Archive for February, 2016

Thanks to the rotational ambiguities of our planet, we’ve gained a final day in February to get this post out into the wild. It comes, however, with the realisation that it’s been a while since we checked in on the robotics side of things, and this needs to be addressed. Fortunately, Boston Dynamics have just released another of their anthropomorphic videos showing them tormenting their mechanised creations.

A while ago we ran a story about this supposed abuse alongside a, tongue in cheek, concern that these videos would warrant the displeasure of our robot overlords at some nebulous point in the future. Thankfully, it seems we’re not alone in this fretting and the Internet has risen to the call for clemency via a stack of parodies – our favourite of which resides above.

Beneath the supposed abuse and calls for a cessation of robot cruelty, there’s a deeper shift in cultural perception at work in our collective responses. Consider Georgia Institute of Technology’s recent experiment that resulted in 26 out of 30 participants following a misguided robot rather than taking the clearly signposted emergency exit during a simulated fire. Perhaps, despite previous research we’re starting to trust that machines know better.

In cinema, robots have also shifted from perpetrator to potential victim. While there’s always room for Professor Kettlewell’s creations, Terminators and Sentinals, the stories of late – see Ex Machina and Automata – have blurred the boundary between human and machine, resulting in morally ambiguous tales.

Automation of our houses, cars and places of work is well underway and we’re becoming increasingly accepting of this because each shift promises us more of that most precious of modern commodities… Time. Who knows where the upcoming leaps will take us in just the four short years until the next 29th of February? Although we’re predicting that job losses will be an inevitable bi-product of this transition.

Hopefully Drozbot will still be around to see if we’re right. If not, that can only mean our robot masters are far from merciful.

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The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

Perspective has been the occasional plaything of Sci-Fi since the birth of the genre but, of late, malleable realities have become much more prevalent. Take Blade Runner and Under the Skin as easy points of reference with both having a single eye staring out of the cinema screen in their opening scenes. In the former, it appears to represent a window into an undefined soul – not necessarily that of a human being. In the latter, a definition of sexual objectification that should have been targeted towards the male victims of Scarlet Johansson’s alien entity but, instead, lingers far too often on her own nakedness throughout. In both, though, perceived realities examined and interrogated. Le Congress (2014), Inception (2010), Paprika (2006), The Matrix (1999)… The list of perception bending titles is vast and stretches back beyond film to the novel in its earliest form.

Against such a fertile backdrop, you’d think that the current shift towards digital virtual realities (VR) would have an easy ride of it with consumers. Not the case. The voices of caution and dissent are becoming more vocal in opposition to technology companies desperate to see expansion and growth into this latest market. While Mark Zuckerberg may be proposing that, “One day, we believe this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people.” In contrast, the detractors can’t get beyond the multifarious platforms or the sheer cost of each device.

There is hope for technophiles, though, as the zeitgeist promises to tip in their favour. Steven Spielberg has just announced that he’ll be casting the relatively unknown Tye Sheridan as the lead in the screen adaptation of Ernest Clien’s Ready Player One. Whether the actor will be chunking out to represent Wade Owen Watts in his pre-haptic suit days is yet to been seen but, as this is Hollywood, we’re reckoning probably not. Hopefully the sanitisation of the story won’t steer too far away from the difficult topic of the hikikomori and the social isolation that our currently fully connected lives can produce.

As ever, and as we’ve said numerous times here on this site, Sci-Fi isn’t a road map. It’s more a laboratory, a space for thought experiments that look at both the wildly optimistic and the cautionary in any postulated future. While we may well have increasing opportunities to see “things you people wouldn’t believe”, it’s essential that we be aware these new vistas could well come at a price.

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As ever, it’s a combination of factors that lead to this latest post. Fake news of a cannibalistic attack in New York, Amazon secreting a zombie apocalypse clause in their terms and conditions plus the launch of Dying Light: The Following (see above). Factor in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as well and you can see that the undead are, once again, de rigueur.

Zombie narratives have always provided useful platforms for critiques of wider topics. For George A Romero is was an exploration of the nuclear apocalypse and capitalism. For director Burr Steers an attempt to ironically inject some life back into the writings of Jane Austin. However, their origin stories remain fairly generic. From the Umbrella Corporation of Resident Evil, to the ‘rage’ animal testing of 28 Days Later, unbridled scientific experimentation remains one narrative well-spring, with natural viral mutation being the other.

Some have tried to break out of these constraints, but David Mody’s Hater is probably the most significant twist of recent years. For him, the trigger is inherent and genetic – a sudden shift in perception that the population of the Earth is actually divided into two strands (haters versus the hated). Within this he makes reference back to the genetic division between Neanderthals and Homo-sapiens, although increasing evidence shows that we’re probably a combination of species. It still makes for a limited level of invention, compounded by the fact that both World War Z and Zombiland will receive sequels in the near future.

It’s also over a decade now since Alex Garland and Danny Boyle introduced speed and agility to the zombie hordes. Surely there’s room for something fresh here, before the popularity of this sub-genre rots away.

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