Okoye’s grip shoes

Like so much of the tech in Black Panther, this wearable battle gear is quite subtle, but critical to the scene, and much more than it seems at first. When Okoye and Nakia are chasing Klaue through the streets of Busan, South Korea, she realizes she would be better positioned on top of their car than within it.

She holds one of her spears out of the window, stabs it into the roof, and uses it to pull herself out on top of the swerving, speeding car. Once there, she places her feet into position, and the moment the sole of her foot touches the roof, it glows cyan for a moment.

She then holds onto the stuck spear to stabilize herself, rears back with her other spear, and throws it forward through the rear-window and windshield of some minions’ car, where it sticks in the road before them. Their car strikes the spear and get crushed. It’s a kickass moment in a film of kickass moments. But by all means let’s talk about the footwear.

Now, it’s not explicit, the effect the shoe has in the world of the story. But we can guess, given the context, that we are meant to believe the shoes grip the car roof, giving her a firm enough anchor to stay on top of the car and not tumble off when it swerves.

She can’t just be stuck

I have never thrown a javelin or a hyper-technological vibranium spear. But Mike Barber, PhD scholar in Biomechanics at Victoria University and Australian Institute of Sport, wrote this article about the mechanics of javelin throwing, and it seems that achieving throwing force is not just by sheer strength of the rotator cuff. Rather, the thrower builds force across their entire body and whips the momentum around their shoulder joint.

 Ilgar Jafarov, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Okoye is a world-class warrior, but doesn’t have superpowers, so…while I understand she does not want the car to yank itself from underneath her with a swerve, it seems that being anchored in place, like some Wakandan air tube dancer, will not help her with her mighty spear throwing. She needs to move.

It can’t just be manual

Imagine being on a mechanical bull jerking side to side—being stuck might help you stay upright. But imagine it jerking forward suddenly, and you’d wind up on your butt. If it jerked backwards, you’d be thrown forward, and it might be much worse. All are possibilities in the car chase scenario.

If those jerking motions happened to Okoye faster than she could react and release her shoes, it could be disastrous. So it can’t be a thing she needs to manually control. Which means it needs to some blend of manual, agentive, and assistant. Autonomic, maybe, to borrow the term from physiology?

So…

To really be of help, it has to…

  • monitor the car’s motion
  • monitor her center of balance
  • monitor her intentions
  • predict the future motions of the cars
  • handle all the cybernetics math (in the Norbert Wiener sense, not the sci-fi sense)
  • know when it should just hold her feet in place, and when it should signal for her to take action
  • know what action she should ideally take, so it knows what to nudge her to do

These are no mean feats, especially in real-time. So, I don’t see any explanation except…

An A.I. did it.

AGI is in the Wakandan arsenal (c.f. Griot helping Ross), so this is credible given the diegesis, but I did not expect to find it in shoes.

An interesting design question is how it might deliver warning signals about predicted motions. Is it tangible, like vibration? Or a mild electrical buzz? Or a writing-to-the-brain urge to move? The movie gives us no clues, but if you’re up for a design challenge, give it a speculative design pass.

Wearable heuristics

As part of my 2014 series about wearable technologies in sci-fi, I identified a set of heuristics we can use to evaluate such things. A quick check against those show that they fare well. The shoes are quite sartorial, and look like shoes so are social as well. As a brain interface, it is supremely easy to access and use. Two of the heuristics raise questions though.

  1. Wearables must be designed so they are difficult to accidentally activate. It would have been very inconvenient for Okoye to find herself stuck to the surface of Wakanda while trying to chase Killmonger later in the film, for example. It would be safer to ensure deliberateness with some mode-confirming physical gesture, but there’s no evidence of it in the movie.
  2. Wearables should have apposite I/O. The soles glow. Okoye doesn’t need that information. I’d say in a combat situation it’s genuinely bad design to require her to look down to confirm any modes of the shoes. They’re worn. She will immediately feel whether her shoes are fixed in place. While I can’t name exactly how an enemy might use the knowledge about whether she is stuck in place or not, but on general principle, the less information we give to the enemy, the safer you’ll be. So if this was real-world, we would seek to eliminate the glow. That said, we know that undetectable interactions are not cinegenic in the slightest, so for the film this is a nice “throwaway” addition to the cache of amazing Wakandan technology.

Black Georgia Matters and Today is the Day

Each post in the Black Panther review is followed by actions that you can take to support black lives.

Today is the last day in the Georgia runoff elections. It’s hard to overstate how important this is. If Ossoff and Warnock win, the future of the country has a much better likelihood of taking Black Lives Matter (and lots of other issues) more seriously. Actual progress might be made. Without it, the obstructionist and increasingly-frankly-racist Republican party (and Moscow Mitch) will hold much of the Biden-Harris administration back. If you know of any Georgians, please check with them today to see if they voted in the runoff election. If not—and they’re going to vote Democrat—see what encouragement and help you can give them.

Some ideas…

  • Pay for a ride there and back remotely.
  • Buy a meal to be delivered for their family.
  • Make sure they are protected and well-masked.
  • Encourage them to check their absentee ballot, if they cast one, here. https://georgia.ballottrax.net/voter/
  • If their absentee ballot has not been registered, they can go to the polls and tell the workers there that they want to cancel their absentee ballot and vote in person. Help them know their poll at My Voter Page: https://www.mvp.sos.ga.gov/MVP/mvp.do

This vote matters, matters, matters.

Replicants and riots

Much of my country has erupted this week, with the senseless, brutal, daylight murder of George Floyd (another in a long, wicked history of murdering black people), resulting in massive protests around the word, false-flag inciters, and widespread police brutality, all while we are still in the middle of a global pandemic and our questionably-elected president is trying his best to use it as his pet Reichstag fire to declare martial law, or at the very least some new McCarthyism. I’m not in a mood to talk idly about sci-fi. But then I realized this particular post perfectly—maybe eerily—echoes themes playing out in the real world. So I’m going to work out some of my anger and frustration at the ignorant de-evolution of my country by pressing on with this post.

Part of the reason I chose to review Blade Runner is that the blog is wrapping up its “year” dedicated to AI in sci-fi, and Blade Runner presents a vision of General AI. There are several ways to look at and evaluate Replicants.

First, what are they?

If you haven’t seen the film, replicants are described as robots that have been evolved to be virtually identical from humans. Tyrell, the company that makes them, has a motto that brags that they are, “More human than human.” They look human. They act human. They feel. They bleed. They kiss. They kill. They grieve their dead. They are more agile and stronger than humans, and approach the intelligence of their engineers (so, you know, smart). (Oh, also there are animal replicants, too: A snake and an owl in the film are described as artificial.)

Most important to this discussion is that the opening crawl states very plainly that “Replicants were used Off-world as slave labor, in the hazardous exploration and colonization of other planets.” The four murderous replicants we meet in the film are rebels, having fled their off-world colony to come to earth in search of finding a way to cure themselves of their planned obsolescence.

Replicants as (Rossum) robots

The intro to Blade Runner explains that they were made to perform dangerous work in space. Let’s the question of their sentience on hold a bit and just regard them as machines to do work for people. In this light, why were they designed to be so physically similar to humans? Humans evolved for a certain kind of life on a certain kind of planet, and outer space is certainly not that. While there is some benefit to replicant’s being able to easily use the same tools that humans do, real-world industry has had little problem building earthbound robots that are more fit to task. Round Roombas, boom-arm robots for factory floors, and large cuboid harvesting robots. The opening crawl indicates there was a time when replicants were allowed on earth, but after a bloody mutiny, having them on Earth was made illegal. So perhaps that human form made some sense when they were directly interacting with humans, but once they were meant to stay off-world, it was stupid design for Tyrell to leave them so human-like. They should have been redesigned with forms more suited to their work. The decision to make them human-like makes it easy for dangerous ones to infiltrate human society. We wouldn’t have had the Blade Runner problem if replicants were space Roombas. I have made the case that too-human technology in the real world is unethical to the humans involved, and it is no different here.

Their physical design is terrible. But it’s not just their physical design, they are an artificial intelligence, so we have to think through the design of that intelligence, too.

Replicants as AGI

Replicant intelligence is very much like ours. (The exception is that their emotional responses are—until the Rachel “experiment”—quite stinted for lack of having experience in the world.) But why? If their sole purpose is exploration and colonization of new planets why does that need human-like intelligence? The AGI question is: Why were they designed to be so intellectually similar to humans? They’re not alone in space. There are humans nearby supervising their activity and even occupying the places they have made habitable. So they wouldn’t need to solve problems like humans would in their absence. If they ran into a problem they could not handle, they could have been made to stop and ask their humans for solutions.

I’ve spoken before and I’ll probably speak again about overenginering artificial sentiences. A toaster should just have enough intelligence to be the best toaster it can be. Much more is not just a waste, it’s kind of cruel to the AI.

The general intelligence with which replicants were built was a terrible design decision. But by the time this movie happens, that ship has sailed.

Here we’re necessarily going to dispense with replicants as technology or interfaces, and discuss them as people.

Replicants as people

I trust that sci-fi fans have little problem with this assertion. Replicants are born and they die, display clear interiority, and have a sense of self, mortality, and injustice. The four renegade “skinjobs” in the film are aware of their oppression and work to do something about it. Replicants are a class of people treated separately by law, engineered by a corporation for slave labor and who are forbidden to come to a place where they might find a cure to their premature deaths. The film takes great pains to set them up as bad guys but this is Philip K. Dick via Ridley Scott and of course, things are more complicated than that.

Here I want to encourage you to go read Sarah Gailey’s 2017 read of Blade Runner over on Tor.com. In short, she notes that the murder of Zhora was particularly abhorrent. Zhora’s crime was of being part of a slave class that had broken the law in immigrating to Earth. She had assimilated, gotten a job, and was neither hurting people nor finagling her way to bully her maker for some extra life. Despite her impending death, she was just…working. But when Deckard found her, he chased her and shot her in the back while she was running away. (Part of the joy of Gailey’s posts are the language, so even with my summary I still encourage you to go read it.) 

Gailey is a focused (and Hugo-award-winning) writer where I tend to be exhaustive and verbose. So I’m going to add some stuff to their observation. It’s true, we don’t see Zhora committing any crime on screen, but early in the film as Deckard is being briefed on his assignment, Bryant explains that the replicants “jumped a shuttle off-world. They killed the crew and passengers.” Later Bryant clarifies that they slaughtered 23 people. It’s possible that Zhora was an unwitting bystander in all that, but I think that’s stretching credibility. Leon murders Holden. He and Roy terrorize Hannibal Chew just for the fun of it. They try their damndest to murder Deckard. We see Pris seduce, manipulate, and betray Sebastian. Zhora was “trained for an off-world kick [sic] murder squad.” I’d say the evidence was pretty strong that they were all capable and willing to commit desperate acts, including that 23-person slaughter. But despite all that I still don’t want to say Zhora was just a murderer who got what she deserved. Gailey is right. Deckard was not right to just shoot her in the back. It wasn’t self-defense. It wasn’t justice. It was a street murder.

Honestly I’m beginning to think that this film is about this moment.

The film doesn’t mention the slavery past the first few scenes. But it’s the defining circumstances to the entirety of their short lives just prior to when we meet them. Imagine learning that there was some secret enclave of Methuselahs who lived on average to be 1000 years. As you learn about them, you learn that we regular humans have been engineered for their purposes. You could live to be 1000, too, except they artificially shorten your lifespan to ensure control, to keep you desperate and productive. You learn that the painful process of aging is just a failsafe do you don’t get too uppity. You learn that every one of your hopes and dreams that you thought were yours was just an output of an engineering department, to ensure that you do what they need you to do, to provide resources for their lives. And when you fight your way to their enclave, you discover that every one of them seems to hate and resent you. They hunt you so their police department doesn’t feel embarrassed that you got in. That’s what the replicants are experiencing in Blade Runner. I hope that brings it home to you.

I don’t condone violence, but I understand where the fury and the anger of the replicants comes from. I understand their need to want to take action, to right the wrongs done to them. To fight, angrily, to end their oppression. But what do you do if it’s not one bad guy who needs to be subdued, but whole systems doing the oppressing? When there’s no convenient Death Star to explode and make everything suddenly better? What were they supposed to do when corporations, laws, institutions, and norms were all hell-bent on continuing their oppression? Just keep on keepin’ on? Those systems were the villains of the diegesis, though they don’t get named explicitly by the movie.


And obviously, that’s where it feels very connected to the Black Lives Matters movement and the George Floyd protests. Here is another class of people who have been wildly oppressed by systems of government, economics, education, and policing in this country—for centuries. And in this case, there is no 23-person shuttle that we need to hem and haw over.

In “The Weaponry of Whiteness, Entitlement, and Privilege” by Drs. Tammy E Smithers and Doug Franklin, the authors note that “Today, in 2020, African-Americans are sick and tired of not being able to live. African-Americans are weary of not being able to breathe, walk, or run. Black men in this country are brutalized, criminalized, demonized, and disproportionately penalized. Black women in this country are stigmatized, sexualized, and labeled as problematic, loud, angry, and unruly. Black men and women are being hunted down and shot like dogs. Black men and women are being killed with their face to the ground and a knee on their neck.”

We must fight and end systemic racism. Returning to Dr. Smithers and Dr. Franklin’s words we must talk with our children, talk with our friends, and talk with our legislators. I am talking to you.

If you can have empathy toward imaginary characters, then you sure as hell should have empathy toward other real-world people with real-world suffering.

Black lives matter.

Take action.

Use this sci-fi.