Staff of the Living Tribunal

This staff appears to be made of wood and is approximately a meter long when in its normal form. When activated by Mordo it has several powers. With a strong pull on both ends, the staff expands into a jointed energy nunchaku. It can also extend to an even greater length like a bullwhip. When it impacts a solid object such as a floor, it seems to release a crack of loud energy. Too bad we only ever see it in demo mode.

How might this work as technology?

The staff is composed of concentric rings within rings of material similar to a collapsing travel cup. This allows the device to expand and contract in length. The handle would likely contain the artificial intelligence and a power source that activates when Mordo gives it a gestural command, or if we’re thinking far future, a mental one. There might also be an additional control for energy discharge.

In the movie, sadly, Mordo does not use the Staff to its best effect, especially when Kaecilius returns to the New York sanctum. Mordo could easily disrupt the spell being cast by the disciples using the staff like a whip, but instead he leaps off the balcony to physically attack them. Dude, you’re the franchise’s next Big Bad? But let’s put down the character’s missteps to look at the interface.

Mode switching and inline meta-signals

Any time you design a thing with modes, you have to design the state changes between those modes. Let’s look at how Mordo moves between staff, nunchaku, and whip in this short demonstration scene.

To go from staff to nunchaku, Mordo pulls it apart. It’s now in a dangerous state, so is there any authentication or safety switch here? It could be there, but all passive via contact sensors, which would be the best so it could be activated in a hurry. The film doesn’t give us any clue, really, so that’s an open question.

How does it know to go from nunchaku to whip? It sure would be crappy to bet on a disabling thwack against your opponent only to find it lazily draping over a shoulder instead. (Pere Perez might have advanced ideas, given his ideas on light saber tactics.) Again, this state change could be passive, detecting in real time the subtle gestural differences in a distal snap, which a bullwhip would need, and lateral force, which sets the nunchaku spinning, and adjust between the two accordingly. Gestural and predictive technologies are not cinemagenic, so let’s give it the benefit of the doubt and say that’s what’s happening.

A last mode is After Mordo cracks it against the ground, it retracts back to Staff form. This is the hardest one to buy. Certainly it’s a most dramatic ending for Mordo’s demonstration. But does it snap back automatically after it strikes a surface? Automation is not always the answer. Deliberate control would mean Mordo doesn’t have to waste time undoing unwanted automatic actions.

Critical systems must be extremely confident in their interpretations before automation is the right choice.

It might be that this particular gesture is a retraction signal, but how the Staff distinguishes this from a mid-combat strike is tricky. It would have to have sophisticated situational awareness to know the difference, and it doesn’t display this. Better backworlding would point at some subtle gestural signal from Mordo. A double-tightening of his grip, maybe. Or even a double-slight-release of his grip, since that’s something he’s quite unlikely to do in combat.

This is a broad pattern for designers to remember. Inline control signals should be simple-to-provide, but unlikely to occur in literal use. Imagine if the Winter Soldier’s Trigger Phrase wasn’t “Longing, rusted, 17, daybreak, furnace, 9, benign, homecoming, 1, freight car” but instead was the word “the.” He’d be berserking every few seconds. Unworkable. So, if you were designing the Staff’s retraction command gesture, you’d have to pick something he could remember and perform easily, and that would be difficult to accidentally provide.

If Mordo has the staff in the next film, I hope the control modes are clearer and of course well-designed.

Eve’s Gun

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For personal security during her expeditions on Earth, Eve is equipped with a powerful energy weapon in her right arm. Her gun has a variable power setting, and is shown firing blasts between “Melt that small rock” and “Mushroom Cloud visible from several miles away”

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After each shot, the weapon is shown charging up before it is ready to fire again. This status is displayed by three small yellow lights on the exterior, as well as a low-audible charging whine. Smaller blasts appear to use less energy than large blasts, since the recharge cycle is shorter or longer depending on the damage caused.

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On the Axiom, Eve’s weapon is removed during her service check-up and tested separately from her other systems. It is shown recharging without firing, implying an internal safety or energy shunt in case the weapon needs to be discharged without firing.

While detached, Wall-E manages to grab the gun away from the maintenance equipment. Through an unseen switch, Wall-E then accidentally fires the charged weapon. This shot destroys the systems keeping the broken robots in the Axiom’s repair ward secured and restrained.

Awesome but Irresponsible

I am assuming here that BNL has a serious need for a weapon of Eve’s strength. Good reasons for this are:

  • They have no idea what possible threats may still lurk on Earth (a possible radioactive wasteland), or
  • They are worried about looters, or
  • They are protecting their investment in Eve from any residual civilization that may see a giant dropship (See the ARV) as a threat.

In any of those cases, Eve would have to defend herself until more Eve units or the ARV could arrive as backup.

Given that the need exists, the weapon should protect Eve and the Axiom. It fails to do this because of its flawed activation (firing when it wasn’t intended). The accidental firing scheme is an anti-pattern that shouldn’t be allowed into the design.

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The only lucky part about Wall-E’s mistake is that he doesn’t manage to completely destroy the entire repair ward. Eve’s gun is shown having the power to do just that, but Wall-E fires the weapon on a lower power setting than full blast. Whatever the reason for the accidental shot, Wall-E should never have been able to fire the weapon in that situation.

First, Wall-E was holding the gun awkwardly. It was designed to be attached at Eve’s shoulder and float via a technology we haven’t invented yet. From other screens shown, there were no physical buttons or connection points. This means that the button Wall-E hits to fire the gun is either pressure sensitive or location sensitive. Either way, Wall-E was handling the weapon unsafely, and it should not have fired.

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Second, the gun is nowhere near (relatively speaking) Eve when Wall-E fires. She had no control over it, shown by her very cautious approach and “wait a minute” gestures to Wall-E. Since it was not connected to her or the Axiom, the weapon should not be active.

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Third, they were in the “repair ward”, which implies that the ship knows that anything inside that area may be broken and do something wildly unpredictable. We see broken styling machines going haywire, tennis ball servers firing non-stop, and an umbrella that opens involuntarily. Any robot that could be dangerous to the Axiom was locked in a space where they couldn’t do harm. Everything was safely locked down except Eve’s gun. The repair ward was too sensitive an area to allow the weapon to be active.

In short:

  1. Unsafe handling
  2. Unauthorized user
  3. Extremely sensitive area

Any one of those three should have kept Eve’s gun from firing.

Automatic Safeties

Eve’s gun should have been locked down the moment she arrived on the Axiom through the gun’s location aware internal safeties, and exterior signals broadcast by the Axiom. Barring that, the gun should have locked itself down and discharged safely the moment it was disconnected from either Eve or the maintenance equipment.

A Possible Backup?

There is a rationale for having a free-form weapon like this: as a backup system for human crew accompanying an Eve probe during an expedition. In a situation where the Eve pod was damaged, or when humans had to take control, the gun would be detachable and wielded by a senior officer.

Still, given that it can create mushroom clouds, it feels grossly irresponsible.

In a “fallback” mode, a simple digital totem (such as biometrics or an RFID chip) could tie the human wielder to the weapon, and make sure that the gun was used only by authorized personnel. (Notably Wall-E is not an authorized wielder.) By tying the safety trigger to the person using the weapon, or to a specific action like the physical safeties on today’s firearms, the gun would prevent someone who is untrained in its operation from using it.

If something this powerful is required for exploration and protection, it should protect its user in all reasonable situations. While we can expect Eve to understand the danger and capabilities of her weapon, we cannot assume the same of anyone else who might come into contact with it. Physical safeties, removal of easy to press external buttons, and proper handling would protect everyone involved in the Axiom exploration team.