The Fermi Paradox and Sci-fi

In the prior post we introduced the Fermi paradox—or Fermi question—before an overview of the many hypotheses that try to answer the question, and ended noting that we must consider what we are to do, given the possibilities. In this post I’m going to share which of those hypotheses sci-fi has chosen to tell stories about.

First we should note that screen sci-fi (this is, recall, a blog that concerns itself with sci-fi in movies and television), since the very, very beginning, has embraced questionably imperialist thrills. In Le Voyage dans la Lune, George Melies’ professor-astronomers encounter a “primitive” alien culture on Earth’s moon when they land there, replete with costumes, dances, and violent responses to accidental manslaughter. Hey, we get it, aliens are part of why audiences and writers are in it: As a thin metaphor for speculative human cultures that bring our own into relief. So, many properties are unconcerned with the *yawn* boring question of the Fermi paradox, instead imagining a diegesis with a whole smorgasbord of alien civilizations that are explicitly engaged with humans, at times killing, trading, or kissing us, depending on which story you ask.

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But some screen sci-fi does occasionally concern itself with the Fermi question.

Which are we telling stories about?

Screen sci-fi is a vast library, and more is being produced all the time, so it’s hard to give an exact breakdown, but if Drake can do it for Fermi’s question, we can at least ballpark it, too. To do this, I took a look at every sci-fi in the survey that produced Make It So and has been extended here on scifiinterfaces.com, and I tallied the breakdown between aliens, no aliens, and silent aliens. Here’s the Google Sheet with the data. And here’s what we see. Continue reading

The Pointlessly Menacing Learnerator

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Though their spaceship and robot technology are far superior to Terran technology, alien gadget tech trails pathetically. How else to explain a learning device whose affordance is at best part prickly eggbeater and part disturbing sex toy? It is also sad that its designers didn’’t think to use the same material in Gort and the spaceship—impervious as it is to bullets and our finest welding—instead opting to use a material that suffers catastrophic impact failure when dropped from a height of three feet onto a bed of grass. Perhaps in the future mankind will find its place in the universe offering basic material consultancy and product design to otherwise-superior alien species.

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The Revival Chamber

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When Gort brings Klaatu’s body back to the ship for revival, he saunters ominously past the terrified Helen and lays the body on a table. He lowers the lights gesturally, and then flips a switch on the wall to the right of the chamber. As a result, the surface of the table illuminates beneath Klaatu, a buzz begins and increases in volume and insistency, and a light illuminates in a tube near Klaatu’s head. Some unknown time later, Klaatu wakes up, brought back to life with time enough to deliver a terrible warning to the people of Earth.

As an interface, it seems as simple as it gets, but it could be done better. Attach some sensors to detect weight load on the table, and some biometric sensors to detect if the body is dead or alive. If the body is dead and sits in the right position, start the revival procedure. This automatic procedure would be useful for Klaatu if he was dying and Gort was not around. He could just climb on to the table and the moment he passed, systems would kick into gear that would revive him.

Remember, Klaatunians, even when you think you’ve finished your designs, pause and think, “This is awesome, yet, how could I improve it even more?”

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Klaatunian interior

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When the camera first follows Klaatu into the interior of his spaceship, we witness the first gestural interface seen in the survey. To turn on the lights, Klaatu places his hands in the air before a double column of small lights imbedded in the wall to the right of the door. He holds his hand up for a moment, and then smoothly brings it down before these lights. In response the lights on the wall extinguish and an overhead light illuminates. He repeats this gesture on a similar double column of lights to the left of the door.

The nice thing to note about this gesture is that it is simple and easy to execute. The mapping also has a nice physical referent: When the hand goes down like the sun, the lights dim. When the hand goes up like the sun, the lights illuminate.

He then approaches an instrument panel with an array of translucent controls; like a small keyboard with extended, plastic keys. As before, he holds his hand a moment at the top of the controls before swiping his hand in the air toward the bottom of the controls. In response, the panels illuminate. He repeats this on a similar panel nearby.

Having activated all of these elements, he begins to speak in his alien tongue to a circular, strangely lit panel on the wall. (The film gives no indication as to the purpose of his speech, so no conclusions about its interface can be drawn.)

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Gort also operates the translucent panels with a wave of his hand. To her credit, perhaps, Helen does not try to control the panels, but we can presume that, like the spaceship, some security mechanism prevents unauthorized control.

Missing affordances

Who knows how Klaatu perceives this panel. He’s an alien, after all. But for us mere humans, the interface is confounding. There are no labels to help us understand what controls what. The physical affordances of different parts of the panels imply sliding along the surface, touch, or turning, not gesture. Gestural affordances are tricky at best, but these translucent shapes actually signal something different altogether.

Overcomplicated workflow

And you have to wonder why he has to go through this rigmarole at all. Why must he turn on each section of the interface, one by one? Can’t they make just one “on” button? And isn’t he just doing one thing: Transmitting? He doesn’t even seem to select a recipient, so it’s tied to HQ. Seriously, can’t he just turn it on?

Why is this UI even here?

Or better yet, can’t the microphone just detect when he’s nearby, illuminate to let him know it’s ready, and subtly confirm when it’s “hearing” him? That would be the agentive solution.

Maybe it needs some lockdown: Power

OK. Fine. If this transmission consumes a significant amount of power, then an even more deliberate activation is warranted, perhaps the turning of a key. And once on, you would expect to see some indication of the rate of power depletion and remaining power reserves, which we don’t see, so this is pretty doubtful.

Maybe it needs some lockdown: Security

This is the one concern that might warrant all the craziness. That the interface has no affordance means that Joe Human Schmo can’t just walk in and turn it on. (In fact the misleading bits help with a plausible diversion.) The “workflow” then is actually a gestural combination that unlocks the interface and starts it recording. Even if Helen accidentally discovered the gestural aspect, there’s little to no way she could figure out those particular gestures and start intergalactic calls for help. And remembering that Klaatu is, essentially, a space ethics reconn cop, this level of security might make sense.

Gort!

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Gort is one of the most well known film robots from the 1950s. (He predates the most well-known robot, Robbie, by about 5 years.) His silent imperviousness, menacing slowness, and awesome disintegration ray make him an intimidating puzzle to the characters that face him. (“Him?” you may be wondering. The gender is apparent from the original script.) Klaatu explains that Gort was created as part of an interplanetary police force, there to ensure “complete elimination of aggression.” Klaatu explains that upon witnessing violence robots like Gort “act automatically against the aggressor,” though this behavior can be overridden. In this role Gort acts more like an independent character than a computer. Still, he is a robot, and dealings with Gort involve three interfaces: voice control, his visor, and something akin to Aldis lamp Morse code.

Voice Control

Gort emerges when Klaatu is wounded by a nervous and hair-triggered soldier. Gort eliminates the immediate threats with his disintegrator ray and seems intent on killing the tank commander when Klaatu issues a command in an alien language, “Gort! Deglet ovrosco!” Immediately after hearing the instruction Gort remains motionless. Gort obeys this order until Klaatu gives him another signal by a light code, discussed below.

Gort is not just keyed to Klaatu’s voice. When Helen approaches Gort, he begins to attack her. When she speaks the words, “Klaatu barada nikto” (Yes, that Klaatu barada nikto) to Gort, he ceases his attack and carries her into the heart of the spaceship, where she is imprisoned and protected until Gort fetches and revives Klaatu. It is clearly just the words that Gort responds to, and not the speaker. This seems like a pretty big security flaw. Can any criminal issue this command and get off scot-free? Learn the Gortian command for “shoot to kill” and suddenly your protector is your assassin? This brings us, as so many things do in sci-fi, to multifactor authentication. I’ll just leave that there.

Visor

Gort’s disintegrator ray emerges from a visor slot on his head. Gort must raise the visor before using the weapon. When armed, a small light illuminates and cyclically scans left and right in the visor space. These two modes, i.e. the visor’s being up and the light, act as increasingly escalated signals to any observers of the seriousness of the situation.

The army intuitively understands the meaning of this signal even having never before experienced it. They all back away in fear, and rightly so. As such the visor acts as a signal of the readiness of a very dangerous weapon.

Aldis signaling

One night Klaatu sneaks from the boarding house back to the spaceship, around which the army has placed guards and a barrier. Klaatu finds a viewing window in the barrier, but Gort is facing away from it. To get Gort’s attention silently, Klaatu uses a flashlight to shine a series of Morse-code-like* signals onto a wall that Gort faces. In response, Gort turns to the source of the light. Klaatu continues to signal Gort directly on his visor. In this way Klaatu reactivates Gort.

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This sequence implies that there are a series of channels by which Gort could be signaled, each allowing for a different constraint. Though codes like the Aldis code have a steep learning curve, and might not be recommended for more intermediate users, they clearly have their uses in mission-critical systems that are prone to the chaos of landing on alien worlds.

*It’s not real Morse code since the third “letter” is 8 “dots,” way beyond the maximum 5 defined in Morse.