IQ Testing

When Joe is processed after his arrest, he is taken to a general IQ testing facility. He sits in a chair wearing headphones. A recorded voice asks, “If you have one bucket that holds two gallons, and another bucket that holds five gallons, how many buckets do you have?” Into a microphone he says, incredulous that this is a question, “Two?” The recorded voice says, “Thank you!”


Joe looks to his left to see another subject is trying to put a square blue peg into the middle round hole of a panel and of course failing. Joe looks to his right, to see another subject with a triangular green peg in hand that he’s trying to put into the round middle hole in his interface. Small colored bulbs above each hole are unlit, but they match the colors of the matching blocks, so let’s presume they illuminate when the correct peg is inserted. When you look closely, it’s also apparent that the blocks are tethered to the panel so they’re not lost, and each peg is tethered directly below its matching hole. So there are lots and lots of cues that would let a subject figure it out. And yet, they are not. The subject to Joe’s right even eyes Joe suspiciously and turns his body to cover his test so Joe won’t try and crib…uh…“answers.”



The comedy in the scene comes from how rudimentary these challenges are. Most toddlers could complete the shape test. Even if you couldn’t figure out the shapes, you could match the colors, i.e. the blue object goes in the hole under the blue bulb. Most preschoolers could answer the spoken challenge. It underscores the stupidity of this world that generalized IQ tests for adults test below grade school levels.

IQ Testing

Since Binet invented the first one in 1904, IQ testing has a long, and problematic past (racism and using it to justify eugenic arguments, just for instance) but it can have a rational goal: How do we measure the intelligence of a set of people (students in a classroom, or applicants to intelligence jobs) for strategic decisions about aptitude, assistance, and improvement? But intelligence is a very slippery concept, and complicated to study much less test. The good news in this case is that the citizens of Idiocracy don’t have very sophisticated intellects, so very basic tests of intelligence should suffice.

Some nice things

So, that said, the shape test has some nice aspects. The panel is angled so the holes are visible and targetable, without being so vertical it’s easy to drop the pegs while manipulating them. The panel is plenty thick for durability and cleaning. The speech-to-text tech seems to work perfectly, unlike the errors and bad design that riddle most technologies in Idiocracy.


A garden path match

There’s an interesting question of affordances in the device. You can see in the image above that the yellow round block fits just fine in the square hole. Ordinarily, a designer would want to prevent errors like this by, say, increasing the diameter of the round peg (and its hole) so that it couldn’t be inserted into the square hole. That version of the test would just test the time it took by even trial-and-error to match pegs to their matching holes, then you could rank subjects by time-to-completion. But by allowing the round peg to fit in the square hole, you complicate the test with a “garden path” branch where some subjects can get lost in what he thinks is a successful subtask. This makes it harder to compare subjects fairly, because another subject might not have wandered down this path and paid an unfair price in their time-to-complete.

Another complication is that this test has so many different clues. Do they notice the tethers? Do subjects notice the colored bulbs? (What about color blind subjects?) Having it test cognitive skills as well as fine-motor manipulation skills as well as perception skills seems quite complicated and less likely to enable fair comparisons. 

We must always scrutinize IQ tests because people put so much stock in them and it can be very much to an individual’s detriment. Designers of these tests ought to instrument them carefully for passive and active feedback about when the test itself is proving to be problematic.

Challenging the “superintelligent?”

A larger failing of the test is that it doesn’t challenge Joe at all. All his results would tell him is that he’s much much more intelligent than these tests are built for. Fair enough, there’s nothing in the world of Idiocracy which would indicate a need to test for superintelligence among the population, but this test had to be built by someone(s), generations ago. Could they not even have the test work on someone as smart as themselves? That’s all it would need to test Joe. But we live in a world that should be quite cautious about the emergence of a superintelligence. It would be comforting to imagine that we could test for that. Maybe we should include the Millennium Problems at the end of every test. Just in case.


Another Idiot Test

As “luck” would have it, Trump tweeted an IQ test just this morning. (I don’t want to link to it to directly add any fuel to his fire, but you can Google it easily.) It’s an outrageous political video ad. As you watch it:

  • Do you believe that a single anecdote about a troubled, psychotic individual is generalizable to everyone with brown skin? Or even to everyone with brown skin who is not American and seeking legal asylum in the U.S.?
  • Do you ignore the evidence of the past decades (and the last week) that show it’s conservative white males who are much more of a problem? (Noting that vox is a liberal-leaning publication, but look at the article’s citations.)
  • Can you tell that the war drums under the ad are there only to make you feel scared, appealing to your emotions with cinematic tricks?
  • Do you uncritically fall for implicature and the slippery slope fallacy?

If the answers to all these are yes, well, sorry. You’ve failed an IQ test put to you by one of the most blatantly racist political ads since WIllie Horton. (Not many ads warrant a deathbed statement of regret, but that one did.) Maybe it’s best you take the rest of the week off treating yourself. Leave town. Take a road trip somewhere. Eat some ice cream.

For the rest of you, congratulations on passing the test. We have 5 days until the election. Kick the racist bastards and the bastards enabling the racist bastards out.

Sleeping pods


Joe and Rita climb into the pods and situate themselves comfortably. Officer Collins and his assistant approach and insert some necessary intravenous chemicals. We see two canisters, one empty (for waste?) and one filled with the IV fluid. To each side of the subject’s head is a small raised panel with two lights (amber and ruby) and a blue toggle switch. None of these are labeled. The subjects fall into hibernation and the lids close.

Collins and his assistant remove a cable labeled “MASTER” from the interface and close a panel which seals the inputs and outputs. They then close a large steel door, stenciled “TOP SECRET,” to the hibernation chamber.


The external interface panel includes:

  • A red LED display
  • 3 red safety cover toggle switches labeled “SET 1” “SET 2” and “SET 3.”
  • A 5×4 keypad
    • 0-9 numbers
    • Letters A–F
    • Four unlabeled white buttons

500 years later, after the top secret lab is destroyed, the pods become part of the mountains of garbage that just pile up. Sliding down an avalanche of the stuff, the pods wind up in a downtown area. Joe’s crashes through Frito’s window. At this moment the pod decides enough is enough and it wakes him. Clamps around the edge unlock. The panel cover has fallen off somewhere, and the LED display blinks the text, “unfreezing.” Joe drowsily pushes the lids open and gets out.

Its purpose in the narrative

This is a “segue” interface, mostly useful in explaining how Joe and Rita are transported safely 500 years in the future. At its base, all it needs to convey is:

  • Scienciness (lights and interfaces, check)
  • See them pass into sleep (check)
  • See why how they are kept safe (rugged construction details, clamped lid, check)
  • See the machine wake them up (check)

Is it ideal?

The ergonomics are nice. A comfortable enough coffin to sleep in. And it seems…uh…well engineered, seeing as how it winds up lasting 500 times its intended use and takes some pretty massive abuse as it slides down the mountains of garbage and through Frito’s window into his apartment. But that’s where the goodness ends. It looks solid enough to last a long long time. But there are questions.

From Collins’ point of view:

  • Why was it engineered to last 500 years, but you know, fail to have any of its interior lights or toggle switches labeled? Or have something more informative on the toggles than “SET 1”?
  • How on earth did they monitor the health of the participants over time? (Compare Prometheus’ hibernation screens.) Did they just expect it to work perfectly? Not a lot of comfort to the subjects. Did they monitor it remotely? Why didn’t that monitoring screen arouse the suspicions of the foreclosers?
  • How are subjects roused? If the procedure is something that Collins just knows, what if something happens to him? That information should be somewhere on the pod with very clear instructions.
  • How does it gracefully degrade as it runs out of resources (power, water, nutrition, air, water storage or disposal) to keep it’s occupants alive? What if the appointed person doesn’t answer the initial cry for help?

From the hibernators’ point of view:

  • How do the participants indicate their consent to go into hibernation? Can this be used as an involuntary prison?
  • How do they indicate consent to be awakened? (Not an easy problem, but Passengers illustrates why it’s necessary.)
  • What if they wake early? How do they get out or let anyone know to release them?
  • Why does the subject have to push the lid if they’re going to be weak and woozy when they waken? Can’t it be automatic, like the hibernation lids in Aliens?
  • How does the sleeper know it’s safe to get out? Certainly Joe and Rita expected to wake up in the military laboratory. But while we’re putting in the effort to engineer it to last 500 years, maybe we could account for the possibility that it’s somewhere else.
  • Can’t you put me at ease in the disorientating hypnopompic phase? Maybe some soothing graphic on the interior lid? A big red label reading, “DON’T PANIC” with an explanation?
  • Can you provide some information to help orient me, like where I am and when I am? Why does Joe have to infer the date from a magazine cover?

From a person-in-the-future point of view

  • How do the people nearby know that it contains living humans? That might be important for safekeeping, or even to take care in case the hibernators are carrying some disease to which the population has lost resistance.
  • How do we know if they’ve got some medical conditions that will need specialized care? What food they eat? Whether they are dangerous?
  • Can we get a little warning so we can prepare for all this stuff?

Is the interface believable?

Oh yes. Prototypes tend to be minimum viable thing, and usability lags far behind basic utility. Plus, this is military, known to be tough people expecting their people to be tough people without the need for civilian niceties. Plus, Collins didn’t seem too big on “details.” So very believable.


Note that this doesn’t equate to the thing itself being believable. I mean, it was an experiment meant to last only a year. How did it have the life support resources—including power—to run for 500 times the intended duration? What brown fluid has the 273,750,000 calories needed to sustain Luke Wilson’s physique for 500 years? (Maya Rudoph lucks out needing “only” 219,000,000.) How did it keep them alive and prevent long-term bedridden problems, like pressure sores, pneumonia, constipation, contractures, etc. etc.?
See? Comedy is hard to review.

Fight US Idiocracy: Donate to close races

Reminder: Every post in this series includes some U.S.-focused calls to action for readers to help reverse the current free fall into our own Idiocracy. In the last post I provided information about how to register to vote in your state. DO THAT.
If you accidentally missed the deadline (and triple check because many states have some way to register right up to and including election day, which is 06 NOV this year), there are still things you can do. Sadly, one of the most powerful things feels crass: Donate money to close campaigns. Much of this money is spent reaching out to undecided voters via media channels, and that means the more money the more reach.

There are currently 68 highly competitive seats—those considered a toss up between the two parties or leaning slightly toward one. You can look at the close campaigns and donate directly, or you can donate to Act Blue, and let that organization make the call. That’s what I did. Just now. Please join me.ActBlue_logo.png

The Cookie

In one of the story threads, Matt uses an interface as part of his day job at Smartelligence to wrangle an AI that is the cloned a mind of a client named Greta. Matt has three tasks in this role. 

  1. He has to explain to her that she is an artificial intelligence clone of a real world person’s mind. This is psychologically traumatic, as she has decades of memories as if she were a real person with a real body and full autonomy in the world.
  2. He has to explain how she will do her job: Her responsibilities and tools.
  3. He has to “break” her will and coerce her to faithfully serve her master—who is the the real-world Greta. (The idea is that since virtual Greta is an exact copy, she understands real Greta’s preferences and can perform personal assistant duties flawlessly.)

The AI is housed in a small egg-shaped device with a single blue light camera lens. The combination of the AI and the egg-shaped device is called “The Cookie.” Why it is not called The Egg is a mystery left for the reader, though I hope it is not just for the “Cookie Monster” joke dropped late in the episode. Continue reading

Cyberspace: Bulletin Board

Johnny finds he needs a favor from a friend in cyberspace. We see Johnny type something on his virtual keyboard, then selects from a pull down menu.


A quick break in the action: In this shot we are looking at the real world, not the virtual, and I want to mention how clear and well-defined all the physical actions by actor Keanu Reeves are. I very much doubt that the headset he is wearing actually worked, so he is doing this without being able to see anything.

Will regular users of virtual reality systems be this precise with their gestures? Datagloves have always been expensive and rare, making studies difficult. But several systems offer submillimeter gestural tracking nowadays: version 2 of Microsoft Kinect, Google’s Soli, and Leap Motion are a few, and much cheaper and less fragile than a dataglove. Using any of these for regular desktop application tasks rather than games would be an interesting experiment.

Back in the film, Johnny flies through cyberspace until he finds the bulletin board of his friend. It is an unfriendly glowing shape that Johnny tries to expand or unfold without success.

JM-36-bboard-A-animated Continue reading

Cyberspace: Newark Copyshop

The transition from Beijing to the Newark copyshop is more involved. After he travels around a bit, he realizes he needs to be looking back in Newark. He “rewinds” using a pull gesture and sees the copyshop’s pyramid. First there is a predominantly blue window that unfolds as if it were paper.


And then the copyshop initial window expands. Like the Beijing hotel, this is a floor plan view, but unlike the hotel it stays two dimensional. It appears that cyberspace works like the current world wide web, with individual servers for each location that can choose what appearance to present to visitors.

Johnny again selects data records, but not with a voice command. The first transition is a window that not only expands but spins as it does so, and makes a strange jump at the end from the centre to the upper left.


Once again Johnny uses the two-handed expansion gesture to see the table view of the records. Continue reading

Cyberspace: Beijing Hotel

After selecting its location from a map, Johnny is now in front of the virtual entrance to the hotel. The virtual Beijing has a new color scheme, mostly orange with some red.


The “entrance” is another tetrahedral shape made from geometric blocks. It is actually another numeric keypad. Johnny taps the blocks to enter a sequence of numbers.

The tetrahedral keypad


Note that there can be more than one digit within a block. I mentioned earlier that it can be difficult to “press” with precision in virtual reality due to the lack of tactile feedback. Looking closely, here the fingers of Johnny’s “hands” cast a shadow on the pyramid, making depth perception easier. Continue reading

Cyberspace: the hardware

And finally we come to the often-promised cyberspace search sequence, my favourite interface in the film. It starts at 36:30 and continues, with brief interruptions to the outside world, to 41:00. I’ll admit there are good reasons not to watch the entire film, but if you are interested in interface design, this will be five minutes well spent. Included here are the relevant clips, lightly edited to focus on the user interfaces.

Click to see video of The cyberspace search.

Click to see Board conversation, with Pharmakom tracker and virus

First, what hardware is required?

Johnny and Jane have broken into a neighbourhood computer shop, which in 2021 will have virtual reality gear just as today even the smallest retailer has computer mice. Johnny clears miscellaneous parts off a table and then sits down, donning a headset and datagloves.



Headsets haven’t really changed much since 1995 when this film was made. Barring some breakthrough in neural interfaces, they remain the best way to block off the real world and immerse a user into the virtual world of the computer. It’s mildly confusing to a current day audience to hear Johnny ask for “eyephones”, which in 1995 was the name of a particular VR headset rather than the popular “iPhone” of today. Continue reading

Video Phone Calls

The characters in Johnny Mnemonic make quite a few video phone calls throughout the film, enough to be grouped in their own section on interfaces.

The first thing a modern viewer will note is that only one of the phones resembles a current day handheld mobile. This looks very strange today and it’s hard to imagine why we would ever give up our beloved iPhones and Androids. I’ll just observe that accurately predicting the future is difficult (and not really the point) and move on.

More interesting is the variety of phones used. In films from the 1950s to the 1990s, everyone uses a desk phone with a handset. (For younger readers: that is the piece you picked up and held next to your ear and mouth. There’s probably one in your parents’ house.) The only changes were the gradual replacement of rotary dials by keypads, and some cordless handsets. In 21st century films everyone uses a small sleek handheld box. But in Johnny Mnemonic every phone call uses a different interface.

New Darwin

First is the phone call Johnny makes from the New Darwin hotel.


As previously discussed, Johnny is lying in bed using a remote control to select numbers on the onscreen keypad. He is facing a large wall mounted TV/display screen, with what looks like a camera at the top. The camera is realistic but unusual: as Chapter 10 of Make It So notes, films very rarely show the cameras used in visual communication. Continue reading

Syd’s dash display


If Jasper’s car is aftermarket, Syd’s built-in display seems to be more consumer-savvy. It is a blue electroluminescent flat display built into the dashboard. It has more glanceable information with a cleaner information hierarchy. It has no dangerous keyboard entry. All we see of the display in these few glimpses is the speedometer, but even that’s enough to illustrate these differences.