Idiocracy is secretly about super AI

I originally began to write about Idiocracy because…

  • It’s a hilarious (if mean) sci-fi movie
  • I am very interested in the implications of St. God’s triage interface
  • It seemed grotesquely prescient in regards to the USA leading up to the elections of 2016
  • I wanted to do what I could to fight the Idiocracy in the 2018 using my available platform

But now it’s 2019 and I’ve dedicated the blog to AI this year, and I’m still going to try and get you to re/watch this film because it’s one of the most entertaining and illustrative films about AI in all of sci-fi.

Not the obvious AIs

There are a few obvious AIs in the film. Explicitly, an AI manages the corporations. Recall that when Joe convinces the cabinet that he can talk to plants, and that they really want to drink water…well, let’s let the narrator from the film explain…

  • NARRATOR
  • Given enough time, Joe’s plan might have worked. But when the Brawndo stock suddenly dropped to zero leaving half the population unemployed; dumb, angry mobs took to the streets, rioting and looting and screaming for Joe’s head. An emergency cabinet meeting was called with the C.E.O. of the Brawndo Corporation.

At the meeting the C.E.O. shouts, “How come nobody’s buying Brawndo the Thirst Mutilator?”

The Secretary of State says, “Aw, shit. Half the country works for Brawndo.” The C.E.O. shouts, “Not anymore! The stock has dropped to zero and the computer did that auto-layoff thing to everybody!” The wonders of giving business decisions over to automation.

I also take it as a given that AI writes the speeches that King Camacho reads because who else could it be? These people are idiots who don’t understand the difference between government and corporations, of course they would want to run the government like a corporation because it has better ads. And since AIs run the corporations in Idiocracy

No. I don’t mean those AIs. I mean that you should rewatch the film understanding that Joe and Rita, the lead characters, are Super AIs in the context of Idiocracy.

The protagonists are super AIs

The literature distinguishes between three supercategories of artificial intelligence.

  • Narrow AI, which is the AI we have in the world now. It’s much better than humans in some narrow domain. But it can’t handle new situations. You can’t ask a roboinvestor to help plan a meal, for example, even though it’s very very good at investing.
  • General AI, definitionally meaning “human like” in it’s ability to generalize from one domain of knowledge to handle novel situations. If this exists in the world, it’s being kept very secret. It probably does not.
  • Super AI, the intelligence of which dwarfs our own. Again, this probably doesn’t exist in the world, but if it did, it’s being kept very secret. Or maybe even keeping itself secret. The difference between a bird’s intelligence and a human’s is a good way to think about the difference between our intelligence and a superintelligence. It will be able to out-think us at every step. We may not even be able to understand the language in which asks its questions.
Illustration by the author (often used when discussing agentive technology.)

Now the connection to Joe and Rita should be apparent. Though theirs is not an artificial intelligence, the difference between their smarts and that of Idiocracy approaches that same uncanny scale.

Watch how Joe and Rita move through this world. They are routinely flabbergasted at the stupidity around them. People are pointlessly belligerent, distractedly crass, easily manipulated, guided only by their base instincts, desperate to not appear “faggy,” and guffawing about (and cheering on) horrific violence. Rita and Joe are not especially smart by our standards, but they can outthink everyone around them by orders of magnitude, and that’s (comparatively) super AI.

The people of Idiocracy have idioted themselves into a genuine ecological crisis. They need to stop poisoning their environment because, at the very least, it’s killing them. But what about jobs! What about profits! Does this sound familiar?

Pictured: Us.

Joe doesn’t have any problem figuring out what’s wrong. He just tastes what’s being sprayed in the fields, and it’s obvious to him. His biggest problem is that the people he’s trying to serve are too dumb to understand the explanation (much less their culpability). He has to lie and feed them some bullshit reason and then manage people’s frustration that it doesn’t work instantly, even though he knows and we know it will work given time.

In this role as superintelligences, our two protagonists illustrate key critical concerns we have about superintelligent AIs:

  1. Economic control
  2. Social manipulation
  3. Uncontainability
  4. Cooperation by “multis.”

Economic control

Rita finds it trivially easy to bilk one idiot out of money and gain economic power. She could use her easy lucre to, in turn, control the people around her. Fortunately she is a benign superintelligence.

Yeah baby I could wait two days.

In the Chapter 6 of the seminal work on the subject, Superintelligence, Nick Bostrom lists six superpowers that an ASI would work to gain in order to achieve its goals. The last of these he terms “economic productivity” using which the ASI can “generate wealth which can be used to buy influence, services, resources (including hardware), etc.” This scene serves as a lovely illustration of that risk.

Of course you’re wondering what the other five are, so rather than making you go hunt for them…

  1. Intelligence amplification, to bootstrap its own intelligence
  2. Strategizing, to achieve distant goals and overcome intelligent opposition
  3. Social manipulation, to leverage external resources by recruiting human support, to enable a boxed AI to persuade its gatekeepers to let it out, and to persuade states and organizations to adopt some course of action.
  4. Hacking, so the AI can expropriate computational resources over the internet, exploit security holes to escape cybernetic confinement, steal financial resources, and hijack infrastructure like military robots, etc.
  5. Technology research, to create a powerful military force, to create surveillance systems, and to enable automated space colonization.
  6. Economic productivity, to generate wealth which can be used to buy influence, services, resources (including hardware), etc.

Social manipulation

Joe demonstrates the second of these, social manipulation, repeatedly throughout the film.

  • He convinces Frito to help him in exchange for the profits from a time travel compound interest gambit
  • He convinces the cabinet to switch to watering crops by telling them he can talk to plants.
  • He convinces the guard to let him escape prison (more on this below).

Joe’s not perfect at it. Early in the film he tries reason to convince the court of his innocence, and fails. Later he fails to convince the crowd to release him in Rehabilitation. An actual ASI would have an easier time of these things.

Uncontainability

The only way they contain Joe in the early part of the film is with a physical cage, and that doesn’t last long. He finds it trivially easy to escape their prison using, again, social manipulation.

  • JOE
  • Hi. Excuse me. I’m actually supposed to be getting out of prison today, sir.
  • GUARD
  • Yeah. You’re in the wrong line, dumb ass. Over there.
  • JOE
  • I’m sorry. I am being a big dumb ass. Sorry.
  • GUARD (to other guard)
  • Hey, uh, let this dumb ass through.

Elizer Yudkowsky, Research Fellow at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, has described the AI-Box problem, in which he illustrates the folly of thinking that we could contain a super AI. (Bostrom also cites him in the Superintelligence book.) Using only a text terminal, he argues, an ASI can convince an even a well-motivated human to release it. He has even run social experiments where one participant played the unwilling human, and he played the ASI, and both times the human relented. And while Elizer is a smart guy, he is not an ASI, which would have an even easier time of it. This scene illustrates how easily an ASI would thwart our attempts to cage it.

Cooperation between multis

Chapter 11 of Bostrom’s book focuses on how things might play out if instead of only one ASI in the world, a “singleton” there are many ASIs, or “multis.” (Colossus: The Forbin Project and Person of Interest also explore these scenarios with artificial superintelligences.)

In this light, Joe and Rita are multis who unite over shared circumstances and woes, and manage to help each other out in their struggle against the idiots. Whatever advantage the general intelligences have over the individual ASIs are significantly diminished when they are working together.

Note: In Bostrom’s telling, multis don’t necessarily stabilize each other, they just make things more complex and don’t solve the core principal-agent problem. But he does acknowledge that stable, voluntary cooperation is a possible scenario.

Cold comfort ending

At the end of Idiocracy, we can take some cold comfort that Rita and Joe have a moral sense, a sense of self-preservation, and sympathy for fellow humans. All they wind up doing is becoming rulers of the world and living out their lives. (Oh god are their kids Von Neumann probes?) The implication is that, as smart as they are, they will still be outpopulated by the idiots of that world.

Imagine this story is retold where Joe and Rita are psychopaths obsessed with making paper clips, with their superintelligent superpowers and our stupidity. The idiots would be enslaved to paper clip making before they could ask whether or not it’s fake news.

Or even less abstractly, there is a deleted “stinger” scene at the end of some DVDs of the film where Rita’s pimp UPGRAYEDD somehow winds up waking up from his own hibernation chamber right there in 2505, and strolls confidently into town. The implied sequel would deal with an amoral ASI (UPGRAYEDD) hostile to its mostly-benevolent ASI leaders (Rita and Joe). It does not foretell fun times for the Idiocracy.


For me, this interpretation of the film is important to “redeem” it, since its big takeaway—that is, that people are getting dumber over time—is known to be false. The Flynn Effect, named for its discoverer James R. Flynn, is the repeatedly-confirmed observation that measurements of intelligence are rising, linearly, over time, and have been since measurements began. To be specific, this effect is not seen in general intelligence but rather the subset of fluid, or analytical intelligence measures. The rate is about 3 IQ points per decade.

Wait. What? How can this be? Given the world’s recent political regression (that kickstarted the series on fascism and even this review of Idiocracy) and constant news stories of the “Florida Man” sort, the assertion does not seem credible. But that’s probably just availability bias. Experts cite several factors that are probably contributing to the effect.

  • Better health
  • Better nutrition
  • More and better education
  • Rising standards of living

The thing that Idiocracy points to—people of lower intelligence outbreeding people of higher intelligence—was seen as not important. Given the effect, this story might be better told not about a time traveler heading forwards, but rather heading backwards to some earlier era. Think Idiocracy but amongst idiots of the Renaissance.

Since I know a lot of smart people who took this film to be an exposé of a dark universal pattern that, if true, would genuinely sour your worldview and dim your sense of hope, it seems important to share this.


So go back and rewatch this marvelous film, but this time, dismiss the doom and gloom of declining human intelligence, and watch instead how Idiocracy illustrates some key risks (if not all of them) that super artificial intelligence poses to the world. For it really is a marvelously accessible shorthand to some of the critical reasons we ought to be super cautious of the possibility.

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Tattoo surveillance

In the prior Idiocracy post I discussed the car interface, especially in terms of how it informs the passengers what is happening when it is remotely shut down. Today let’s talk about the passive interface that shuts it down: Namely, Joe’s tattoo and the distance-scanning vending machine.

It’s been a while since that prior post, so here’s a recap of what’s happening in Idiocracy in this scene:

When Frito is driving Joe and Rita away from the cops, Joe happens to gesture with his hand above the car window, where a vending machine he happens to be passing spots the tattoo. Within seconds two harsh beeps sound in the car and a voice says, “You are harboring a fugitive named NOT SURE. Please, pull over and wait for the police to incarcerate your passenger.”

Frito’s car begins slowing down, and the dashboard screen shows a picture of Not Sure’s ID card and big red text zooming in a loop reading PULL OVER.

It’s a fast scene and the beat feels more like a filmmaker’s excuse to get them out of the car and on foot as they hunt for the Time Masheen. I breezed by it in an earlier post, but it bears some more investigation.

This is a class of transaction where, like taxes and advertising, the subject is an unwilling and probably uncooperative participant. But this same interface has to work for payment, in which the subject is a willing participant. Keep this in mind as we look first at the proximate problem, i.e. locating the fugitive for apprehension; and at the ultimate goal, i.e. how a culture deals with crime.

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Report Card: Las Luchadoras vs. El Robot Asesino

Read all the Las Luchadoras vs. El Robot Asesino posts in chronological order.

By any short description of its plot, this film should be amazing and meta. Like Kung Fury or Galaxy Lords, but, let’s be frank, it is so not that. Someone at Netflix should produce a reboot and it would probably be amazing. No, instead, this film has an actor in a robotic Truman Capote getup smashing through dozens of cardboard sets and flailing vaguely in the direction of characters who dutifully scream and drop from the non-contact karate chop.

And hugs. Robot assassins need hugs, too.

It is a pathetic paean to its source material, the much more well-done Cybernauts from The Avengers, (the British one with younger Olenna, not the Marvel one with the cosmic purple snap crackle and pop.)

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Trivium remotes

Once a victim is wearing a Trivium Bracelet, any of Orlak’s henchmen can control the wearer’s actions. The victim’s expression is blank, suggesting that their consciousness is either comatose, twilit, or in some sort of locked in state. Their actions are controlled via a handheld remote control.

We see the remote control in use in four places in Las Luchadoras vs El Robot Asesino.

  1. One gets clapped on Dr. Chavez to test it.
  2. One goes on Gemma to demonstrate it.
  3. One is removed from the robot.
  4. One goes on Berthe to transform her to Black Electra.
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Trivium Bracelet

The control token in Las Luchadras is a bracelet that slaps on and instantly renders its wearer an automaton, subject to the remote control.

Here’s something to note about this speculative technology. Orlak could have sold this, just this, to law enforcement around the world and made himself a very rich and powerful person. But the movie makes clear he is a mad engineer, not a mad businessperson, so we have to move on.

From Orlak’s point of view, getting the bracelet on its victim should be very easy. Fortunately, it does just that. Orlak can slap it on in a flick. But it’s also trivially easy for a bystander to remove, which seems like…a design oversight. It should work more like a handcuff, that requires a key to remove. It can’t look like a handcuff, of course, since Orlak wants it to go unnoticed. But in addition to the security, the handcuff function would enable the device to fit wrists of many sizes. As it is, it appears to be tailor-made to an individual.

As the diagram illustrates, not all wrists are made the same, and it would not help Orlak to have to carry around a sizing set when he hasn’t had time to secretly get the victim’s measurements.

Lastly, the audience might have benefited from seeing some visual connection between the bracelet and the remote, like a shared material that had an unusual color or glow, but Orlak would not want this connection since it could help someone identify him as the controller.

Mission slot

To provide the Victim Cards to the Robot Asesino, Orlak inserts it into an open slot in the robot’s chest, which then illuminates, confirming that the instructions have been received.

There is, I must admit, a sort of lovely, morbid poetry to a cardiogram being inserted into a slot where the robot heart would be to give the robot instructions to end the beating of the human heart described in the cardiogram. And we don’t see a lot of poetry in sci-fi interface designs. So, props for that.

The illumination is a nice bit of feedback, but I think it could convey the information in more useful and cinemagenic ways.

In this new scenario…

  • Orlak has the robot pull back its coat
  • The chamfered slot is illuminated, signaling “card goes here.”
  • As Orlak inserts the target card, the slot light dims as the chest-cavity light brightens, signaling “I have the card.”
  • After a moment, the chest-cavity light turns blood red, signaling confirmation of the victim and the new dastardly mission.

When the robot returns to Orlak after completing a mission, the red light would dim as the slot light illuminates again, signaling that it is ready for its next mission.

These changes improve the interface by first drawing the user’s locus of attention exactly where it needs to go, and then distinguishing the internal system states as they happen. It would also work for the audience, who understands by association that red means danger.

The shape of the slot is pretty good for its base usability. It has clear affordances with its placement, orientation, and metallic lining. There’s plenty of room to insert the target card. It might benefit from a fillet or chamfer for the slot, to help avoid accidentally crumpling the paper cards when they are aimed poorly.

In addition to the tactical questions of illumination and shape of the slot, I have a few strategic questions.

  • There is no authorization in evidence. Can just anyone specify a target? Why doesn’t Gaby use her luchadora powers to Spin-A-Roonie a target card with Orlak’s face on it and let the robot save the day? Maybe the robot has a whitelist of heartbeats, and would fight to resist anyone else, but that’s just me making stuff up.
  • Also I’m not sure why the card stays in the robot. That leaves a discoverable paper trail of its crimes, perfect for a Scooby to hand over to the federales. Maybe the robot has some incinerator or shredder inside? If not, it would be better from Orlak’s perspective to design it as an insert-and-hold slot, which would in turn require a redesign of the card to have some obvious spot to hold it, and a bump-in on the slot to make way for fingers. Then he could remove the incriminating evidence and destroy it himself and not worry whether the robot’s paper shredder was working or not.
  • Another problem is that, since the robot doesn’t talk, it would be difficult to find out who its current target is at any given time. Since anyone can supply a target, Orlak can’t just rely on his memory to be certain. If the card was going to stay inside, it would be better to have it displayed so it’s easy to check.
  • How would Orlak cancel a target?
  • It is unclear how Orlak specifies whether the target is to be kidnapped or killed even though some are kidnapped and some are killed.
  • It’s also unclear about how Orlak might rescind or change an order once given.
  • It is also unclear how the assassin finds its target. Does it have internal maps with addresses? Or does it have unbelievably good hearing that can listen to every sound nearby, isolate the particular heartbeat in question, and just head in that direction, destroying any walls it encounters? Or can it reasonably navigate human cities and interiors to maintain its disguise? Because that would be some amazing technology for 1969. This last is admittedly not an interface question, but a backworlding question for believability.

So there’s a lot missing from the interface.

It’s the robot assassin designer’s job to not just tick a box to tell themselves that they have provided feedback, but to push through the scenarios of use to understand in detail how to convey to the evil scientist what’s happening with his murderous intent.

Who did it better? Victim card edition.

Let’s cut to the chase. Las Luchadoras is a wholesale rip-off of Cybernauts, from the 1961–1969 British TV series The Avengers, specifically the episode “Return of the Cybernauts” from 1967. Thanks to readers Xavier Mouton-Dubosc @dascritch and Roger Long @evil_potato for drawing my attention to the complete ripoffery.

Dust off your stereoscopes for this one.

Compare freely…

  • Bad robot is silver-faced, wears a black trench coat, does not speak, wears black sunglasses, and a black hat.
  • Bad robot is given instructions via a graphically-designed card inserted into a machine slot.
  • Bad robot smashes through walls to gain access to victims who stand there in horror rather than, say, running from the slow-walking golem.
  • When bad robot kills, it does so with karate chops.
  • Bad human captures scientists and forces them to provide engineering specs to fulfill his evil ambitions.
  • Bad human forces scientists to build a wrist-wearable mind-control device, for use on Team Good. (One’s a bracelet. The other is a watch.) The main target for mind-control is a woman.
  • Bad human has plans to use the mind-controlled person to fight the rest of Team Good.
  • The day is saved (spoiler? I guess?) by pulling the mind-control device from the victim and putting it on the robot, which instead of granting the bad human more control of the robot, causes it to go berserk.

It’s like René Cardona saw “Return of the Cybernauts” on TV, loved it, and thought there is only one thing that could make this better: Lady. Wrestlers. So he added luchadoras and hoped BBC Four wouldn’t notice. He just wanted to make the world better, y’all.

If you think I’m exaggerating, here are a few side by side shots.

I guess we can give credit to Cardona’s selection of a Bolero hat instead of that tired Fedora thing? SciFiFashionChoices.com
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Playing the Victim Card

To specify a target for assassination or kidnapping, Orlak (or a henchman) inserts a specially designed card into a slot built into the robot’s chest, right at its heart. One of those cards is below.

The layout of the card puts the victim’s picture on the left; a node-graph diagram that looks like a constellation diagram, and some inscrutable symbols on the right. The characters discuss that this card contains a cardiogram of the victim, but it’s unclear which part of the card has this information, because they usually look something like this:

1896 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution
only license CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Oh, it’s probably worth mentioning that one of the movie’s givens is that a cardiogram can uniquely identify a person, like a thumbprint (which isn’t as provably unique as popular culture would have us believe). But to use a cardiogram to locate a person without a ubiquitous sensing network (unthinkable in 1969) would require a very high resolution cardiogram, a wall-piercing sensors, and some shockingly advanced pattern matching on the part of the robot, and I’m not sure I’m willing to give this film that much credit.

Presuming that there are lots of technical reasons for the stuff on the right, and the robot needs the profile for visual recognition, I imagine the only thing missing is a human-readable name so these are easy for the henchmen and scientists to discuss amongst themselves. I mean, they might happen to know every single scientist in town by sight, but having the name would avoid possible misidentifications. The design of artifacts have to take into account all common scenarios of use, including production, maintenance, and storage.

Speaking of which, it’s unclear how these cards are produced. They seem like they take a lot of expert effort to produce and fabricate. Let’s give the film credit to say that this is a deliberate attempt by the enslaved scientists to…

  • Make something as irrevocable as a death sentence very difficult to order.
  • Ensure an order to the murderous robot takes time, and thereby give time to let passions subside and orders to be rescinded.
  • Serve as a bailiwick of sorts, being too difficult for a layperson to do, and thereby difficult to turn on its masters.
  • Secure their jobs.

LATE BREAKING UPDATE: Turns out these cards are a copy of cards from The Avengers (1961–1969). Check out the comparison.

Las Luchadoras vs el Robot Asesino

This week marks the otherwise unsung 50th anniversary of the absolutely terrible film Las luchadoras vs el robot asesino, or Wrestling Women versus the Robot Assassin. I know I have to finish Idiocracy, but I wanted to pause to share this with you here on its anniversary. It’s a Mexican B-movie from 1969, it has an AI of sorts, and it is brain-explodingly bad with a handful of simple, evil interfaces to review.

Release Date: 9 January 1969 (USA)

Overview

The mad scientist Dr. Orlak has created a robot assassin, which he programs to punch through cheaply constructed set walls and capture scientists to enact his nefarious world domination plan.

massive-spoilers_sign_color
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Boosting underrepresented voices

I’ve had this going for a few days via Twitter and Facebook, but a friend pointed out that since most of my readers subscribe, I need a blog post!

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Scifiinterfaces is working on a project about gender representation in sci-fi, specifically around gendered AI in screen sci-fi. I am soliciting guest authors for the posts, and I think it is especially important to hear from underrepresented voices. I’m conscious of how much work those folks are already doing uncompensated, so I want to make a special point of arranging compensation in this case.  Please help support these authors doing important work!

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A teaser graphic from the study tempts you. You want to help this thing come to life. </hypnotist voice>

All donations are shared equally among guest authors. None will be kept by myself.

INCENTIVE #1: One anonymous donor has let me know they will be matching the first $150 of donations. An easy way to double your money!

INCENTIVE #2: As of yesterday, 04 DEC 2018, I upped the ante a little bit. I’m committing that the biggest bid by the time we meet the $600 goal will get a physical copy of the book. Used, these start at $55 on amazon, so it’s nothing to sneeze at. If your bid is over $55, I’ll sign it for you, per your request.

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