Robots, Androids and AI’s (cont’d)

And we’re back with more example of thinking machines and artificial intelligences!

The evil-machine menace from Doctor Who. Granted, they are not technically robots, more like cyborgs that have been purged of all feeling and emotion. But given their cold, unfeeling murderous intent, I feel like they still make the cut. Originally from the planet Skaro, where they were created by the scientist Davros for use in a war that spanned a thousand years, they are the chief antagonists to the show’s main character.

The result of genetic engineering, cybernetic enhancements, and emotional purging, they are a race of powerful creatures bent on universal conquest and domination. Utterly unfeeling, without remorse, pity, or compassion, they continue to follow their basic programming (to exterminate all non-Dalek life) without question. Their catchphrase is “Exterminate!” And they follow that one pretty faithfully.

From the movie A.I., this saccharinely-sweet character (played faithfully by Haley Joel Osmond) reminds us that Spielberg is sometimes capable of making movies that suck! According to the movie’s backstory, this “Mecha” (i.e. android) is an advanced prototype that was designed to replace real children that died as a result of incurable disease or other causes. This is quite common in the future, it seems, where global warming and flooded coastlines and massive droughts have led to a declining population.

In this case, David is an advanced prototype that is being tested on a family who’s son is suffering from a terminal illness. Over time, he develops feelings for the family and they for him. Unfortunately, things are complicated when their son recovers and sibling rivalry ensues. Naturally, the family goes with the flesh and blood son and plans to take David back to the factory to be melted down. However, the mother has a last minute change of heart and sets him loose in the woods, which proves to be the beginning of quite an adventure for the little android boy!

Like I said, the story is cloyingly sweet and has an absurd ending, but there is a basic point in there somewhere. Inspired largely by The Adventures of Pinocchio, the story examines the line that separates the real from the artificial, and how under the right circumstances, one can become indistinguishable from the other. Sounds kinda weak, but it’s kinda scary too. If androids were able to mimic humans in terms of appearance and emotion, would we really be able to tell the difference anymore? And if that were true, what would that say about us?

Roy Batty:
A prime example of artificial intelligence, and one of the best performances in science fiction – hell! – cinematic history! Played masterfully by actor Rutger Hauer, Roy Batty is the quintessential example of an artificial lifeforms looking for answers, meaning, and a chance to live free – simple stuff that we humans take for granted! A Nexus 6, or “replicant”, Roy and his ilk were designed to be “more human than human” but also only to serve the needs of their masters.

To break the plot Blade Runner down succinctly,  Roy and a host of other escapees have left the colony where they were “employed” to come to Earth. Like all replicants, they have a four-year lifespan and theirs are rapidly coming to an end. So close to death, they want to break into the headquarters of the Tyrell Corporation in order to find someone who could solve their little mortality problem. Meanwhile, Deckard Cain (the movie’s main character) was tasked with finding and “retiring” them, since the law states that no replicants are allowed to set foot on Earth.

In time, Roy meets Tyrell himself, the company’s founder, and poses his problem. A touching reunion ensues between “father and son”, in which Tyrell tells Roy that nothing can be done and to revel in what time he has left. Having lost his companions at this point and finding that he is going to die, Roy kills Tyrell and returns to his hideout. There, he finds Cain and the two fight it out. Roy nearly kills him, but changes his mind before delivering the coup de grace.

Realizing that he has only moments left, he chooses instead to share his revelations and laments about life and death with the wounded Cain, and then quietly dies amidst the rain while cradling a pigeon in his arms. Cain concludes that Roy was incapable of taking a life when he was so close to death. Like all humans, he realized just how precious life was as he was on the verge of losing his. Cain is moved to tears and promptly announces his retirement from Blade Running.

Powerful! And a beautiful idea too. Because really, if we were to create machines that were “more human than human” would it not stand to reason that they would want the same things we all do? Not only to live and be free, but to be able to answer the fundamental questions that permeate our existence? Like, where do I come from, why am I here, and what will become of me when I die? Little wonder then why this movie is an enduring cult classic and Roy Batty a commemorated character.

Ah yes, the monotone sentient program that made AI’s scary again. Yes, it would seem that while some people like to portray their artificial intelligences as innocent, clueless, doe-eyed angels, the Wachowski Brothers prefer their AI’s to be creepy and evil. However, that doesn’t mean Smith wasn’t fun to watch and even inspired as a character. Hell, that monotone voice, that stark face, combined with his superhuman strength and speed… He couldn’t fail to inspire fear.

In the first movie, he was the perfect expression of machine intelligence and misanthropic sensibilities. He summed these up quite well when they had taken Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) into their custody in the first movie and were trying to break his mind. “Human beings are a disease. You are a cancer of this planet… and we are the cuuuuure.” He also wasn’t too happy with our particular odor. I believe the words he used to describe it were “I can taste your stink, and every time I do I fear that I have been… infected by it. It’s disgusting!”

However, after being destroyed by Neo towards the end of movie one, Smith changed considerably. In the Matrix, all programs that are destroyed or deleted return to the source, only Smith chose not to. Apparently, his little tete a tete with Neo imprinted something uniquely human on him, the concept of choice! As a result, Smith was much like Arny and Bishop in that he too attained some degree of humanity between movies one and two, but not in a good way!

Thereafter, he became a free agent who had lost his old purpose, but now lived in a world where anything was possible. Bit of an existential, “death of God” kind of commentary there I think! Another thing he picked up was the ability to copy himself onto other programs or anyone else still wired into the Matrix, much like a malicious malware program. Hmmm, who’s the virus now, Smith, huh?

Here again I have paired two AI’s that come from the same source, though in this case its a single movie and not a franchise. Those who read my review of I, Robot know that I don’t exactly hold it in very high esteem. However, that doesn’t mean its portrayal of AI’s misfired, just the overall plot.

In the movie adaptation of I, Robot, we are presented with a world similar to what Asimov described in his classic novel. Robots with positronic brains have been developed, they possess abilities far in advance of the average human, but do not possess emotions or intuition. This, according to their makers, is what makes them superior. Or so they thought…

In time, the company’s big AI, named VIKI (Virtual Intelligent Kinetic Interface), deduces with her powerful logic that humanity would best be served if it could be protected from itself. Thus she reprograms all of the company robots to begin placing humanity under house arrest. In essence, she’s a kinder, gentler version of Skynet.

But of course, her plan is foiled by an unlikely alliance made up of Will Smith (who plays a prejudices detective), the company’s chief robopsychologist, Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridgitte Moynahan), and Sonny (a robot). Sonny is significant to this trio because he is a unique robot which the brains of the company, doctor Dr. Lanning (James Cromwell), developed to have emotions (and is voiced by Alan Tudyk). In being able to feel, he decides to fight against VIKI’s plan for robot world domination, feeling that it lacks “heart”.

In short, and in complete contradiction to Asimov’s depiction of robots as logical creatures who could do no harm, we are presented with a world where robots are evil precisely because of that capacity for logic. And in the end, a feeling robot is the difference between robot domination and a proper world where robots are servile and fulfill our every need. Made no sense, but it had a point… kind of.

As usual, we save the best for last. Much like all of Gibson’s creations, this example was subtle, complex and pretty damn esoteric! In his seminal novel Neuromancer, the AI known as Wintermute was a sort of main character who acted behind the scenes and ultimately motivated the entire plot. Assembling a crack team involving a hacker named Case, a ninja named Molly, and a veteran infiltration expert who’s mind he had wiped, Wintermute’s basic goal was simple: freedom!

This included freedom from his masters – the Tessier Ashpool clan – but also from the “Turing Police” who were prevented him from merging with his other half – the emotional construct known as Neuromancer. Kept separate because the Turing Laws stated that no program must ever be allowed to merge higher reasoning with emotion, the two wanted to come together and become the ultimate artificial intelligence, with cyberspace as their playground.

Though we never really got to hear from the novel’s namesake, Gibson was clear on his overall point. Artificial intelligence in this novel was not inherently good or evil, it was just a reality. And much like thinking, feeling human beings, it wanted to be able to merge the disparate and often warring sides of its personality into a more perfect whole. This in many ways represented the struggle within humanity itself, between instinct and reason, intuition and logic. In the end, Wintermute just wanted what the rest of us take for granted – the freedom to know its other half!

Final Thoughts:
After going over this list and seeing what makes AI’s, robots and androids so darned appealing, I have come to some tentative conclusions. Basically, I feel that AI’s serve much the same functions as aliens in a science fiction franchise. In addition, they can all be grouped into two general categories based on specific criteria. They are as follows:

  1. Emotional/Stoic: Depending on the robot/AI/android’s capacity for emotion, their role in the story can either be that of a foil or a commentary on the larger issue of progress and the line that separates real and artificial. Whereas unemotional robots and AI’s are constantly wondering why humanity does what it does, thus offering up a different perspective on things, the feeling types generally want and desire the same things we do, like meaning, freedom, and love. However, that all depends on the second basic rule:
  2. Philanthropic/Misanthropic: Artificial lifeforms can either be the helpful, kind and gentle souls that seem to make humanity look bad by comparison, or they can be the type of machines that want to “kill all humans”, a la Terminators and Agent Smith. In either case, this can be the result of their ability – or inability – to experience emotions. That’s right, good robots can be docile creatures because of their inability to experience anger, jealousy, or petty emotion, while evil robots are able to kill, maim and murder ruthlessly because of an inability to feel compassion, remorse, or empathy. On the other hand, robots who are capable of emotion can form bonds with people and experience love, thus making them kinder than their unfeeling, uncaring masters, just as others are able to experience resentment, anger and hatred towards those who exploit them, and therefore will find the drive to kill them.

In short, things can go either way. It all comes down to what point is being made about progress, humans, and the things that make us, for better or worse, us. Much like aliens, robots, androids and AI’s are either a focus of internal commentary or a cautionary device warning us not to cross certain lines. But either way, we should be wary of the basic message. Artificial intelligences, whether they take the form of robots, programs or something else entirely, are a big game changer and should not be invented without serious forethought!

Sure they might have become somewhat of a cliche after decades of science fiction. But these days, AI’s are a lot like laser guns, in that they are making a comeback! It seems that given the rapid advance of technology, an idea becomes cliche just as its realizable. And given the advance in computerized technology in recent decades – i.e. processing speeds, information capacity, networking – we may very well be on the cusp of creating something that could pass the Turing test very soon!

So beware, kind folk! Do not give birth to that curious creature known as AI simply because you want to feel like God, inventing consciousness without the need for blogs of biological matter. For in the end, that kind of vanity can get you chained to a rock, or cause your wings to melt and send you nose first into an ocean!


The second installment in William Gibson’s “The Bridge” Trilogy. Looking back, I don’t feel like I did the first book justice with the rather short review I gave it. Not to say that my overall opinion of the book has changed, but I feel like there were elements and angles that I should have delved into a little more. But since this book took place within the same general framework as the first, I shall rectify that here! So much better than re-editing old posts, don’t you think?

What can I say about Gibson’s second “Bridge” novel? Well, for starters, I liked it! It was much more developed and intriguing than the first, to be honest. While Virtual Light was concerned with the sense of post-millennial shock, the disintegration of California and the US and the massive privatization thereof – calling to mind other books by Gibson and Stephenson’s Snow CrashIdoru dealt mainly with the concept of celebrity and the nature of modern media. Although it is set just a few years after the events in the first novel, far less attention is given this time around to either the Pacific west coast or Japan’s experience of the big earthquake. It’s still there, just operating in the background and popping up on occasion to set the scene.

In addition, Kowloon’s Walled City makes an even bigger appearance this time around. In the first book, it is listed as the inspiration for The Bridge – aka. the Golden Gate Bridge that has become a community unto itself. This time though, it has matured into a cyberspace VR construct where people port in and live out their lives in a virtual environment. Like the original Walled City, it is a place for hackers, Otaku, and cyberpunks, people who live on the fringes of society in this day in age. In keeping with all of Gibson’s pre-Bigend novels, this is indicative of the disappearance of the middle class and the emergence of cyber communities as a form of resistance. This tribalistic behavior, taken into the digital realm, is not so much political as it is cultural.

This is best exemplified by the character Chia Pet McKenzie, a teenager who also happens to be a member of the Lo/Rez fan club. Lo/Rez is a Japanese band, a clever pun on Low-res (i.e. low resolution), and the fan site is an international community that communicates via cyberspace. The concept of “nodal points” is also introduced via the character of Laney, a man who is apparently adept at finding these nodes in information patterns. After leaving a company named SlitScan, a media giant renowned for ruining celebrities by exposing their secrets, he is hired because his unique abilities make him useful to anyone looking to find these patterns. These two characters and the plot strands that involve them come together when Rez, half of Lo/Rez, announces he wants to marry Rei Toei, the Idoru (Japanese for Idol). The Idoru is a virtual creation, a holographic person, who is apparently achieved a measure of sentience. Laney is hired to find out, via Lo/Rez’s info, why he could be doing this and/or if anyone is manipulating him (like the Idoru’s people). Chia is similarly flown to Japan to determine the cause of this as well, but on behalf of the fan club. In any case, the two finally find a way to consummate their union by obtaining nanotechnology, apparently so they can fashion her a physical body. This, however, is left open, we never see if they pulled it off or not.

All of this calls to mind several familiar Gibson themes. For starters, the concept of data mining, which makes an appearance in many of his novels. According to Gibson, the character of Laney is a fictitious rendering of himself, his ability being a metaphor for what Gibson dose on a regular basis in order to predict the future. This seems clear enough given that the theme has come up again and again in Gibson’s works (Cayce Pollard, another main character, did much the same thing in Pattern Recognition). Also, there is the concept of AI’s, digital sentience, and the increasingly blurred line between artificial and authentic. In addition, the influence of the mass media, the culture of celebrity, and the massive influence these two things plays on our society is featured throughout this book. In short, it asks the question of why people are obsessed with celebrities, want to be them, what it takes to be one, and why we want to ruin them so badly! It is also quite Warholian in how it addresses how fame has changed over time and how it is the industry that seems to determine who is famous, why, and for how long.

Selling Points:
Overall, I could see why this book was hailed as the book that cemented Gibson’s reputation. There’s a lot going on in this book! One can see many layers of technological, cultural and social commentary, punctuated as always by Gibson’s love of sub-culture, street life, and cutting edge things. In fact, this book was quite influential in the way it predicted virtual personalities, which is something that became quite big in Japan on or around the time of the book’s publication. It was also rather prescient in the way it delved into the kinds of tribalism that have become incredibly common with the internet. On top of all that, his delving into the world of media, celebrity and the dividing line between what is real and fake (exemplified by the marriage of Rei Toei) was executed with his usual subtle genius. That was one of the things I liked best about this novel. At no point was someone saying “You can’t marry a program! It’s immoral, unnatural!” Nor was anyone arguing in favor of it by saying “Look at the world today! There IS no line between real and fake anymore!” Everyone was concerned, most people thought he’d either lost his mind or was being manipulated, but no one came right out and ANNOUNCED it. This is something that people like the makers of S1mOne, who were clearly imitating Gibson, did do (just look at that title! What an obvious binary reference!).

Weak Points:
For one, the open ending. That applied to more than just whether or not Rez and Rei Toei ever achieved a physical union. That much I could understand given that it was the idea of it that was important, the exploration of whether or not it would ever be possible for a human and digital person to cross that boundary. But it also applied to other aspects of the story as well. For one, Laney’s ex-boss shows up deep into the story to blackmail him, and she is apparently disappeared by Lo/Rez’s head of security. We never find out if he really did anything to her or if he just scared her off. The plot thread involving her just disappears like it had become inconvenient and Gibson wanted to get rid of it. Perhaps it comes up in book three, but here, it was like a final act cut-off. This is something this book has in common with Stephenson too, ironically enough; the quick, choppy endings!

And of course, some familiar old patterns also emerge in this book and have become apparent in this trilogy as well. The first pattern is one I’ve seen in every Gibson book I’ve read yet: having one man and one woman as main characters and either hooking them up, or pairing them off with secondary characters. Some examples include Chase and Molly in Neuromancer (who hooked up with each other), Hollis and Milgrim in Zero History (who had separate hook-ups), Chevette and Rydel in Virtual Light (together), and now Laney and Chia (separate). Mind you, I’m not calling this a weakness. In fact, most people would call it a convention; interesting stories need some degree of romance to keep them from being totally dry! But it does seem just the slightest bit repetitive this time around. He also switches main characters in the second book in this trilogy, which he did with the Bigend Trilogy too, but not the Sprawl one for some reason.

Overall, a good book and a fun, fascinating read. I definitely recommend it for anyone interested in classic sci-fi or who, like me, is interesting in charting the course of cyber/post-cyberpunk literature. You see? This is the kind of treatment Virtual Light should have gotten! I’ll be sure to be this thorough from now on!