Archives For science fiction

Yes, Pacific Rim is a loud popcorn movie best viewed with your brain operating at half capacity, just enjoying the show without asking any questions. And that’s exactly what makes it fun. This may shock film snobs and critics who review Oscar bait, but not every movie in theaters needs to be an epic character drama that explores the fundamental issues with existence and the human condition, or brutally cataloging a bloody genocide while repeatedly beating its viewers over the head with heavy-handed questions about morals, ethics, free will, and what lurks within us all. At the same time though, big budget Hollywood spectacles with thin plots are usually outsourced to Michael Bay, or directors who emulate his style, who latch on to formulas that even the writers of Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller movies would find too flimsy and groan-inducing, then proceed to viciously drill them into your eyes to a soundtrack of explosions. Pacific Rim was thankfully made by Guillermo del Toro and easily avoids this trap by being a simple and very straightforward little tribute to giant robot vs. giant monster anime many twenty-somethings watched as kids.

But that said, there’s something just not right about humanoid robots brawling with giant beasts sent from another world through an undersea portal called The Breach. Jaegers might deliver a knockout punch to a 30 story Kaiju or pound one over the head with a container ship to give the monster a hell of a concussion, but the mechanics just don’t quite work. Kaijus are fleshy, which means they’re more flexible and heal minor cuts and scrapes quickly. By comparison, a Jaeger would be made of comparatively brittle metal alloys and have to be refurbished after every fight, making it extremely expensive and labor-intensive to operate. When the Kaijus appear every six months or so as they did at the beginning of the war, the cost can be managed. But as the giant brutes keep getting bigger and bigger, and start appearing as often as once a week, resources are quickly going to start running dry, so building ever more Jaegers would quickly become very difficult. No wonder that the bureaucrats who run the world in Pacific Rim want to shut down this once promising program for a wall to keep the Kaijus out. They can’t afford it anymore.

Of course one also wonders how they got the Jaegers to be bipedal at such a scale. Walking on two legs is very computationally expensive for a machine that’s as big as a high rise, and even a small bump in the road could send these robots falling, and falling badly. Not only that, but they give the Kaijus excellent points of attack: the ankles and the knees. To truly make their punches count, the Jaeger pilots have to get their robots to behave just like a human fighter and put the core and hips into the blow. Punching in a basic one-two sequence, the weight would swing from leg to leg, so a counter-attack from a Kaiju aimed at the thigh or the side of the knee could send a million tons of robot down hard with its head lined up for a finishing blow from above. You can see the same idea in mixed martial art disciplines which use stomps and side-knees in a clinch to shift an opponent’s weight so you can topple him and get full mount for a well placed elbow, or a swift hammer fist to the side of the head. Jaegers would simply not be flexible enough to survive this sort of assault in the real world. Many much less brittle and more coordinated humans aren’t without at least a little training or a whole lot of mass to counteract the impacts.

For better fight mechanics, I would have designed Jaegers to look more like sumo wrestlers. An extremely wide base either on tracks or hovering with the aid of nuclear powered jet engines, no legs, and stuffed with ranged weaponry to soften up the Kaiju as it charges. Large, thick, heavy arms with huge claws would pummel the monsters at close range and its barrel-like core would spin naturally, so tipping it over or even getting it off-balance would be a Herculean task, even for the fat Category 4 Kaiju which attacks Hong Kong in the movie’s second act. Its hull could be made of something flexible like kevlar to make it tougher for a Kaiju to bite through and diffuse a good deal of the force that would be generated by a direct hit. One could even imagine it pulling off a complicated sequence just by rotating around its axis. For example, it could hit a Kaiju with an enormous left hook starting about 30 degrees left off center, keep spinning until it can follow the punch with a right elbow at between 60 and 120 degrees right off center, and returning back with a left hammer fist and a right hook, using the hits on the Kaiju to redirect its momentum.

And while we’re redesigning the Jaegers, we should ask why they can’t be piloted remotely. We can control drones halfway across the world in real time and all of the infrastructure to pull off a similar feat with a giant robot seems to be in place in the film. To minimize lag, the pilots should be in the base from which their Jaegers would be launched, but they wouldn’t have to be in their robot. Their brain-machine interfaces with their co-pilots and with their machine are going to be implemented as an abstraction over the kernel of the Jaeger’s operating system anyway so the pilots could fight, lose, and be ready to fight again as soon as a new machine is ready to go. It’s actually kind of a no-brainer that allows them to switch tactics, pushing the Jaegers further and taking risks that could kill them if they were in the actual robot but win the day in the end. There would be a huge psychological boost from seeing a Kaiju on a big screen in a bunker instead of up close and personal, its fangs tearing through the cockpit and rattling the robot around. Yes, it’s not as heroic or dangerous, but much more militarily effective and politically beneficial.

But then again, all of this is based on the idea that Jaegers make for the best front-line defense when a Kaiju attacks. That’s not necessarily true. We know they can be killed by nukes, but the proposition of turning the world’s most populated coastlines into radioactive deserts is a tough sell and actually doing that will kill food production and give the Kaijus a beachhead from which they can mount assaults further and further inland. However, launching a very large kinetic kill vehicle from orbit, basically a huge spike dropped from a satellite, could hit a Kaiju with roughly the same yield as a 300 kiloton nuclear warhead without all the radiation. Currenly we can’t build and launch wepaons like this because they violate the Outer Space Treaty, but when there’s an angry horde of aliens that can flatten a city block with each step rampaging on Earth and all of the nations unite in building and deploying Jaegers, I’m sure exceptions could be made and the current space faring powers can launch a system of satellites ready to drive a super-heated alloy slug into a Kaiju at hypersonic speeds at a moment’s notice. Should that somehow fail and some time needs to be bought for another shot, Jaegers can coral the beast into the kill zone.

This is how you would fight a Kaiju in the real world. Orbiting KKV launchers that can fire off an exceptionally engineered slug at the planet below at a moment’s notice, drone bomber swarms, and giant mobile weapon platforms known as Jaegers, remotely piloted as a last line of defense against the nightmarish beasts. Pacific Rim’s spectacle is great for a live action anime movie, a solid tribute to the genre, and it creates tension by putting the main characters in real danger in the maws of the Kaiju, but if we were to translate any of it to the real world, it would be a militarily unsustainable strategy with little chance of actually working. The only worse strategy would be a giant wall to keep the monsters out, i.e. the Wall of Life being built in the movie, but it seems like the competent commanders in the Pacific Rim universe were all on leave throughout the war and this is why the world has been stuck with worse and worse ideas for fighting the alien titans. But hey, how mad can you be at a movie’s plot holes if it lets you mentally design giant robots and a swarm of global space-based defenses to fight aliens the size of an office block?

reserve note

When writing Shadow Nation, those whom I asked for creative advice pretty much assumed that any story set a thousand years in the future or more has to have Earth with either a one world government or as a dystopia ruled by the principle of might makes right. You can probably see why. Virtually every piece of science fiction set in the far future defaults to one or the other, and were you inclined to conspiracy theories, you could even say that it’s almost as if the one world elites are brainwashing us into thinking that it’s either a one world government or Mad Max style chaos in the badlands in our eventual future. But realistically, a global government just makes it easier to tell stories that play out on a cosmic scale. Accounting for how 206 sovereign nations and territories will react to alien invasions or first contact would make for an interesting novel but it would also be a very tedious piece of work to execute and easy to over-complicate.

So taking the easy way out, I went with the one world government, but I wanted to do something different with the required backstory. Utopian unification as in Star Trek and consolidating world wars were both out of the question. What does that leave as a reason for nations to unite under one banner? Money. You see, states as we know them are a relatively modern invention born in the middle of the 1600s, and aided by difficulty in communicating across vast distances and the expense and logistical effort of traveling across continents. Shared history and culture would’ve also cemented the nation state. But even today, cultures cross over oceans and communication via the web is bringing people closer together, especially when they have something to trade in an age of virtual commerce and vast logistical hubs and efficient transport. There are still major differences between some cultures that will be hard to reconcile, but regional blocks are growing more and more homogeneous, especially if they start opening borders and free trade zones.

Following through, a regional trading block with free trade should also allow workers to choose jobs they can fill no matter where they live. An engineer in Taiwan should be able to get a job in India or Mongolia if that’s where the demand exceeds the supply. It’s the only way to make free trade and globalization really fair: to demolish protectionism for both goods and jobs. But after a few decades, if not centuries, of this, cultures are more homogenized and so is the population. A group of people that freely lives anywhere throughout the region, using the same money barely even needs borders and separate governments. They would need local government offices for efficient administration of public services, true. But for all intents and purposes, they’re living in one huge nation. And since the borders are now all but irrelevant, may as well save money and get rid of them because they’ll only slow down how quickly goods travel while customs agencies could be put to better use in logistical hubs. Just like that, a dozen or so countries unite.

But now there’s a problem. We have our united blocks all trading with each other, each with their own government, but they can’t just switch to a single currency and take their unification to the final level. Depending on where they are on the planet, these trading blocks would have major discrepancies in their resources and strengths. A single global currency would hobble some of these blocks while boosting others based on which block drives the policy by using its GDP. The better solution would be to allow each block to keep their currencies which arose after the entire territory was fine-tuned into the production and extraction pipelines needed for optimal economic gain. Just like today, these currencies could be traded on an open market and there would need to be international laws covering the trades and exchanges. And don’t forget that there have to be rules allowing for the mobility of workers between trading blocks as well. Now you need some sort of centralized group to manage it all, a council that would take the trading blocks’ concerns, propose new laws, and settle disputes and issues that might arise, like a WTO/IMF hybrid.

This gives us our final narrative step and leads to the book’s International Council. Not really a government as we know one, it’s more of a COO for the planet’s sprawling trading hubs housing more and more people, and growing in size for the sake of efficiency and vertical integration for countless products and services. Layers of government offices are flattened and going from a local office to a global agency takes no time at all while the impact these agencies have is much more powerful because they don’t have to pass through a bureaucratic maze since red tape will slow down trade, costing jobs and inciting popular fury at the polls. Regulation is direct and an offense doesn’t have to be reported through many layers of oversight, it can be dealt with by a local office or swiftly punished by the global government. The International Council wouldn’t set many agendas, it would merely fund competitions for new big ideas and by judged by how well it keeps the economy ticking and help companies crank out new inventions. And when it comes to alien contact, everyone would know exactly where to turn to make the necessary decisions…

[ illustration by K. J. Garbutt ]


According to the Cthulhu Mythos, somewhere between New Zealand and Chile in the waters of the South Pacific, an underwater city known as R’yleh houses a malevolent monster that came to our planet eons ago and is now dead-dreaming until the stars align and he can once more send his spawns across the land, sowing death, destruction, and chaos, feeding on souls of both his followers and his victims. Of course this is just a setting for a string of horror stories and there’s no record of such things as Cthulhu, R’yleh, or the Necronomicon, but that doesn’t mean that a curious physicist can’t have a little fun with a sci-fi horror story and see what it would take for the mythical city of bizarre geometry and warped dimensions to exist. His conclusion? R’yleh’s odd distinguishing features described in The Call of Cthulhu are either powered by a warp drive or the effects of a cloaking device which works much like a warp drive would. And that would make the mythos’ main character’s description as an alien invader seem a lot more convincing…

How would the sailors who landed on the island housing R’yleh see a warped landscape and an enormous eldritch metropolis that made no sense to them. The layout and architecture would’ve obviously been made for alien creatures, so it’s unlikely it would’ve resembled building patterns we use in our own cities. Winged extraterrestrials who either float or move on tentacles wouldn’t need stairs and strictly defined doors, floors, and windows are unlikely to be mandatory. But that doesn’t explain the strange colors and the seemingly impossible geometry. That’s the effect of a gravitational lens on a very small scale, one created by the warp drive enveloping R’yleh. Light would be bent in very unusual ways, giving familiar things bizarre colors and shapes, and giving the sailors constant optical illusions, making the whole city look like a giant M.C. Escher sketch with a liberal touch of late Eocene Clawed and Tentacled Horror and Mild Acid Trip. And just to add to the weirdness, time inside R’yleh would move much slower than it would on the outside of it due to the time dilation effects created by the active warp drive or gravitational cloak.

You certainly wouldn’t want to get stuck in this city if you were lost at sea. Not only would space and time appear and flow differently for you, the primeval ruins populated with only FSM knows, or more likely doesn’t know, what that may be eager to devour you or tear you limb from limb to satisfy their curiosity about the strange bipedal squishy thing making lots of noise in their home, could turn even the shortest stay into decades if you ever make it back to the real world. Good thing this is all just one spine-tingling story from a pulp sci-fi magazine of a long-gone era and in the many decades since it accurately described what sounds like an alien generation ship there hasn’t been so much as a hint of anything weird in the South Pacific pole of inaccessibility where R’yleh was said to be sitting at the bottom of the sea. Well, if you don’t count The Bloop — which no one has been able to explain to full scientific satisfaction. But as I’ve already said, it’s all just creepy fiction. We’re all probably just fine. Probably…

See: Tippett, B. (2012). Possible Bubbles of Spacetime Curvature in the South Pacific arXiv: 1210.8144v1

When XKCD managed to outdo itself yet again with an article about what would happen if you tried to play a very simple game of baseball at relativistic velocities, I remembered about an interesting weapon from sci- fi novels, a relativistic impactor. Basically, it’s the same thing as a kinetic kill vehicle, or KKV, a weapon which would be a necessity for any combat operation in deep space due to the laws of physics, but traveling at a terrifying 99% of the speed of light. Not only would a mere 100 kilogram metal slug level an entire metropolis, it would do it in an instant. Fired from geosynchronous orbit, it would take less than 160 milliseconds to slam into the surface, faster than any alert about the incoming round can be received and understood by a human, even a very highly trained one. As soon as you know it’s coming, it already arrived, and as detailed by XKCD, it would actually trigger nuclear fusion as it compresses air molecules around it as it plows through the air. Add the output of that to its already immense kinetic energy and we’re talking about a genuine doomsday weapon, one that could strike at any time and kill tens of millions of people in an instant. Good thing that it’s not really a good option for any commander of a space armada and it couldn’t actually strike a planet even if it tried.

If you’ve read enough popular physics posts, you probably know what the first problem with relativistic KKVs is getting them up to speed. Going from zero to 663,910,830 miles per hour would take a lot of fuel. In fact, you’d need to burn through the equivalent of over 7.3 billion barrels of oil to make it happen, or if you’re a member of one extremely advanced species, the equivalent of 455 kilograms of antimatter. Now, this is not a completely insurmountable challenge if you’re ready to fire your RKV and wait for years until it gets to its target, just attach it to a mobile black hole reactor, or a slowly burning antimatter engine and let years of slow and steady acceleration do the job for you. Considering that any war requiring you to fire off relativistic KKVs using space stations would drag for years on end due to the sheer distances involved in space travel and hence the amount of time it takes to actually get to the battlefield, this may even be a decent way to deal a blow to enemy forces before you arrive. Think of it as an interplanetary or even interstellar ICBM with a warhead that’s a solid piece of something heavy and dense. But how are you going to guide it? How will you make that the tiniest of rounding error in your calculations magnified by trillions of miles causes it to miss the target?

But this may actually be a secondary concern since there’s no way your RKV will even reach the target without some sort of anti-friction force field. True, the interstellar medium is sparse, but flying through it at 0.99c is no easy task and ordinarily insignificant impacts with a stray particle here or there come very quick and add up to some very significant friction that can push the relativistic KKV off course. When it actually approaches a target in a solar system, friction with the much denser planetary medium would vaporize anything traveling over 0.1c so your KKV would be sandblasted away in an instant. It would be like firing a bullet only to watch it vanish into thin air with a bright flash, never hitting your opponent. If you’re perched somewhere in the Oort Cloud and set your sights on Earth, the relativistic round would vaporize around on the outer reaches of the Kupier Belt. You would need to open a wormhole between the space-time coordinate when your RKV would reach its intended velocity and the atmosphere of your target planet, but the physics of that are daunting, and the energy such a feat would require is more than enough to destroy a small solar system, making the payoff seem dinky by comparison. After all, if you can destroy a solar system in one blast, why even bother with an RKV?

All that said, however, there is a loophole. If instead of taking the relativistic impactor literally, we just say that any kinetic vehicle traveling at a distinguishable percentage of the speed of light fits the bill. This way, we can launch a much more controllable, manageable, and slower KKV at say, 0.05c. It will still be devastating when smashing into a target, generating over 2.1 gigatons of energy, but how relativistic it is will be open to debate, since even at 0.05c it can still be fairly accurately described using Newtonian laws of motion and the standard formula for calculating kinetic energy rather than the equations modified with a Lorenz factor to capture its relativistic properties. Regardless since it would be moving at 32.4 million miles per hour and arrive within 8 seconds or so after being fired from Earth’s geosynchronous orbit, it would still retain some element of surprise. Having a window of just 8 seconds from detection to impact doesn’t leave much time to do anything to counter it and by the time a laser intended to hit this pseudo-RKV can even be aimed, the target would be long-gone. Even if a special anti-RKV laser just so happened to be right in the middle of the target zone, aiming right at the kinetic round coming down from above, and was perfectly linked with a detector so it could fire in 300 milliseconds of detection, by the time the beam is intense enough to have a measurable effect on the KKV, it’s far too close to the target to be stopped. And when you have something this effective, do you really need a true RKV?

Many space operas tend to treat empires spanning multiple solar systems much like we would treat empires on our own world, complete with borders and territorial maps included on the characters’ computers. Just one look at the surrounding stars and they know that they’re in alien territory, ready to be greeted by a space-borne version of the interstellar empire’s border patrols. But considering that not only is space three dimensional, it involves stunning distances between objects, could a species carve out a large territory in space and be able to control the borders to its territory? Would it even be able to define them? And would it even matter to have a firmly delineated border between their space and the rest of the galaxy’s? Maybe borders of an alien empires would be extremely porous, extending for dozens of light years, a sort of a buffer or transition zone throughout which their presence becomes more and more prominent and they have a chance to detect intruders? And if they do spot a wandering craft, will it be worth it to them to send out an encounter team to figure out what this craft is, then drive it off rather than try to study it? In other words, how could an alien empire be defined?

One idea of how to define ownership of multiple planets may be as simple as counting only the planets which house outposts of a space-faring species. Rather than be marked by invisible lines, aliens may jumble each others’ holdings and three planets within the same solar system, or three solar systems side by side may be alternatively claimed by one of two species. For example, let’s say that future humans would lay claim to Mars, Titan, Triton, Europa, Mercury, along with the Earth and the Moon, and own several planets around two nearby stars. At the same time, another species claims Venus, Pluto, Ganymede, plus several planets around other stars. The idea is to count the worlds on which you actually have a presence and are actively inhabiting, which makes the idea of sovereign borders relatively easy to enforce. You set up patrols only around the worlds you inhabit and watch for incoming species rather than safeguarding empty space. Plus, by giving worlds to other species if you have no use for them could facilitate a sort of unspoken truce. Everyone gets want they want as long as they don’t start flashing lasers and kinetic kill vehicles and should be willing to trade for any common resource both require. Of course such commonalities could also start conflicts, but more on that in a bit.

The other, more science-fiction like scenario is one where territory is marked by considering the beginning of sovereign cosmic holdings to be the farthest outposts patrolled or explored by a species. In this scenario, any future humans landing on a planet 25 light years away have now claimed the entire target solar system along with all the solar systems along the way to their destination. It doesn’t matter how many of the worlds they will actually inhabit, all that matters is their extent. But of course this would also allow intelligent species to hold a vast cosmic empire each because the distances between them are likely to be very significant. There’s a very strong possibility that two advanced, space-faring species could live thousands of light years apart with many thousands of years separating their rise to power and acquisitions. Suddenly, as they begin to explore, rather than having to share space with hundreds of competing species, they can lay claim to several thousand cubic light years of space without the slightest challenge. Of course the big question is how they’ll mark it as theirs, especially in a way a completely alien entity would recognize as a territorial claim. One can’t just build a Great Space Wall and line it with turrets and watch towers, and detecting incoming craft with probes would require a vast swarm of robots numbering in the billions if not trillions. It could well be practically unfeasible.

And this brings us to a dilemma. What good are borders when they’re going to be that porous and the odds of another species showing up to deliberately challenge them are so remote? This is especially true when we’re dealing with immense territories claimed to unchallenged species. Thousands of light years means millions of planets around millions of stars and an empire that big simply cannot be policed. Just like some of the vast empires on our planet learned, laying claim to an enormous territory doesn’t mean you’ll ever control it. Maybe you can reach it and survey what goes on, but odds are that anything outside of your immediate habitat would just develop on its own with little to no input from you. Species could rise, leave their cradles, and fall within a wide swath of space you claim without you knowing they exist and without them ever learning that they’re your subjects, evolved on a planet you claimed millions of years ago. Even more interesting would be the question of how you would submit your claim and actually have it recognized and announced. On Earth we have maps, international organizations, and authoritative bodies which maintain official border designations, and yet even here borders are contested. What central authority would mediate border disputes between aliens, especially when, as we’ve just seen, a cosmic border is so hard to define and locate in the first place?

Just about every sci-fi movie featuring a battle in the depths of space generally shows large ships engaged in pitched combat sending out a swarm of fighters to deliver surgical blows to their enemies. Big battle ships do make perfect sense. After all, if you’re out to invade other worlds or conducting military patrols in deep space, you need to have enough room to house your crew and store enough supplies to keep said crew healthy and well fed. But when it comes time to actually engage an enemy, what about the fighters? The physics of space flight mean that you can’t simply send something like a plane to dogfight its way to bomb your targets, they will be going far too fast for that. The best they could do is repeated hit and run raids, whizzing past enemy craft to then reverse course back towards their mothership, hoping to pass by the enemy one more time on return. So there have been murmurings by those who want more science in their science fiction that if we ever have any real wars in space, we can forget about the fighters. Instead, we’ll just use small, powerful kinetic missiles.

But before we start redesigning our plans for fleets of battleships meant to project power on an interplanetary scale and nixing research into space-based fighters and bombers, we should consider that the same issues have been encountered on Earth. For decades now, the U.S. had extremely accurate long range missiles that can be launched by a submarine or an aircraft carrier in the rough geographical vicinity of a target. If it weren’t for the treaties and a real risk of nuclear war should someone overreact, ICBMs could be armed with more or less conventional warheads and sent to deliver precise strikes to enemy installations more than half a world away. Why do we even need planes anymore if a missile can get there faster and do about as much damage without any risk to real live pilots, not to mention saving us the cost of building and maintaining new jets and bombers? Well, according to Air Forces around the world, it’s actually more expensive and logistically difficult to simply fire a whole lot of missiles into enemy territory than to send in bombers with a fighter escort during a full blown military campaign, and the reasons why could apply quite well to combat in space.

You see, guided missiles don’t just obliterate their targets and then come back, and the missiles in question here cost millions and millions of dollars to build and maintain. And what if you need to recall a missile in the middle of a mission? You’ll have to blow it up or divert it, losing it in the process. Planes can simply be called back, or rerouted to multiple targets to deliver multiple bombs in a single sortie. Here, missiles are useful for taking out air defenses and radar installations, soften up extremely hard targets, and lay the general paths for bombing raids. After this initial volley, bombers and fighters can rush in to further dismantle enemy targets by dropping ordinance like bunker busters, extremely useful against a hardened installation, but far too heavy to load onto a missile and lob at an opponent. Likewise, in space, small but heavily armed craft which can whizz by enemy battlecruisers, delivering bomb after bomb after bomb after a volley of lasers and KKVs impairs the target’s ability to defend itself from the incoming swarm, can do a lot more damage at a smaller cost than just missiles all by themselves. And when you’re fighting an enemy millions if not billions of miles from home, you really need to try and get the most bang for your buck since a trip to your planet to reload is no trivial task.

So really, far from being a waste of resources, fighters for battleships would actually be a cost-effective way to deliver lots of damage to enemy craft very quickly, and given their small size and high velocity, they wouldn’t be easy to shoot down as they fly back and forth, emptying their weapons bays as soon as their targets are close enough to ensure a direct hit. And nothing says that they would have to be flown by humans, so there wouldn’t have to be any risk associated with being a space fighter pilot. It would be more like flying a drone, if there will even be a need for human drone operators that far in the future. As odd as it sounds because the situation is usually reversed, it’s the movies that have it right about space fighters rather than the scientific skeptics here, at least as far as the rationale for having them is involved. The actual mechanics of their use on the battlefield as they’re portrayed on the silver screen however, well… let’s just say that entire chapters of books have been devoted to explaining just how wrong directors have them, but that’s a different topic.

[ illustration by Kaimiirah ]

After mentioning Tron Legacy in a follow-up to a post about digital transhumanism, then seeing the film and writing down a few thoughts about its recurring themes, I thought I’d be pretty much done with the topic. It’s not exactly a controversial work, and there’s really not much there beyond the visual effects which try to make the ordinarily tedious process of writing code seem somehow exotic and exciting. But then I came across an odd post from Sean Carroll over at Cosmic Variance, saying that there was no real science in Tron, for which he was a science consultant, as he simultaneously tried to pat himself and his fellow science consultants on the back for convincing the director to put in unmentioned tanks of raw material used to reassemble humans emerging back from The Grid into the real world somewhere almost off camera for two frames that may have made it into the final cut. And after emphasizing this scientific victory, he goes on to say that just a tiny little bit of scientific content can add a lot of depth and believability to films, and Tron is a recent example of just that.

Let me get this straight. We’re talking about a movie in which a programmer is trapped in a computer by an AI with an authoritarian streak after discovering self-manifesting super-programs, ages by several decades in a safe-house despite inhabiting a purely digital realm where nothing needs to age, and is then joined by a son who was vaporized into the same computer with a laser. Pardon me but where exactly is the science in any of this Hollywood fantasy of how the world inside computers should look like to an audience which is just barely familiar with the concept of computing? Oh, right. If we strain really, really hard, we might see some unmarked tanks which we’re assured contain the oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous, hydrogen, and metals needed to bring a human back from a virtual world and re-assemble him one subatomic particle at a time. That’s the science of the Tron universe and a step towards seeing more and more scientifically accurate movies? Sean, really? Come on, from any scientific or engineering standpoint, the whole movie is just a fantasy where little people inside microchips are called programs and somehow, objects ordinarily requiring terabytes of memory to run can fill an entire virtual city in an arcade from the 1980s. But hey, we got those tanks, right?

And here’s another thing. Sean is a physicist, and he participated in the science consulting through a project that’s rather heavy on experts in physics and biology. Now, were Tron’s creators to ask someone with even a basic background in computer science, they would’ve learned that for The Grid to work, it would’ve had to exist on a server the size of the Encom tower and consume slightly more electricity than a small developing country to allow astronomical amounts of code to compile and run non-stop for decades at a time. They also would’ve found out that programs can’t just randomly manifest themselves unless you specifically experiment with your code to tease out some sort of behaviors you may not anticipate, behaviors that usually only happen because you left so much room in your code’s rules for the program to do something seemingly bizarre under a certain set of conditions. Finally, they’d have to come up with an explanation for how at a time when supercomputers were about a million times slower than they are today, someone could create an architecture only possible for the kinds of machines which are still just rough sketches on drawing boards. It’s not the design that wouldn’t work here, but the fact that in the 1980s, the computers weren’t fast enough to execute Tron-level instructions, and come to think of it, even today’s best computing devices simply aren’t up to par.

I could raise a few other issues but I don’t want to give away the ending and I think you get the point. There’s a dearth of any scientific merit to the movie and the tanks Sean mentions were so memorable, that after seeing the movie, I had no idea they were even there until I read his post on the matter. But you know what, that’s ok. I can live with a scientifically and technologically inaccurate movie. There’s certainly value in scientific advice to filmmakers when their goal is to be as accurate as possible and make a realistic and believable movie. When it comes to movies like Tron, though, the goal is to entertain, not educate or stay plausible, and we should let them just be entertaining rather than trying to squeeze in some hard science or make it seem as if the director heeded his scientific advisers when he didn’t really do anything noticeable. We shouldn’t be relying on movies to teach us about science or desperately try to latch something scientific onto a movie with good buzz just for a shot at getting an audience that may sort of be interested in seeing a few more clips from the movie between the scientist droning on about something that has to do with a scene they heard was really cool…

Imagine yourself out and about one day and coming across something very strange. Something that you don’t know how to describe, something that seems lost, confused, and out of place. And when you try to return it to where it belongs, you find that no one around you seems to care or notice, giving you the cold shoulder and a dismissive, annoyed glance. How do you get that creature back to where it needs to be? And speaking of that creature, what is it and why is it here? This is the premise behind the children’s book The Lost Thing, and the short film based on it was even nominated for an Oscar for its storytelling and top notch technical quality.

The interesting thing about the book is that you never quite find out what the creature is or why nit was where it was, or even if it ended up where it was supposed to belong. In fact, all you really know is that the weird thing exists and there’s someone interested in it. But not much beyond. So what do you think the book’s main ideas might be? That we all run into things we don’t understand and probably won’t? That what’s weird to use goes unnoticed by others? Or that we need to be on the lookout because we never know what we may spot next? Or that the mad scientists/alien hunters in Australia tend to leave their bizarre experiments just laying around?

Science fiction writer Ted Chiang did a good deal of research into artificial intelligence, particularly the kind of general knowledge, omni-AI system which I've been labeling completely uneconomical whenever I mention it in any practical context. And in a post about his inspiration on the subject, he outlines exactly why a custom, learning, adaptive artificial intelligence system designed to do anything and everything is bound to be grossly impractical, not just from a philosophical standpoint, but from a logistical point of view as well. It takes far too long to actually build it, then train it to do whatever it is you want to do. Considering that even humans can't do everything and at some point in time we need to specialize in a rather narrow area of skill and expertise, you'd have to devote decades upon decades of training your fantastic machine to do something really impressive.

Teaching machines is really nothing new, and there are plenty of ways to get robots and computers to make the decisions you need them to make, at least for problems involving things computers are built to do, things like building complex probabilistic models and crunching numbers. But when it comes to things humans can do as organisms, computers tend to sputter. Without the mechanism to learn very quickly through a repeated pattern of trial and error in each area they try to master, they may find a way to move around in a lab maze, but not so much in the real world, where they deal with new stimuli and interference they simply weren't designed to work around since it's so common sense to us, we forget to account for them. As Chiang summarizes…

[N]avigating the real world is not a problem that can be solved by simply using faster processors and more memory. There’s more and more evidence that if we want AI to have common sense, it will have to develop it in the same ways that children: by imitating others, by trying different things and seeing what works, and most of all by accruing experience. This means that creating a useful AI won’t just be a matter of programming, and although some amazing advances in software will definitely be required; it will also involve many years of training. And the more useful you want it to be, the longer the training will take.

That's pretty much spot on, with an added bonus of noting that simply speeding up training sessions isn't an approach we could take with general artificial intelligence. Though he's wrong that we're not even close to the kind of robot that could walk into the kitchen and make you eggs in the morning (because we already have a few that fetch beer on command), and his reasons behind why speeding up trials wouldn't work have several major problems (we can't compare processors to neurological limits of our bodies), his initial statement is a valid one. Trials in the real world take a certain amount of time and you have to be thorough to train a robot to do what you need it to do. The experiment has to be set up, the code compiled after the latest tweak, and the execution itself has to take a certain amount of time. Afterwards, you have to do an analysis of what went right and what went wrong, tweak the code, debug and re-compile it, re-set your experiment, and so on.

And all this is costing some very serious cash. While you spend decades whipping your AI into shape, who's to say that your funding won't be cut in another financial disaster? What happens if people who originally built the system leave to do other things? Who's going to be in charge of all this general training that will last more than some people's entire careers? It's much easier and cost-effective to build specialized intelligent agents which are trained to do a few specific tasks quickly and extremely well. Then, maybe at some point we could combine them into something impressive, bringing together mobile system, rules-based and probabilistic AI, and natural speech recognition software to help us process huge reams of complex data on the fly, but even there, our hypothetical homunculus would have to be trained to focus on specific tasks rather than try to be an omni-app that needs non-stop training to keep up with the humans around it.

[ illustration by Felix, aka ReginaldBull, story via John Dupuis ]

Once upon a time there was a little movie about a fictional town somewhere in New Mexico overrun by an old and bizarre subterranean species with an insatiable appetite and the ability to sneak up on its victims where they least expected it: right under the solid ground on which they stood. That movie was called Tremors, and its simple Sci-Fi Channel B-movie greatness managed to make it somewhat popular. And apparently, it was popular enough to find a fan at the University of Applied Sciences in Augsburg, Germany, who decided to use them as the topic of his undergraduate thesis: an informative illustrated short about dangerous cryptids and horror movie beasts called Monstrous Wildlife. Here’s what we might refer to as the show’s pilot episode…

You know, I have to say that as far as low budget horror movie monsters go, Graboids are actually one of the few well thought ones. That’s what made Tremors somewhat enjoyable, even though it suffered from the very typical cheesy one-liners and stilted acting afflicting many movies like it. With a somewhat realistic monster, acting in a consistent, believable way, you didn’t have to suffer through the cognitive dissonance you get with today’s slew of Sci-Fi Channel…err… excuse me, I mean SyFy Channel originals, which seem to be driven by the idea that people separate reality from fantasy so well, neither the writers or the filmmakers need to bother with a single shred of believability in the final product. I mean, come on. Sharktopus? Mansquito? Ice Spiders and Nazi Gargoyles? It’s as if today’s makers of pulp horror and sci-fi films just put a few old clichés in some horrible, idea-mangling blender, turn it to liquefy and let the resulting goop set into a script.

I’m really not a cinema snob, not in the least. In fact, I love good low budget flicks for their entertainment value, and their outlandish ideas. But seriously, B-movie makers, meet me halfway here. Don’t just throw a random monster at me and expect me to get all excited, especially when it hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves from the visual effects artists. We’re watching the movie for the scary creatures and sinister aliens, not the wooden actors with cardboard thin characters given awkward lines to somehow inflate into actual, relatable humans with real emotions. Make those extraterrestrial baddies, biological abominations, and primeval terrors shine from the screen in all their CGI glory, make them believable, and make them scary. After all, a good monster can be the start or a cult hit, and a subsequent franchise based on the aforementioned cult hit…