Sunday, 28 May 2017


Hello, Big Brother

I’ve had a fender bender with the future, a low speed crash course.

A few days ago I went to see Alien: Covenant because I will always go to a Ridley Scott science fiction film because I know I will be in for a visual treat, a feast of battered technology and dripping ruins. ‘Covenant’ is a sequel to Prometheus, but the two films are not prequels to Scott’s original Alien so much as a more complex reboot of a franchise which essentially began life as a haunted house in space. In our age of burgeoning artificial intelligence (AI), there are looming existential questions and possible outcomes to speculate upon.

Michael Fassbender is electric in dual roles, one as David, the surviving ‘synthetic’ from the Prometheus mission, and as Walter, his more dutiful, upgraded version aboard the Covenant. “Hello, brother.” At its core, Alien: Covenant is a remake of The Forbidden Planet spiked with a queasily gratuitous homage to the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. As the script addresses humanity’s need to know its creator and our species’ search for a new world of milk and honey, the plot only thickens with a shocking Judas Kiss.

1843 is a culturally themed sister publication of The Economist which first went to press that year. The latest issue carried a feature story detailing the difficulties scientists and programmers face as they attempt to instill and install morals and ethics into AI entities. The example cited read like the set up for a joke, a robot walks into a restaurant – an absurd, though explanatory premise. The logical machine would go straight into the kitchen because that’s where the food is stored. However, social norms dictate that restaurant customers sit at a table, perhaps order a drink, choose their meals from a menu and then wait for a server to bring their food to their table. Baby steps before robot warriors that will not rape and pillage engage in firefights with brainwashed child soldiers high on crudely synthesized opioids.

Following the flick I left the Cineplex theatre and crossed the parking lot to The Rec Room, another Cineplex property. The space is massive, an industrial chic gallery of bars, food counters, hi-def screens and new fangled games. I’ve never been able to make the conceptual leap of acceptance from card games, board games and, hell, even pinball to video games. All require degrees of skill and strategy but video games have always struck me as frittering away the benefits of new technological resources. A waste of time for everyone involved; my generation gap, I suspect.

I have since learned that gaming technology has enhanced training simulations and that those who pilot C.I.A. drones probably spent too much time in their mothers’ basements. Very recently The Economist ran a story explaining how video game codes are being altered for use as learning tools for AI units. For instance, a driverless car will recognize the Platonic ideal of a STOP sign, a graphic in a learner’s manual. A ‘drive’ through Grand Theft Auto will teach it to recognize STOP signs “covered with mud” and presumably, shot full of holes. Who could have predicted that whilst sparking up a doobie and playing Pong for the first time? The hi-tech rapture of ‘The Singularity,’ the synchromesh of humanity and AI, David and Walter, may be upon us sooner than visionaries have hoped.

The future was a lot to think about, so I ordered another pint and went outside for a contemplative cigarette. When I reentered The Rec Room the bouncer said, “May I scan your I.D., sir.” I replied with my best Roger Moore arched eyebrow. He repeated his question. I said, “I’m sitting right over there.” He said, “I know that, sir” and repeated his question which wasn’t really a question at all. I asked, “Why?” He repeated his question. Our tones of voice were changing. I was attempting to have a conversation with an automaton.

Was a kid in a black t-shirt with yellow SECURITY printed on it and a Bluetooth sticking out of his head going to be my hill to die on? How much personal information had I already freely volunteered to various levels of government, Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and God knows who else? I saw my beer waiting at the bar. I reluctantly handed him my driver’s license. I said, “Let me see your screen.” He spun it toward me. There I was out in the parking lot looking shifty. “That’s your I.D. photo beside it.” I said I was familiar with my I.D. photo. “Why all this?” He provided the inarguable and Orwellian explanation: “For the safety of our patrons, sir.” Bad guys in the world and on the grid. I pointed at myselves, “What happens to this information?” He said, “Cineplex cannot access it. It’s stored on a private and secure server and then erased after 30 (maybe he said 90) days.” I said, “There’s no such thing.” He looked past my shoulder at the line of kids I was holding up.

So I walked back into the future with its virtual gaming rooms, its electronics, its utter sterility, annoyed with myself because I’d acquiesced to Big Brother who turned out to be a little prick in a cheap uniform wielding a modicum of power. “So this night might be how it will all shake down,” I thought. “The Jehovahs are starting to look pretty good.” I told the bartender to pour me another.

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