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?

Advertisements

Report Card: Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers is an unlikely movie to have come out of the 1990s. Director Paul Verhoeven says that it got made because it was a high-turnover time at Sony, and the script just got shooed along as studio leads paraded in and out. The irony, hyperbole, and critique of American neocons as fascist warmongers was all in the script from the beginning. Had anyone looked at the script or the dailies, he says, it might not have been made. That’s probably why I like this movie so much, in that it’s a criticism of hawkishness and the culture that gives rise to it.

But despite that soft spot that I have for it, I’m here to rate the interfaces, and in that regard, it is lucky I don’t send it to the brig.

Report-Card-Starship-Troopers

Sci: F (0 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?

If it I could convince myself to give a negative score, I would. The interfaces are just so bad they break believability all over the place. Sure, we’re willing to accept the emergence of psychic powers, but give us an interface that makes testing it believable. And of course, all the Federation spaceship interfaces that are just so very, very broken: single-factor login that’s out of order, undocking interfaces that are a disaster in the making, inscrutable spinning pizzas, a starnav & stardrive that seem to want to induce seizures more than help people pilot, the terrible fuigetry of the red phone, the silly evasion interface, the absolute lack of affordances for sealing compartment 21. It’s just one disaster after another.

There are a few precious bright spots. The interface of Fedpaint was believable and maybe even ahead of its time, though we don’t see it much. The news and information hub in the terminal foresaw a time when digital information would be everywhere. The jumpball scoreboard is certainly believable, largely because it was just a real world one that didn’t think about the goals of the audience. But these can’t hope to make up for the gravity of its other crimes.

Fedpaint_big

Fi: C (2 of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

Here the interfaces fare a little better. The news that is only very slightly interactive tell of a society where the illusion of choice is a given. The easy-bullying grade Board helps illustrate how might makes right here. The bug volumetric projection shows the indoctrination process. It all helps to paint the picture of the society. Even the panic-inducing collision alarm & rescue shuttle interfaces help “sweeten” the scenes they appear in, underscoring the emotional tone of the scenes in which they appear.

CollisionAlarm

On the other hand, the diegesis-breaking goofiness of the course-plotting scene, had me digressing from the tech to write COURSE OPTIMAL, an open letter for writers to drop the stoic guru metaphor and adopt an active academy model instead. While it let me try my hand at scene writing, it wrecked much of the storytelling cred it had built up.

A-writer

Interfaces: D (1 of 4)
How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

Certainly there are some examples of good, goal-directed interfaces. The war game equipment is well suited to the learning goals of boot camp. The healing chamber helps its patient physically, socially, and psychologically. The briefly-seen insertion windows help give the escape pod pilot a sense of what she needs to do to get the pod oriented correctly for re-entry.

StarshipTroopers-tank-02

And if you want to give them the benefit of the apologetics doubt, the doors work like doors should, the tattoo-o-matic—though a placebo—helps customers manage pain, and lastly, the weapons cache opens as seamlessly as you’d need it to in a crisis. I’m not sure those were intended as I’m interpreting them, but that’s what apologetics is all about.

tattoo

But then you get to the terrible interfaces like the live fire exercise that seems to want to kill recruits, the pillory that forgets that the drama is the point, the combat interfaces that are full of sound and fury and not much else, the Klendathu casualty announcement that doesn’t help people reading it, the fuigetry-filled binoculars, and the inscrutable uplink, and it’s just not a place to look for inspiration for real-world design.

StarshipTroopers-Whipping-Post02

Final Grade D (3 of 12), MATINÉE

Despite its ultimate grade, I’m still fond of this one, and hope to be showing it in 2015 at a sci-fi movie night where we can lament together at the marvelous train-wreck that are the Starship Troopers interfaces.