Monday, 18 May 2009

Live long and prosper.

Last night I went to the cinema and ponied up my hard earned cash for a chance to see Star Trek on the big screen. Now I have to admit that I'm not a massive fan of the Star Trek franchise.

Oh sure it has it's moments. Such as the episode "The Visitor" from the fourth season of DS9, which in my opinion is one of the finest 45 minutes of American television ever produced. And yes the original series was both iconic and ground breaking and all of that (Gee Note: By the way about a week ago my cable box froze and got stuck on both the Sci-Fi channel and mute for about half an hour. And with me being far too lazy to fix the damn thing I ended up watching "The Enemy Within" in silence. You know, the episode where a transporter accident leads to two Kirks appearing, one good and one eeeeeevil. Problem is that trying to follow the plot without any sound is nigh on impossible it turns out, leading to me shouting things at the television such as "What the hell happened to that dog thing?", "Why is Kirk trying to rape that blonde woman?" and "Why is William Shatner's stunt double trying to shoot him? I mean I know he could be a bit of a jerk on the set if the rumours are to be believed but, really, is violence ever the answer?") but for some reason I've always thought of Star Trek as kind of twee. I don't know, I guess I like my science fiction television with a bit more of an edge to it.

So it was a pleasant surprise that the new Star Trek movie is, well, damn good. No really it is. From the opening sequence where a fairly mundane exploration exorcise is interrupted by all hell breaking loose, it really does deliver on all levels. Rip roaring set pieces, a good dose of funny lines, and enough emotional turmoil to shake a stick at, it is high octane entertainment of the grandest order. Seriously, I cannot recommend it enough. It's like the Star Wars of this generation. And considering Star Wars itself failed miserably to be the Star Wars of this generation (Gee Note: Jar Jar Binks! Lucas! What the hell were you thinking?!?) that's no mean feat.

You know, it's a refreshing change to leave a multiplex with your expectations exceeded. Because if I'm honest with you, with the exception of last year's phenomenal Dark Knight (Gee Note: Which, regardless of what the Academy Awards tell you, really was 2008's best movie), I'm struggling to think of the last time I had my mind blown in a movie theatre. Sure I've seen plenty of OK flicks recently, and of course a lot of really bad ones. But it's becoming increasingly rare that I fall in love with a film at the cinema.

Take The Watchmen for example. Now as I've mentioned previously on this blog I love the comic book and hate the film. The thing was watching this overblown, bloated mess of a production actually made me feel uncomfortable. Because with every tedious conversation that started up, or when an unnecessarily violent fist fight kicked in to gear, or as that bloody ridiculous sex scene to the tune of "Hallelujah" romped it's way on to the screen, I actually felt myself sink deeper in to my chair. I'd waited for this movie for, oh gosh, five plus years and raved to anyone who would listen about how it was going to do for cinema what the comic book had done for, er, comic books. And yet when it was there in front of me it was so awful that I actually felt kind of embarrassed. Kinda. It sure as moxy wasn't a pleasant viewing experience anyway.

Which is why I won't be beating down the door to watch Terminator: Salvation.

See I love the first two Terminator movies. But since then the franchise has taken a downwards turn with a blah third film and the television series The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which loads of people rave about but I could never get in to. (Gee Note: By the way The Sarah Connor Chronicles has just been cancelled by FOX. Sadly it bit the big one when it came to ratings. Weirdly enough so did Dollhouse, which is being given a second season. I guess I’ll have to wait another year for Eliza Dushku to realise that she needs to take some time off and become my wife). And so over the past couple of years my enthusiasm for all things Terminator has kinda waned.

And to be honest with you, even though we’ve had a kick ass trailer for this new movie (Gee Note: And really, when was the last time you saw a trailer that wasn’t kick ass? Seriously it’s the only thing that Hollywood does consistently well) it’s still hard to shake the feeling that it’s going to be rubbish. For a start it’s directed by McG, the chap at the helm for both of the Charlie’s Angels flicks, who for some unknown reason is a 40 year old man who thinks going by the name “McG” is cool. (Gee Note: I mean I’m not even sure how to pronounce it. Is it “Muck Gee”? “Macjah”? “Em See Gee”? Don’t tell me I have to wait for him to win an Oscar before I find out. If previous form is anything to go by that could be a very long wait indeed).

Secondly when the producers of a movie are so worried that their lead star is going to walk out on them that they send the following audio recording to the film’s insurers, things can’t be going all that well (Gee Note: By the way, the following video contains VERY strong language. No really, if you haven’t heard this before then Christian Bale drops the “f” bomb like 5000 times in three minutes. So, you know, if you don’t want to get offended then don’t click on play. If however you don’t care all that much and think that a movie star acting like a complete asshole would make quite enjoyable listening then feel free to go buck wild with it).

Yeah happy campers make good movies right? I particularly love the way that Bale’s accent goes from London, to California, all the way back to London again. Or as I like to call it, “Yankney” (Gee Note: GEDDITT!!!! Part Yank! Part Cockney! AH HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA. I’m a frickin’ genius).

But most of all the idea of fictional evil machines exterminating the human race just doesn’t inspire awe in the way it did 25 years ago. Especially when with every passing year we get closer and closer to The Singularity.

The theory for The Singularity was first put forward by I. J. Good, a British cryptographer. Good was like a geek before geeks existed. He wrote numerous publications on probability theory, played chess to a county standard, help bring the Asian board game Go to a brand new audience via an article in The New Scientist in the mid 60’s, and in 1965 came up with this

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an 'intelligence explosion,' and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.

Oh no he di’ent!

Now while this all might sound like science fiction, a lot of respectable people took it very seriously. Vernor Vinge, Professor of Mathematics, computer scientist, lover, warrior against injustice and Science Fiction author coined the term “Singularity” in an essay published in 1993 in which he wrote

Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.

The basic concept is this. At some point man will create a machine that is slightly more intelligent than himself. After this point the machine will then be able to diagnose it’s own insufficiencies and design a more intricate and intelligent machine without the need for man’s input. This will in turn lead to a snowball effect where machines become more and more sophisticated, eventually becoming the dominant intelligence on the planet. And at that point we’re screwed.

You see the theory goes that as a machine can evolve simply by upgrading then the need to procreate becomes null and void. And so therefore there is no need for a machine to fall in love. Without love of course you don’t get compassion. The worry is that, without compassion, a super intelligent machine might view us humans as a waste of natural resources and, er, wipe us out.

Now I don’t know about you, but that scares the hell out of me. I mean it sounds all kinds of plausible right? I’m not one to advocate digging a hole in your backyard and building a concrete bunker but, you know, if I had any idea how to do it I’d out there with a shovel and a mixer right now.

So thank goodness for the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence. Founded in the year 2000, SIAI proposes that all future AI be made “friendly”. Now all this gets very technical, and to be honest with you I'm not even proficient enough to make this blog look good let alone talk about in depth computing stuff. But the upshot of it is that SIAI reckon they, given enough time and funding, can create AI that holds biological life in the utmost respect.

Let’s hope to God they succeed. Because for our species to be annihilated by something plugged in to an AC/DC power supply would be, well, kinda embarrassing.

But then who knows? If in the future there is friendly AI then in fifty years time it could be the machines making Hollywood movies.

And let’s face it. They couldn’t do much worse.

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