Report Card: Idiocracy

Read all the Idiocracy posts in chronological order.

Now we come to the end of Idiocracy, if not yet the idiocracy.

This film never got broad release. There are stories about its being supressed by the studio because of the way the film treated brands.

I don’t know what they’re talking about.

But whatever the reason, I’m happy to do my part in helping it get more awareness. Because despite its expositive principle being wrong (and maybe slightly eugenic), the film illustrates frustrations I also have with some of the world’s stupider ills, and does so in funny ways. Also, as I noted in the last writeup, it even illustrates speculative and far-reaching issues with superintelligence. So, it’s smarter than it looks.

I’d recommend lots and lots more people see this, generally, if only to reinforce the demonization of idiocy and make more people want to be not that. So first let me say: If you haven’t yet, see the film. Help others see it. Make People Valorize Enlightenment Again.

Now, let’s turn to the interfaces.

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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

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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.

Overview: 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.

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