MedPod

Early in the film, when Shaw sees the MedPod for the first time, she comments to Vickers that, “They only made a dozen of these.” As she caresses its interface in awe, a panel extends as the pod instructs her to “Please verbally state the nature of your injury.”

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The MedPod is a device for automated, generalized surgical procedures, operable by the patient him- (or her-, kinda, see below) self.

When in the film Shaw realizes that she’s carrying an alien organism in her womb, she breaks free from crewmembers who want to contain her, and makes a staggering beeline for the MedPod.

Once there, she reaches for the extended touchscreen and presses the red EMERGENCY button. Audio output from the pod confirms her selection, “Emergency procedure initiated. Please verbally state the nature of your injury.” Shaw shouts, “I need cesarean!” The machine informs her verbally that, “Error. This MedPod is calibrated for male patients only. It does not offer the procedure you have requested. Please seek medical assistance else–”

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I’ll pause the action here to address this. What sensors and actuators are this gender-specific? Why can’t it offer gender-neutral alternatives? Sure, some procedures might need anatomical knowledge of particularly gendered organs (say…emergency circumcision?), but given…

  • the massive amounts of biological similarity between the sexes
  • the needs for any medical device to deal with a high degree of biological variability in its subjects anyway
  • most procedures are gender neutral

…this is a ridiculous interface plot device. If Dr. Shaw can issue a few simple system commands that work around this limitation (as she does in this very scene), then the machine could have just done without the stupid error message. (Yes, we get that it’s a mystery why Vickers would have her MedPod calibrated to a man, but really, that’s a throwaway clue.) Gender-specific procedures can’t take up so much room in memory that it was simpler to cut the potential lives it could save in half. You know, rather than outfit it with another hard drive.

Aside from the pointless “tension-building” wrong-gender plot point, there are still interface issues with this step. Why does she need to press the emergency button in the first place? The pod has a voice interface. Why can’t she just shout “Emergency!” or even better, “Help me!” Isn’t that more suited to an emergency situation? Why is a menu of procedures the default main screen? Shouldn’t it be a prompt to speak, and have the menu there for mute people or if silence is called for? And shouldn’t it provide a type-ahead control rather than a multi-facet selection list? OK, back to the action.

Desperate, Shaw presses a button that grants her manual control. She states “Surgery abdominal, penetrating injuries. Foreign body. Initiate.” The screen confirms these selections amongst options on screen. (They read “DIAGNOS, THERAP, SURGICAL, MED REC, SYS/MECH, and EMERGENCY”)

The pod then swings open saying, “Surgical procedure begins,” and tilting itself for easy access. Shaw injects herself with anesthetic and steps into the pod, which seals around her and returns to a horizontal position.

Why does Shaw need to speak in this stilted speech? In a panicked or medical emergency situation, proper computer syntax should be the last thing on a user’s mind. Let the patient shout the information however they need to, like “I’ve got an alien in my abdomen! I need it to be surgically removed now!” We know from the Sonic chapter that the use of natural language triggers an anthropomorphic sense in the user, which imposes some other design constraints to convey the system’s limitations, but in this case, the emergency trumps the needs of affordance subtleties.

Once inside the pod, a transparent display on the inside states that, “EMERGENCY PROC INITIATED.” Shaw makes some touch selections, which runs a diagnostic scan along the length of her body. The terrifying results display for her to see, with the alien body differentiated in magenta to contrast her own tissue, displayed in cyan.

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Shaw shouts, “Get it out!!” It says, “Initiating anesthetics” before spraying her abdomen with a bile-yellow local anesthetic. It then says, “Commence surgical procedure.” (A note for the grammar nerds here: Wouldn’t you expect a machine to maintain a single part of speech for consistency? The first, “Initiating…” is a gerund, while the second, “Commence,” is an imperative.) Then, using lasers, the MedPod cuts through tissue until it reaches the foreign body. Given that the lasers can cut organic matter, and that the xenomorph has acid for blood, you have to hand it to the precision of this device. One slip could have burned a hole right through her spine. Fortunately it has a feather-light touch. Reaching in with a speculum-like device, it removes the squid-like alien in its amniotic sac.

OK. Here I have to return to the whole “ManPod” thing. Wouldn’t a scan have shown that this was, in fact, a woman? Why wouldn’t it stop the procedure if it really couldn’t handle working on the fairer sex? Should it have paused to have her sign away insurance rights? Could it really mistake her womb for a stomach? Wouldn’t it, believing her to be a man, presume the whole womb to be a foreign body and try to perform a hysterectomy rather than a delicate caesarian? ManPod, indeed.

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After removing the alien, it waits around 10 seconds, showing it to her and letting her yank its umbilical cord, before she presses a few controls. The MedPod seals her up again with staples and opens the cover to let her sit up.

She gets off the table, rushes to the side of the MedPod, and places all five fingertips of her right hand on it, quickly twisting her hand clockwise. The interface changes to a red warning screen labeled “DECONTAMINATE.” She taps this to confirm and shouts, “Come on!” (Her vocal instruction does not feel like a formal part of the procedure and the machine does not respond differently.) To decontaminate, the pod seals up and a white mist fills the space.

OK. Since this is a MedPod, and it has something called a decontamination procedure, shouldn’t it actually test to see whether the decontamination worked? The user here has enacted emergency decontamination procedures, so it’s safe to say that this is a plague-level contagion. That’s doesn’t say to me: Spray it with a can of Raid and hope for the best. It says, “Kill it with fire.” We just saw, 10 seconds ago, that the MedPod can do a detailed, alien-detecting scan of its contents, so why on LV-223 would it not check to see if the kill-it-now-for-God’s-sake procedure had actually worked, and warn everyone within earshot that it hadn’t? Because someone needs to take additional measures to protect the ship, and take them, stat. But no, MedPod tucks the contamination under a white misty blanket, smiles, waves, and says, “OK, that’s taken care of! Thank you! Good day! Move along!”

For all of the goofiness that is this device, I’ll commend it for two things. The first is for pushing the notion forward of automated medicine. Yes, in this day and age, it’s kind of terrifying to imagine devices handling something as vital as life-saving surgery, but people in the future will likely find it terrifying that today we’d rather trust an error prone, bull-in-a-china-shop human to the task. And, after all, the characters have entrusted their lives to an android while they were in hypersleep for two years, so clearly that’s a thing they do.

Second, the gestural control to access the decontamination is well considered. It is a large gesture, requiring no great finesse on the part of the operator to find and press a sequence of keys, and one that is easy to execute quickly and in a panic. I’m absolutely not sure what percentage of procedures need the back-up safety of a kill-everything-inside mode, but presuming one is ever needed, this is a fine gesture to initiate that procedure. In fact, it could have been used in other interfaces around the ship, as we’ll see later with the escape pod interface.

I have the sense that in the original script, Shaw had to do what only a few very bad-ass people have been willing to do: perform life-saving surgery on themselves in the direst circumstances. Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch since she’s primarily an anthropologist and astronomer in the story, but give a girl a scalpel, hardcore anesthetics, and an alien embryo, and I’m sure she’ll figure out what to do. But pushing this bad-assery off to an automated device, loaded with constraints, ruins the moment and changes the scene from potentially awesome to just awful.

Given the inexplicable man-only settings, requiring a desperate patient to recall FORTRAN-esque syntax for spoken instructions, and the failure to provide any feedback about the destruction of an extinction-level pathogen, we must admit that the MedPod belongs squarely in the realm of goofy narrative technology and nowhere near the real world as a model of good interaction design.

8 thoughts on “MedPod

  1. A well-deserved rant 🙂

    But I’d like to qualify this statement:
    “Why does Shaw need to speak in this stilted speech? In a panicked or medical emergency situation, proper computer syntax should be the last thing on a user’s mind.”

    I guess we can agree that Human/Computer-Interaction by natural language is error prone because natural language is ambiguous. And human voice itself is a rather faulty output device. Especially under stressed or painful situations.
    Of course the idea of a formalized interaction should not be completely disregarded. Imagine I get hurt seriously (but not “20 seconds to live” like) and manage to relatively keep my cool . . . I’d probably be willing to spend 10 seconds more on an interaction that makes absolutely sure the computer understood me correctly and does what I intended.

    In fact it seems rather foolish to just rely on voice based interaction. What if the medical condition has got something to do with your throat? (“There’s an alien tentacle in my mouth!!!!!!”)

    Anyway: I’m there with you that a informal speech recognition should be the default mode of the machine. But the default mode for humans should be to follow a formalized procedure. So while you are climbing into the pod the computer must tell you so . . . and repeat what it understood during the informal process 🙂

    • This is a great observation, and I agree. You want to make sure it’s going to do what you think you told it to do. I’d still rather have the burden of disambiguation on the device. Let Shaw shout her instructions (or let it scan her if she’s got the throat alien) and then let it show what it understood, its degree of confidence, and give her the opportunity to correct or confirm. Nice addition!

      • “I’d still rather have the burden of disambiguation on the device.”

        Thought about it for some time and I’m still not sold. In fact, the more I think about it the less I want a panicking wounded person to give abreviated commands in order to get some major surgery done.

        I’d like to have a system that behaves like a good telephone operator at a police or ambulance emergency number. Giving me an overall feeling that I have reached some sort of save haven and that I’m being taken care of (keyword: shock treatment). A programm that is taking over the process and guiding me so I give all the informations that are needed.

        I don’t have any statistics at hand of course but I guess the number of situations that truely demand a 10-seconds-until-operation procedure is vanishingly low. Thus the sheer possibility of an ultra fast procedure is more likely to do harm because of misuse than it would help.

        My 2 centimos.

  2. I just had another thought about the decontamination gesture. If there’s a biological contaminant, why should the system require her to remain near it, i.e. at risk, to provide the input? Certainly, speed is an issue, and having it on the device means its quick and easy to find. But, given voice control, she should be able to shout “Decontaminate!” immediately after she leaves the table, keeping her physical effort focused on getting to a safe distance. For unvoiced patients, having a gesture control would be important, but a copy of that could also be on the far side of the room.

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  6. I think the man-only med-pod setting is due to the presence of old weyland on the ship. The med-pod is for him, not for is daughter. I think this is to stress the old man’s egoism (the device is for him and him only, so no need to program it to operate on females) and his incapability to accept death, while, on the other hand, the engineers are even willing to sacrifice themselves in order to create life.

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