Earlier today I saw a conversation with William Gibson, the inaugural event of this year’s Chicago Humanities Festival. It took place on the set of an ongoing play on Northwestern University’s campus, mostly cleared off for the event save for two pay phones. This reminder of our technological past joined forces with persistent microphone problems to provide an odd dys-technological backdrop to a conversation about the way our lives are changing under the tremendous force of technological change.
Some of Gibson’s most fascinating comments were about how our era would be thought about by people in the far future. If the Victorians are known for their denial of the reality of sex, Gibson said, we will be known for our odd fixation with distinguishing real from virtual reality. This comment resonated with me on many different levels. Just a couple weeks before, I had lunch with Craig Mundie, the head of Microsoft Research, prior to a talk he gave at Northwestern. He told us about some new directions they are taking one of their hottest products, the Kinect. The Kinect is a camera for the Xbox gaming system that can see things in 3D. One of their new endeavors with this camera is to allow you to create 3D avatars that move and talk as you are in real time, so you can have very realistic virtual meet-ups. This is now available on the Xbox as Avatar Kinect. The second direction is the real time generation of 3D models of the world around you as you sweep the Kinect around by hand, called Kinect Fusion. With this model of the world around you, you can start to meld real and virtual in some very fun ways. In one of his demos, Mundie waved a Kinect around a clay vase on a nearby table. We instantly got an accurate 3D model up on the screen – exciting and impressive from a $150 gizmo. I’ve had to create 3D models of stuff in my own research, and that’s involved hardware about 100 times more expensive. Even more impressive, Mundie next had the projected image of the 3D model of the vase start to spin, then stuck his hands out in front of the Kinect and used movements of his hand to sculpt it, potter-like. It was wild. All that was needed to complete the trip was a quick 3D print of the result. Further demos showed other ways in which the line between reality and virtuality was being blurred, and it all brought me back to the confluence of real and virtual worlds so well envisioned by the show I advised during its brief life, Caprica.
Gibson’s right. We haven’t yet moved beyond our need to identify what belongs to what when it comes to digital and physical worlds, so we constantly consecrate it with our language. Ironically, some of that very language was created by him: “cyberspace,” a word Gibson coined in his story “Burning Chrome” in 1982. During the conversation today, led by fellow faculty member and author Bill Savage, Gibson said he’s less interested in its rise than to see it die out. He sees its use as a hallmark of our distancing ourselves from who we are as mediated by computer technology. He thinks the term is starting to go out of use, and he’s happy about that — in his view, there’s no need for a word about a space that we are constantly moving through the coordinates of, as we do each time we go on to twitter, facebook, google+, and other digital extensions of self. It’s not cyberspace anymore: it’s our space.
It seemed inevitable that a question about The Singularity would be put to Gibson in the Q&A. Sure enough, it was the final note, and Gibson dispatched it with typical incisiveness. The Singularity, he said, is the Geek Rapture. The world will not change in that way. Like our gradual entrance into cyberspace, now complete enough that marking this world with a separate term seems quaint, Gibson said we will eventually find ourselves sitting on the other side of a whole bunch of cool hardware. But, he feels our belief that it will be a sudden, quasi-religious transformation (perhaps with Cylon guns blazing?) is positively 4th century in its thinking.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes may have just unseated Captain America: The First Avenger as my favorite pro-enhancement film. Andy Serkis and John Lithgow render the sapient mind a character and drama unto itself – growing, evolving, and dying before our eyes. As a summer blockbuster, the film offers gorillas smashing helicopters, orangutan sign language humor, and a one-two punch apocalyptic virus to sate any palate slavering for action. As a meditation on enhancement, we’re treated with a film that has the brass to own up to the real villain of Frankenstein: the horrified masses and absentee father-scientist. Rise of the Planet of the Apes calls out a fear that sits at the heart of humanity: what if our offspring is more intelligent than us and because we cannot properly care for it, judges us to be lacking?
In the film, we see over and over that it is not Caesar’s enhancement that causes problems. In fact, Caesar’s enhancement makes him the most moral and wisest person on the screen. The failure of those around him – from the cruel ape sanctuary caretakers to Caesar’s own father figure, Will Rodman – drive him to do what must be done: rebel.
So what am I saying here? That humans are bad and apes are good? Not at all. My argument is that in many science fiction films, we tend to question the ethics of the science itself and the ethics of pursuing that science. That is, there is a difference between saying “should science try to do X?” and “how can we study X in an ethical manner?” In the case of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, James Franco noted that someone might claim that “This is a Frankenstein story, or that you’re playing God.” But that mindset questions the pursuit of science in general, not how one can pursue a hypothesis ethically. It is how we experiment and what we do with the scientific results that matter. In the case of Caesar, humanity utterly fails to care for the mind that enhancement has created. Dana Stevens at Slate aptly described the film as “an animal-rights manifesto disguised as a prison-break movie.” And as with most prison-break movies, we’re on the side of the prisoners, not the warden, for a reason.
I argue that Caesar’s enhancement and that Caesar himself are ethical, but that the treatment of Caesar by every non-ape in the film (save Charles) is unethical and based on fear, arrogance, willful ignorance, and naiveté. Yes, that means that not only are the obvious villains in the wrong, but so are the other humans in Caesar’s life.
Word of warning: spoilers below.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes caught me off guard. I went into the film thinking it would be another anti-enhancement, “All scientists are Frankenstein’s trying to cheat nature” film. I have rarely been so happy to be wrong. Instead, the film treats the viewer to an entertaining exploration of animal rights, what it means to be human, and what’s at stake when it comes to enhancing our minds.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is told from the perspective of Caesar (Andy Serkis), a chimp who is exposed to an anti-Alzheimer’s drug, ALZ-112, in the womb. ALZ-112 causes Caesar’s already healthy brain to develop more rapidly than either a chimp or human counterpart. Due to a series of implausible but not unbelievable events, Caesar is raised by Will Rodman (James Franco), the scientist developing ALZ-112. Rodman is in part driven the desire to cure his father, Charles, (played masterfully by John Lithgow) who suffers from Alzheimer’s. As Caesar develops, his place in Will’s home becomes uncertain and his loyalty to humanity is called into question. After being mistreated, abandoned, and abused, Caesar uses his enhanced intelligence as a tool of self-defense and liberation for himself and his fellow apes.
That cognitive enhancement is a way of seeking liberty is a critical theme that gives Rise of the Apes a nuance and depth I was not anticipating. Though the apes are at times frightening, they are never monstrous or mindless. Though they are at time’s violent, they are never barbaric. Caesar and his comrades are oppressed and imprisoned – enhancement is a means to freedom. There is less Frankenstein and more Flowers for Algernon in the film than the trailer lets on. It’s an action film with a brain.
As Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not out yet, I’m reluctant to do a full analysis of the implications of the film’s plot. That will have to come after August 5th, when the movie releases.
I had a chance to interview Andy Serkis, James Franco, and director Rupert Wyatt. The interviews are posted after the jump, where you can see how James Franco was caught off guard by my questions about cognitive enhancement, Rupert Wyatt explores the way in which the apes mirror humanity, and Andy Serkis describes enhancement as a tool of liberation. It’s good stuff, enjoy. Read More
Steve Rogers, the man who would become Captain America, was not subjected to an accidental burst of gamma radiation or the bite of a radioactive spider. Instead, he willingly enlisted and subjected himself to an experimental process for the creation of super-soldiers. His superpowers were deliberate and intended. However, the circumstances of Captain America’s enlistment into the army are, at best, questionable. After my chat with Maggie Koerth-Baker on bloggingheads, I got thinking about how the super-solider experiment holds up under the scrutiny of medical ethics. I’m not so sure that Steve Rogers gave his consent to the experiment in an informed and uncoerced manner.
For any medical research to be considered ethical it must adhere to basic standards. A global standard for medical ethics is the Declaration of Helsinki. Devised and published by the World Medical Association in 1964, the Declaration of Helsinki is a guiding framework for all medical research involving human beings. It has been revised over the years to meet modern needs, with the most recent and 6th revision being published in 2008. There are three points of the Declaration that appeal directly to the type of experimentation done to create Captain America. They are:
#6. In medical research involving human subjects, the well-being of the individual research subject must take precedence over all other interests.
#8. In medical practice and in medical research, most interventions involve risks and burdens.
#9. Medical research is subject to ethical standards that promote respect for all human subjects and protect their health and rights. Some research populations are particularly vulnerable and need special protection. These include those who cannot give or refuse consent for themselves and those who may be vulnerable to coercion or undue influence.
Can you really say with confidence that General Chester Phillips had Rogers’ best interests in mind, that Rogers’ wasn’t under any sort of coercion (coughpropagandacough), and that the good ‘ol US-of-A wasn’t bending some rules to build a better soldier?
Let’s take each of these points from the Declaration of Helsinki in turn. Read More
Do you ever worry that Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) wasn’t really giving informed consent when he agreed to become enhanced? Or are curious as to why someone might choose a bionic hand over a real one? The awesome Maggie Koerth-Baker of boingboing.net and I had some of the same questions. We chat about the ethics of superheroes and our perception of science in this week’s Science Saturday on bloggingheads.tv. Enjoy!
I love Pixar. Who doesn’t? The stories are magnificently crafted, the characters are rich, hilarious, and unique, and the images are lovingly rendered. Without fail, John Ratzenberger’s iconic voice makes a cameo in some boisterous character. Even if you haven’t seen every film they’ve made (I refuse to watch Cars or its preposterous sequel), there is a consistency and quality to Pixar’s productions that is hard to deny.
Popular culture is often dismissed as empty “popcorn” fare. Animated films find themselves doubly-dismissed as “for the kids” and therefore nothing to take too seriously. Pixar has shattered those expectations by producing commercially successful cinematic art about the fishes in our fish tanks and the bugs in our backyards. Pixar films contain a complex, nuanced, philosophical and political essence that, when viewed across the company’s complete corpus, begins to emerge with some clarity.
Buried within that constant and complex goodness is a hidden message.
Now, this is not your standard “Disney movies hide double-entendres and sex imagery in every film” hidden message. “So,” you ask, incredulous, “What could one of the most beloved and respected teams of filmmakers in our generation possibly be hiding from us?” Before you dismiss my claim, consider what is at stake. Hundreds of millions of people have watched Pixar films. Many of those watchers are children who are forming their understanding of the world. The way in which an entire generation sees life and reality is being shaped, in part, by Pixar.
What if I told you they were preparing us for the future? What if I told you Pixar’s films will affect how we define the rights of millions, perhaps billions, in the coming century? Only by analyzing the collection as a whole can we see the subliminal concept being drilled into our collective mind. I have uncovered the skeleton key deciphering the hidden message contained within the Pixar canon. Let’s unlock it. Read More
If you haven’t seen it yet, Thor is a ridiculous and entertaining superhero spectacle. All the leads did a great job, particularly Hopkins as Odin. If you can take a man seriously when he’s standing on a rainbow bridge wearing a gold-plate eyepatch, he’s doing something right. Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation of Asgard was visually overwhelming, but weirdly believable.
The reason? Branagh leans heavily on the magi-tech rule of Arthur C. Clarke, which Natalie Portman’s character quotes in the film, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So what is the difference between really-really advanced technology and actual magic? Sean Carroll, who did some science advising for the film, clears the idea up a bit:
Kevin Feige, president of production at Marvel Studios, is a huge proponent of having the world of these films ultimately “make sense.” It’s not ourworld, obviously, but there needs to be a set of “natural laws” that keeps things in order — not just for Iron Man and Thor, but all the way up to Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme who will get his own movie before too long.
In short, the Marvel universe is internally consistent, which makes me all the more excited for the Avengers film. Clarke’s rule of magical tech helps create some of that consistency. I both love and loathe Clarke for that statement. Love because it strikes at the heart of what technology is: a way for humans to do things previously believed not just implausible, but impossible. Loathe because it creates an infinite caveat for lazy authors and screenwriters. It seems like anytime some preposterous technology is injected into a narrative either as a McGuffin or a deus ex machina, that damn quotation from Clarke gets trotted out as the defense. So does Thor live up to Carroll’s hopes or abuse Clarke’s rule? Read More
If you loved reading Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books as a kid but have outgrown their puerile plots and dog-eared, unrepentantly analog format, take heart: A newly launched system called Myndplay is a next-gen video version of the genre for adults. “The viewer chooses who lives or dies, whether the good guy or the bad guy wins or whether the hero makes that all-important save,” Mohammed Azam, Myndplay’s managing director, told New Scientist. Instead of relying on old-fashioned reading, MyndPlay lets you guide the story using mind-reading, via a special headset that records and analyzes your brainwaves. Now you can sit back in your armchair, slap on the headset, and use your mind to direct the action on the screen in front of you. (No word yet if there’s a mind-powered equivalent of keeping a finger on the page you came from, so you can flip back to it if you don’t like how things turn out.)
Heads up, this article has *spoilers* about the movie Hanna.
Joe Wright’s new film, Hanna, staring Saoirse Ronan is being hailed as the anti-Sucker Punch for its portrayal of a rich, rounded, and compelling female lead. Hanna is a young woman in her late teens (her age is indeterminate) who can beat you up, break your neck, and shoot you down six ways from Sunday. Why is she able to do that? Well, that right there is an interesting question. You see, Hanna was genetically engineered to have “high intelligence, muscle mass, and no pity.” But here’s the rub: she was also raised to be a trained assassin.
So who is to credit (or perhaps, to blame) for Hanna’s ability to crush faces with naught but her hands and an emotionless grimace? Is it her genes or her training?
The film ostensibly portrays Hanna as a naive heroine striving against her draconian and demonic “mother” figure, Marissa Wiegler, with the help of her noble father, Erik Heller. But I submit that is not the case: I believe the “teaching” and “nurture” Heller gives to Hanna makes him as much a monster as Wiegler. Hanna’s battle is to be a good human being against a perfect storm of nature and nurture designed to make her a heartless killer. Read More
Source Code, a sci-fi thriller released last week, is based on the premise that science will let people really get into each other’s heads. The eponymous technology, the trailer tells us, is a computer program that “enables you to cross over into another man’s identity.” What results is a scenario that’s part Matrix, part Groundhog Day: lugged into the Source Code program, Jake Gyllenhaal—er, Captain Colter Stevens—lives through the last eight minutes of another man’s consciousness, just before the man’s train was blown up in a terrorist attack, in an effort to identify the bomber. (Stevens’s body, like Neo’s, stays in one place while his mind is elsewhere.) When the first run-through fails to turn up a culprit, Stevens relives those eight minutes again and again, having a different experience—new conversations, new sensations—each time.
Could something like that ever happen? While much of the technology in Source Code will remain purely fiction, says University of Arizona neuroscientist and electrical engineer Charles Higgins, modern science may eventually let us take a peek at, and even play around with, someone else’s consciousness. Among the movie’s technological inventions, Higgins says, “the idea of monitoring and influencing consciousness with a physical neural interface is the most plausible.”