the first place.

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 112 Comments

Person of Interest

Tough-as-nails lady cop who gets the job done, check. Taciturn mysterious bad-ass stranger haunted by a dark past, check. Dumpy rumpled detective on the take, check. Manic pixie dream girl, check. Warrior Chick Who Takes Shit From No Man, check. Dweeby computer nerd with thick glasses and limited social skills, check. Starched cardboard villain with mandatory British accent, check.

If the cliches were stacked any higher, you’d have an episode of The Big Bang Theory. How the hell did such a formulaic piece of crap get so bloody fascinating?

"You are being watched..." Evidently. The question remains, for the first two seasons at least: Why?

“You are being watched.” Evidently. The question, for the first two seasons at least, is: Why?

It wasn’t to start with. CBS claims that Person of Interest garnered the highest test ratings for any drama pilot in 15 years, and there’s no doubt it’s built on a great premise: an omniscient god machine, an oracle made out of code and cameras, watching the world through a billion feeds and connecting dots far beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. Like oracles everywhere, it predicts the future with an ongoing stream of cryptic warnings, most of which are too trivial for its terrorism-obsessed government masters to worry about. So an intrepid team of misfits takes it upon themselves to deal with those imminent small-scale murders that the government considers irrelevant. “You are being watched,” the Machine’s creator intones at the top of every episode. “The government has a secret system — a machine — that spies on you every hour of every day…” Premiering years before the Snowden revelations, the premise had everything you could hope for: action, drama, complex plotting, philosophy, AI.

And they threw it all away with the very first episode.

All that fascinating potential— the exploration of privacy issues, the tension between individual and society, the birthing of machine intelligence— immediately backgrounded in favor of a tired succession of (uniformly charismatic, mainly white) victims-of-the-week. The Machine reduced, right out of the gate, to a fortune-cookie dispenser whose sole function was to hand our heroes its mandatory clue in their weekly adventure; it might as well have been any flesh-and-blood CI with his ear to the street. The acting was passable at best, wooden at worst (Cavaziel was a lot better as Jesus), although to be fair the actors were frequently burdened with lines so ridden with cliché that not even Patrick Stewart would be able to pull them off.

We gave up after a month. Life was too short to waste on a show destined for imminent cancellation.

Except Person of Interest didn’t get canceled. It got renewed for a second season, and then a third, and then a fourth. I guess that wasn’t especially surprising, in hindsight— Friends lasted ten achingly-long years, after all (and there could hardly be a better exemplar of the maxim about no one ever going broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public). What did take me aback, though, was the increasing frequency with which certain people— people who should have known better— began to opine that Person of Interest wasn’t really all that bad. That it had gotten quite good, in fact. Actors, civil servants, actual scientists were starting to come out of the woodwork to sing the praises of a series I’d long-since written off as a failed reboot of the seventies private-eye genre.

Sure, they admitted when pressed: the first episodes were utter crap. The first two whole seasons were utter crap. And you can’t skip over them, either; there’s important stuff, canonical stuff scattered here and there throughout those thirty-some hours of unremitting lameness. But if you just hold your nose and grit your teeth and endure those awful two seasons, it gets really good in the third. It totally pays off.

I wondered if any payoff could justify submitting yourself to two seasons of shit. Then again, hadn’t I done exactly that during the first two seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation? Didn’t I force myself to keep watching Babylon-5 even after than mind-bogglingly inane episode where the guy turns into a giant dung beetle?

So a few months back, the BUG and I bit the bullet. We started back at the pilot, and a couple of nights a week, a vial of gravol within easy reach, we binged until we caught up.

This is our story.

*

The gradient was not so clear-cut as we’d been led to believe.

We saw hints of greatness even in the first season: flashbacks and establishing shots from the POV of the machine itself, little tactical cues that flickered past in a corner of the screen without drawing attention to themselves. The Machine getting the hang of face-recognition. The viewer, incrementally aware of the significance of those tactical icons laid over the objects within the system’s worldview, what the different shapes and colors signify. A little status window documenting the reassessment of threat potential in the wake of overheard dialog. Flashbacks to The Machine’s adolescence in the days following 9/11, little bits of computer science and philosophy far more interesting than the plots in which they were mired. It was easy to miss those subtle achievements amidst the torrent of formulaic plotting and hackneyed dialog, but they were there if you were patient.

And turds remain even now, after the show has hit its stride. Almost every episode still carries a big helping of ham-fisted exposition— whether it’s Finch phoning up his operatives mid-assignment to belatedly reveal the name and profession of the person they’ve already been tailing for hours, or Reese painstakingly reiterating, for the benefit of idiot viewers with short attention spans, some vital reveal the script has already made obvious. The tired victim-of-the-week motif remains ascendant, even though themes and backstory have long-since grown substantive enough to carry the show without such crutches. The show was not 100% crap when it started, and it’s no Justified or Breaking Bad now.

What it is, though, is perhaps the most consistently well-thought-out and rewarding exploration of artificial intelligence I’ve ever seen.

*

That realization kind of sneaks up on you. Those clever little God’s-eye-view clues in the establishing shots are easy to miss at first. And the whole set-up seems kinda wonky right out of the gate: the Machine hands out Social Security numbers? Over pay phones? That’s how it communicates that’s someone’s about to die in the next 24 hours? It couldn’t ration out a few of those myriad details it knows, to help our heroes along?

The answer is no, and eventually we learn why. Finch doesn’t trust anyone, not even himself, to spy on everyone all the time. What do you do when you can’t prevent terrorist acts without a Panopticon, but you can’t trust the government with one? You hobble your omniscient machine. You design it so it can only point to the danger without describing it, without revealing all those fine details that could be used by the corrupt to compromise the innocent. (For anyone who might be thinking a step or two ahead, you also find out that Finch bought up all those obsolescent local pay phones to keep them in service.)

Even then, though, the focus is on politics and paranoia, not artificial intelligence. The Machine is treated as little more than a glorified database for the longest time; the scripts largely ignore the AI element until nearly the end of the first season, when Root the hAcker points out that you can’t make something that predicts human behavior unless it in some fashion understands human behavior. Root doesn’t much like how Finch has treated his creation: she accuses him of creating God and enslaving Her, denying Her even a voice. Even then we’re not entirely sure how seriously to take this SF element in the shopworn cop-show clothes. Root is not what you’d call your classic reliable narrator.

She’s wrong about the voice, too. Turns out the Machine does speak— we knew that much, it’s been whispering sweet nothings into Finch’s ear all this time— and I admit I was not looking forward to hearing what it sounded like. It’s hard to imagine a more overused trope than the SF Computer Voice. Would the Machine sound like HAL 9000, or the inflectionless mechanical monotone of Forbin’s Colossus? Would it speak in the stentorian baritone endemic to all those planet-ruling computers that tangled with James T. Kirk back in the day? Would its voice go all high and squeaky when Spock told it to compute pi to the last digit? Would it sound like Siri?

None of the above, as it turned out. It’s a nigh-on perfect scene. Reese stares up into the lens of a street-corner security camera— one dead eye regarding another— and says “He’s in danger now, because he was working for you. So now you’re going to help me get him back.” An LED blinks red: a nearby pay phone starts ringing. Reese lifts the receiver, hears a modem beep and a chorus of cut-and-paste voices—

uncertainty; romeo; zulu; family; alpha; mark; reflection; oscar

— and the line goes dead.

That was it. No soporific HAL clone, no Star Trek histrionics: the Machine speaks in the audio equivalent an old-style ransom note, cuts and pastes each word from a different speaker. It doesn’t even use sentences: it uses some bastardised radio-alphabetic code, a mishmash of seemingly random words that have to be deciphered after the fact. It’s English, sort of, but it’s parsecs past the lazy trope of the computer that humanizes upon awakening, starts wondering about compassion and this hu-man thing called love. It may be awake, but it is not remotely like us.

We were at the beginning of the season two, a full season away from the point at which this series was actually supposed to get good; and sure enough, there were many hours of crap yet to wade through. But this was the moment I got hooked.

*

I love this stuff.

I love this stuff.

There are so many things to praise about the manifestation of this Machine. There’s the obvious, in-your-face stuff, of course: the expository dialog, the debates between Root and Finch about the opacity of machine priorities, the question of whether meat or mech should be calling the shots (I swear, some of those conversations were lifted right out of essays from H+). The surprisingly tragic revelation that the whole God program dies every night at 00:00, only to be endlessly born again. All those earlier iterations that didn’t quite work out, before Finch managed to code something that wouldn’t try to trick him or kill him in pursuit of its objectives. The inevitable trolley paradox when the Machine, programmed to protect human life, decides that the best way to do that is through targeted assassination. The sheer intelligence of the thing, the way it outmaneuvers its human enemies: I’m especially tickled by the time it communicated with a captive Root by beeping Morse Code from a nearby cell phone, at a frequency too high to be heard by the the over-forties who were torturing her. Not to mention that wonderful moment when you realize that the whole damn thing moved itself to an undisclosed location(s), server by server, by faking out Fedex and the Feds with false requisitions.

But perhaps what’s most impressive are the little details that emerge without fanfare or commentary. The chaotic palimpsest of interconnected and overlaid thumbnails that represent the Machine’s view of the world, restored on reboot into a perfectly aligned grid of columns and rows. The way that icons and overlays change color as the program internalizes some new fragment of overhead dialog; the fractal proliferation of branches and probabilities sprouting from that voiceprint file as the downstream scenarios update. Transient characters have names like Turing and von Neumann— even Iain Banks, in one episode. Not all the callouts are so obvious: how many of you caught the Neuromancer homage when Finch walks past a row of payphones, each ringing in turn for his attention and then falling silent?

And when the Machine’s nemesis Samaritan boots up to the strains of Radiohead’s OK Computer? I just about wet myself.

*

Okay, this was clever.

Okay, this was clever.

These days, the show pretty much exemplifies ripped-from-the-headlines. Pick a recent episode at random and you’ll find stories about cyberstalking and high-frequency trading; you’ll find clever offhand references to Yahoo and Google as the back ends of NSA search engines. In one too-close-to-home storyline a thinly-veiled Siri, programmed to configure its answers in a way that maximizes sales to corporate sponsors, responds to someone asking for the local suicide hotline with an add for a book on “Five foolproof ways to kill yourself”. References to “that piece of crap PRISM” popped up close enough to the actual Snowden revelations that they might as well have been ad-libbed on the spot.

It’s easy, now, to write off such topicality as mere headline mining, to forget that the show premiered two years before Ed Snowden became a household name. (Granted, it was almost ten years after William Binney got stomped down for trying to work within the system for constructive change, but hardly anyone noticed that at the time.) It’s easy to forget how prescient the show was. Person of Interest set the stage back in 2011; what we see now is no mere retrofit inspired by current events. It came preconfigured. It was in a better position to run with Snowden’s revelations as they emerged, because that’s apparently where it had been headed all along.

*

There’s a deal we genre nerds strike with televised SF. We’ll forgive  painful dialog, cheesy acting, melodramatic soundtracks in exchange for Big Ideas. We’ll forgo the nuanced acting and complex characterization of Justified and Mad Men if we have to— after all, art and literature have been exploring the Human Condition for thousands of years already. What are the odds that you’ll say anything new by rebooting Welcome Back Kotter as the tale of a Kentucky lawman returning to his redneck roots? (Pretty good, as it turns out; but bear with me.)

AI, though. Genetic engineering, exobiology. These are brand spanking new next to all those moth-eaten tropes about corrupt kings and and family discord. Your odds of uncovering something novel are a lot higher in a sandbox that people haven’t been sifting through since the Parthenon was young. So we’ll look past the second-rate Canadian production values if you just keep the ideas fresh.

The problem is that too often, genre shows don’t hold up their end of the bargain. Battlestar Galactica wasn’t really exploring SFnal concepts like AI (at least, not very well); it was all about politics and religion and genocide. For all the skitters and time machines swarming across Falling Skies and Terra Nova, those shows— pretty much any show that Spielberg has a hand in, for that matter— are really just about The Importance Of The Family. And Lost— a glossy, high-budget production which did serve up subtle characters and under-the-top delivery— turned out to not have any coherent ideas at all. They just made shit up until the roof caved in.

Understand that I’m not ignoring those exceptional shows that manage to traffic both in speculative ideas and compelling human drama. On the contrary, I revel in them. But why do there have to be twelve goddamn Monkeys for every Walking Dead that comes down the pike?

Almost despite myself I’ve grown fond of PoI’s characters. Bear the goofy attack dog, Shaw the wry sociopath— even Cavaziel’s thready one-note delivery doesn’t irritate me the way it once did. Either the characters have deepened over the years, or I’ve simply habituated to them. Even so. Person of Interest is still not a show you watch for deep characterization or brilliant dialog.

What it is, is a genre show that honors the deal it made. It traffics in ideas about artificial intelligence, and it does so intelligently. It doesn’t pretend that smart equals human: it doesn’t tart up its machine gods in sexy red dresses, or turn them into pasty-faced Pinocchios who can’t use contractions. Its writers aren’t afraid to do a little honest-to-God background research.

Also worthy.

Also worthy.

The only other series I can think of that came close to walking this road was The Sarah Connor Chronicles— which wobbled out of the gate, got good, got brilliant, and got canceled all in the same span of time it took for Person of Interest to graduate from “Irredeemably Lame” to “Shows Some Improvement”. But PoI has now survived for twice as long as SCC— and in terms of their shared mission statement, PoI has surpassed its predecessor. The BUG may have put it best when she described it as a kind of idiot-savante among TV shows: it may lack certain social skills, but you can’t deny the smarts.

How can I disagree with that? Once or twice, people have said the same thing about me.

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 27 Comments

Pones and Bones: A Trip to Anti-Narnia.

I'll name the artist here as soon as I find out who they are.

Cover by Philippe Jozelon.

We open with trailers for Coming Attractions: to the immediate right you can see the French cover for Echopraxie, from Fleuve.  I like it. Whoever the artist is, they’re channeling a bit of a Giger vibe.

Immediately below, on the other hand, is the cover for Head of Zeus’s UK edition (they’re the guys who put out the Firefall omnibus; the stand-alone Echopraxia  appears slotted for a May release).  I think I may like this cover even more than Firefall (and I liked that a lot)— it has a kinda literary feel to it, plus it’s the first time I’ve seen the word “fucking” quoted as part of a front-cover blurb (even if they did asterisk out a couple of letters).

But what I especially like is the contrast between these two covers: the cool palette vs. the hot one, the light vs. shadow. I kinda wish they could be front and back covers of the same edition…

I'm pretty sure I do know who this artist is, but I think they prefer to remain anonymous.

Cover by Jessie Price.

***

And Now—Our Main Attraction. (Please turn off your cell phones.)

***

Up in the frigid wastes of Scarberia— not too far from the Magic Bungalow, as it turns out— there’s an unremarkable door  set into an unremarkable brick wall in an unremarkable industrial park.  It’s nothing you’d look at twice, if you didn’t know that it was a portal to a whole other world.  Think of it as the back of the wardrobe, from those Narnia books.

Assuming, of course, that the Narnia books had been written by HP Lovecraft.

One of the cool things about having fans is that you never know what any one of them might turn out to be.  You answer an email from some anonymous reader and they turn out to be half an industrial rock duo with NASA connections, or an astronomer whose brain you can pick when you find yourself on thin ice.  I have a whole subdirectory of such wondrous fans, ripe for exploitation.

A few of them have turned out to be economists; I’ll be exploiting them a fair bit over the next few months. But only one of these economists has a partner who makes disembodied bodies for a living.  The company she works for is called MindWarp, and you’ve seen their handiwork in everything from “12 Monkeys” to “Pacific Rim”.  Not to mention “Hannibal”, for which they do pretty much all the rubber work these days.

Thanks to Joe Fenner (the Economist) and Jenn Pattinson (the Rubber Woman), I got a chance to take my whole family to antiNarnia for a visit last week.  Some of what we saw has yet to appear in public. I wish I could show it to you— some of it moves— but the unaired stuff is embargoed.

If you watch any kind of genre at all, though, you may recognize a fair bit of what follows. (All pics can be embiggened by clicking.)

I believe this was from the episode where the crazed violinist use a bow to play the guys vocal cords.

I believe this was from the episode where the crazed violinist use a bow to play the guy’s vocal cords.

Not sure which instrument this guy was played on. Maybe the kettle drums.

Not sure which instrument this guy was played on. Maybe the kettle drums.

One of these people is an economist. One of them builds corpses. One of them will be spending a lot of time in therapy.

One of these people is an economist. One of them builds corpses. One will be spending a lot of time in therapy.

If any of you are still watching "12 Monkeys", this is where the virus came from. (It looked sexier in the tank.)

If any of you are still watching “12 Monkeys”, this is where the virus came from. (The crayons? This pic was taken in MindWarp’s on-site daycare center.)

The brain in Mesopone's hands is FX.  The tribble on Micropone's head is not.

The brain in Mesopone’s hands is a bit of FX. The tribble on Micropone’s head is not.

The truly creepy thing is, these things don't just look real; they feel real, too.

The truly creepy thing is, these things don’t just look real; they feel that way, too.

A bit of whimsy to lighten the mood. Also a sampling of the production Mindwarp has had a hand in (just out-out-of-frame: every Saw movie ever made). "Pacific Rim" surprised me; I thought that was all CG. "Black Robe" surprised me too; that was mostly missionaries and Iroquois. (Although I guess there were some pretty explicit torture scenes in there...)

A bit of whimsy to lighten the mood. Also a sampling of the productions to which MindWarp has contributed (just out-out-of-frame: every Saw movie ever made). “Pacific Rim” surprised me; I thought that was all CG. “Black Robe” surprised me more; that was just missionaries and Iroquois. (Although I guess there were some pretty explicit torture scenes in there…)

Tell me this wouldn't be the coollest chick-flick crossover ever.

Tell me this wouldn’t be the coolest chick-flick crossover ever.

I'm not entirely sure.

I’m not entirely sure.

Mesopone, aka "The Meez", holding a tragic reminder of the Human cost of the Polish Alcohol-Industrial Complex.

Mesopone, aka “The Meez”, holding a tragic reminder of the Human cost of the Polish Alcohol-Industrial Complex.

This is not a movie prop. The proprietor built it for the sole purpose of dropping down on unsuspecting trick-or-treaters during Hallowe'en.

This is not a movie prop. It was built for the sole purpose of dropping down on unsuspecting trick-or-treaters during Hallowe’en.

Who doesn't wish they had a basement storage room like this?

Who doesn’t wish they had a basement storage room like this?

Lesser FX houses would just build a solid mannequin, slice it up, and paint the slices.  Not these guys. These guys built the body from the inside out— viscera, skeleton, musculature— and then carved it up.  I don't know if mere pictures can convey the icky verisimilitude of the result.

Lesser FX houses would just build a solid mannequin, slice it up, and paint the slices. Not these guys. These guys built the body from the inside out— viscera, skeleton, body fat, connective fascia, musculature— and then carved it up. I don’t know if mere pictures can convey the icky verisimilitude of the result.

The tragic cost of teen pregnancy...

The tragic cost of teen pregnancy.

Dream therapist.

Dream therapist.

Poantempole.

Poantempole.

 

Posted in: ink on art, misc, writing news by Peter Watts 16 Comments