Archive for October, 2016


Looks like machine learning is a hot topic once again. With both West World and season two of Channel 4’s Humans capturing viewers imaginations, the idea of what it means to create intelligence – and what that tells us about ourselves – is definitely in vogue.

We’ve explored human interpretations, and anthropomorphism, of what machine life might be like many times on this site. However, there’s a weirder narrative that tends not to get as much pick-up – probably due to the fact that it’s still very much in its formative stages. And yet, tales of machine’s stimulating their own learning are out there.

Back in 2009 the Science Museum commissioned a project that saw a trio of robots learning to sing collectively as part of their 100th year anniversary. Two years later and a video showing what happens when two chatbots were linked in conversation created a stir in the Sci-Fi community – most notably as a result of just how philosophical the discussion became.

In 2013 there was an apocryphal story of a AI run Quake server, where all the NPC combatants ended up descending into an uneasy peace. There’s still no corrobration, but the fact that it echoes the plot of John Badham’s Wargames (1983) ensures its inclusion here. Which brings us to last year where advances in robotics resulted in two humanoid machines – from the Neurorobotics Research Laboratory in Germany – learning to mirror and evolve their behaviour.

Most recently, though, Google have created the first piece of entirely machine built encryption. What’s especially interesting about this final story, is that two AIs were set in competition to outwit a third AI that was tasked with cracking the ciphers they produced. The experiment was a success with both machines learning from one another and, effectively, locking the third party out. As ever, fears of a Skynet singularity and a world dominated by machines followed the news – although that’s most likely a projection of our own insecurities. If we’re lucky the AIs we create will be more like those of Wargames and the Quake story above; smarter and more harmonious.

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Hot on the taloned heels of witnessing the Hitchcock/Truffaut documentary, comes a reading of Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds on the BBC Radio iPlayer. Predictably, it’s all the motivation this site needs to contemplate genre themes around nature turning against us en masse.

The Birds, first published in 1952, set a high benchmark for all emulators that followed and, as a result, output ever since has been pretty dire in comparison. From the low rent Killer Bees (2002) to the big budget, but equally risible, The Happening (2008), success has been more about tight narratives as opposed to special effects or the way nature chooses to dispatch us.

Probably the most compelling and Sci-Fi orientated trilogy in this space is James Herbert’s The Rats (1974), Lair (1979) and Domain (1984). While the story begins with all the typical tropes in place – ecological issues, a prolific creature and a small group of involved individuals – by Domain we’re experiencing a post-apocalyptic world in which the human survivors battle against the vermin for some kind of subterranean existence.

Insects provide another suitable threat to humanity but, once again, with mixed results. Even the writing of Arthur Herzog III, the directorial skills of Irwin Allen – fresh from The Poseidon Adventure (1972) – and the inclusion of Michael Cain as leading man couldn’t bootstrap The Swarm (1978) above average. Nicholas Edwards’ novel Arachnophobia had a better transition into film in the same year as the book was published (1992). However, it’s Saul Bass’ Phase IV (1974) that makes it onto the Drozbot hit list. Even today its favouring of ideas over thrills, bold cinamatography and Dali-esque Surrealism creates something that can’t easily be dismissed. Plus, it’s just become available on Netflix in the UK.

We could delve deeper and consider works that employ both dogs and cats as potential threats – such as David Fisher’s The Pack (1976) – but the general outlook remains one for improvement. There’s plenty of room to revisit this sub-genre and the increasing ecological threat of humanity upon our planet, offers an interesting twist with the premise of a vengeful Gia. It’s a bug infested baton buried in the middle of a rat-king, but there’s creative potential there for anyone brave enough to reach in and pick it up.

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HYPER-REALITY from Keiichi Matsuda on Vimeo.

Despite science fiction having an optimistic bias – apocalypses tend to have ‘post’ attached to them, and police or invading alien states have their resistance movements – sometimes the future that’s being framed isn’t necessarily one we’d desire for ourselves, our children, or our children’s children.

Renowned documentary maker Adam Curtis has just released an epic entitled HyperNormality onto the BBC iPlayer. It’s a thought-provoking piece that takes the philosophical theories of Jean Baudrillard, and his contemporaries, and expands upon them to encompass the media driven world we live in today. For Baudrillard the idea of Hyper-Reality is an environment in which the authentic has become increasingly obscured by simulacra that have no direct reference to reality. Las Vegas is just one of his exemplary touch-points, and it’s also a focus for Curtis and his critique – specifically of Donald Trump. The ongoing problem that we have, is that creatives in the science fiction genre – and the influence that they exert upon post-modern culture – are partially responsible for the mess of information we’re struggling to decode.

Advertising is always a useful lens that reflects the current state of affairs, and it’s one that also exemplifies the convergent nature of science fiction to what Curtis is highlighting. No more so than in some of the odd crossovers that have aired recently. Compare the following adverts from British Gas, Deus Ex, Channel 4’s Humans and Jibo, all of which could easily pass as a trailer for Charlie Brooker’s latest series of Black Mirror. The interesting differentiator is that two of these promote this unified future as attractive, while two present something we should be wary of. The narratives, the themes, the style, however, are practically interchangeable. If the ad and marketing creatives are hot on the heels of current Sci-Fi tropes, then you can see the impetus to shift, to move and to reinvent. Curtis’ crisis in the real world extends to those scribbling away in the margins of fiction, resulting in a decreased amount of room to manoeuvre.

So here’s to whatever comes next. To the post-modern Lovecraftians, the rural cyber crime writers and those that pen pangender romance novels. You, and the weird and wonderful futures you’ll imagine, have the Drozbot seal of approval.

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