House of Representin’

The U.S. House of Representin’ in Idiocracy is a madhouse. When Joe is sworn in as the Secretary of the Interior, he takes his seat in the balcony with the other Cabinet members. He looks down into the gallery. It is dimly lit. When Joe is sworn in as the Secretary of the Interior, he enters the chamber and sits in the balcony with the rest of the Cabinet. He looks down into the gallery. It is dimly lit. There are spotlights roving across the Representatives, who don’t sit at desks but stand in a mosh pit. There is even a center-hung video display like you’d see at an indoor sports area. Six giant LED screens. Ring displays showing weird ASCII characters.

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Sadly, we do not get to The Sennit for a comparison.

Someone plays an entrance theme consisting mostly of a cowbell and grunts. Strobe lights flash. An announcer says, like he was announcing a World Wrestling Entertainment performer, “Ladies and gentlemen…the President of America!” Camacho comes out of a side door screaming. He’s dressed in lots of red and white stripes with a cape made of the union blue. (n.b. The federal code forbids the wearing the flag as apparel.) He does some made-up karate poses. There are logos on the rostrum and currency sheets for wallpaper. He stands at the lectern and begins his address to the Representatives by saying, “Shut up.”

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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!”

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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.”

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Comedy

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.

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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.

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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.

The FloorMaster

As Joe wanders through the (incredibly depressing) lobby of St. God’s Memorial Hospital, it is at once familiar but wrong. One of these wrong things is a floor cleaning robot labeled The FloorMaster. It loudly announces “YOUR FLOOR IS NOW CLEAN!” while bumping over and over into a toe kick under a cabinet. (It also displays this same phrase on a display panel.) The floor immediately below its path is, in fact, spotless, but the surrounding floor is so filthy it is opaque with dirt, as well as littered with syringes and trash lined with unsettling stains.

There are few bananas for scale, but I’m guessing it’s half meter square. It has a yellow top with greed sides and highlights. It has bumpers and some

Narratively awesome

The wonderful thing about this device is it quickly tells us a couple of things at once. First, the FloorMaster is a technology that is, itself, kind of stupid. Today’s Roombas “know” to turn a bit when they bump into a wall. It’s one of the basic ways they avoid this very scenario. So this illustrates that the technology in this world is, itself, kind of stupid. (How society managed to make it this far without imploding or hell, exploding, is a mystery.)

It also shows that the people around the machines are failing to notice and do anything about the robot. They are either too dull to notice or this is just so common that it’s not worth doing anything about.

It also shows how stupid capitalism has become (it’s a running theme of St. God’s and the rest of the movie). It calls itself the floor master, but in no way has it mastered your floors. In no way are your floors clean, despite what the device itself is telling and blinking at you. And CamelCase brand names are so 1990s, much less 2505.

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Realistically stupid

So, I wrote this whole book about agents, i.e. technologies that persistently respond to triggers with behaviors that serve people. It’s called Designing Agentive Technologies: AI That Works for People. One of my recurring examples in that book and when I speak publicly about that content is the Roomba, so I have a bookload of opinions on how this thing should be designed. I don’t want to simply copy+paste that book here. But know that Chapter 9 is all about handoff and takeback between an agent and a user, and ideally this machine would be smart enough to detect when it is stuck and reach out to the user to help.

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I would be remiss not to note that, as with the The Fifth Element floor sweeping robots, safety of people around the underfoot robot is important. This is especially true in a hospital setting, where people may be in a fragile state and not as alert as they would ordinarily be. So unless this was programmed to run only when there was no one around, it seems like a stupid thing to have in a hospital. OK, chalk another point up to its narrative virtues.

Fighting US Idiocracy

Speaking of bots, there is a brilliant bot that you can sign up for to help us resist American idiocracy. It’s the resistbot, and you can find it on Facebook messenger, twitter, and telegram. It provides easy ways to find out who represents you in Congress, and deliver messages to them in under 2 minutes. It’s not as influential as an in-person visit or call, but as part of your arsenal, it helps with reminders for action. Join!

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Talking to a Puppet

As mentioned, Johnny in the last phone conversation in the van is not talking to the person he thinks he is. The film reveals Takahashi at his desk, using his hand as if he were a sock puppeteer—but there is no puppet. His desk is emitting a grid of green light to track the movement of his hand and arm.

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The Make It So chapter on gestural interfaces suggests Takahashi is using his hand to control the mouth movements of the avatar. I’d clarify this a bit. Lip synching by human animators is difficult even when not done in real time, and while it might be possible to control the upper lip with four fingers, one thumb is not enough to provide realistic motion of the lower lip. Continue reading

Green Laser Scan

In a very brief scene, Theo walks through a security arch on his way into the Ministry of Energy. After waiting in queue, he walks towards a rectangular archway. At his approach, two horizontal green laser lines scan him from head to toe. Theo passes through the arch with no trouble.

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Though the archway is quite similar to metal detection technology used in airports today, the addition of the lasers hints at additional data being gathered, such as surface mapping for a face-matching algorithm.

We know that security mostly cares about what’s hidden under clothes or within bodies and bags, rather than confirming the surface that security guards can see, so it’s not likely to be an actual technological requirement of the scan. Rather it is a visual reminder to participants and onlookers that the scan is in progress, and moreover that this the Ministry is a secured space.

Though we could argue that the signal could be made more visible, laser light is very eye catching and human eyes are most sensitive at 555nm, and this bright green is the closest to the 808 diode laser at 532nm. So for being an economic, but eye catching signal, this green laser is a perfect choice.

High Tech Binoculars

In Johnny Mnemonic we see two different types of binoculars with augmented reality overlays and other enhancements: Yakuz-oculars, and LoTek-oculars.

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The Yakuza are the last to be seen but also the simpler of the two. They look just like a pair of current day binoculars, but this is the view when the leader surveys the LoTek bridge.

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I assume that the characters here are Japanese? Anyone?

In the centre is a fixed-size green reticule. At the bottom right is what looks like the magnification factor. At the top left and bottom left are numbers, using Western digits, that change as the binoculars move. Without knowing what the labels are I can only guess that they could be azimuth and elevation angles, or distance and height to the centre of the reticule. (The latter implies some sort of rangefinder.) Continue reading

Airport Security

After fleeing the Yakuza in the hotel, Johnny arrives in the Free City of Newark, and has to go through immigration control. This process appears to be entirely automated, starting with an electronic passport reader.

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After that there is a security scanner, which is reminiscent of HAL from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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The green light runs over Johnny from top to bottom. Continue reading

Brain Upload

Once Johnny has installed his motion detector on the door, the brain upload can begin.

3. Building it

Johnny starts by opening his briefcase and removing various components, which he connects together into the complete upload system. Some of the parts are disguised, and the whole sequence is similar to an assassin in a thriller film assembling a gun out of harmless looking pieces.

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It looks strange today to see a computer system with so many external devices connected by cables. We’ve become accustomed to one piece computing devices with integrated functionality, and keyboards, mice, cameras, printers, and headphones that connect wirelessly.

Cables and other connections are not always considered as interfaces, but “all parts of a thing which enable its use” is the definition according to Chris. In the early to mid 1990s most computer user were well aware of the potential for confusion and frustration in such interfaces. A personal computer could have connections to monitor, keyboard, mouse, modem, CD drive, and joystick – and every single device would use a different type of cable. USB, while not perfect, is one of the greatest ever improvements in user interfaces. Continue reading

Viper Launch Control

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The Galactica’s fighter launch catapults are each controlled by a ‘shooter’ in an armored viewing pane.  There is one ‘shooter’ for every two catapults.  To launch a Viper, he has a board with a series of large twist-handles, a status display, and a single button.  We can also see several communication devices:

  • Ear-mounted mic and speaker
  • Board mounted mic
  • Phone system in the background

These could relate to one of several lines of communication each:

  • The Viper pilot
  • Any crew inside the launch pod
  • Crew just outside the launch pod
  • CIC (for strategic status updates)
  • Other launch controllers at other stations
  • Engineering teams
  • ‘On call’ rooms for replacement operators

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Each row on the launch display appears to conform to some value coming off of the Viper or the Galactica’s magnetic catapults.  The ‘shooter’ calls off Starbuck’s launch three times due to some value he sees on his status board (fluctuating engine power right before launch).

We do not see any other data inputs.  Something like a series of cameras on a closed circuit could show him an exterior view of the entire Viper, providing additional information to the sensors.

When Starbuck is ready to launch on the fourth try, the ‘shooter’ twists the central knob and, at the same time and with the same hand, pushes down a green button.  The moment the ‘shooter’ hits the button, Starbuck’s Viper is launched into space.

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There are other twist knobs across the entire board, but these do not appear to conform directly to the act of launching the Viper, and they do not act like the central knob.  They appear instead to be switches, where turning them from one position to another locks them in place.

There is no obvious explanation for the number of twist knobs, but each one might conform to an electrical channel to the catapult, or some part of the earlier launch sequence.

Manual Everything

Nothing in the launch control interprets anything for the ‘shooter’.  He is given information, then expected to interpret it himself.  From what we see, this information is basic enough to not cause a problem and allow him to quickly make a decision.

Without networking the launch system together so that it can poll its own information and make its own decisions, there is little that can improve the status indicators. (And networking is made impossible in this show because of Cylon hackers.) The board is easily visible from the shooter chair, each row conforms directly to information coming in from the Viper, and the relate directly to the task at hand.

The most dangerous task the shooter does is actually decide to launch the Viper into space.  If either the Galactica or the Viper isn’t ready for that action, it could cause major damage to the Viper and the launch systems.

A two-step control for this is the best method, and the system now requires two distinct motions (a twist-and-hold, then a separate and distinct *click*).  This is effective at confirming that the shooter actually wants to send the Viper into space.

To improve this control, the twist and button could be moved far enough apart (reference, under “Two-Hand Controls” ) that it requires two hands to operate the control.  That way, there is no doubt that the shooter intends to activate the catapult.

If the controls are separated like that, it would take some amount of effort to make sure the two controls are visually connected across the board, either through color, or size, or layout.  Right now, that would be complicated by the similarity in the final twist control, and the other handles that do different jobs.

Changing these controls to large switches or differently shaped handles would make the catapult controls less confusing to use.

 

Viper Controls

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The Viper is the primary space fighter of the Colonial Fleet.  It comes in several varieties, from the Mark II (shown above), to the Mark VII (the latest version).  Each is made for a single pilot, and the controls allow the pilot to navigate short distances in space to dogfight with enemy fighters.

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Mark II Viper Cockpit

The Mark II Viper is an analog machine with a very simple Dradis, physical gauges, and paper flight plans.  It is a very old system.  The Dradis sits in the center console with the largest screen real-estate.  A smaller needle gauge under the Dradis shows fuel levels, and a standard joystick/foot pedal system provides control over the Viper’s flight systems.

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Mark VII Viper Cockpit

The Viper Mk VII is a mostly digital cockpit with a similar Dradis console in the middle (but with a larger screen and more screen-based controls and information).  All other displays are digital screens.  A few physical buttons are scattered around the top and bottom of the interface.  Some controls are pushed down, but none are readable.  Groups of buttons are titled with text like “COMMS CIPHER” and “MASTER SYS A”.

Eight buttons around the Dradis console are labeled with complex icons instead of text.

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When the Mk VII Vipers encounter Cylons for the first time, the Cylons use a back-door computer virus to completely shut down the Viper’s systems.  The screens fuzz out in the same manner as when Apollo gets caught in an EMP burst.

The Viper Mk VII is then completely uncontrollable, and the pilot’s’ joystick-based controls cease to function.

Overall, the Viper Mk II is set up similarly to a WWII P-52 Mustang or early production F-15 Eagle, while the Viper Mk VII is similar to a modern-day F-16 Falcon or F-22 Raptor .

 

Usability Concerns

The Viper is a single seat starfighter, and appears to excel in that role.  The pilots focus on their ship, and the Raptor pilots following them focus on the big picture.  But other items, including color choice, font choice, and location are an issue.

Otherwise, Items appear a little small, and it requires a lot of training to know what to look for on the dashboards. Also, the black lines radiating from the large grouper labels appear to go nowhere and provide no extra context or grouping.  Additionally, the controls (outside of the throttle and joystick) require quite a bit of reach from the seat.

Given that the pilots are accelerating at 9+ gs, reaching a critical control in the middle of a fight could be difficult.  Hopefully, the designers of the Vipers made sure that ‘fighting’ controls are all within arms reach of the seat, and that the controls requiring more effort are secondary tasks.

Similarly, all-caps text is the hardest to read at a glance, and should be avoided for interfaces like the Viper that require quick targeting and actions in the middle of combat.  The other text is very small, and it would be worth doing a deeper evaluation in the cockpit itself to determine if the font size is too small to read from the seat.

If anyone reading this blog has an accurate Viper cockpit prop, we’d be happy to review it! 

Fighter pilots in the Battlestar Galactica universe have quick reflexes, excellent vision, and stellar training.  They should be allowed to use all of those abilities for besting Cylons in a dogfight, instead of being forced to spend time deciphering their Viper’s interface.