Sci-fi movies and TV shows: Preparing for winter - Combine | Combine

Sci-fi movies and TV shows: Preparing for winter

When darker times are slowly creeping up why not prepare ourselves with some movies and TV shows that will brighten up the day.

In recent years, the hype around artificial intelligence (AI) has grown a lot. AI is not a new concept and the term has been around since the 1950’s when computer scientist John McCarthy coined the term. But the concept of creating artificial beings has been around much longer and can be found in greek mythology or in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

AI has also been portrayed in numerous books and movies and some are more interesting than others. There are great classics like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) inspired by a short story by Arthur C. Clarke. In the movie the ship’s computer HAL (Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer) 9000 is the main antagonist. This is one of the first movies that portrayed the idea of a human made AI to the masses.

Another classic movie is Blade Runner (1982) based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. In the movie humans have designed intelligent androids, called replicants, that the main protagonist, Rick Deckard, must hunt down and retire (terminate).

One common problem in movies, and sci-fi movies in general is how to balance an intricate and interesting story with special effects and action scenes. The sci-fi genre has so much potential when it comes to explore concepts about science, technology, existentialism, human evolution and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. When the boundaries of our current paradigm is not a hard limit, imagination and science can blend in the most interesting ways. The movies and TV shows below are not based around special effects or action but rather trying to explore what it is to be human.

Her (2013)

(image from themoviedb)

Director: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Scarlett Johansson
Genres: Sci-fi, Romance, Drama

Synopsis: Joaquin Phoenix plays a man who installs a new operating system with artificial intelligence to help him with various tasks and over time their relationship becomes more and more romantic.

Being able to convey a romantic relationship without the need of a materialized body, using only a voice, is beautifully executed. Most other movies that explore romantic human/machine involvement are doing so almost by cheating. Using an android, more or less indistinguishable from a human, makes it much easier to relate to. Human/computer interaction by voice is not something new and has been around for a quite some time, mostly as an accessibility tool for people not able to use standard equipment. In October 2011, Siri was launched (by Apple) as the first smart phone integrated voice controlled virtual assistant. At the time, the actions it could perform was rather limited, problems understanding voice input and could be seen as more of a gimmick than a valuable tool. Since then other companies have released voice controlled virtual assistants and the biggest competitors are Amazon Alexa released in 2014 and the Google Assistant released in 2016. These products are getting better and better and voice controlled virtual assistants are probably here to stay although they are not perfect.. yet.

Her, artificial intelligence and the concept of time

Humans, like animals are evolutionary equipped to experience some basic aspects of time. What happens when an artificial intelligence emerge with the computational power of living years, decades or millenniums every day, hour or second? Their concept of time will be something completely different which could have huge implications. For some perspective, OpenAI Five  recently competed with five bots against five former professional gamers in the competitive game Dota 2. Everyday the AI played 180 years worth of games against itself running on 256 GPUs and 128 000 CPU cores. When summing up each character (a total of five) it amounts to 900 years every day. Time is relative but even more so for an AI running on a giant cluster and there is a great scene about this in the movie.

Ex Machina (2014)

(image from themoviedb)

Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac
Genres: Sci-fi, Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Synopsis: Meet Caleb Smith, a talented programmer at a large tech company, who wins an office competition to stay a week at the CEO’s remotely located house. When he arrives he is introduced to an android who according to Nathan Bateman, the CEO, has passed the Turing test but he wants more validation before going public with the news. Surprise, surprise.. Caleb starts to develop feelings for the android.

How close is humanity to develop an human-like conscious AI and what happens then?

What happens then?, is a question people have been debating for a long time. Some view this as the inevitable future and hope for the human race and others see it as humanity’s demise. This has also been explored in sci-fi books and movies over the years and The Terminator (1984) portrays one of the darker scenarios for mankind. But how close are we to develop an AI able to pass the Turing test? Probably not very close. Even though great progress has been made in the last few years, with everything from AlphaGo being able to beat the top players at Go to Libratus a poker AI able to beat top players in heads up no-limit Texas hold ’em (and of course the OpenAI Dota 2 bots mentioned earlier), the Turing test is something else to beat. The AI’s created today are heavily specialized and contextual but can’t do much outside their specialization. And in order to pass the Turing test an AI would have to behave like a human when exposed to a multitude of different questions that could range from anything to everything.

The idea of sitting down with an AI, like Caleb, having a conversation and slowly become more and more amazed how well it performs, is thrilling. This is something else than the Turing test because it should not be known beforehand whether it is a human or not, but that doesn’t make it less interesting. Problems will arise when the AI’s starting to become too humanlike and at the same time have their own agenda. Sooner or later it would become really difficult to be able to control all the possible outcomes when dealing with an AI.

Black Mirror (2011)

(image from themoviedb)

Creator: Charlie Brooker
Genres: Sci-fi, Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Black Mirror is a TV show exploring new technology, society and possible scenarios from today to a more distant future. It has been called a modern day The Twilight Zone (1959), also a great show but many episodes can feel rather outdated. Every episode is standalone and explore a new theme. This means that viewers don’t have to see the episodes in a chronological order and can cherry pick the ones that seems most interesting, and even skip the first episode in the first season. This episode is mostly built on shocking the audience and is not representative for the rest of the show. Some favourites:

The Entire History of You (2011)

Synopsis: Some people have an implant recording everything they see and hear.

Think Google Glass but built into the body and it is not hard that this could create all kinds of problems. At the same time a lot of people were really excited about the idea of wearing glasses recording everything and honestly it is really not that far from our current reality.

San Junipero (2016)

Synopsis: Two women meet in a California-esque small town named San Junipero in 1987.

This is not a story about relationship with an AI. This is about human relationships, love, consciousness and how future technology could change our lives for the better.

Hang the DJ (2017)

Synopsis: In a maybe dystopian future two people, Amy and Frank, try out a dating/matching service that always puts an expiration date on all relationships. The reason for this is that each short relationship will give ”the system” more data to eventually find the optimal match for each individual using the service.

So what if you could see the expiration date for a relationship, is it something you really want to know. And how would this knowledge change your actions? It is not that far from the classic theme of knowing the day you will die.


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