Living In The Matrix

I thought The Matrix was a terrific movie.  I like the sequel, too.  (The last film in the trilogy, eh, not so much.)

But I had no idea that reputable scientists were seriously considering the central premise of The Matrix — that what we think of as the real world is in fact a huge computer simulation run by machines and designed and policed to enslave humanity.  In fact, a scientist named Rizwan Virk has written a book, entitled The Simulation Hypothesis, about that possibility.

matrix_inThe Matrix concept is gaining traction for several reasons.  One is that computer technology, and games-playing technology, apparently is developing to the point where sophisticated multi-player, on-line games are routine and it’s becoming harder and harder to distinguish reality from simulation.  (I say “apparently” because I’m not a gamer — that is, unless I’m really trapped in a computer simulation and playing, unwittingly, just by living my life.)  If our technology is developing in that direction, the argument goes, isn’t it possible that we are living in a more advanced simulation created by more advanced computer system developed by a more advanced civilization?

And there’s also a weird statistical argument for the simulation hypothesis that goes like this:  once a civilization creates computers that are powerful enough to create plausible simulations for millions or billions of players, it’s comparatively easy to create entirely new, realistic settings for entirely new simulated players that are all artificial intelligence.  Crossing that technological-capability threshold means that trillions of AI creations could be living in games — making it statistically likely that you’re an AI creation rather than a flesh-and-blood being.

And here’s an even weirder concept:  if we’re all players in a video game, maybe our scores are being kept somewhere for some purpose that we don’t quite know yet, and won’t know until our own experience in the simulation ends.  It would help to know the rules of the game, wouldn’t it?

Are we living in a simulation?  I don’t see how you can prove or disprove that, from our perspective as potential players in an ultra-advanced game created by an ancient alien civilization.  But I do know this:  if that is our reality, I’m glad the programmers have finally allowed the weather to warm up a bit.

Learning To Speak Chatbotese

So, two chatbots were learning to negotiate and were talking to each other.

(This sounds like the first line of a bad joke, doesn’t it?  And for those of you, like me, who aren’t exactly sure what “chatbots” are, they are computer programs designed to engage in simulated conversations with human beings, such as over the internet.  I think they also can be called “dialog agents.”)

Anyway, researchers at the Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research Lab were using “machine learning” to train these two chatbots to negotiate and deal with each other, through talking or engaging in “simulated conversations,” or whatever.

70720-the-terminator-endo-skeleton(“Machine learning,” for those of you who are clueless about it like me, is an artificial intelligence model in which computer behavior isn’t tied to specific, fixed programming.  Instead, it involves the use of analytical algorithms that allow computers to review and “learn” from data, with the computer programming changing as new data is assimilated, thereby hopefully allowing the computers to identify new insights or patterns in the data they are reviewing.  Got it?  Well, I’m not sure I really do, either, but at least I didn’t use the word “iterative” in describing it.)

So, anyway, the researchers were observing these two chatbots that were using machine learning to develop their negotiation abilities when the researchers noticed something odd:  the two chatbots had stopped using human language and started to use a language of their own.   And they also quickly picked up on standard techniques that allowed them to become pretty effective negotiators.

Interesting, isn’t it, that computers using techniques that allowed them to follow their own leads ended up realizing that human language wasn’t the most efficient way to proceed, and decided to  develop their own form of communication?  And, in so doing, they scratched off another of the former dividing lines that are supposed to differentiate humans from everything else — the ability to develop language.  It would be fascinating to know what the chatbot language was like.  What were the words used?  Did it involve any adverbs?

We’re on the far technology frontiers these days, where we’re inching closer to true artificial intelligence and computers that think for themselves and, presumably, will start to factor their own interests into what they are doing.  You can think of the Terminator movies, or 2001, or The Matrix, or any of a slew of sci-fi novels where computers go rogue and target humanity — or you can hope that computers will just be happy to acquire some form of self-awareness, without using their remorseless computer logic to judge the imperfect humans that created them and find them wanting.

Maybe the chatbots invented a word for that.

“The First Chicken That Tastes Like Chicken”

The other day I was on my morning walk when a commercial truck rumbled past.  It was a truck for the Gerber Poultry Company, advertising its “Amish Farms” brand chicken with the slogan:  “The first chicken that tastes like chicken.”

Intriguing slogan, isn’t it?  It’s a bold claim, as many commercial taglines are, but it’s far more subtle and nuanced than “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet” or “M-m-m good!” or “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.”

After all, at a certain level, everything — from frog legs to rabbit to squab to alligator — tastes like “chicken.”  At least, that’s what people will tell you.  If it’s the flesh of a creature that has mild, soft white meat that isn’t particularly gamey in flavor, the inevitable culinary reference point is “chicken.”  So, obviously, you’d expect any brand of chicken to taste like . . . chicken.

chicken-surprisedBut the Gerber Amish Farms slogan goes deeper than that.  By claiming to be the first chicken that tastes like chicken, it’s really saying that those of us who haven’t had Gerber poultry don’t really know what chicken tastes like.  Fans of The Matrix will remember the scene at the mess table on the Nebuchadnezzar where Mouse raises the profound question of whether anyone really knows what chicken actually tastes like.  After all, the computers that designed the Matrix presumably would have no idea what chicken truly tasted like — they would simply create a taste, plug it into the Matrix program, and all of the humans linked into the Matrix would accept it as “chicken,” just as they accepted everything else in the simulation as true reality.

So the Gerber Farms slogan presents a jarring concept.  Knowing what “chicken” tastes like is a foundational building block for modern Americans.  If you don’t know what chicken tastes like, what do you know, really?  It would be like learning that the sky actually isn’t blue, or that space aliens live among us, or that Donald Trump is secretly one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists.  Suddenly, your perception of reality is shifted forever, and there’s no going back.

So I’m not quite sure I want to try that Amish Farms poultry and learn what chicken actually tastes like.  It might be like Morpheus offering the red pill . . . or the blue pill.

Further Proof We Do (Or Don’t) Live In The Matrix

Apparently there is a group of people who sincerely believe that we all live in a real-life version of The Matrix.

That is, they think that humans participate in a computer simulation of reality when, in actuality, our bodies are somewhere else — perhaps providing energy to power robotic overlords who are fighting real humans to the death, as in the movie.  Some billionaires who subscribe to that view are funding an effort to break us out of the simulation.

hugo-weaving-agent-smith-the-matrixLet’s suppose for the sake of argument that you thought we might live in a real-life matrix.  Wouldn’t this year’s presidential election cause you to conclude that we couldn’t possibly be living in a matrix?  After all, the whole idea of The Matrix was that the world the computers created was so plausible that humans never suspected it was a sham — and you’ll recall that the early versions of the matrix were too happy and carefree to be accepted by human beings as real.  Wouldn’t this year’s ludicrous presidential election cause people to question whether what we have previously accepted as reality is just a really bad dream?  C’mon — who’s going to accept a presidential election in which Donald Trump is one of the major party candidates?

But wait . . . maybe The Matrix believers think that’s all part of the plan.  Maybe they think Agent Smith and his fellow rogue elements are out there, messing with the seamless perfection of The Matrix, as part of an effort to tear it all down so they can escape.  Maybe that’s why we’ve got this appalling electoral choice, and why we’re seeing these weird reports of random clown sightings and attacks.  Maybe it’s all part of a crazed plan to cause our perception of reality to crumble and leave us gasping for air in our energy pods.

It’s as good an explanation as any.

The Ethics Of Killer Robots

The United Nations Human Rights Council is considering the topic of killer robots — preprogrammed killing machines that operate autonomously on the battlefield.

Although no such devices have been deployed to date, they reportedly are in development.  The UN Council is expected to call for a moratorium on their development so that the ethics of their use can be debated.  (Good luck with that one!  If dictators or “rebels” fighting for control of a country could get their hands on such a weapon, does anyone think for a moment that a moratorium imposed by some powerless UN Council in Geneva would stop them?  But, I digress.)  The argument is that killer robots raise “serious moral questions about how we wage war” and blur the line in the “traditional approach” of a “warrior” and a “weapon.”

This kind of abstract, clinical analysis of where war-making technology has taken us makes me scratch my head.  Romantic notions of a “warrior” and a “weapon” locked in some kind of single-combat situation don’t seem to have a lot to do with modern warfare.  Technological advances not only have made fighting more lethal — David and his slingshot wouldn’t stand much of a chance against a guy with a flamethrower — but also have increasingly divorced the immediacy of death and its consequences from the decision-maker.  Whether it is missiles, or drones, or roadside bombs that kill indiscriminately, we’ve already moved far from the warrior/weapon model.

Killer robots are just the inevitable next step.  All we can hope for is that their developers and deployers have seen enough science fiction to worry about Skynet and giving birth to the Matrix, and know that they better be sure that the soulless robot killers they unleash aren’t capable of turning on their creators.

Review: Cloud Atlas

The enslaved fast-food worker Son-Mi struggles for freedom in 22nd-century Korea.

I would be hard pressed to think of a book more difficult to turn into a movie than David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.

Mitchell’s book follows six plots from six eras of history. The stories are about, in chronological order, a man working on a slaveboat in the 19th century who has a crisis of conscience, an aspiring composer from the 1930s who must hide his homosexuality, a reporter in 1970s California who uncovers a deadly plot involving a nuclear power plant, an English man from the present day kept prisoner in a nursing home, a cloned fast-food slave from 22nd-century Korea who attempts an escape, and a man in post-apocalyptic Hawaii trying to protect his village from a predatory tribe. The plots are loosely connected by hints that some characters are reincarnations of the same soul.

As if turning that into a film weren’t hard enough, the book has a pita-sandwich structure, with the earliest story beginning and ending the book, the second coming second and second-to-last, etc. Only the chronologically-last story is unbroken in the middle, with the others cutting off abruptly, sometimes in the middle of a sentence.

When I saw the film version of Cloud Atlas over the weekend, I was amazed that the Wachowskis managed to turn the book not only into a coherent film, but an entertaining, thoughtful one. This took some serious story-telling skills and imagination (they are, after all, the directors of The Matrix), but also a talented cast and great stories to work from.

The movie abandons the pita-sandwich structure of the book. I imagine this was a difficult decision for the filmmakers, but the right one. They would be asking a lot of the audience to wait three hours (the movie clocks in at 2 hours and 50 minutes) to see the conclusion of the story that began the film. Instead, the directors and editors spliced together the six stories in parallel, matching their expositions, climaxes and denouements. In a feat that surely drew a lot of sweat from the screenwriters, editors and directors, they made this work. Although the pacing lags a bit near the end, they put the stories together in a way that makes their common themes clear and keeps the viewer hooked.

As in the case of all their work, the Wachowskis use their imaginative prowess to take the film to a higher level than the average Hollywood thriller, especially in their depiction of the 22nd-century Korea in which a “corpocratic” government rules over a mass of depraved consumers. A clone named Sonmi who is enslaved in a McDonald’s-style restaurant goes on the lam after glimpsing an inspiring movie clip on a customer’s phone. While reading the book, I savored every detail of this fascinating dystopia, and I felt the same way during the movie. The Wachowskis use special effects to create a brilliant vision of a brutal future that made me wish I could pause the movie to get a better look at Neo Seoul. The setting rivaled the Los Angeles of Blade Runner and the vast human-farms of the original Matrix in its horrible wonder.

Another ingredient of the glue that holds these plotlines together is the cast. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant and Susan Sarandon play different characters in each of the stories, helping the viewer understand their cosmic connections. I especially enjoyed watching Tom Hanks show a versatility I didn’t know he had. I’ve always thought he had a knack at giving movies a moral center with down-to-earth roles, but here he pulls off a wild range of personalities – an evil doctor on a slave boat, a slimy hotel clerk, a conscientious nuclear scientist, a cockney tough-guy, and a schizophrenic tribal leader who speaks a pidgin future American English.

The Wachowskis were also successful in translating the themes of the book to the screen, if in a more digestible form. Each of the six stories follows characters who make the difficult choice to go against the grain of their historical setting to do what’s right. Obviously, the goodwill of the characters doesn’t keep society from going bonkers – that’s evident even from the trailer or the description on the back of the book. The message of the movie and the book is that even futile acts of charity are worthwhile because they elevate the human soul to an ether above worldly matters. Watching these stories, I felt the same revolutionary thrill as when Neo kills the agents at the end of The Matrix.

I was motivated to write this review by the lukewarm reception the movie has received elsewhere. I was bewildered by this, because Cloud Atlas got an emphatic check mark next to every entry on my list of what a movie should be. It was fun, it featured interesting characters, it transported me to different worlds, and it gave me something to think about after I left the theater.

T-Shirt Power!

Scientists are always pushing us closer to the future envisioned by sci-fi movies.  Now we learn that, like the poor, deceived wretches trapped by the Matrix in the classic movie of the same name, humans soon may become walking batteries — at least, if they wear the right t-shirt.

A professor at the University of South Carolina has figured out how to convert a t-shirt into a power source.  He bought a cheap t-shirt from a discount store, soaked it in fluoride and dried it in a high-temperature oxygen-free environment.  As a result, the cellulose in the fibers turned into activated carbon.  The fibers were then thinly coated with manganese oxide and thereby became capacitors — i.e., a device capable of storing an electric charge.  Add an electrode and a plug and — voila! — your t-shirt could be used to power your cell phone or iPad.

I don’t like wearing artificial fibers that don’t “breathe,” so I doubt that I would want to wear a carbonized shirt coated with manganese oxide.  What’s more, I don’t think I’d feel comfortable in a garment that was supercharged with electricity.  I’d be afraid that a little static electricity could cause a massive short circuit — and I’d hate to think of the electrical firestorm that could be created if I also wore a pair of thigh-rubbing corduroy pants on a cold, dry winter’s day.

Some Random Thoughts on 2001

I really enjoyed Richard’s post about 2001:  A Space Odyssey, and it got me to thinking about one of my favorite movies.  (It also is a movie that you really haven’t seen unless you’ve seen it on a big screen.)   I think it could be reasonably argued that 2001 is one of the most influential movies of the last 50 years, for at least two reasons.

First, 2001 ushered in the golden age of movie special effects.  Before 2001, movie special effects were little used and were pretty much confined to Ray Harryhausen pictures or stop-motion effects.  2001 was a quantum leap ahead.  Whether it was the classic space station docking scene, or the weightless pen grabbed by the stewardess on the space shuttle, or the astronauts jogging in a seemingly endless and weightless circle, or the giant fetus floating in Jupiter orbit, the special effects on the movie just blew people away.  2001 seemed to destroy all of the barriers and preconceived notions about what could be depicted, visually, on the big screen.  Thereafter, special effects became hugely important parts of movies — some might argue too important.  In any case, films like The Matrix, The Abyss, The Fifth Element, Blade Runner, Star Wars, Jaws, and countless others owe a great debt of gratitude to 2001.

Second, 2001 seemed to be one of the first movies to fully integrate music and on-screen action.  If you watch movies from the ’50s and before — at least, movies that weren’t musicals — the soundtracks typically are muted, background music, where strings might play in a particularly sappy scene.  In the late ’60s, however, soundtracks began to assume a more prominent role.  In 2001, the soundtrack music really played a crucial role.  Everyone remembers The Blue Danube Waltz and the space station docking scene because it was a perfect marriage of sight and sound.  But the scene where the apes discover that a bone can be used as a weapon as Also Sprach Zarathustra rises to a crescendo, or the creepy “eeeeeeeeeeee” music that is heard during some of the suspenseful scenes, or the sad music that plays as the space ship takes its lonely voyage to Jupiter, are equally stunning and effective uses of music.  Now, the use of music to specifically convey messages and advance storylines is so commonplace that it has invaded TV as well as cinema.  On House, for instance, it is not unusual for the final scene to involve no dialogue, but only a carefully chosen song that plays as the show cuts from character to character as they deal with the events of the preceding hour.

2001 is a masterpiece, and it shows that Stanley Kubrick was a genius.

The Matrix: An Appreciation

When I feel like watching an interesting, action-packed movie, my thoughts typically turn to:  The Matrix.  Why not?  It is such an interesting movie on so many levels, and so ground-breaking in so many ways. 

The plot of the movie is compelling, just plausible enough to be good science fiction, with obvious philosophical overtones.  It is a twist on the man versus machine idea that has given rise to hundreds of science fiction books, movies, and Star Trek episodes, with a “what is reality, anyway?” overlay. It raises questions about the value of humans and whether we can be led about like sheep and what we really want out of life — freedom, or the illusion that we are eating a thick, juicy steak?  I have no doubt that The Matrix was the subject of many a drug-addled debate among college students after it was released and was watched repeatedly for clues and nuances to use in those debates.

Add to that the fact that everything about the movie itself is cool.  The long, black costumes and ever-present sunglasses are cool.  The character names, like Neo and Trinity and Morpheus, are cool.  The concept of look-alike “agents” who can move freely about the Matrix and perform superhuman feats while being clad in most drab clothing is cool. The kung fu and wire-aided fight scenes are cool.  The slow-motion photography and cinematography are cool.  The stunts are way cool.

I like to rewatch favorite movies because, for me, those movies never really get old.  I think The Matrix falls into that category.  How can you resist the scene where the bald kid makes Neo understand about the reality of bending spoons?  How can you resist the scene where Agent Smith tries to explain to Morpheus his deep, innate horror at being trapped in the Matrix with millions of repugnant, appalling humans?  How can you resist the scene where Neo and Trinity dispatch dozens of security guards and soldiers while stone chips fly, and then commandeer a helicopter and use a Gatling gun to mow down the furious Agent Smith and his fellow agents under a rain from overhead fire control systems?  How can you resist the scene where Neo is finally killed by Agent Smith, only to then undertand and accept the reality that, in the Matrix, death means nothing?

I thought the second movie in The Matrix trilogy was pretty good — hard to dislike any movie that features a Eurotrash character called The Merovingian? — but I thought the third entry was a bit too predictable in its quasi-religious storyline.  The fact that the last movie wasn’t up to the quality of its predecessors, however, shouldn’t take away from the excellence of The Matrix itself.