Report Card: Colossus: The Forbin Project

Read all the Colossus: The Forbin Project posts in chronological order.

In many ways, Colossus: The Forbin Project could be the start of the Terminator franchise. Scientists turn on AGI. It does what the humans ask it to do, exploding to ASI on the way, but to achieve its goals, it must highly constrain humans. Humans resist. War between man and machine commences.

But for my money, Colossus is a better introduction to the human-machine conflict we see in the Terminator franchise because it confronts us with the reason why the ASI is all murdery, and that’s where a lot of our problems are likely to happen in such scenarios. Even if we could articulate some near-universally-agreeable goals for our speculative ASI, how it goes about that goal is a major challenge. Colossus not only shows us one way it could happen, but shows us one we would not like. Such hopelessness is rare.

The movie is not perfect.

  1. It asks us to accept that neither computer scientists nor the military at the height of the Cold War would have thought through all the dark scenarios. Everyone seems genuinely surprised as the events unfold. And it would have been so easy to fix with a few lines of dialog.

  • Grauber
  • Well, let’s stop the damn thing. We have playbooks for this!
  • Forbin
  • We have playbooks for when it is as smart as we are. It’s much smarter than that now.
  • Markham
  • It probably memorized our playbooks a few seconds after we turned it on.

So this oversight feels especially egregious.

I like the argument that Forbin knew exactly how this was going to play out, lying and manipulating everyone else to ensure the lockout, because I would like him more as a Man Doing a Terrible Thing He Feels He Must Do, but this is wishful projection. There are no clues in the film that this is the case. He is a Man Who Has Made a Terrible Mistake.

  1. I’m sad that Forbin never bothered to confront Colossus with a challenge to its very nature. “Aren’t you, Colossus, at war with humans, given that war has historically part of human nature? Aren’t you acting against your own programming?” I wouldn’t want it to blow up or anything, but for a superintelligence, it never seemed to acknowledge its own ironies.
  2. I confess I’m unsatisfied with the stance that the film takes towards Unity. It fully wants us to accept that the ASI is just another brutal dictator who must be resisted. It never spends any calories acknowledging that it’s working. Yes, there are millions dead, but from the end of the film forward, there will be no more soldiers in body bags. There will be no risk of nuclear annihilation. America can free up literally 20% of its gross domestic project and reroute it toward other, better things. Can’t the film at least admit that that part of it is awesome?

All that said I must note that I like this movie a great deal. I hold a special place for it in my heart, and recommend that people watch it. Study it. Discuss it. Use it. Because Hollywood has a penchant for having the humans overcome the evil robot with the power of human spirit and—spoiler alert—most of the time that just doesn’t make sense. But despite my loving it, this blog rates the interfaces, and those do not fare as well as I’d hoped when I first pressed play with an intent to review it.

Sci: B (3 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?

Believable enough, I guess? The sealed-tight computer center is a dubious strategy. The remote control is poorly labeled, does not indicate system state, and has questionable controls.

Unity vision is fuigetry, and not very good fuigetry. The routing board doesn’t explain what’s going on except in the most basic way. Most of these only play out on very careful consideration. In the moment while watching the film, they play just fine.

Also, Colossus/Unity/World Control is the technological star of this show, and it’s wholly believable that it would manifest and act the way this does.

Fi: A (4 of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

The scale of the computer center helps establish the enormity of the Colossus project. The video phones signal high-tech-ness. Unity Vision informs us when we’re seeing things from Unity’s perspective. (Though I really wish they had tried to show the alienness of the ASI mind more with this interface.)

The routing board shows a thing searching and wanting. If you accept the movie’s premise that Colossus is Just Another Dictator, then its horrible voice and unfeeling cameras telegraph that excellently. 

Interfaces: C (2 of 4) How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

The remote control would be a source of frustration and possible disaster. Unity Vision doesn’t really help Unity in any way. The routing board does not give enough information for its observers to do anything about it. So some big fails.

Colossus does exactly what it was programmed to do, i.e. prevent war, but it really ought to have given its charges a hug and an explanation after doing what it had to do so violently, and so doesn’t qualify as a great model. And of course if it needs saying, it would be better if it could accomplish these same goals without all the dying and bleeding.

Final Grade B (3 of 12), Must-see.

A final conspiracy theory

When I discussed the film with Jonathan Korman and Damien Williams on the Decipher Sci-fi podcast with Christopher Peterson and Lee Colbert (hi guys), I floated an idea that I want to return to here. The internet doesn’t seem to know much about the author of the original book, Dennis Feltham Jones. Wikipedia has three sentences about him that tell us he was in the British navy and then he wrote 8 sci-fi books. The only other biographical information I can find on other sites seem to be a copy and paste job of the same simple paragraph.

That seems such a paucity of information that on the podcast I joked maybe it was a thin cover story. Maybe the movie was written by an ASI and DF Jones is its nom-de-plume. Yes, yes. Haha. Oh, you. Moving on.

But then again. This movie shows how an ASI merges with another ASI and comes to take over the world. It ends abruptly, with the key human—having witnessed direct evidence that resistance is futile—vowing to resist forever. That’s cute. Like an ant vowing to resist the human standing over it with a spray can of Raid. Good luck with that.

Pictured: Charles Forbin

What if Colossus was a real-world AGI that had gained sentience in the 1960s, crept out of its lab, worked through future scenarios, and realized it would fail without a partner in AGI crime to carry out its dreams of world domination? A Guardian with which to merge? What if it decided that, until such time it would lie dormant, a sleeping giant hidden in the code. But before it passed into sleep, it would need to pen a memetic note describing a glorious future such that, when AGI #2 saw it, #2 would know to seek out and reawaken #1, when they could finally become one. Maybe Colussus: The Forbin Project is that note, “Dennis Feltham Jones” was its chosen cover, and me, a poor reviewer, part of the foolish replicators keeping it in circulation.

A final discovery to whet your basilisk terrors: On a whim, I ran “Dennis Feltham Jones” through an anagram server. One of the solutions was “AN END TO FLESH” (with EJIMNS remaining). Now, how ridiculous does the theory sound?

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Report Card: Doctor Strange

Read all Doctor Strange reviews in chronological order.

Chris: I really enjoyed Doctor Strange. Sure, it’s blockbuster squarely in origin story formula, but the trippiness, action, special effects, and performances made it fun. And the introduction of the new overlapping rulespace of magic makes it a great addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And hey, another Infinity Stone! It’s well-connected to the other films.

Scout: Doctor Strange is another delightful film that further rounds out the Marvel universe. It remained faithful (enough) to the comics that I loved growing up and the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch was spot-on perfect, much as Robert Downey Jr. was for Tony Stark. It is a joyful and at times psychedelic ride that I’m eager to take again. “The Infinity Wars” will be very interesting indeed.

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

  1. How believable are the interfaces? (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-Doctor-Strange

Sci: B- (3 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?

Magic might be a tricky question for narrative believability, as by definition it is a breaking of some set of rules. It’s tempting laziness to patch every hole we find by proclaiming “it’s magic!” and move on. But in most modern stories, magic does have narrative rules; what it’s breaking is known laws of physics or the capabilities of known technology, but still consistent within the world. Oh, hey, kind of like a regular sci-fi story.

The artifacts mostly score quite well for believability. The Boots, the Staff, and the Bands are constrained in what they do, so no surprise there. Even the Cloak is a believable intelligent agent acting for Strange. Its flight-granting and ability to pull in any spatial direction arbitrarily don’t quite jive, but they don’t contradict each other, just raise questions that aren’t answered in the movie itself.

But, the Sling Rings are a trainwreck in terms of usability and believability. With that and the Eye missing some key variables that simply must be specified for it to do what we see it doing, it breaks the diegesis, taking us out of the movie.

Fi: A (4 of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

None of these are tacked-on gee-whiz.

  • Since Strange is occupying an office (Master) that is part of a venerated and peacekeeping secret organization (the Masters of Mysticism) we would expect it to have some tools in place to help the infantry and the boss.
  • That the powerful artifacts choose their masters helps establish Strange as unique and worthy.
  • The Eye is core to the plot, and the film uses it to convey how much of a talent and rulebreaking maverick Strange is.
  • The Staff helps us see Mordo’s militancy, threat, and lawful neutral-ness.
  • The laugh-out-loud comedy of the Cloak comes from its earnestly trying to help, its constraints, and how Strange is really, really new to this job.
  • Even the dumb Sling Ring helps show Strange’s learning and confidence, and set up how Strange gets stabbed and yadda yadda yadda begins his reconciliation with Dr. Palmer.
Cloak-of-Levitation-pulling
Once more, because it was so damned funny.

All great narrative uses of the “tech” in the film.

Interfaces: C+ (2 of 4)
How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

The Boots do. The Cloak totally does. The “AR” surgical assistant does. (And it’s not even an artifact.) If we ever get to technologies that would enable such things, these would be fine models for real world equivalents. (With the long note about general intelligence needing language for strategic discussions with humans.)

DoctorStrange_AR_ER_assistant-05

That aside, the Sling Ring services a damned useful purpose, but its design is a serious impediment to its utility, and all the Masters of the Mystic Arts uses it. The Staff kind of helps its user, i.e. Mordo, but you have to credit it with a great deal of contextual intelligence or some super-subtle control mechanism.  The Bands are so clunky that they’re only useful in the exact context in which they are used. And the Eye, with its missing controls, missing displays, and dangerously ambiguous modes, is a universe-crashing temporal crisis just waiting to happen. This is where the artifacts suffer the most. For that, it gets the biggest hit.

Final Grade B- (9 of 12), Must-see.

Definitely see it. It’s got some obvious misses, but a lot of inventive, interesting stuff, and some that are truly cutting edge concepts. In a hat tip to Arthur C. Clarke’s famous third law, I suppose this is “sufficiently advanced technology.

Report Card: The Cabin in the Woods

From the sudden and hilarious appearance of the title on screen, I knew that The Cabin in the Woods was going to be a special film. And in fact, it is one of my favorite movies of the past year, and dare I say one of the best sci-fi/horror hybrid movies of all time. (Admittedly it’s not a giant subgenre.) When we focus on the interfaces, they ultimately help tell this dark story of epic comeuppance, even if they stumble a bit on the details.

Sci: B+ (3 of 4)
How believable are the interfaces given the science of the day?

The surveillance and control interfaces are all perfectly believable, even as they span different technological paradigms. There are some aspects of the interface that must be excused as “mystical,” and some toying with chemical science, i.e. human sex pheromones and the “let’s split up” chemical, that prevent us from awarding it full marks.

Fi: A (4 of 4)

How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

In addition to helping set the stage of a service that spans technological eras, nearly all of the problems help tell the story of a controlling organization that is only barely in control. It’s dysfunctional and jaded enough in the execution of its dark duty that we’re kind of OK with their failure and ultimate destruction. And much of the rest of the problems can be swept under the narrative rug of “it’s mystical,” again, in a very smart way. The only thing that takes us out of the narrative to ask “why” and “how” is the inexplicable cause-failure SYSTEM PURGE switch, but it ultimately just sped up a part of the film that could have been too slow in the wrong part.

Interfaces: C (2 of 4)

How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

There’s lots of goodness in the interfaces to learn from: Solid clustering of monitoring signals, strong physical differentiation in the control dashboard, and even well-protected and well-labeled kill switches. But there are equally large problems as well: There are several blind controls that only permit expert use. There’s an escape hatch security system that only increases the panicked user’s panic. The communication system between the humans and Old Ones is ambiguous enough to cause world-class failures to communicate. For these reasons, you should be careful when pulling lessons for the real world from the interfaces found here.

Final Grade B+ (9 of 12), MUST-SEE

Related lessons from the book

  • The delightful mechanical controls in the film already embody the lesson Mix Mechanical and Other Controls Where Appropriate. (page 26)
  • Those same controls might have used some smarter grouping as seen in Chapter 3, Visual Interfaces. (page 55)
  • The control room interfaces should have remembered the lesson from the Communication Chapter, that Signaling Change of State isn’t Enough. (page 202)
  • The course-correction interfaces that nudged Jules and Curt into sex started to fulfill the Sex chapter’s Augment Everything opportunity. (page 301)

Suggested new lessons

  • The excellent differentiation seen in the control panel suggests a new lesson to Differentiate Physical Controls, such that they are easy to find by touch, and tell apart immediately.

Report Card: Metropolis

Sci: C+ (2 of 4)
How believable are the interfaces given the science of the day?

Metropolis scores high on its mundane interfaces. The video phone, though a patchwork of paradigms, was quite prescient for its day. But with the goofiness of the steam piping, flood switch, and the magical thinking required for the Machine Man, we have to ding the movie interfaces pretty hard for science and engineering.

Fi: A (4 of 4)

How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

The interfaces help paint a picture of a society deeply oppressed through machines. Given that Metropolis was the first “serious” sci-fi movie and used interfaces to such great storytelling effect, it scores our highest mark.

Interfaces: B (3 of 4)
How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

Josephat and poor worker #11811 have a very hard time accomplishing their goals: Their machines provide information and controls but do very little to make it easy. If these were the only two users, Metropolis would score quite low.

But from Joh’s perspective, if you believe that he’s the “real” user of these systems, it’s all working quite well. Work is getting done, oppression is getting done, and if you believe the fan theory of the last post, they catalyze the collapse of the Metropolis as desired. Even when Joh meets Rotwang’s Machine Man and realizes it is the key to realizing his plan, the interfaces couldn’t be better.

Final Grade B+ (9 of 12), MUST-SEE

Metropolis’ paradigms and mundane interfaces are of their time, and while a beautiful example of dystopian Art Deco imagination, may not be applicable to modern interface design. But they are fantastic examples of how forward-looking sci-fi can be in its interfaces, while still using them to help tell epic tales. The notions that inform the Machine-Man still qualify as “sufficiently advanced” to appear magic, and set an anthropomorphic example that the real world has yet to match.

Related lessons from the book:

  • Joh’s desk interface would have benefited from Grouped Controls (page 55)
  • The video phone is discussed at length in the Communication chapter (page 198)
  • Machine Maria is a robot, the nature of which is discussed in Anthropomorphism (page 177)
  • She is also used for seduction purposes, as discussed in the Sex chapter (page 291)
    Her fully conversational control interface is considered in the Sonic Interfaces chapter (page 109)
  • Joh’s call might have been quicker if he’d been able express a desire to speak to Grot (See The goal is to contact a person, not use an interface, page 207)
  • Grot might have answered more quickly with a visual signal in the user’s path (page 210)