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Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Thinking Machines, Part 2 (originally published 7/05)

From Pinocchio to Frankenstein's monster to the Tin Man of Oz, we have long been fascinated by stories about artificially constructed facsimiles of humanity and their desire to become fully human. Among other things, such stories prompt us to ponder a fascinating question: if an animate being looks more or less humanoid and has the power of articulate speech, what else is required for it to be considered fully human? The Tin Man felt that the capacity to feel deep emotion (a heart) would make the crucial difference. For Pinocchio, it was autonomy (no strings) that was lacking. Frankenstein's monster could not think himself fully human without companionship, the one thing that was forever denied him.

The latest piece of popular fiction to engage the question of what it means to be human by way of a pseudo-human character is the recently released "Stealth," in which a computer-based Naval aircraft flight controller develops a mind of its own, with calamitous results. As we saw last week, however, plenty of earlier films have also toyed with this concept. Here are a few more such titles to look for on home video.

"Blade Runner" (1982). Philip K. Dick is one of those writers whose best work is more philosophical than dramatic, which makes his books fiendishly difficult to adapt for the screen. Faced with the problem of adapting Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?," Hampton Fancher and David Peoples elected, probably wisely, to drop back and punt, creating a film that owes at least as much to Jean-Luc Godard's "Alphaville" (1965) as to Dick's novel. Only minimal hints remain of Dick's musings on the ultimate impossibility of verifying your own identity, or even your own existence. Instead, we are given an entertaining adventure story featuring Harrison Ford as a bounty hunter assigned to eliminate a band of renegade androids. The problem is that android design has advanced to the point where only a highly trained specialist is capable of distinguishing them from humans. But if the distinction is that fine, how fine is the moral distinction between destroying an android and murdering a human being?

"D.A.R.Y.L." (1985). The title acronym refers to an android in the form of a young boy (specifically, a Data Analyzing Robot Youth Lifeform) played by Barret Oliver. The two halves of this film are significantly different in tone, almost creating the impression of two shorter films yoked together. The first half shows us a childless couple who become foster parents to the abandoned Daryl, not suspecting that he is an android. Only after the youngster proves to be preternaturally adept at all sorts of skills do they begin to suspect the truth. The second half involves the parents' attempt to protect Daryl from the agency that created him, which now wants him recalled and destroyed.

"Making Mr. Right" (1987). For a lighter look at the contrast (or lack thereof) between artificial intelligence and humanity, try this engaging satire. John Malkovich appears in a dual role, both as Dr. Jeff Peters, a research scientist, and as Ulysses, the android Peters has created in his own image. Peters generally fits the stereotype of the emotionally stunted, socially backward scientific genius. Ulysses, however, is intended to be a cash cow for the corporation that funded his creation. In order to realize the full benefit of promoting Ulysses, it will be necessary for him to learn how to interact with humans effectively. Since his creator is himself deficient in that area, a public relations consultant is hired to educate Ulysses in the social graces. The consultant, whose name is Frankie Stone (get it?), is played by Ann Magnuson. Frankie makes the most of her unique opportunity to do a complete emotional makeover on a man (or at least an approximation of one) without having to overcome a lifetime of societal gender conditioning. The inevitable result is that Ulysses ends up as an altogether more humane being than the actual human who created him.

No one, by the way, follows the precipitous developments in artificial intelligence more warily than writers. Those of us who remember how passive and compliant typewriters were still have not entirely adjusted to our computers having the temerity to suggest that we may have misspelled a word. So far, my computer still needs my help to turn out this column every week. But a year from now, who knows?


tuffy777 said...

thanx for the informative article
-- I must point out that Hampton Fancher's script sucked eggs, and anything good in Bladerunner came from the script doctor, David Peoples
~~ Tessa Dick

Steve Jarrett said...

Ms. Dick,

Thanks very much for your comment, which reflects a view that I have heard before, although never before from so authoritative a source.

May I say that your late husband's work has been an abiding source of fascination and stimulation to me for many years, VALIS being a particular favorite.

And congratulations on the recent publication of THE OWL IN DAYLIGHT.

Best regards,
Steve J.

tuffy777 said...

Steve, thank you so much for mentioning my latest novel! I hope some day to make more than $20 a month on my writing.

Phil was ready to jump ship when the Bladerunner producers showed him the rough cut of what they had filmed before David Peoples was brought in.

~~ Tessa Dick