Archive for June, 2015

Terminator Genisys

On the eve of a new Terminator film launching, it’s interesting to consider just how endangered we might be by our robot creations.

On an economic level, it’s been an accepted fact for some time that mass production can be handled more efficiently by programmable machines. This doesn’t address all the job losses on car production lines, or in Amazon’s automated warehouses or delivery services, but it’s still a far cry from skull crushing, hunter-killer robo tanks.

The fear that the proposed computer processing ‘singularity’ will lead to sentient AI is part of the problem, as is the uncanny mimicry of some products coming out of the likes of DARPA and Festo. However, as shown by the recent trials set by the former of these two companies, autonomy is still a massive hurdle when creating a roving machine capable of even the simplest of tasks. Teleoperation seems to be one solution to the issue, but this then begs the question whether it would be much cheaper and easier to just send a human? Fine, unless the chosen working environment is so potentially hazardous it puts humans at unacceptable risk – consider the recent robotic solutions within space exploration, deep sea research and bomb disposal to name but three.

These factors aren’t deterring numerous companies from looking into creating machines that should be able to handle the complex rules of our collective road systems. While the idea of an auto car comes with its own concerns, the bigger dilemma here is the potential conflict between different control systems and their interaction with the still predominant human factor. All of which still only adds up to implicit rather then explicit threats to human life.

Perhaps there is a malevolent AI in the wings waiting to launch a Matrix-esque dictatorship on all of humanity. If there is, it’s going to have a hard fight on its hands as millennia of evolution has created a highly autonomous, strategic creature capable of remarkable abstraction within its thought processes. Perhaps then, the rogue AI might be better suited to triggering multiple nuclear strikes and starting from scratch, rather than creating an expensive and highly fallible robot army. Wait a minute…

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Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

As with SciFi, it’s hard to pinpoint when exactly magical realism emerged stylistically. Some would argue for an appearance of the term in literary criticism during the 1950s, but considering Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or Raspe’s Baron Munchausen its heritage can be seen as being much deeper and less easily defined. So let’s narrow the focus before we continue.

Within the realms of TV, the BBC’s current adaptation of Peter Harness’ Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell is just one, excellent example of the merging of the fantastical or supernatural with a very detailed, plausible world. It’s also a perfect window on a more manageable, and personal, segment of this adjunct to SciFi.

Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle, first recorded in 1976 as part of Play for Today, is one of the earliest pieces of TV magical realism that I can recall. Although, that said, due to the BBC’s censorship of its own creation, it wasn’t aired until 1987 – towards the tail end of a decade where weirdness and reality merged across the medium.

The films of Peter Greenaway, launching with the reality warping – and Roadside Picnic mimicking – The Falls (1980), made Channel 4 the default destination for those craving something more disruptive. Surprisingly, the BBC wasn’t risk adverse in response. Their adaptation of Mervyn Peake’s Mr Pye (1986), while not as provocative, did a laudable job of parodying a community as they descended from gossips to lynch mob.

In the same year, Channel 4 once again championed the world seen through a magical lens with another adaptation, this time of Faye Weldon’s Life and Loves of a She Devil. It was an odd series, and one most definitely of its time – all jazz sax melodies, big hair and shoulder pads – but one that critiqued as much as revelled in the excesses of the ‘80s. It also had the added appeal for SciFi fans of portraying Tom Baker, AKA the fourth Doctor in what, at face value, seemed to be a very different role. His lecherous Father Furguson, however, wasn’t all that different from Dr Who or, for that matter, Martin Taylor in Brimstone and Treacle, or the titular Mr Pye. Chaotic characters, morally capricious, yet all holding mirrors up to terrible types of accepted human behaviour. Each equally unable to convey their subversive messages within the confines of ‘Realism’, but so very seductive under the guise of the fantastical. Which, when you consider it, is exactly what fairy tales have been doing for centuries.

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