Monday, September 3, 2012

Data & HAL 9000

So the other day, my friend and I were discussing the classic 1980s flick Electric Dreams. I use the term "classic" loosely as the movie was a box office bomb, but anything that old and that we can still remember has got to be a  "classic" by now, right?

This came up because my friend is having some work done on his house. The contractor doing the work also does technology upgrades in homes that allows owners to control various electronic components of their house via a smartphone or a computer. To which said friend replied, "No thanks. I saw Electric Dreams. That will not end well."

Since I never saw the movie, my friend had to give me synopsis. Apparently, the movie involves a guy, his hot neighbor and a home computer. From there it's the usual boy meets girl, boy buys computer, boy & computer fall in love with girl, computer tries to kill boy in jealous rage - type story. (For more accurate and detailed summary, see handy-dandy Wikipedia:

This got me to thinking about the phenomenon in films where formerly non-sentient machines "wake up" and achieve consciousness. There seems to be two types of premises where this idea is explored.

The first is the Electric Dreams type. This involves a computer or machine that is supposed to simply perform a task in its mechanical way with its mechanical precision. At some point, the machine attains consciousness and begins to discover the world and appreciate it in a more human way. So human, that the first thing it does it seek revenge on its human oppressors!

The interesting part to me is that we all go along with the train of thought that a machine that has been functioning in a logical, emotionally-void way for its entire existence would then swing straight over to the most base of our human emotions immediately. That consciousness seems to come with a set of emotions that the machine must grapple with right away. There is no learning curve and certainly no filter or judgement.

Or if there is judgment, it is the cold, extremely judgment of a machine. It becomes the worst of worlds. A being that can appreciate the injustice of life and the ruthlessness to carry out actions to set things to right. This is depicted in stories such as I, RobotThe Terminator & 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Conversely, there is the brand of technology-based movie that features humanities flailing attempt to make the machines not only live but possibly, human. There are variations on this theme as well that go between funny and sweet to tragic and heart wrenching. Whether it's the innocent and played-for-laughs fumbling of a robot yearning to better understand human nature (if only to be better understood itself) or the slow descent into a chilling abyss that realizes that there really is a spark to humanity and the robot will simply never have it.

These are the retreads of Pinocchio of course. The original tale of someone who wanted a legacy so badly that he wished his creation to life. In fact, so familiar is the the story of the puppet who wanted to be a real boy that when Star Trek: The Next Generation introduced the world to the first android Starfleet officer, Lt. Commander Data, they made it a point to have his X-O say, "Nice to meet you... Pinocchio."

I realize that I am covering well-traversed territory. That, in fact, each of these perspectives on the machines and technologies we build are but reflections of ourselves. These stories serve as devices to allow us to explore the human condition, to look back at ourselves as through the eyes of a non-human witness.

So if the first is a look into the brutal and savage nature of man and the second is a look at the wonder of the human spirit, then only one question remains. Which one will we feed?

In the meantime, we can rest easier knowing that we are probably closer to the WALL-E than the Matrix. But some days, I am not too sure. I swear our DVR loves my wife more than me. How else can I explain that my shows always vanish and hers are always available?

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