Archive for November, 2014

Disney Princess

The first teaser trailer for the next Star Wars movie is out, and it’s a telling piece of slick production. Not so much for the content – we’re not going to get into a narrative discussion here – but more for what it describes about the heritage of the franchise.

It’s fair to say that when Episode IV launched in 1977, it took the commercialisation of Sci-Fi to a new and unprecedented level. Money men and fans all jumped onto the band wagon and everything bull-dozered off to a bloated, profitable – but let’s not forget – inspirational future. We had the merchandise, the video games, the comics and the books – the novels now a totally side-lined canon as a result of JJ Abram’s reboot – and then we had Episode I.

There’s a scene – now suspiciously hard to track down via the internet – in Spaced (1999) where Simon Pegg’s character burns all of his Star Wars memorabilia in a pastiche of Anakin Skywalker’s funeral pyre. While it poked fun at the obsessional nature of fandom, it did totally encapsulate Generation X’s appreciation of the extended saga. Older fans were wrong-footed and caught in a WTF feedback loop. Meanwhile, those coming to the franchise fresh were still entranced by the core story – the pliable nature of good versus evil. Good people, when pushed can turn bad and vice versa. Potent stuff, and for these younger fans the reboot will seem more like a continuation. For the rest of us who “were there at the start” it’ll be all about addressing the horrors of a ‘more is better’ approach to scripting, and the collective question marks about using human racial dialects to denote the ‘alien’.

It all makes for yet another interesting tension for Sci-Fi, and is one wonderfully encapsulated in Ursula Le Guin’s acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation’s Distinguished Contribution to American Letters award. Her short, but extremely powerful, acceptance speech talks about many things, but it’s her spotlight on how commercialism shouldn’t be the sole drive in the production of art that’s most relevant here. We’ve said before on Drozbot that both Abrams and Disney are consummate storytellers, and if there’s any combination that can heal the critical rift between old and new audiences, it’s the one at work on Episode VII right now.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Happy, smiling robots holding hands. So here we are then, the future’s now and a host of mechanical marvels are attempting to recreate what artificers of old chased for centuries.

Earlier this year, in the physical world, Japan’s National Museum of Science and Innovation – Miraikan – showcased a wide selection of robots and simulacrum. Standing out from the gathered androids were Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro’s Kodomoroid – a female news reader that can relay tweets in a selection of voices – and an amorphous child-like creation called Otonaroid, that was reported to have a cheeky disposition.

Also in the land of the rising sun we find Pepper, another surprising advance in robotics. The first emotionally responsive android is how its creators, SoftBank, are promoting the device. Its key differentiation from other machines – aside from its sarcastic wit – is its ability to sense the reactions of its human counterparts and then adapt its behaviour accordingly.

Behind the mechanics another, more creative, tale is also developing alongside our synthetic pals. Take arts lecturer Julienne Greer from the university of Texas and her paper on “Building emotional authenticity between humans and robots”. Or, alternatively, consider Professor Mark Riedl’s drive to use poetry as an alternative Turing test to gauge machine AI.

Push a little further into the creative realm, and you arrive at Neil Blomkamp’s latest film, Chappie (see above). It’s a coming of age piece for a very different type of Bicentennial man, with a central character that bears a striking resemblance to one of the director’s early creations. Ex Machina is another tale of machines becoming increasingly human scheduled for 2015, only this time the film comes with an added meta level of mechanisation – protagonist Domhnall Gleeson previously played yet another simulacrum in the Black Mirror episode, “Be Right Back”.

From puppetry, through automatons to today’s humanoid robots. From basic AI through learning machines to robots designed to elicit emotion. It’s not hard to trace a direct thread connected to our deep-seated drive to replicate ourselves, whether that be through physicality or the arts.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Right Stuff

Space exploration is cool. It always has been. Take the tale of Neil Armstrong ejecting from the Apollo 11 lander trainer seconds before it crashed. Minutes after the incident, he was found in his office, casually chatting to other base staff with no reference to his near death experience. The man had a hangar load of right stuff cool.

Previously on Drozbot, we’ve reported on some of the coolest elements of space travel – the solution to the Mars rover landing being just one exceptional case. But in all of these robots, rather than people, have taken precedence.

Let’s redress that now with Chris Hadfield’s rendition of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, played from the International Space Station. Through this the commander was instantly propelled to the top of the charts as far as the nerdcore were concerned. Despite his entertaining performance, the cupola on the ISS remains the intellectual property of Tracey Caldwell Dyson and her evocative contemplation of our planet.

Another slice of extra-terrestrial hipness from 2013 was Alfonso Cuarón’s film Gravity. As well as putting women in space front and centre, the movie brilliantly highlighted the fragility of human existence when framed against the vast hostility of space. And it’s precisely this hostility that Richard Branson is now wrestling with. Whatever your thoughts about the entrepreneur, the endeavour to get commercial space flight up and running is inherently stylish, and it’s a shame that Virgin Galactic now faces a major set back after the death of test pilot Michael Alsbury. Respect due to the deceased, though, for paying the ultimate price and for playing his part in humanity’s prospects of survival.

Today, with the audacious Rosetta comet mission, we have Dr Matt Taylor who has brought some much needed knockabout humour to space flight. Yes, his recent wardrobe malfunction was openly offensive, and his achievements came at no physical risk to himself, but he remains about as far from the traditional ‘slide rule’ stereotype of a space scientist as you can get.

So is this all the result of a generational tipping point, a sudden influx of people to positions of influence who were originally motivated by the space race and the stars of the Apollo program? Possibly. What it does collectively represent, is a much more robust, less stuffy approach to exploration beyond Earth which I, for one, am more than willing to advocate.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,