The Gendered AI series filled out many more posts than I’d originally planned. (And there were several more posts on the cutting room floor.)
I’ll bet some of my readership are wishing I’d just get back to the bread-and-butter of this site, which is reviews of interfaces in movies. OK. Let’s do it. (But first go vote up Gendered AI for SxSW20 takesaminutehelpsaton!)
Since we’re still in the self-declared year of sci-fi AI here on scifiinterfaces.com, let’s turn our collective attention to one of the best depictions of AI in cinema history, Colossus: The Forbin Project.
Release Date: 8 April 1970 (USA)
Dr. Forbin leads a team of scientists who have created an AI with the goal of preventing war. It does not go as planned.
As Colossus: The Forbin Project opens, we are treated to an establishing montage of 1970’s circuit boards (with resistors), whirring doodads, punched tape, ticking Nixie tube numerals, beeping lights, and jerking control data tapes. Then a human hand breaks into frame, and twiddles a few buttons as an oscilloscope draws lines creepily like an ECG cardiac cycle. This hand belongs to Charles Forbin, who walks alone in this massive underground compound, making sure final preparations are in order. The matte paintings make this space seem vast, inviting comparisons to the Krell technopolis from Forbidden Planet.
Forbin pulls out a remote control and presses something on its surface to illuminate rows and rows of lights. He walks across a drawbridge over a moat. Once on the far side, he uses the remote control to close the massive door, withdraw the bridge and seal the compound.
The remote control is about the size of a smartphone, with a long antenna extending out the top. Etched type across the top reads “COLOSSUS COMPUTER SYSTEMS.” A row of buttons is labeled A–E. Large red capital letters warn DANGER RADIATION above a safety cover. The cover has an arrow pointing right. Another row of five buttons is labeled SLIDING WALLS and numbered 1–5. A final row of three buttons is labeled RAMPS and numbered 1–3.
Forbin flips open the safety cover. He presses the red button underneath, and a blood-red light floods the bottom of the moat and turns blue-white hot, while a theremin-y whistle tells you this is no place a person should go. Forbin flips the cover back into place and walks out the sealed compound to the reporters and colleagues who await him.
I can’t help but ask one non-tech narrative question: Why is Forbin turning lights on when he is about to abandon the compound? It might be that the illumination is a side-effect of the power systems, but it looks like he’s turning on the lights just before leaving and locking the house. Does he want to fool people into thinking there’s someone home? Maybe it should be going from fully-lit to an eerie, red low-light kinda vibe.
The Remote Control
The layout is really messy. Some rows are crowded and others have way too much space. (Honestly, it looks like the director demanded there be moar buttins make tecc! and forced the prop designer to add the A–E.) The crowding makes it tough to immediately know what labels go with what controls. Are A–E the radiation bits, and the safety cover control sliding walls? Bounding boxes or white space or some alternate layout would make the connections clear.
You might be tempted to put all of the controls in strict chronological order, but the gamma shielding is the most dangerous thing, and having it in the center helps prevent accidental activation, so it belongs there. And otherwise, it is in chronological order.
The labeling is inconsistent. Sure, maybe A–E the five computer systems that comprise Colossus. Sliding walls and ramps are well labeled, but there’s no indication about what it is that causes the dangerous radiation. It should say something like “Gamma shielding: DANGER RADIATION.” It’s tiny, but I also think the little arrow is a bad graphic for showing which way the safety cover flips open. Existing designs show that the industrial design can signal this same information with easier-to-understand affordances. And since this gamma radiation is an immediate threat to life and health, how about foregoing the red lettering in favor of symbols that are more immediately recognizable by non-English speakers and illiterate people. The IAEA hadn’t invented its new sign yet, but the visual concepts were certainly around at the time, so let’s build on that. Also, why doesn’t the door to the compound come with the same radiation warning? Or any warning?
The buttons are a crap choice of control as well. They don’t show what the status of the remotely controlled thing is. So if Charles accidentally presses a button, and, say, raises a sliding wall that’s out of sight, how would he know? Labeled rocker switches help signal the state and would be a better choice.
But really, why would these things be controlled remotely? It be more secure to have two-handed momentary buttons on the walls, which would mean that a person would be there to visually verify that the wall was slid or the ramp retracted or whatever it is national security needed them to be.
There’s also the narrative question about why this remote control doesn’t come up later in the film when Unity is getting out of control. Couldn’t they have used this to open the fortification and go unplug the thing?
So all told, not a great bit of design, for either interaction or narrative, with lots of improvement for both.
Locking yourselves out and throwing away the key
At first glance, it seems weird that there should be interfaces in a compound that is meant to be uninhabited for most of its use. But this is the first launch of a new system, and these interfaces may be there in anticipation of the possibility that they would have to return inside after a failure. We can apologize these into believability.
But that doesn’t excuse the larger strategic question. Yes, we need defense systems to be secure. But that doesn’t mean sealing the processing and power systems for an untested AI away from all human access. The Control Problem is hard enough without humans actively limiting their own options. Which raises a narrative question: Why wasn’t there a segment of the film where the military is besieging this compound? Did Unity point a nuke at its own crunchy center? If not, siege! If so, well, maybe you can trick it into bombing itself. But I digress.
Whether Unity should have had its plug pulled is the big philosophical question this movie does not want to ask, but I’ll save that for the big wrap up at the end.
Throughout Colossus: The Forbin Project, characters talk to one another over video phones. This is a favorite sci-fi interface trope of mine. And though we’ve seen it many times, in the interest of completeness, I’ll review these, too.
The first time we see one in use is early in the film when Forbin calls his team in the Central Programming Office (Forbin calls it the CPO) from the Presidential press briefing (remember those?) where Colossus is being announced to the public. We see an unnamed character in the CPO receiving a telephone call, and calling for quiet amongst the rowdy, hip party of computer scientists. This call is received on a wall-tethered 2500 desk phone.
We cut away to the group reaction, and by the time the camera is back on the video phone, Forbin’s image is peering through the glass. We do not get to see the interactions which switched the mode from telephony to videotelephony.
But we can see two nice touches in the wall-mounted interface.
First, there is a dome camera mounted above the screen. Most sci-fi videophones fall into the Screen-Is-Camera trope, so this is nice to see. It could mounted closer to the screen to avoid gaze misalignment that plagues such systems.
Second, there is a 12-key numeric keypad mounted to the wall below the screen. (0–9 as well as an asterisk and octothorp.) This keypad is kind-of nice in that it hints that there is some interface for receiving calls, making calls, and ending an ongoing call. But it bypasses actual interaction design. Better would be well-labeled controls that are optimized for the task, and that don’t rely on the user’s knowledge of directories and commands.
The 2500 phone came out in 1968, introducing consumers to the 12-key pushbutton interface rather than the older rotary dial on the 500 model. The 12-key is the filmmakers’ building on interface paradigms that audiences knew. This shortcutting belongs to the long lineage of sci-fi videophones that goes all the way back to Metropolis (1927) and Buck Rogers (1939).
Also, it’s worth noting that the ergonomics of the keypad are awkward, requiring users to poke at it in an error-prone way, or to seriously hyperextend their wrists. If you’re stuck with a numeric keypad as a wall mounted input, at least extend it out from the wall so it can be angled to a more comfortable 30°
There is another display in the CPO, but it lacks a numeric keypad. I presume it is just piping a copy of the feed from the main screen. (See below.)
Looking at the call from Forbin’s perspective, he has a much smaller display. There there is still a bump above the monitor for a camera, another numeric keypad below it, and several 2500 telephones. Multiple monitors on the DC desks show the same feed.
After Dr. Markham asks Dr. Forbin to steal an ashtray, he ends the call by pressing the key in the lower right-hand corner of the keypad.
After Colossus reveals that THERE IS ANOTHER SYSTEM, Forbin calls back and asks to be switched to the CPO. We see things from Forbin’s perspective, and we see the other fellow actually reach offscreen to where the numeric keypad would be, to do the switching. (See the image, below.) It’s likely that this actor was just staring at a camera, so this bit of consistency is really well done.
When Forbin later ends the call with the CPO, he presses the lower-left hand key. This is inconsistent with the way he ended the call earlier, but it’s entirely possible that each of the non-numeric keys perform the same function. This also a good example why will labeled, specific controls would be better, like, say, one for “end call.”
Other video calls in the remainder of the movie don’t add any more information than these scenes provide, and introduce a few more questions.
Note the duplicate feed in the background in the image above. Other scenes tell us all the monitors in the CPO are also duplicating the feed. I wondered how users might tell the system which is the one to duplicate. In another scene we see that the President’s monitor is special and red, hinting that there might be a “hotseat” monitor, but this is not the monitor from which Dr. Forbin called at the beginning of the film. So, it’s a mystery.
In the last video conference of the film, everyone listens to Unity’s demands. This is a multiparty teleconference between at least three locations, and it is not clear how it is determined whose face appears on the screen. Note that the CPO (the first in the set) has different feeds on display simultaneously, which would need some sort of control.