Untold AI: Geo

In the prior post we spoke about the tone of AI shows. In this post we’re going to talk about the provenance of AI shows.

This is, admittedly, a diversion, because it’s not germane to the core question at hand. (That question is, “What stories aren’t we telling ourselves about AI?”) But now that I have all this data to poll and some rudimentary skills in wrangling it all in Google Sheets, I can barely help myself. It’s just so interesting. Plus, Eurovision is coming up, so everyone there is feeling a swell of nationalism. This will be important.

timetoterminator.png

Time to Terminator: 1 paragraph.

So it was that I was backfilling the survey with some embarrassing oversights (since I had actually had already reviewed those shows) and I came across the country data in imdb.com. This identifies the locations where the production companies involved with each show are based. So even if a show is shot entirely in Christchurch, if its production companies are based in A Coruña, its country is listed as Spain. What, I wonder, would we find if we had that data in the survey?

So, I added a country column to the database, and found that it allows me to answer a couple of questions. This post shares those results.

So the first question to ask the data is, what countries have production studios that have made shows in the survey (and by extension, about AI)? It’s a surprisingly short list. Continue reading

Untold AI: Tone

When we begin to look at AI stories over time, as we did in the prior post and will continue in this one, one of the basic changes we can track is how the stories seem to want us to feel about AI, or their tone. Are they more positive about AI, more negative, or neutral/balanced?

tone.png

tl;dr:

  1. Generally, sci-fi is slightly more negative than positive about AI in sci-fi.
  2. It started off very negative and has been slowly moving, on average, to slightly negative.
  3. The 1960s were the high point of positive AI.
  4. We tell lots more stories about general AI than super AI.
  5. We tell a lot more stories about robots than disembodied AI.
  6. Cinemaphiles (like readers of this blog) probably think more negatively about robots than the general population.

Now, details

The tone I have assigned to each show is arguable, of course, but I think I’ve covered my butt by having a very course scale. I looked at each film and decided on a scale of -2 to 2 how negative they were about AI. Very negative was -2. The Terminator series starts being very negative, because AI is evil and there is nothing to balance it. (It later creeps higher when Ahhnold becomes a “good” robot.) The Transformers series is 0 because the good AI is balanced by the bad AI. Star Trek: The Next Generation gets a 2 or very positive for the presence of Data, noting that the blip of Lore doesn’t complicate the deliberately crude metric.

Average tone

Given all that, here’s what the average for each year looks like. As of 2017, we are looking slightly askance at screen-sci-fi AI, though not nearly as badly as Fritz Lang did at the beginning, and its reputation has been improving. The trend line (that red line) shows that it’s been steadily increasing over the last 90 years or so. As always, the live chart may have updates.

Generally, we can see that things started off very negatively because of Metropolis, and Der Herr de Welt. Then those high points in the 1950s were because of robots in The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, and The Invisible Boy. Then from 1960–1980 was a period of neutral-to-bad. The 1980s introduced a period of “it’s complicated” with things trending towards balanced or neutral.
What this points out is that there has been a bit of AI dialog going on across the decades that goes something like this.

tone_conversation.png

Continue reading

Untold AI

Hey readership. Sorry for the brief radio silence there. Was busy doing some stuff, like getting married. Back now to post some overdue content. But the good news is I’m back with some weighty posts, and in honor of the 50th anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey, they have to do with AI, science, and sci-fi.

HAL

So last fall I was invited with some other spectacular people to participate in a retreat about AI, happening at the Juvet Landscape Hotel in Ålstad, Norway. (A breathtaking opportunity, and thematically a perfect setting since it was the shooting location for Ex Machina. Thanks to Andy Budd for the whole idea, as well as Ellen de Vries, James Gilyead, and the team at Clearleft who helped organize.) The event was structured like an unconference, so participants could propose sessions and if anyone was interested, join up. One of the workshops I proposed was called “AI Narratives” and it sought to answer the question “What AI Stories Aren’t We Telling (That We Should Be)?” So, why this topic?

Sci-fi, my reasoning goes, plays an informal and largely unacknowledged role in setting public expectations and understanding about technology in general and AI in particular. That, in turn, affects public attitudes, conversations, behaviors at work, and votes. If we found that sci-fi was telling the public misleading stories over and over, we should make a giant call for the sci-fi creating community to consider telling new stories. It’s not that we want to change sci-fi from being entertainment to being propaganda, but rather to try and take its role as informal opinion-shaper more seriously. Continue reading

A shout out for sci-fi 3D file systems

Hey readers. One of scifiinterface’s writers, Hugh Fisher, is embarking on a cross-show analysis of speculative 3D file browsers. He first started thinking of it when viewing Hackers and remembering Jurassic Park. What others can you think of? (Yes, we know of Johnny Mnemonic, but it’s 3D cyberspace, not files, innit?)

Please list others you can think of in the comments (which is here for those reading RSS). The more detail you can provide, the better. And thanks in advance!

Report Card: The Star Wars Holiday Special

Read all the Star Wars Holiday Special reviews in chronological order.

When The Star Wars Holiday Special aired, it was only one year after the first movie, and while Star Wars was an obvious success at the time, no one knew it was bound to become one of the world’s biggest media juggernauts, which would still be producing blockbuster movies in the same diegesis five decades later (with no end in sight). So we can understand, if not forgive, that it was produced as an afterthought, rather than giving it the full attention and deliberateness we’ve since come to expect from the franchise. In short it was a crass way to keep audiences—and the toy purchasing public—thinking about Star Wars until Empire could be released a year and a half later.

It was doomed from the start. CBS wanted to camp on the movie’s success, and stupidly thought to force-choke it into a variety show format, like The Sonny & Cher Jedi Hour or Donny & Marie, Sith Lords, Variety Show. At the time, Lucas couldn’t be bothered to provide much beyond the framework story and a “Wookiee Bible,” (mentioned here) which explained the background and behavior of the Wookiees, including the fact that they were the center of the story and they can only growl. The first director quit after shooting a few scenes. Other than The Faithful Wookiee, the whole thing seems obviously rushed to production. It had about 30 minutes of script that had to be stretched into 90 minutes of airtime. Though they pulled in some respectable TV names of the time (Harvey Korman, Bea Arthur, Art Carney) to carry the thing and even had the stars of the original cast, those actors couldn’t do much with what amounted to a salad of terrible ideas written by and for goldfish: people pegging the S meter on the Myers-Briggs test.

SWHS_generalalert-11

I’m quite fascinated by the Special partly for its narrative—for there is one, dishwater-flavored though it is—which requires us to be in the narrative and yet out of it at the same time, depending on the need, switching back and forth at a moment’s notice. For instance, you must dismiss the fact that Malla would have any interest in pausing her day for 5 minutes to stare at a security camera feed from inside a shop, because you know the point is the scene in the shop. Or, we dismiss the awkwardness of Itchy watching cross-species VR erotica in the family living room because we know that the point is the Mermeia Wow number. Or, we dismiss the tragic implication that Malla may be mentally challenged, because she takes a comedy cooking skit as literal instructions she should attempt to follow, because we know the point is the “comedy.” But how do we (or the toy-purchasing kids that were the target audience) know which parts to dismiss and which parts to indulge? There are no explicit clues. These are fascinating mental jumps for us to have to make.

It’s also interesting from a sci-fi interfaces point of view because, like most children’s shows, the interfaces are worse than an afterthought. They are created by adults (who don’t understand interaction design) merely to signal high-techn-ess to kids, whom they mistakenly believe aren’t very observant, and they do so under insane budgetary and time constraints. So they half-ass what they can, at best, half-ass, and the result is, well, the interfaces from The Star Wars Holiday Special.

Ordinarily I like to reinforce the notions that what designers are doing in reading this blog is building up a necessary skepticism against sci-fi (and plundering it for great ideas, intentional or otherwise), but in this case I can’t really back that up. What we’re doing here is just staring agape in amazement at what can come out of the illusion machine when everything goes wrong.

But, to compare apples-to-oranges, let’s go through the analysis categories:

Report-Card-SWHS.png

Continue reading

Snitch phone

If you’re reading these chronologically, let me note here that I had to skip Bea Arthur’s marvelous turn as Ackmena, as she tends the bar and rebuffs the amorous petitions of the lovelorn, hole-in-the-head Krelman, before singing her frustrated patrons out of the bar when a curfew is announced. To find the next interface of note, we have to forward to when…

Han and Chewie arrive, only to find a Stormtrooper menacing Lumpy. Han knocks the blaster out of his hand, and when the Stormtrooper dives to retrieve it, he falls through the bannister of the tree house and to his death.

SWHS_generalalert-09.png

Why aren’t these in any way affiiiiixxxxxxeeeeeeddddddd?

Han enters the home and wishes everyone a Happy Life Day. Then he bugs out.

SWHS_generalalert-12.png

But I still have to return for the insane closing number. Hold me.

Then Saun Dann returns to the home just before a general alert comes over the family Imperial Issue Media Console.

Continue reading

Bitching about Transparent Screens

I’ve been tagged a number of times on Twitter from people are asking me to weigh in on the following comic by beloved Parisian comic artist Boulet.

Since folks are asking (and it warms my robotic heart that you do), here’s my take on this issue. Boulet, this is for you.

Sci-fi serves different masters

Interaction and interface design answers to one set of masters: User feedback sessions, long-term user loyalty, competition, procurement channels, app reviews, security, regulation, product management tradeoffs of custom-built vs. off-the-shelf, and, ideally, how well it helps the user achieve their goals.

But technology in movies and television shows don’t have to answer to any of these things. The cause-and-effect is scripted. It could be the most unusable piece of junk tech in that universe and it will still do exactly what it is supposed to do. Hell, it’s entirely likely that the actor was “interacting” with a blank screen on set and the interface painted on afterward (in “post”). Sci-fi interfaces answer to the masters of story, worldbuilding, and often, spectacle.

I have even interviewed one of the darlings of the FUI world about their artistic motivations, and was told explicitly that they got into the business because they hated having to deal with the pesky constraints of usability. (Don’t bother looking for it, I have not published that interview because I could not see how to do so without lambasting it.) Most of these things are pointedly baroque where usability is a luxury priority.

So for goodness’ sake, get rid of the notion that the interfaces in sci-fi are a model for usability. They are not.

They are technology in narrative

We can understand how they became a trope by looking at things from the makers’ perspective. (In this case “maker” means the people who make the sci-fi.)

thankthemaker.gif

Not this Maker.

Transparent screens provide two major benefits to screen sci-fi makers.

First, they quickly inform the audience that this is a high-tech world, simply because we don’t have transparent screens in our everyday lives. Sci-fi makers have to choose very carefully how many new things they want to introduce and explain to the audience over the course of a show. (A pattern that, in the past, I have called What You Know +1.) No one wants to sit through lengthy exposition about how the world works. We want to get to the action.

buckrogers

With some notable exceptions.

So what mostly gets budgeted-for-reimagining and budgeted-for-explanation in a script are technologies that are a) important to the diegesis or b) pivotal to the plot. The display hardware is rarely, if ever, either. Everything else usually falls to trope, because tropes don’t require pausing the action to explain.

Secondly (and moreover) transparent screens allow a cinematographer to show the on-screen action and the actor’s face simultaneously, giving us both the emotional frame of the shot as well as an advancement of plot. The technology is speculative anyway, why would the cinematographer focus on it? Why cut back and forth from opaque screen to an actor’s face? Better to give audiences a single combined shot that subordinates the interface to the actors’ faces.

minrep-155

We should not get any more bent out of shape for this narrative convention than any of these others.

  • My god, these beings, who, though they lived a long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away look identical to humans! What frozen evolution or panspermia resulted in this?
  • They’re speaking languages that are identical to some on modern Earth! How?
  • Hasn’t anyone noticed the insane coincidence that these characters from the future happen to look exactly like certain modern actors?
  • How are there cameras everywhere that capture these events as they unfold? Who is controlling them? Why aren’t the villains smashing them?
  • Where the hell is that orchestra music coming from?
  • This happens in the future, how are we learning about it here in their past?

The Matter of Believability

It could be, that what we are actually complaining about is not usability, but believability. It may be that the problems of eye strain, privacy, and orientation are so obvious that it takes us out of the story. Breaking immersion is a cardinal sin in narrative. But it’s pretty easy (and fun) to write some simple apologetics to explain away these particular concerns.

eye-strain

Why is eye strain not a problem? Maybe the screens actually do go opaque when seen from a human eye, we just never see them that way because we see them from the POV of the camera.

privacy

Why is privacy not a problem? Maybe the loss of privacy is a feature, not a bug, for the fascist society being depicted; a way to keep citizens in line. Or maybe there is an opaque mode, we just don’t see any scenes where characters send dick pics, or browse porn, and would thereby need it. Or maybe characters have other, opaque devices at home specifically designed for the private stuff.

orientation

Why isn’t orientation a problem? Tech would only require face recognition for such an object to automatically orient itself correctly no matter how it is being picked up or held. The Appel Maman would only present itself downwards to the table if it was broken.

So it’s not a given that transparent screens just won’t work. Admittedly, this is some pretty heavy backworlding. But they could work.

But let’s address the other side of believability. Sci-fi makers are in a continual second-guess dance with their audience’s evolving technological literacy. It may be that Boulet’s cartoon is a bellwether, a signal that non-technological audiences are becoming so familiar with the real-world challenges of this trope that is it time for either some replacement, or some palliative hints as to why the issues he illustrates aren’t actually issues. As audience members—instead of makers—we just have to wait and see.

Sci-fi is not a usability manual.

It never was. If you look to sci-fi for what is “good” design for the real-world, you will cause frustration, maybe suffering, maybe the end of all good in the ’verse. Please see the talk I gave at the Reaktor conference a few years ago for examples, presented in increasing degrees of catastrophe.

I would say—to pointedly use the French—that the “raison d’être” of this site is exactly this. Sci-fi is so pervasive, so spectacular, so “cool,” that designers must build up a skeptical immunity to prevent its undue influence on their work.

I hope you join me on that journey. There’s sci-fi and popcorn in it for everyone.

Report Card: White Christmas

Read all the Black Mirror, “White Christmas” reviews in chronological order.

I love Black Mirror. It’s not always perfect, but uses great story telling to get us to think about the consequences of technology in our lives. It’s a provocateur that invokes the spirit of anthology series like The Twilight Zone, and rarely shies away from following the tech into the darkest places. It’s what thinking about technology in sci-fi formats looks like.

But, as usual, this site is not about the show but the interfaces, and for that we turn to the three criteria for evaluation here on scifiinterfaces.com.

  1. How believable are the interfaces? Can it work this way? (To keep you immersed.)
  2. How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story? (To tell a good story.)
  3. How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals? (To be a good model for real-world design?)

Report-Card-White-Christmas

Continue reading

Pregnancy Test

Another incidental interface is the pregnancy test that Joe finds in the garbage. We don’t see how the test is taken, which would be critical when considering its design. But we do see the results display in the orange light of Joe and Beth’s kitchen. It’s a cartoon baby with a rattle, swaying back and forth.

pregnancy.gif

Sure it’s cute, but let’s note that the news of a pregnancy is not always good news. If the pregnancy is not welcome, the “Lucky you!” graphic is just going to rip her heart out. Much better is an unambiguous but neutral signal.

That said, Black Mirror is all about ripping our hearts out, so the cuteness of this interface is quite fitting to the world in which this appears. Narratively, it’s instantly recognizable as a pregnancy test, even to audience members who are unfamiliar with such products. It also sets up the following scene where Joe is super happy for the news, but Beth is upset that he’s seen it. So, while it’s awful for the real world; for the show, this is perfect.

Black_Mirror_Pregnancy_Test.png

Restraining Order

After Joe confronts Beth and she calls for help, Joe is taken to a police station where in addition to the block, he now has a GPS-informed restraining order against him.

Black_Mirror_thumbprint.png

To confirm the order, Joe has to sign is name to a paper and then press his thumbprints into rectangles along the bottom. The design of the form is well done, with a clearly indicated spot for his signature, and large touch areas in which he might place his thumbs for his thumbprints to be read.

A scary thing in the interface is that the text of what he’s signing is still appearing while he’s providing his thumbprints. Of course the page could be on a loop that erases and redisplays the text repeatedly for emphasis. But, if it was really downloading and displaying it for the first time to draw his attention, then he has provided his signature and thumbprints too early. He doesn’t yet know what he’s signing.

thumbprint.gif

Government agencies work like this all the time and citizens comply because they have no choice. But ideally, if he tried to sign or place his thumbprints before seeing all the text of what he’s signing, it would be better for the interface to reject his signature with a note that he needs to finish reading the text before he can confirm he has read and understands it. Otherwise, if the data shows that he authenticated it before the text appeared, I’d say he had a pretty good case to challenge the order in court.