Your Time Travel Pre-Flight Briefing Dec01

Your Time Travel Pre-Flight Briefing...

*Bing Bong* Ladies and gentlemen, I’m Captain Preston, your timepilot. On behalf of myself and first officer Logan, I’d like to welcome you aboard Wells Timeways flight number ∞. If you’ll direct your attention to the front of the craft, our chief flight attendant Sarah will give you a brief safety … um … briefing. *Bing Bong* Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for travelling with us today… and tomorrow and tomorrow and all our yesterdays. For those of you who are new to time travel, please pay close attention. For those of you who have travelled with us before, you already know what I’m going to say—but bear with me. Before we begin, ensure that your carry-on luggage is safely stowed in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of you. Whether you’ve brought along your twelve monkeys, your source code, a ticking clock or a triangle please make certain you keep the safely stowed. In the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, nothing will drop from the ceiling. This timecraft is a Hartdegen 7{x}{y} and it has several built-in safety features. Chief among these is your 12-point restraint harness. You can fasten the harness by pulling the upper straps over your shoulders, wrapping the lower straps around your waist and putting the belt low and across your lap. Connect the harness by fastening tabs A, B, C, D, and F into buckles G, H, I, J, and L. Your cabin crew will be by to connect tabs E and K to ensure you won’t be able to get up without assistance. In the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, nothing will drop from the ceiling. You’ll all be pulled irrevocably into the timeline, so there’s no point...

Finding Hope the Replicant Way Nov06

Finding Hope the Replicant Way...

In Blade Runner’s world, the only thing darker than the City of Angels is the hearts of the people who live there. As imagined by Ridley Scott, the Los Angeles of 2019 is a dismal, rainy place. Unnamed environmental catastrophes have poisoned the Earth to the point that the best option—as announced by the ever-present advertising blimps—is to get off the planet. The streets are a neon-lit warren of storefronts and stalls where vendors compete for the money and attention of a perpetually weary populace.  Life seems to be a grim march toward a lonely death. It is a world devoid of joy and hope. This cold, wet hellscape is ground zero in a battle which asks what it really means to be human. As the opening text scroll explains, the Tyrell Corporation has created genetically-engineered robots (called replicants) which are virtually indistinguishable from humans. Replicants are slave labour; tasked with the most difficult and dangerous jobs and forbidden from living on Earth. Furthermore, to keep them in check, they are engineered with a four-year lifespan. They are considered mere machines to be used and discarded at the whim of their human creators. How do I hope for change in a dark world? Rick Deckard is the Blade Runner—a policeman who has the task of identifying and killing replicants who make it to Earth. Like the other humans in the film, he views the replicants as mere mechanisms. In an early conversation with Rachel, he says, “Replicants are like any other machine—they’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit, it’s not my problem.” He hunts and kills them with uncaring efficiency; the way a programmer might hunt down and eliminate errors in a block of code. More disturbingly, he later orders...

Logan’s Run and the Question We Don’t Want Asked Oct23

Logan’s Run and the Question We Don’t Want Asked...

No one wants to know when they’re going to die. But for some reason, I am fascinated by a society built around the notion. The novel-turned-movie Logan’s Run deals with a shiny dystopian future that indulges your every desire, but demands that you give up your life at thirty. A crystal in the palm of your hand maps out your life in colours—white, yellow, green, red, and finally black. A few citizens decide to seek escape, running from the safety of the vast, domed city. A squad of elite policemen—the Sandmen—pursue and kill them. The penalty for trying to avoid death is… well… more immediate death. The runners choose to run because they have heard of a mythical safe place called Sanctuary. The computer that runs the city selects a Sandman named Logan 5 to find and destroy Sanctuary. As motivation, the computer adjusts Logan’s lifeclock and steals his remaining four years. He goes from 26 to 30 in an instant. He lifeclock blinks red-and-black, signaling that he has just 24 hours left. Having no other options, Logan takes the assignment. Most of us don’t face the immediate deadline that motivates Logan. In high school, I kept coming back to the story because I was just beginning to grapple with the question of mortality. Logan has an innate desire to survive that drives his mad quest for sanctuary. He didn’t think dying was something he’d have to worry about for another four years. But with a day to live and very little to go on, Logan follows one clue—an ankh he stole from a terminated runner—and connects with a younger woman named Jessica. She wears the ankh and he suspects she has ties to the runners’ underground, so he convinces her he’s a runner...

In Case You Missed Your Hogwarts’ Acceptance Letter Sep08

In Case You Missed Your Hogwarts’ Acceptance Letter...

Maybe you’re not heading to Hogwarts or Starfleet Academy, but good news, everyone! There are some other amazing options out there. Jack Sparrow’s Colloquy of Sailing and Diplomacy Students at this prestigious institution will learn the basics of sailing in an authentic haunted vessel. Navigation is covered with special emphasis on using magic tools to find your heart’s desire. The basics of Caribbean diplomacy—including misdirection, bait-and-switch, and general skullduggery—are at the heart of our instruction. Whether you want to serve on a pirate crew or master your own vessel, Jack Sparrow’s school is for you! And, best of all, you can pay your tuition in rum! The Guy-in-the-Chair College Want to be part of the superhero scene without all the spandex, physical exertion, and danger? The Guy-in-the-Chair Academy is the place for you! You’ll learn valuable skills such as “looking things up on the internet” and “looking other things up on the internet, but on a different computer.” With particular emphasis on “finding the answer just in the nick of time,” our esteemed faculty include Wade Load, Chloe O’Brien, and Ned Leeds. Cypher, the founder of the college, is sadly no longer available to teach. The Hoban Washburne Memorial Flight School Tired of being stuck just watching all of those cool space maneuvers on screen? Want to get in on the action? Transmit your application today! Study the art and science of “On Time Delivery” and “Flying with Instruments” with Turanga Leela. Or spend some time on “Improvised Piloting” with co-instructors Poe and Finn. Gain real skills in “Evasion and Exposition” with Hikaru Sulu. The Winchester Institute of Monster Hunting Founded by the Winchester family, all courses at the institute are taught by Sam and Dean. Class sessions are held approximately whenever they are...

Introducing Non-Geeks to Your Fandom Aug04

Introducing Non-Geeks to Your Fandom...

One of the best parts of having a fandom is introducing new people to your favourite characters and worlds. Having someone to share your enthusiasm is great, but take the wrong approach and you’ll ruin it for them. Here are a few things to avoid when recruiting new fans. Never introduce them to the wrong point in the story—especially if it’s a series. You’re not a Harry Potter fan? Oh! Here, let me read you the best scene in book six. You’ll cry buckets! You’re going to love Doctor Who! We’ll start with the first Doctor—William Hartnell—and his granddaughter Susan. The show doesn’t really pick up until the third Doctor, but if you don’t watch the later episodes first you’ll never get all the nuances. Pro-tip: Any episode of The Starlost is the wrong episode to start with—that’s why you’ve never heard of it. Never assume that they’ll love a fandom just because it features actors they like in other properties. You like Sandra Bullock and Sylvester Stallone, right? You’re going to love Demolition Man! If you think Han Solo was a great character, wait until you meet Rick Deckard. Yeah, John de Lancie was great in Next Gen, but he was completely awesome as Discord. Pro-tip: Don’t try to sell someone on Interstellar just because Elyes Gable from Scorpion has a bit part in it. Never use their non-geek interests to introduce them to your fandom. You like weddings? You’re going to love season three of Game of Thrones. Politics is your thing? You’ve got to see the senate scenes in Attack of the Clones. Pro-Tip: Don’t try to sell them on the Saw movies based on their interest in anatomy. Never tell them they’ll like a fandom because they remind you of...

Seeing Chell: Portal and Seeking Approval...

There was a moment in the first Portal game that I remember with utter clarity. I had fired an orange portal at the wall behind me and then a blue one at the wall ahead of me. There, framed in the glowing, blue ring, I could see Chell’s back. As I moved, she moved. A strange, out-of-body feeling flushed through me and for a brief moment, Portal was so much more than a video game. It was a revelation. The phrase “seeing yourself clearly” suddenly took on layers of new meaning. I was, of course, literally seeing Chell from a new perspective. More importantly, I started to think about how others might perceive me. What did they see when they looked at me? When they interacted with me? In my own mind, I was witty and caring and generally fun to be around. Was that really true? Maybe others had an entirely different view of who I was and how I behaved. Maybe I was really a downer who made people uncomfortable or unhappy. So I started paying close attention to what people said and how they behaved around me. I was looking for clues about myself. In the game, Chell spends her time looking for clues about how to escape the Aperture Science Testing Center. The only feedback she gets is from the wicked and slightly manic AI named GlaDOS. After Chell is awakened from suspended animation, she is subjected to multiple tests involving logic, spatial reasoning, and the threat of imminent death. At first, GlaDOS seems helpful, if a bit creepy. But at some point, perhaps after she gives Chell the following warning, you realize GLaDOS isn’t all that benevolent. It says so here in your personnel file: unlikeable. Liked by no...

Understanding the World through Star Trek Jun19

Understanding the World through Star Trek...

Star Trek debuted on television two years after I was born. I never knew a world without it and, in a lot of ways, the series and I grew up together. My father served in the U.S. Air Force and we moved frequently during my childhood. Dad’s postings took us from Nevada to the United Kingdom and back across the Atlantic to Idaho and Texas. Through all of that, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest of the Enterprise crew were the fixed stars in my universe. Because I was young when I first saw the series, my limited vocabulary led me to the conclusion that the series was called Star Truck and that the Enterprise was their “truck” for space travel. When we left the U.S. for the U.K. I remember watching episodes with my babysitter. At least until we saw What Are Little Girls Made Of? and the idea of human-seeming androids scared me so badly I stayed away from the show for a while, at least until my return to the U.S. when I bonded with some local Idaho geeks over our shared love of the series. From the beginning, I loved Star Trek because of the “cool” factor. I’d watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, so it wasn’t hard to believe that we’d have crews out exploring the galaxy before long. The series opened the door for me to understand an exciting future world. It also helped me understand my own world. When I realized that I could apply the show to my life, it opened a new world of ideas for me. Growing up in a military household has its own unique challenges. The frequent moves, the possibility that the active duty parent might be sent around the world...

Surprised by Moms May05

Surprised by Moms

My wife made our youngest son a Companion Cube cake for this seventeenth birthday. Instead of singing the usual “Happy Birthday,” she delivered it to the table with a pitch-perfect rendition of “Still Alive.” Nearly a decade later, that moment still stands out in his memory. He was surprised by—and delighted with—his mom’s unexpected geek cred. Moms can surprise us if we let them. In Sing!, a movie about talking animals and a singing competition, Rosita doesn’t necessarily want to surprise her family, but she wishes she had a little more of their support. When we first meet her, she’s working in the kitchen trying to get her brood of piglets ready for school. Katy Perry’s “Firework” is playing on the radio and Rosita sings along. She even manages a couple of dance steps between the sink and the table. The mood is broken when one her piglets jumps up on the table and entertains his siblings by making fun of her singing. She appeals to her husband, asking him to tell their brood what a good singer she is. You would think that after fifty-two years, I’d know my mother pretty well. “Oh yeah you were great, honey,” he says. Then adds, “by the way the bathroom sink is blocked again.” It’s a shame Rosita didn’t sing a bit more. Maybe her family would have heard the lyrics and realized they were missing something important. Do you ever feel Already buried deep Six feet under Screams but no one seems to hear a thing Do you know that there’s Still a chance for you ‘Cause there’s a spark in you Rosita has a spark—a genuine and surprising talent—but no one in the family can see it. I wonder how often I’ve been blind...

Who Is Mira Killian? Apr17

Who Is Mira Killian?

In the live action version of Ghost in the Shell, Mira Killian believes she understands her purpose. She and her parents drowned when their refugee boat was sunk by techno terrorists. Her parents’ deaths were final, but Mira is granted a second life through the miracle of robotic technology. Her brain—the only salvageable part of her original being—was implanted in a new robot body. Motivated by her own tragedy and a desire to stop future attacks, Mira works tirelessly for the anti-terrorist bureau called Section 9. Within a year, she’s promoted to the rank of major and responds more readily to her rank than her name. Her job is her identity. Her world starts to shift when a terrorist hacker beings killing high-level employees of Hanka Robotics, the company that built her body. While working the case, she begins experiencing glitches—brief visual hallucinations—that leave her feeling uneasy. Her creator, Dr. Ouelet, erases the glitches and assures Major that they are nothing to worry about. She also encourages Major to keep taking the medication that keeps her flesh brain from rejecting her robot body. In a reflective moment in Dr. Ouelet’s lab, Major says, “Everyone around me, they feel connected to something… connected to something I’m not.” It’s the first time that Major gives voice to the idea that she might be on the wrong path—that she might not be fulfilling her proper role. She might have benefitted from the insight of theologian and author Parker Palmer: Today I understand vocation quite differently—not as a goal to be achieved, but as a gift to be received. Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. So long as she doesn’t really...

Invading Worlds in Zootopia Apr14

Invading Worlds in Zootopia...

When you’re a little mammal, the world can be a big and scary place. Stu and Bonnie Hopps know this and go out of their way to emphasize the danger to their daughter, Judy. For her part, Judy courageously leaves the small town of Bunnyburrow for the big city of Zootopia. She’s convinced that she’s going to make her mark on the world as a police officer, despite her parents’ inhibitions. She plans to conquer the world by doing good deeds. As it turns out, there are a LOT of worlds for her to conquer. The boroughs of Zootopia include a variety of cultures and biomes, and each has a distinct vibe and a unique climate. Judy learns to handle the physical challenges during her time at the police academy, but learning to connect with the different species takes a little longer. Her first attempt at being a “do-gooder” doesn’t work out as expected. She encounters a fox by the name of Nick Wilde. It seems like he and his son are being discriminated against in an elephant neighborhood. Judy steps in, asserts her authority, and goes away feeling pretty good about herself. Except the good feeling fades away when she realizes that Nick is a smooth-talking con-man, his “son” is an adult, and the two of them are running a just-barely-legal scam to turn a quick buck. Staying in my own world and refusing to step into others is a challenge. Judy is furious at Nick for hustling her and at herself for falling for it. She had made one of the classic mistakes of a would-be hero; she invaded Nick’s world instead of entering it. I’m often guilty of the same thing. I reach out to help someone, but I don’t take...

Bad Blood in Captain America: Civil War Mar22

Bad Blood in Captain America: Civil War...

Did you have to do this? I was thinking that you could be trusted. Did you have to ruin what was shiny? Now it’s all rusted. In early 2016, somebody remixed the Captain America: Civil War trailer with Taylor Swift’s song “Bad Blood.” The result was amazingly effective and highlighted the film’s central theme—it’s easier than you think for good friends to turn into bitter enemies. The Avengers have fought side-by-side through two films; stopping the Chitauri invasion and defeating Ultron. Not that they always got along; Tony Stark and Steve Rogers clearly favoured different ways of doing things. When all was said and done, though, they set aside those differences and stood together against a common enemy. That camaraderie ended in Civil War. After a mission goes sideways in Lagos and several humanitarian workers from Wakanda die as collateral damage, Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross tells the team that they can no longer act independently. The forthcoming Sokovia Accords will place the team under direct UN control. Tony and Steve suddenly find themselves in conflict. The hard choice is to value the relationship over “winning” the argument. “We need to be put in check! And whatever form that takes, I’m game. If we can’t accept limitations, we’re boundaryless, we’re no better than the bad guys,” Tony argues. Steve counters, “If we sign this, we surrender our right to choose. What if this panel sends us somewhere we don’t think we should go? What if there’s somewhere we need to go and they don’t let us? We may not be perfect, but the safest hands are still our own.” Just like that, two friends—or at least colleagues—pull away from each other and start staking out territory as enemies. I’d like to think that I’m...

Danger is Part of the Journey Feb24

Danger is Part of the Journey...

In the restaurant of life, the main dish of parenthood comes with a huge side order of worry. You are also served anxiety sauce and nervous seasoning. Every time your child makes a decision, you wonder about the consequences. And when your child doesn’t listen to your wise counsel, you realize that you’ve raised someone who is headstrong and foolish. Certainly Chief Tui felt that way about Moana. She was his daughter, the light of his life, and the next chief of Motunui. She was his hope for the future of his people. All she had to do was follow the path he’d laid out for her—follow the rules, learn from him, and take over when her time came. What he didn’t realize was that his plan depended on an unchanging world. As long as everything stayed more-or-less as it always had, Moana and the people of Motunui would be fine. Things don’t stay the same, though. Centuries before Moana’s time, the demi-god Maui had stolen the heart of the goddess Te Fiti. He intended to give it to humanity as a gift to earn their love. He lost it in the sea and the world began a slow collapse. Islands died, their vegetation turning black and lifeless, and the fish became scarce. I probably advise my children out of fear. Motunui was a long way from the destruction, so the people of Chief Tui’s tribe didn’t notice that the world was changing. The destruction was spreading, though. They couldn’t escape it forever. The ocean chose Moana as its champion to return the heart. Soon after, the darkness began to touch Motunui. Vegetation died and the fish vanished. Moana suggested sailing beyond the reef, but her father forbade it. The island supplied all their...

When You Treat People as Things Jan09

When You Treat People as Things...

There wasn’t supposed to be a war that day. Captain Jankowski of the Earth Alliance cruiser Prometheus was exploring to expand Earth’s territory. He never expected to come nose-to-nose with a flotilla of Minbari warships. For their part, the Minbari hadn’t been expecting a war either. Theirs was an errand of investigation, an attempt to confirm recent sightings of a feared and ancient enemy, the dreaded Shadows. But naturally, when they encountered Captain Jankowski’s ship, they offered a greeting of respect as their tradition demanded: they opened their gunports. As a warrior and a man given to quick judgements, Captain Jankowski misinterpreted the intent of the Minbari and fired. He couldn’t have known that the ship he attacked contained the Grey Council—the ruling body of the Minbar Federation. Dukhat, a beloved leader, was killed in the attack and the council reacted with instant hatred. In a unanimous vote, they declared war upon the Earth Alliance. This battle and the ones that followed formed an important part of the backstory for Michael J. Straczynski’s series Babylon 5. A misunderstanding sent two races stumbling toward Armageddon. We mentally classify people, neatly sorting them into the boxes we have in our minds. This story isn’t the first tale of interstellar conflict born from misunderstanding. When Ender’s Game opens, humanity has survived two major wars with the alien Buggers. In the most recent engagement, the hero Mazer Rackham defeated them when he realized that they operate as a hive mind. Fearing a third invasion, the governments of Earth built an international fleet headquartered on the asteroid Eros. The stated purpose of the fleet was to defend Earth from a third invasion. In truth, the governments of Earth were preparing to end the war permanently by taking the fight...

Mara Jade, a Redeemed Villain Jan04

Mara Jade, a Redeemed Villain...

There was a time when Mara Jade had it all. She was a favoured agent of Emperor Palpatine, called by the title “Emperor’s Hand.” She enjoyed a life of privilege, which included a personal starship, a droid companion, and private quarters on Coruscant. All she had to do was carry out the Emperor’s will. Acting on Palpatine’s behalf, she eliminated corrupt Imperial officials, Jedi who survived Order 66, and anyone else the Emperor deemed worthy of death. Although few in the Empire knew about her, they would have been jealous of her if they had. She was, after all, advancing the Empire’s interests. Then Luke Skywalker and the Rebel Alliance ruined everything. When Palpatine died at the Battle of Endor, Mara’s life crumbled. She blamed Skywalker and made it her life’s ambition to kill him. It seemed like the right thing to do. Not only is she flawed and human, but she also finds redemption. When Timothy Zahn first introduced Mara Jade in Heir to the Empire in 1991, he could not have foreseen her popularity. She has become a fan favourite and has appeared in novels and comics well beyond what Zahn originally intended. Her backstory—which he sketched out in his novels—has been extensively documented in other stories. Ask any group of fans about her and one or two of them will likely say, “Mara Jade? She’s awesome! I love her.” Really? Why? She was an assassin; a tool the emperor used to destroy his enemies. That hardly qualifies her for “role model” status. I think part of the appeal is that she is a strong, complex character. We can identify with her struggles. She commits evil acts, but her heart sometimes betrays her and she is drawn toward the light. In other...

Putting the “Special” in Holiday Dec16

Putting the “Special” in Holiday...

There are a few franchises that get away with what Star Wars could not, but here are a few stories that none have attempted (yet). The Avengers Advent Spectacular Tony Stark whips up a high-tech light display and turns the Avengers HQ into a Christmas tree for the city. The Hulk and the Black Widow star in a touching remake of The Gift of the Magi where he gives up his superpowers to buy her bullets and she pawns her gun to buy him an ultra-stretchy pair of pants. Captain America complains about how Christmas was better when he was a scrawny kid. When Bucky Barnes shows up, he and Cap sing a sweet duet of The Little Drummer Boy. And Harvey Korman appears as a cross-dressing intergalactic TV chef. Battlestar (Christmas) Carol-actica It’s Christmastime in the fleet and Commander Adama just isn’t feeling the spirit of the season. He’s too focused on feeding and protecting the survivors of the Cylon massacre. Apollo tries to get him to lighten up, but is chased off by Adama’s cries of “Humbug!” That night, in his quarters, Adama is visited by the ghost of Colonel Tigh, who mysteriously died just in time for the Holiday Special. Tigh warns Adama that he’ll be visited by three specters. In quick succession Adama’s sleep is disturbed by visitations from Gauis Baltar, President Roslin, and Number Six. Just as he’s about to give in and reclaim his Christmas spirit, Adama realizes that it’s a Cylon trick. He finds and destroys the Basestar and proves that grumpiness is a true superpower. The show ends with Harvey Korman appearing as a cross-dressing intergalactic TV chef. Doctor Who Christmas Special The Doctor… wait a minute.  We live in the universe where the Doctor Who...

I Ain’t Afraid of No Truth Nov23

I Ain’t Afraid of No Truth...

Erin Gilbert is a woman with a problem; she’s afraid of the truth. As a young girl, the Ghostbusters heroine had an extraordinary experience that left her with a strong conviction about the true nature of reality. Even though she was mocked by kids at school, she held to her belief. Everything in the world told her she was wrong, but she found another true believer in her friend Abby Yates. Together they wrote a book promoting their ideas and set off toward a future of investigating the paranormal. Except their plans fell apart. Erin went off to college to get educated and lost herself in the process. She gained the world, but lost touch with that special truth which had sustained her for so many years. As Ghostbusters opens, she’s on the cusp of becoming a tenured professor at Columbia University and is terrified of anything that might interfere with her goal. In other words, she’s all grown up. As a geek and a Catholic, I identify with Erin’s dilemma. My obsession with Star Wars started when I was thirteen, the year A New Hope released. Although the film (and its two sequels) filled theaters to capacity, being a committed Star Wars fan left me on the fringes of high school society. Maybe it’s not quite on par with Erin’s belief in the supernatural, but nobody was interested in hearing about how the film made a huge difference in my life. I had to choose between sharing my excitement or fitting in. She doesn’t give up even as she’s being dragged out bodily by the mayor’s security detail. More often than I care to remember, I kept my enthusiasm to myself. Star Wars became a secret passion until I met other similarly-obsessed fans...

Out with the New Nov11

Out with the New

Newer isn’t always better. Just ask all of the loyal Samsung customers who ran out and bought the new Samsung ‘splody phone. They thought they were getting was new-and-improved technology. What they actually got was the choice between keeping a pocket bomb or trading it back in for last year’s phone. They also got a stern warning not to carry their new phones on airplanes. If you’re not a Samsung customer, don’t feel too smug. If you’ve got Windows 10, Microsoft has been quietly force-feeding your computer the Anniversary Update, which might improve your device. Or it might turn your perfectly functional computer into a giant paperweight. Don’t even get me started on iOS 10. I miss the slide-to-unlock feature desperately and wish my iPad and I could just go back to the way we used to be. As a geek, I should know better than to expect good things from an upgrade. If fiction has taught me anything, it’s that upgrades are usually a very, very bad idea. Upgrades are bad, right? When Rose wanted to save the Doctor from the Daleks, she exposed the heart of the TARDIS and was infused with the Time Vortex. Like the Windows 10 Anniversary Update, it wasn’t exactly voluntary. It also didn’t go well. The power was too much for Rose and the Doctor sacrificed his incarnation to save her. Oh sure, we got David Tennant out of the deal, but… actually, that is a pretty good deal. But as for unnecessary upgrades… do you remember what happened to Lt. Barclay in Star Trek: The Next Generation? He and Geordi went on a little away mission to see why the Argus Array wasn’t working. He got knocked out by an alien probe and woke up greatly...

Artificial Intelligence is Not Enough Oct05

Artificial Intelligence is Not Enough

A quick survey of artificial intelligences in fiction turns up a surprising number of psychopathic machines. A few are content with trying to control their human creators, but most are willing to kill to achieve their ends. Homicidal Machines GLaDOS from the Portal games is a prime example. Imbued by her creators with intelligence and singlemindedness, she relentlessly tests the player. Even her compliments are barbed and dripping with poison: “Very Impressive. Because this message is pre-recorded, any comments we may make about your success are speculation on our part. Please disregard any undeserved compliments.” She follows up cheery bon mots like that with potentially lethal puzzles and direct death threats. She delights in the prospect of the player’s painful demise. With all of that intelligence, you’d think she could find better ways to pass the time. You’d think she’d see the value of other lives. Or perhaps intelligence is not a factor here, and what she is missing is something else. GLaDOS is not alone in her murderous monomania. In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode, “The Ultimate Computer,” the Enterprise is tasked with testing a new machine intelligence intended as a replacement for fallible human crew. Spock points out that computers make decisions logically, which clearly makes them superior to biological lifeforms. Intelligence which cannot see other points of view can easily become arrogance. Predictably, things don’t work out as planned. By the mid-episode commercial break, the computer has gone out of its way to destroy an unmanned freighter and has taken control of the Enterprise. Before the episode ends, the computer has killed dozens of people, all in the name of fulfilling its purpose. Just another crazy artificial intelligence, but why? Why do so many writers predict that machines, if granted sentience, will turn on their makers? Maybe the answer lies with the granddaddy of all homicidal robots. In his 1966 novel Colossus, D.F. Jones weaves a tale about a self-aware defense computer that joins with its Soviet counterpart to take over the world. Efforts to block the computers are met with nuclear detonations that kill thousands. In the end, the scientist who created Colossus begs the machine to kill him. Colossus spares him, noting that one day the man will learn to love his new master. My question is: Does intelligence always equal a cold disregard for life? Shouldn’t a learning machine learn the value of life?  Skynet, HAL 9000, SHODAN, XANA, Samaritan… the list of deadly AIs is distressingly long. Can’t we—humans and machines—all just get along? Robots with Promise Not all fiction is hopeless. There are a few imaginary AIs which do learn. Even a few which are heroic. The WOPR computer (aka “Joshua”) in the 1983 film WarGames is designed to (again) replace humans. Joshua is put in control of the US nuclear arsenal. A hacker starts a simulated war with Joshua, but the computer can’t tell the difference between the simulation and genuine combat. In a nail-biting climax, the hacker and Joshua’s creator invite the computer to play all possible permutations of tic-tac-toe against itself. Joshua realizes that tic-tac-toe is a game which cannot be won and then stretches that generalization to nuclear war. Getting the computer to look at things from a different point-of-view saved the world. A similar conversion occurs in Pixar’s WALL-E, where the heroic robot is left alone on a wasted Earth with the task of cleaning the place up. Despite the solitude, WALL-E keeps at his task, doggedly collecting trash. He’s gone a bit mad in his decades alone and has begun to collect some of the more interesting bits he finds among the rubbish. He also watches the film Hello Dolly and clearly wishes he could live among the humans. His dreams come true (in a manner of speaking) when he finds a live plant and the sleek robot EVE comes to collect it....

I Tried, Shepard

When the Illusive Man shot himself near the end of Mass Effect 3, it was an oddly emotional moment for me. He was the dark reflection of Commander Shepard; dedicated, smart, and determined. Shepard was on the side of the angels, seeking the good of all life in the galaxy. The Illusive Man wanted to protect human kind above all and dreamed of homo sapiens as preeminent in the galaxy. In the end, he failed and his last words were, “I tried, Shepard.” Then he shot himself in the head. For a moment, I contemplated his life—his achievements, the compromises he’d made, the depths to which he had sunk, and the heights to which he could have ascended before I returned to the mission at hand (the galaxy needed me, after all, I couldn’t just sit there mourning his death forever). Long after the final credits rolled, my mind kept wandering back to the Illusive Man. Certainly, Martin Sheen’s voice acting gave the character gravitas, but my fascination went beyond just enjoying a good performance. The Illusive Man is an intriguing, complex character. It would be easy to write him off under the category of “does evil in the name of a greater good.” Except that his goal had nothing to do with the greater good. He started from a wicked premise and followed his goals relentlessly. History pretty much proves that my way isn’t always the right way. The Illusive Man founded a pro-human terrorist organization called Cerberus. Using his personal wealth and companies he created, he sent operatives on missions to advance his humans-first agenda. He was willing to sacrifice lives to achieve his ends, pursuing his goals without compromise. The government condemned his group as terrorists. His followers—people who believed humanity had...

Vulnerability Aboard the Enterprise Aug22

Vulnerability Aboard the Enterprise...

One simple pleasure of life is reconnecting with old friends after a prolonged separation. Perhaps over a meal you swap stories, catch up on each other’s lives, and remember what brought you together in the first place. That was how I felt about Star Trek Beyond. I can’t recall a time when I didn’t know Kirk and his diverse crew. I watched the show so often I could identify episodes after hearing a couple lines of dialogue. Although other series in the Trek universe scratched my itch for new stories, none of them quite evoked the same warmth for me. Star Trek Beyond put me back in touch with my dear friends. The plot of the film is mostly an excuse to showcase the crew’s personalities. Despite nagging doubts about his career decisions, Kirk remains both energetic and resolute in defending life—especially the lives of his crew. Spock approaches his problems—even romantic troubles—with cool detachment. McCoy greets every new crisis and opportunity with an evenhanded mixture of snark and competence. Sulu gets time in the spotlight as the de facto leader of crew members who are temporarily separated from the command structure. Uhura serves as Sulu’s second, showing her heroic side. Chekov steps up his game as Kirk’s apprentice in action. Kirk has won the crew’s affection because they know they can rely on him. Just like a dinner with old friends, the characters reminded me of the things I loved and admired about them even as I learned about their new adventures. Kirk and company feel real to me; more like characters than mere collections of personality quirks. Star Trek Beyond got me thinking about my own friendships. Who am I to my friends? The endlessly, annoyingly, pragmatically logical Spock? The cantankerous McCoy?...