Digital Assistants at the Forefront of AI

By Brandon Engel: Important touchstones in technological history come about when something jumps the gap from experimental testing to widespread consumer use. Nowhere else today is this more apparent than within the market for “digital personal assistants”, voice-user interfaces which facilitate an understanding between us and our machines.

Within the broader field of artificial intelligence, machine learning algorithms are rapidly improving to better extract knowledge from our natural, spoken language patterns. The profit motives of large corporations like Apple and Amazon indicate the companies behind these increasingly-powerful softwares are attempting not only to perfect human-to-machine communication, but to also to insinuate themselves and their services in a position that will expand their authority. That has led to something of an arm’s race, as firms jostle for control of the most accurate means of determining consumer’s spoken – and unspoken – desires.

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We’ve come a long way from the days when Microsoft Word users wanted to slap Clippy, the first widely known “PDA”, for providing inaccurate editing assistance. Users of Apple’s iOS-based products have now been happily making friends with the company’s Siri system for some time. Amazon, however, is perhaps the best positioned for dominance in the speech automation space. The Echo home speaker is grounded in its Alexa AI service. Even Microsoft has made huge strides with Cortana, another hands-free helper at the intersection of computer science, linguistics, and human psychology.

A New Frontier

These intelligent virtual assistants signal a new frontier in computing. They go much further than just recognizing your requests and attempting to fulfill them: gathering information from the Cloud, their “minds” are informed by millions of pieces of data input by users in real-time all around the world. For the biggest internet players – Apple, Google – access to a massive pool of voice data has help software coders built systems that act as flexible roadmaps for how certain questions should be answered. When consumers speak a search query aloud or ask a question, the software that supports Alexa and her cohorts is able to act efficiently on a wide range of natural language tasks.

A.I. That Listens and Learns

At their worst, these products can seem a bit creepy. At their best, they offer a highly customized experience. Amazon’s push into consumer electronics is not easily separated from its interest in many smaller Internet-connected devices and its broader role as one of the world’s biggest retailers. Now that the day has come when customers no longer have to visit a screen to shop online, voice assistants are encouraging purchasing decisions and facilitating new modes of customer interaction.

According to this website, smartphone users make the most use of voice assistants in their home – at 43%. Using voice assistants while driving ranked second at 36%. Assaf Ronen, Amazon’s vice president of voice shopping, recently applauded the company’s voice assistant skills saying, “Our Alexa speech science engineers have made something so incredibly challenging appear effortless to customers.” On “Prime Day”, Amazon’s yearly discount sale, users ordering products via voice assistant were offered special deals – resulting in the company’s most profitable shopping day ever.

The Invisible Hand

The privacy concerns attached to such systems seem so obvious as to hardly be worth mentioning. Carrying around a smartphone means carrying around a GPS-connected device that ties you to the “Cloud”, where all information is accessible should you know how to look. The fact that we’re all online, all the time has not been lost on advertisers and sellers, and neither by crooks, hackers, and the identity thieves.

Like many ethical concerns in the consumer world, the final verdict is likely to be rendered by the invisible hand of the market. Will end users prize the newfound intelligence of their digital personal assistants? Will they value them enough to trade a sense of privacy for the promise of a better experience while shopping, reading the news or just searching the web? In the meantime, the major software companies are more focused on figuring out the how rather than dealing with the ethical and legal implications. How it all shakes out remains to be seen, but it will be exciting to watch as A.I. grows as an everyday presence in our lives.

Weather Power! Five Films Where the Planet Fights Back

By Brandon Engel: Earth’s average temperature has risen by 1.5°F over the past century and is expected to continue rising, which is frightening for those of us who live here on planet Earth. With the threat of climate change due to constant human activity looming over our heads, it’s no wonder nature has started to fight back. Direct Energy recently reported 87 percent of carbon dioxide produced by humans comes from the burning of fossil fuels, and such resources are quickly dwindling as a result of our overdependence.

But no matter if you’re an environmental activist or a political pundit, everyone can agree that the end of the world due to climate change makes for an intense, thought-provoking film — with these five movies giving audiences a taste of how our world could look if we don’t show Mother Earth the respect she deserves.

(1) Them! – Environmental scares didn’t start with fear of global warming though. In the 1950’s, America feared nuclear attacks from wartime enemies, causing the nation to imagine all sorts of radioactive mishaps just ready to take over the country. The 1954 horror movie Them! features giant, man-eating ants who got their power from New Mexico atomic testing gone awry. This blends all sorts of worldwide fears (space travel, alien life, nuclear testing) into one gigantic monster. Even though the film is cheesy by today’s standards, it shows how environmentally aware cinema got its start.

(2) Silent Running – The idea of botany blended with space is all the rage due to the hit sci-fi film The Martian, but it has its roots in the 1972 sci-fi thriller Silent Running. This film imagines a world in which flora and fauna is destroyed with the only remaining plant life existing in pods attached to a spaceship. The main character must face tough decisions regarding the value of human life versus the value of other life on earth, giving audiences a glimpse into a world where we must fight for the survival of the natural world we take for granted.

(3) C.H.U.D. – Some films don’t have to take place in a post-apocalyptic world to be frightening – they can take place right in the bustling city streets. The 1984 low-budget horror film C.H.U.D. might be known for its ick factor, but it actually has a lot to say about how we treat our environment. The heroes of the movie are the sort of everyman New York City individuals (a police officer, a journalist, and a homeless man) who take a stand when their world starts falling apart, showing that even a horror movie about sewer cannibals (yes, you read that correctly) can make an environmental statement.

(4) The Day After Tomorrow – One of the most well-known environmental films (and the one made two years before the groundbreaking documentary An Inconvenient Truth) is 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow. In this sci-fi thriller, the citizens of New York have to battle the icy effects of global warming and climate change head-on right in their city. Even though the science behind the film has been proven to be inaccurate, it is still startling to see what could happen to our urban world when the natural world takes over.

(5) Children of Men – In the case of 2006’s Children of Men, the threat of environmental hazards hits close to home when the world in 2027 is shown to make humans unable to reproduce as infertility threatens the future. The movie depicts one of the worst things that could happen to mankind – the very real threat of extinction. This movie shows that climate change affects all aspects of life on Earth, including the future of life itself.

These days, it is hard to focus on one current event without another tragedy needing our attention and resources. We claim to care about all aspects of our world’s well-being with little change in our habits – but keep in mind that if the planet doesn’t survive, neither will we. While world leaders and political influencers are meeting and putting in significant efforts to curb climate change, the largest impact resides with the everyman. Films like these can be effective in educating the world as a whole about natural and very real threats. Hopefully by projecting such imminent dangers on the big screen, we will soon be seeing more individuals doing their part to save the environment.

Can Alien Life Save Us From Ourselves?

Stephen Hawking helps launch Breakthrough Initiatives.

Stephen Hawking helps launch Breakthrough Initiatives.

By Brandon Engel: Stephen Hawking is one of contemporary history’s greatest living geniuses. He is a leader in the fields of theoretical physics and cosmology as well as something of a medical miracle; having battled the motor-neuron disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) for the majority of his life, he operates a computer with his cheek in order to communicate. Today he is currently the Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology, at DAMTP in Cambridge, previously he served as the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge – a position once occupied by no less a scientific personage than Sir Isaac Newton.

In the past, Hawking has been cautious about his involvement in attempts to communicate with extraterrestrials, asserting that potential alien encounters would likely be disastrous for humankind. Any serious warnings from him, however, seemed largely unnecessary, given that the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project has been poorly funded and largely staffed by volunteers over the several decades of its existence. Anyone who concluded that Hawking is against SETI work, however, was mistaken. In collaboration with Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, on July 20 he announced the creation of the “Breakthrough Listen” project at a press conference at the Royal Society, another group to which Isaac Newton belonged. The project will be endowed with $100 million over the course of 10 years.

The plan is to use powerful radio telescopes around the world, such as at the Parkes Observatory in Australia and Lick Observatory in California, to listen for alien signals. About a million stars will be observed by the project, which will focus its efforts on frequencies between 1 gigahertz and 10 gigahertz, which is thought by experts to be the most likely range for finding meaningful communications. It’s estimated that the amount of data gathered in one day of Breakthrough Listen will be as much as was collected in a year of previous SETI endeavors.

Alongside “Listen” is a similar but smaller-scale effort called “Breakthrough Message”, centered around composing a message to send to any alien life that we may find. Message will incorporate an element of competition, with a prize pool of $1 million for the winning creation of digital messages that reflect humanity and its values. Project leaders have not yet committed to sending any such message even if another civilization is found on some distant planet, but the possibility is being carefully considered.

Any attempt to communicate over interstellar distances is, of course, a very tricky business.

Breakthrough’s approach may be superior to the system used in the Voyager spacecraft: the launching into space of physical material containing information about Earth and the human species. This attempt seemed to be more of a publicity stunt rather than an actual, viable means of transmitting information to extraterrestrials. The chances of another civilization actually finding such a physical artifact within the vast volume of space is almost zero, despite what we may have seen in Star Trek.

Some more outlandish theorists claim that we have already come into contact with alien races, and they have already shared an impressive wealth of information with us. Over the last fifty years, it’s clear that we’ve witnessed a massive influx of technological discoveries that would have been unimaginable to those just several generations earlier. Some of these breakthroughs — powerful lasers, fiber optic internet, and advanced microchips — are believed (by a vocal few) to be proof of back-engineered alien technology. It’s hard to find credibility in these claims, but they nevertheless ignite a hope that extraterrestrial communities may assist us in the future, should we ever find a way to reach out.

Even if Breakthrough Listen detects a faraway culture and Breakthrough Message gives us the means to communicate with it, there might not be much that can be said. We have no way of knowing the ways in which alien lifeforms have evolved, and if their conceptions of time and space are anything like our own. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once remarked, “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him.” After all, consider what aliens would think about us if they accidentally detected one of our transmissions, say, a YouTube cat video?

Complicating matters is the universal speed limit – the speed of light in a vacuum – faster than which no message can travel. This means that it will take several years between transmission and reception, even if we detect intelligent life orbiting one of the stars closest to our home planet. All things considered, it’s highly implausible that aliens could teach us how to live in peace with our fellow creatures, preserve our Earth’s environment or how to address any of the other problems that currently affect us.

If we do end up communicating with aliens, the outcome will likely reveal more about our own personal perceptions and biases than anything else. In the words of Fermilab physicist Don Lincoln, “When we talk about the more intelligent extraterrestrials, we’re really holding a mirror up to ourselves. If we didn’t see ourselves in the vision, we wouldn’t find them nearly as fascinating.” Ultimately, the notion of extraterrestrial peoples encourages us to see outside ourselves, and imagine new, alien, ways of doing things.

Genisys or Lysis?

*** Spoiler Alert ***

By Brandon Engel: When Schwarzenegger said, “I’ll be back,” he meant it – again, and now again.  Beginning with the first Terminator film in 1984, the franchise has steadily delivered sequels for over three decades.  The first follow up, T2: Judgement Day grossed over half a billion dollars worldwide, produced a hit soundtrack, and was nominated for six Academy Awards (winning four of them).  James Cameron, who directed the first two Terminator films, declined to participate in the next two installments: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and Terminator: Salvation.  He is now adamant that the latest film in the series, Terminator: Genysis is actually the third film in the narrative of the series, even though he was not involved as director.

There’s little arguing that Terminator: Genisys lacks the thematic depth and conceptual intelligence that launched this glorious franchise. You can’t quite say that an effort wasn’t made on Terminator: Genisys, but with a hefty budget of $170,000,000, four other movies, video games, TV series (listings here), and a major theme-park ride, this singular franchise is beginning to feel a bit spent. The producers were wise to exploit the franchise’s best feature, the Terminator, Arnold himself, in all of his pre-gubernatorial glory. This alone provides satisfying entertainment.

Schwarzenegger worked hard to get back to his muscular, Terminator form, but fell just a bit too short for one of the scenes in the movie where he fights a younger version of himself. Body builder Brett Azar was brought on board, and with the help of an excellent effects company, the illusion proved successful. Schwarzenegger returned to the film because he is “very passionate” about the character.

Overall, this genesis really needed to marinate a little longer in the workroom of its creator before going live. What is different about Genysis? Producer Megan Ellison and director Alan Taylor decided to play with the timeline and completely wipe out the events of the third and fourth films, essentially giving this one a reboot, taking it back to the days of Cameron when John Connor, his mother Sarah, and Schwarzenegger’s sometimes bad, sometimes good time-traveling cyborg all play on our deepest fears: what happens if machines take over the world?

Gensyis opens with the defeat of Skynet in the post-apocalyptic future, the discovery of the cyborg’s desperate last attempt to rewrite history and humanity’s hero, John Connor, sending his second-in-command and proud father-to-be Kyle Reese back in time to save his mother, Sarah Connor. Sound familiar? Just wait. A highly unanticipated left turn lands Kyle in an alternate timeline, where multiple Terminators have been sent throughout Sarah’s timeline. One such terminator is an old-school T-800 model, Arnold of course, who has been reprogrammed by an unknown source and also sent to protect her. Things get a little crazy when another twist happens and John Connor becomes the bad guy.

The notion of “alternate timelines” and whether or not set events can be altered is fascinating, but it traps the story in a self-perpetuating time warp. Instead of reinvigorating a workable plotline, Genisys recycles past events and familiar dialogue and uses only so-so action sequences to try to draw our attention away from any unanswered questions and lapses in logic.

Terminator: Genisys is the first of a planned trilogy. Hopefully, they will look for ways in the following two to take some cues from some other successful sequel epics such as the Fast and Furious, which somehow (miraculously) keep us enthralled. Terminator geniuses, please stick with a more logical and thoughtful plotline, keep our beloved characters the way we love them and don’t leave us hanging on loose ends. If it is a good movie, we will be sure to return and see the next one.

Banking on the success of Jurassic World and Genisys, as well as other examples of “re-envisioned” classics, studios will undoubtedly continue to rehash more of our favorite 80’s films. With rumors of a Goonies sequel with all the original cast members and even a reboot of The Breakfast Club, it might be time to give the Hollywood remake machine a rest.

Ex Machina Probes the Mind Within the Machine

By Brandon Engel: Ex Machina, the latest in a long line of AI-focused films, provides a sleek and contemporary scrutiny of the complex relationship between humans and their robo-progeny. A thriller as much as it is a serious science fiction film, Ex Machina encourages viewers to rethink their own conceptions of personal identity and intention – begging the question of what it really means to be a “human.”

The premise itself is simple: Caleb is a lowly programmer at a Google-esque search engine company, who, after winning a company-wide contest, is invited to spend a week with the enigmatic and reclusive company owner Nathan. Nathan has asked Caleb to visit on the basis that he will act as the litmus test for his latest creation – a sentient female A.I. named “Ava.” Using the information he’s collected from billions of unique individuals, Nathan has developed her as an uncannily lifelike amalgamation of anthropomorphic characteristics to amplify his own efforts to further understand the human psyche.

Within the walls of Nathan’s custom-built research facility, Caleb endeavors to test the limits of Ava’s humanity. Sci-fi fans will find few twists in this movie, but it makes up for any moments of predictability with solid pacing and more than enough sociological observations on our own capacity for evil. In the end, the film is less about how bad robots can be and more about how terrible we are, a race of highly sentient mammals with a taste for depravity deeply hardwired in. That Nathan has a cache of robot sex slaves comes as no surprise, nor does the fact that Ava is modelled after a very heteronormative, even perversely Caucasian standard of beauty. Set against a backdrop of sparse pines and mountain peaks, Ex Machina gives viewers nowhere to hide from their own perturbing subconscious.

Featuring an ominous, Carpenter-esque score and gorgeous special effects, the story is as tight as Ava’s lithe chainmaille torso. Ex Machina is Alex Garland’s directorial debut, and inarguably one of the best films of the year resulting from the partnership between art house production company A24 films and DirecTV (joining A Most Violent Year and Slow West). Garland’s masterful depiction of his characters in isolation (the film was primarily shot in Norway) occasionally leaves the viewer feeling as though they’re at the hands of Kubrick in The Shining.  When the ending does arrive, it’s a horrible, albeit entirely logical, extension of each character’s psychology.

The ambiguous nature of a robot’s intentions – are they thinking “freely” or simply parroting the behavior of those around them? – is well-trammeled ground in science fiction. Reaching back to the release of Dr. Frankenstein’s original monster, the minds of robots have long served as a point of fear and fascination. Examined in William Gibson’s cyberpunk fiction, as well as today’s contemporary cinema (Her being last year’s popular example), we continue to wonder whether androids will ever be able to live in harmony beside us. Many writers, such as Asimov (whom Ex machina references), William Gibson, and Philip K. Dick, have written stories depicting worlds where men and robots coexist side-by-side. Indeed, many of them also proposed rules to govern the synthetic beings and prevent them from taking hostile actions against humans. If the robotic truly seeks to replicate the “human”, it will have to wrestle with the kernel of brutality inherent to its design.

And while scientists continue to assure us that true thinking, feeling, free-will A.I. will be of no danger to us, convincing simulations of human A.I. are already in our laps now. Google’s A.I. programs are capable of learning from “experience”, filtering data into meaningful patterns and mimicking certain principles of the brain. In recent years A.I. has become an increased area of focus among research teams in both Silicon Valley and China. And that’s just when we keep matters in the sphere of the silicon chips; when bioengineering catches up to computer engineering – as it inevitably will during the 21st century – we might have a whole new set of concerns.

The A.I. revolution – when it does come – may be treated as a new branch of human evolution.

As technology progresses, the line between humans beings and robots will continue to blur, possibly receding completely down the road. Indeed, this improved ability to imbue machines with “human” perception drives us to better understand the nature of our own consciousness.

Yet in reality as in Ex Machina, the minds of those around us – robotic or otherwise – will likely continue to confound.

From Monty to Monkeys, Another Treat from Terry Gilliam

By Brandon Engel: Terry Gilliam, beyond the initial fame he gained as a member of the iconic comedy troupe Monty Python, has made a name for himself as a successful screenwriter and director, best known for films like The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys. However, it’s Gilliam’s contributions to dystopian science fiction literature and film that have endeared him to sci-fi fans across the globe, where he sets up a world where the best of intentions go awry while offering a subtle commentary on society.

In between the final Python films, Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life, Gilliam transitioned into a career as a screenwriter and director with films about the desire to escape the confines of an ordered society throughout the different stages of life. It’s easy to identify themes Gilliam would use in his later works by taking a closer look at what he referred to as his “Trilogy of Imagination”.

The first film, Time Bandits, is presented from the point of view of an 11-year-old boy. The movie has the boy delving into a fantasy world that somehow meshes with his real world once the adventure comes to an end. It’s interesting to point out that the film’s conclusion is far from the cliched Hollywood happy ending, also characteristic of Gilliam’s later works.

In Brazil, a young man is searching for a woman appearing to him in his dreams. This time the film presents a consumer-driven dystopian world dependent on machines that borrows elements from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen featured a different mix of fantasy and reality along with an ambiguous ending meant to leave something to imagination of the audience.

After exploring his interest in subversive literature with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, based on the Hunter S. Thompson novel, Gilliam presented a unique take on The Brothers Grimm, re-imagined as con artists in a film of the same name. Following the sci-fi comedy Tideland, Gilliam returned to the world of pure fantasy with The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

12 Monkeys, the story of a prisoner sent back in time in an attempt to discover a virus that has already been unleashed on the world in the present, has several clear cinematic allusions to Chris Marker’s 1962 French short film La Jetee and Hitchcock’s Vertigo, with references sometimes overlapping, most notably with the reenactment of the Muir Woods scene from Vertigo that was also recreated in La Jetee. A recent TV adaptation airing on the Syfy Channel (here for more channel information) echoes the same premise of the film. The series, set in the present day, has James Cole returning from the year 2043 to find the elusive group that will unleash a devastating virus in the future.

In 2013, Gilliam’s latest sci-fi flick, The Zero Theorem, debuted at the Venice International Film Festival. In the film, which hasn’t been released in the U.S., a computer genius attempts to determine whether or not life has meaning through a formula he’s developing. In 2013, Gilliam finally confirmed that Brazil, 12 Monkeys and The Zero Theorem are part of his satirical dystopian trilogy.

While Gilliam’s movies aren’t always uplifting, he asserts that sometimes it’s appropriate to be serious and somber when bringing a story to life on the big screen, whether it be fantasy, science fiction or a combination of the two genres. In an interview posted online, Gilliam, who has a reputation for speaking his mind, called out Steven Spielberg for not going beyond the predictable, referring to his works as “simplistic,” specifically criticizing Schindler’s List for lacking depth. He also links Spielberg to the “dumbing down” of audiences.

Arthur C. Clarke’s 5 Most Astonishing Predictions

By Brandon Engel: Even the most casual fan of the science-fiction genre has probably heard of Arthur C. Clarke. His many works of literature remain immensely popular to this day, particularly his novel 2001: A Space Odyssey (which was written at the same time as his screenplay for the eponymous film directed by Stanley Kubrick). Clarke’s vast creative genius spanned multiple media venues. It is also this creative genius that led him to make some of the most astonishingly accurate predictions of what would be future technologies, as listed below.

One of his earliest and most accurate predictions involved the use of satellite technology for global communications. In a paper written in 1945, just as World War II was winding down, Clarke wrote of the possibility of using a space station to transmit radio waves and television signals globally. He followed this paper with another article that same year, in which he discussed the placement of satellites that would orbit the earth and also transmit communication signals. While he did not invent the concept of a geostationary orbit, he certainly caused the popularity of the idea among the general public, and today, there are more than 300 such satellites in orbit around the globe providing us with everything from satellite tv (more info here) to satellite internet (click here for more information).

And speaking of the internet — Clarke anticipated that, too. During a 1974 interview given to the Australian Broadcasting Network, Clarke was asked by the reporter about what the future would look like for young adults at the dawn of the 21st Century. Clarke then went on to speak about electronic data hubs that people would use to communicate with friends and family anywhere on the globe and to be able to access their bank statements, purchase theater tickets, and more through their home computer setup.

Along with the prediction about the internet, Clarke described what would someday become the personal computer. He went on to describe how every household would have a computer that would fit on a desktop or table, with a screen and keyboard through which they could communicate socially and conduct business.

That’s right — Clarke also anticipated telecommuting. Going back to an earlier interview, in which he qualifies his predictions by saying they likely sound outlandish to an audience in 1964, but the more outlandish the predictions, the more the future will find them astonishing should they prove to be accurate. In the case of telecommuting, Clarke describes what he foresees as a time when man will be able to conduct his business from anywhere on the globe with the same success and efficiency as if he were in his office. Clarke also looked upon this concept favorably, as he thought it meant that businessmen would not be required to live in congested cities.

Another a prediction that was made more indirectly through his work was the iPhone or iPad — or more broadly, the multi-functional electronic tablet with a simple-to-navigate touch-screen interface. Clarke’s characters in 2001: A Space Odyssey use technology that bears a remarkable resemblance to what would become the iPhone and more specifically the iPad. Called the newspad in Clarke’s work, the description of it states that it could not only receive business communications but also could call up what Clarke called electronic newspapers and other information from anywhere on Earth. Even the rough shape and size of the device mirrored what would later become Apple’s iPhone and iPad and Samsung’s Galaxy tablet.

There is no doubt that Clarke was a visionary living ahead of his time. In most cases, he attributes his ability to predict future technologies to the same imaginative and creative faculties that allowed him to create such popular and prolific science-fiction works. Being able to see the current technology of his time and extrapolate on what it could become was Clarke’s gift to us all.

Brandon Engel: Starman

By Brandon Engel: When the name John Carpenter comes up, people tend to think more about his involvement with movies like Halloween (1978), The Thing (1982) or Escape from New York (1981). These thrillers helped to shape the horror and sci-fi aesthetic of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. However, with the film Starman (1984), Carpenter broke with his standard themes and made a movie that looked at science fiction in a new way, and proved to detractors that, as a filmmaker, he wasn’t purely reliant upon sensational themes (Halloween) or over-the-top special effects (The Thing).

The movie depicts an alien from an unknown planet who has decided to visit earth after hearing an invitation that was transmitted via Voyager 2 — an invitation for all other lifeforms to connect with earthlings. The alien soon discovers that earth is a hostile place. He ends up getting shot down in a remote location in Wisconsin. As with many movies of the time, the US government had been tracking the skies with typical Cold-War era paranoia. After exiting its craft, the alien proceeds to a nearby home to find the first body it can inhabit on this world. The government, meanwhile, calls in experts from SETI, police departments and the military to conduct an extensive search for the entity from the crash.

Starman_film_posterBack in the Wisconsin home, a woman, Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen), has been reminiscing about her late husband, Scott (Jeff Bridges). The protagonist first appears as an ominous ball of light floating through the air. The alien finds a lock of Scott’s hair and replicates the DNA to recreate the body and inhabit it. This sequence still features some of the well-known tropes of the science-fiction genre. The ball of light floats through the air in a supernatural way, accompanied by background music that seems to forebode something scary and possibly horrific right on the horizon.

Upon replicating the DNA from the hair, the alien undergoes a gruesome transformation from a fetus to a fully developed man. The special effects seem somewhat dated now, but still have some impact. Carpenter also makes use of an abstract sci-fi montage to show what is happening on the cellular level during this transformation. After this point, though, the movie heads in a completely different direction, focusing more on the interaction between the widow and her deceased husband’s alien doppelganger.

The alien manages to communicate and to manipulate his new human form enough to tell Jenny that he needs to get to Arizona to return to his home planet. He is now an exact clone of the man on the home videos that she was watching just moments before. Most of the rest of the movie deals with how she handles the uncanniness of the situation, and the sudden appearance of this entity who is physically identical to her husband but knows nothing about life on Earth. Part of what’s notable about the film is that it plays like a romantic road film, peppered with elements of classic science-fiction.

The studio had originally envisioned Starman as a vehicle for special-effects. Carpenter wanted to downplay the significance of the effects, and focus instead on the interaction between the two main characters. John Carpenter might have learned his lesson from The Thing, which was a superb science-fiction film that failed to gain any sort of box-office draw from outside the built-in science-fiction fanbase. And where the The Thing failed in terms of box-office receipts, Starman went on to sell well for the home viewing market, and it’s still shown frequently on niche television networks (more details), and it has actually aged quite well.

Through this process of travelling and encountering humans in different situations, the alien makes some incisive comments on how people act. Many of these moments are comedic and existential, such as when he learns what people do in the bathroom. Also, through the way he treats the people and animals he meets, he changes how Jenny thinks about the life and death of her husband.

The starman also highlights other human frailties like smoking, and discrimination against people who are different. His story also symbolizes the tension between science and the military, as well as the fear of government overreach near the end of the Cold War — a major theme of 1980’s movies that Carpenter blended into this sci-fi movie with an emotional touch. What’s more, it integrates some of the sensibility of science-fiction films from the 1950’s (the height of the Cold War) such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), wherein humanity is in a state of pandemonium over the presence of an outsider — and all the aliens want to tell us is to relax.

Brandon Engel: Westworld’s Delos Park, the Disneyland of Your Dreams…and Nightmares

Westworld_ver2By Brandon Engel: Long before Will Smith and Kevin Kline took to the Old West as lawless steampunk gunslingers (and shortly after The Wild Wild West TV show’s initial run), Michael Crichton explored the technological-paradise-turned-nightmare theme in his first directorial outing, Westworld. In a futuristic “theme park” where the guns are real and all the girls are robots, the guests’ violent and lustful fantasies are indulged for a mere $1,000 a day. Richard Benjamin and James Brolin visit this adult vacation spot, called “Delos”, to live out their decadent dreams, until (of course), the robots revolt on their clientele and begin a bloody take down of the Disney-inspired Delos park.

Despite being the first film to employ digital image processing, a lot of the special effects are dated. But the film still excels as a terrifying thriller, capitalizing on real technophobic fears that have only intensified as our dependency on bionic beings increases. The robots of Delos are so lifelike that they act, talk, and bleed like people, and in the film they are (thankfully) all portrayed by real actors. The only part of them that reveals their mechanical nature is the hands. They are programmed to acquiesce to visitors of the park’s every desire, sexual or otherwise, and cannot harm them (despite having access to real bullets?) even as blood-thirsty guests choose to gun them down.  In the park there are three distinct “realms” – Romanworld, Medievalworld, and Westworld – each historically-themed and populated with the very-lifelike androids.

James Brolin’s character, a regular at Delos, takes his friend Peter (Richard Benjamin) to the park for a bachelor’s holiday following his nasty divorce. The two men get settled in at Westworld, preparing for a few days of fun at the robot bar and brothel. But as we soon find out, the park has been experiencing a few “technical difficulties” with its population of android slaves. The chief supervisor reports that the robots have been breaking down more than usual, and it appears that they’re transferring the problem from one to the other – just like a deadly virus. The scientists delay shutting down the park, choosing to observe the robot’s behavior. But their choice proves to be a serious mistake.

The androids rebel, not just by malfunctioning, but by taking matters into their own hands and murdering park guests. The viewer gets the sense that these sex/violence-bots have grown tired of being used and re-used as receptacles for human urges and appetites. Yul Brynner’s character, the toughest android gunslinger in Westworld, certainly evokes the feeling that these robotic beings are something more than just machines.

Brynner and his android man-in-black gunslinger character, clearly based on his depiction of “Chris” in The Magnificent Seven (1960) (which was itself a remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai [1954]) gets viewer’s blood running cold in his relentless pursuit of Benjamin’s character. He portrays more than just a machine, beneath his steely eyes there is a chilling malevolence, a foreshadowing of Schwarzenegger’s fiendish machine in The Terminator (1984).

While the film may never enjoy the same adulation that the mainstream has bestowed upon Crichton’s more famous work, Jurassic Park, Westworld has retained its cult of fans — and it’s a cult that’s ever-increasing thanks to exposure through El Rey Network and the fact that various websites have made it available for streaming. It received mixed reviews upon its initial release in 1973. Critics responded saying the film was only “mildly entertaining”, whereas audiences were more enthusiastic, and today the film is considered a cynical 70’s classic in the vein of Bryan Forbes’ The Stepford Wives and Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake.

How Drones Could Enrich Society

By Brandon Engel: However useful they may be as idea fodder for science fiction writers, there’s little disputing the fact that drones, particularly those employed for military purposes, have done a tremendous amount of damage all over the world. But what about the potential good these devices could bring humanity, if used towards a more constructive end?

Contemporary science fiction writer Daniel Suarez wrote a novel a few years ago entitled Killing Decision, which poses the question: “should unmanned vehicles be equipped with the ability to — autonomously — carry out murder?” It invites speculation about how this could corrode representative government, and it generates all sorts of other interesting questions about notions of choice and moral agency, particularly as they relate to nationalism and warfare. All of the atrocities committed with drones are, at the very least, still being committed with drones and not by drones. But what happens when the machines are capable of functioning as both as judge and executioner, without a live person actually making executive decisions?

But, for all of the atrocities committed with drones, and for all of the moral ambiguities that arise from their use in carrying out military assignments, there are several potential applications of this technology which could enrich society.

For example, drones are very useful when it comes to land surveying. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has been using them for everything from responding to natural disasters (forest-fires especially) to general environmental research and monitoring the effects of climate change.

In the private sector, several colleges throughout the United States, including Kansas State, Penn State, and Cornell, are also using drones for research purposes. The University of Florida houses its own drone research group, which has been developing drones for hurricane tracking, and also for capturing high-resolution photographs for wildlife researchers. One advantage of using drones to take aerial photographs is that avoids the leading cause of work-related deaths among wildlife biologists – plane crashes while flying in private aircraft to and from sites of interest.

Drones also have medical applications. Height Tech, a German based company, has been working with medical supplier Schiller on a drone system that communicates with smartphone apps. If someone is having a heart related emergency, all they have to do is activate the app and the smartphone sends GPS coordinates to a drone, which can then fly in and parachute defibrillators down to the patient. The drones can fly in practically any weather at 44 miles per hour, and are therefore potentially a safer bet than ambulances for people living in remote areas.

And now, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is talking about using drones as a means of transmitting the internet to rural communities all over the world. While this may be yet another one of Zuckerberg’s exuberant marketing maneuvers, (and also likely a reflection of his desire to compete with both Google’s hot air-balloon program and HughesNet packages) who is to say that, if Facebook is successful at transmitting world wide internet to everyone, that the public at large won’t benefit?

Suarez himself had conceded during a public talk a few years ago that he recognized the potential societal benefits of drones, but that he chose to focus on darker speculations in the interest of producing a more dramatic story. And anyone who gravitates towards science fiction is perhaps inclined towards morbid fantasies. Nevertheless, whatever stigma there might be surrounding drones, it’s clear that, if used towards the right end, they can really improve life on this planet for a lot of people.