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…
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…
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.
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.
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.)
Sci: F (0 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?
The mission slot has some nice affordances, but deep strategic flaws. The mission card is a copy by someone who didn’t quite understand what they were looking at. The trivium bracelet and remote just break all believability, earning the film a flat zero.
Fi: B (3 of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?
ID card goes in slot, evil robot finds that person. Bracelet roboticizes people, remote controls them. As dumb (and derivative) as the technologies are, the interfaces help you understand the kindergarten-minded rules for technology in this diegesis.
Interfaces: F (0 of 4) How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?
Recall that these interfaces all serve the bad guy. The mission slot interface is actually quite nice for its simplicity, but loses any credit since it ultimately becomes a paper trail of evidence against him, all in one convenient robot just waiting for authorities to uncover. The bracelet might get props for being easy to get on, if it wasn’t also as easy to get off again and need tailoring for each new victim. The remotes are also quite nice for their simplicity and even visual hierarchy, but only by virtue of apologetics and thinking of it as a prototype. All knobs and modes needed labeling, anyway. So, a goose egg.
Final Grade F (3 of 12), Dreck.
Don’t bother. Or do bother, but only to get a schadenfreude chuckle out of the ordeal. Or maybe some tripping material from the janky transfer.
So, loyal readers may rightly ask themselves why on earth I reviewed this pile of metallic crap, which is unknown, uninfluential, and rightly condemned to the trash bin of cinematic B-movie history. One glance at the Youtube transfer (or perhaps the directors oeuvre) should have made all this clear, yes. Well, here are three reasons.
It’s the film’s 50th anniversary, which is adorable.
I try not to judge a book by its cover, and delight in trying to find truffles in oubliettes.
It was a very lightweight way (only four interfaces!) to begin a year dedicated to AI in sci-fi.
In case that last bit didn’t land, let me reiterate outside a bullet list: All posts in 2019 on this blog will focus on the topic of AI in sci-fi. And this film belongs in a category of one of our oldest kinds of fictional AIs, the Judaic story of the Golem.
It’s been told time and again in different ways, but in most tellings, the golem is a construct that mindlessly obeys whatever instruction it is given, and in its mindless interpretation, does grave damage, even turning back on its maker. Other shows utilizing this trope include Metropolis, Battlestar Galactica, the Alien franchise, The Sorceror’s Apprentice, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I even think that Arabic stories of djinn fulfill the same purpose. Each illustrates how agents that ruthlessly pursue goals—with neither the human sense of reasonableness or the ethical concern for human wellbeing—can go devastatingly awry.
They are conservative tales in the apolitical sense that they imply we should be very very cautious when engaging these kinds of machines. Don’t start until you’re absolutely sure. This is a key concern for AI. How do we ensure that the intelligences we build do what we want them to, reasonably? How can we encode a concern for humanity?
Luchadores doesn’t provide any answers, just a warning, some awesome masks, and an occasional piledriver. But we’ll be on the lookout as we continue looking at other examples of sci-fi AI.
Given that the last review I completed was the Star Wars Holiday Special, which was also Dreck, maybe it’s high time I complete a good movie. OK, then. That means back to Idiocracy. And yes, in that tale of stupidity, there is a surprising tale of super intelligence.