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.”
We learned watching Ghostbusters that for busting ghosts, nothing beats a well-placed zap of protons from a backpack-turned-positron collider. Now, researchers at Harvard University are working on a technique that could let future firefighters do their job (sort of) the same way, using an electric beam—generated by a portable amplifier, which might even fit in a backpack—to put out the flames.
The researchers’ early-stage prototype consists of a 600-watt amplifier hooked up to a electric beam-shooting wand, according to their presentation at the American Chemical Society meeting earlier this week. In tests, they were able to quickly zap out flames over a foot high.
Philip Ball’s new book, Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People gets into the mythological underpinnings of our concerns about making people. Nature‘s Chris Mason reviews [gated] Unnatural and makes a striking observation:
Even today, Ball points out, societal and cultural debate is pervaded by the belief that technology is intrinsically perverting and thus carries certain penalty. Views that human cloning will be used for social engineering, eradicating one gender or resurrecting undesirable figures from the past, for example, all reflect age-old fears about the consequences of meddling in the ‘unnatural’. Ball warns that, as there is no global ban on human reproductive cloning, there is a strong chance that it will happen. It is thus likely to become a de facto reality without the well-informed debate it deserves.
Let’s unpack that little nugget, because it contains two very important points.
The first point is that many of our fears about advancing science and biotechnology related to the body trigger fundamental, core cultural fears. Leon Kass calls this the “Yuck” reaction, or, more eloquently, “Wisdom from Repugnance.” Kass’ argument is that we are naturally repelled by abhorrent ideas, like torturing babies and eating people. As regular readers of Science Not Fiction know, eating people isn’t always bad.
Well, as it turns out, Leon Kass’ argument that we should trust our gut when it says, “yuck!” is a pretty terrible way to do ethics. Why? Because what is “yuck” to me might be “yum” to you. And we’re back to not knowing if doing something ethically questionable, like cloning people, is morally permissible. Unnatural at least explains why so many people say “yuck” to modifying humans; it is a lesson we’ve been told over and over for millennia in myths and religion.
The second point is that we should be discussing these ideas like rational adults. Biotechnology is progressing at a rate and in ways that are so rapid as to be unpredictable. I make lots of educated guesses and suppositions, but none of what I write here is a prediction or a guarantee. My interest is in figuring out whether or not something like cloning is ethically permissible if we’re ever able to do it. As Ball notes, there is no current global ban on cloning. There is, as it stands, no global ban on most of the transhumanist issues, from eugenics to cognitive enhancers to A.I. to nano-implants. These possible technologies strain the very foundations of many of our philosophies and cultural institutions. If the lack of a global ban means the technology is likely inevitable, we better figure out how to go about things correctly.
Debate and discussion are essential to making good decisions. Recognizing our old, deep seated prejudices and biases, such as those against technology and making people, is equally essential. Simply because something is unnatural does not mean it is immoral. But that’s where the discussion starts, not where it ends ends.
Image of Book Cover via Bodley Head
Transhumanism is a big, complicated, sprawling idea. The central concept – that humans can be made better with technology – touches on a lot of hopes and fears about the future of humanity. Though I’m always going on about how great human enhancement could be, I’ve got my fair share of fears myself. But my fears are probably way different than many of your fears. But how in the world can we represent those concerns? As it turns out, I’ve found a pretty good set of archetypes that represent our hopes and fears: Marvel Comic’s Avengers.
How we frame scientific progress changes how we see individual technologies. When we think about science changing people, our minds naturally go to that group of individuals constantly being bombarded by gamma radiation, genetic mutagens, cybernetic interventions, and biological acceleration. I’m talking, of course, about superheroes. Superheroes are modern mythology. And because of that, they make great metaphors for understanding big issues. With The Avengers movie officially announced, I can’t help but notice that the four main members* of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes – Thor, the Hulk, Captain America, and Iron Man – are great examples of the different ways different people understand (or misunderstand) enhancement. Respectively, they are The God, The Monster, The Soldier, and The Robot.
Now, in the case of the Avengers, I don’t mean that they each represent a kind of enhancement, like cognitive enhancing pharmaceuticals or genetic engineering for athleticism. I am talking about the mindset people have around enhancement. Will transhumanism make people into monsters or Gods? Is science on the right track or out of control? The Avengers represent how you think enhancement works. Not only that, each Avenger symbolizes the hopes, fears, and problems enhancement may have. Whatever your dreams or nightmares about enhancement are, at least one member of Marvel’s wonder team has got you covered. So which Avenger represents you? Read More
Limitless is one of the first movies to directly take on the idea of pharmaceutical enhancement. The trailer is here and fake viral ad for NZT is here. I’m already wary of the film based on the trailer. Not because of the acting, directing, or plot, which all look good enough. Instead, my problem is that the movie appears to take the same boring old stance on enhancement: the cost of making yourself superhuman is too high.
Limitless has a simple set-up: loser/author Bradley Cooper who lives in filth and dresses like a hobo is offered a pill that will make everything all better. The pill makes him much smarter, more creative, and more driven. Thanks to this new found brilliance, Cooper makes boatloads of money and catches the eye of evil Robert De Niro, who threatens Cooper in various menacing and shadowy ways. Then the pill starts making Cooper crazy and his world starts crumbling around him. It’s Flowers for Algernon except with bespoke suits, exotic cars and international intrigue.
The reason I’m getting an overall vibe of “meh, who cares” from Limitless is that the even though the film has a great bad guy with De Niro and his shadowy mega-corporation, it takes the easy way out and makes the drug the enemy as well. Flowers for Algernon is great because the main character, Charlie, has to cope with how his intelligence-burst impacts his social life. We’re confronted with the fact that increased intelligence doesn’t mean increased maturity, worldly experience, or romantic ability. Limitless ignores these deeper issues.
Wouldn’t it be more interesting if the problem of power and wealth was that Cooper had to deal with other wealthy and powerful people, who are, in general, incredibly awful? Or what would Cooper do if the drug simply stopped working? Or how it affected his relationship with the woman he thought he loved when he becomes too smart – way too smart – for her and is bored by a person he once admired?
The theoretical enhancement drug at the center of Limitless could have allowed the writers to ask much more interesting questions than the trailer lets on. Maybe the movie will surprise me, but I doubt it.
Image viral promotional material for Limitless
I am a scientist and academic by day, but by night I’m increasingly called upon to talk about transhumanism and the Singularity. Last year, I was science advisor to Caprica, a show that explored relationships between uploaded digital selves and real selves. Some months ago I participated in a public panel on “Mutants, Androids, and Cyborgs: The science of pop culture films” for Chicago’s NPR affiliate, WBEZ. This week brings a panel at the Director’s Guild of America in Los Angeles, entitled “The Science of Cyborgs” on interfacing machines to living nervous systems.
The latest panel to be added to my list is a discussion about the first transhumanist opera, Tod Machover’s “Death and the Powers.” The opera is about an inventor and businessman, Simon Powers, who is approaching the end of his life. He decides to create a device (called The System) that he can upload himself into (hmm I wonder who this might be based on?). After Act 2, the entire set, including a host of OperaBots and a musical chandelier (created at the MIT Media Lab), become the physical manifestation of the now incorporeal Simon Powers, who’s singing we still hear but who has disappeared from the stage. Much of the opera is exploring how his relationships with his daughter and mother change post-uploading. His daughter and wife ask whether The System is really him. They wonder if they should follow his pleas to join him, and whether life will still be meaningful without death. The libretto, by the renown Robert Pinsky, renders these questions in beautiful poetry. It will open in Chicago in April.
These experiences have been fascinating. But I can’t help wondering, what’s with all the sudden interest in transhumanism and the singularity? Read More