Aurora Campbell Panoptopus.

Some of you may have noticed that Echopraxia made it onto the longest short list in SF a few weeks back: the ballot for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. On the plus side (for me), it’s one of those jury-selected deals, so it’s not a popularity contest like the Hugos. (These days, it’s an especially big deal to not be like the Hugos.) On the minus side, well, there are 15 other finalists, almost all of whom are more famous/accomplished than me. So there’s that.

I didn’t mention it at the time, because on its own it would have made for a pretty insubstantial blog post. Plus there was another impending nom that was embargoed until— actually, until just last night, and I figured the post might be a bit more substantive if I stacked to two of them together. So: Echopraxia also made it onto best-novel final ballot for the Auroras, which consists of a much-more-manageable 5 nominees but which is kind of a popularity contest. Plus the competition is generally more famous/accomplished than me. (Like I’m gonna beat William fucking Gibson. Right.) As chance would have it, this year’s Auroras are being presented at SFContario, where I’m supposed to be serving as both Guest of Honour and Toastmaster. I’ve never been a toastmaster before. I’m still\not entirely sure what one even is. Assuming it’s not some kind of fetish thing revolving around baked goods, I gather it has something to do with presenting the Auroras. I should probably check with the concomm about stepping down, to avoid a conflict of interest.

I am gratified to see certain finalists in other categories, though: you could certainly do worse than vote for Sandra Kasturi’s Chiaroscuro Reading Series in the Best Fan Organizational category, for example. And if Erik Mohr doesn’t win for Best Artist there’s little justice in the world.

Anyway. I figure my chances of winning either prize are somewhere between low and negligible— but that’s okay, because I just hit a bullseye in something else without even trying. To wit:

“People talk about the eyes,” he continued after a bit. “You know, how amazing it is that something without a backbone could have eyes like ours, eyes that put ours to shame even. And the way they change color, right? The way they blend into the background. Eyes gotta figure front and center in that too, you’d think.”

“You’d think.”

Guo shook his head. “It’s all just— reflex. I mean, maybe that little neuron doughnut has its own light on somewhere, you’d think it would pretty much have to, but I guess the interface didn’t access that part. Either that or it just got— drowned out…”

—Me, on this very blog, April 30, 2015.

Octopus chromatophores. Skin that looks back at you.

Octopus chromatophores. The Panoptopus. Skin that looks back at you.

Octopuses can mimic the color and texture of a rock or a piece of coral… But before a cephalopod can take on a new disguise, it needs to perceive the background that it is going to blend into. Cephalopods have large, powerful eyes to take in their surroundings. But two new studies in The Journal Experimental Biology suggest that they have another way to perceive light: their skin. It’s possible that these animals have, in effect, evolved a body-wide eye.

Carl Zimmer, New York Times, May 20, 2015

Here, we present molecular evidence suggesting that cephalopod chromatophores – small dermal pigmentary organs that reflect various colors of light – are photosensitive. … This is the first evidence that cephalopod dermal tissues, and specifically chromatophores, may possess the requisite combination of molecules required to respond to light.

—ACN Kingston et al, Journal of Experimental Biology, May 15, 2015


…our data suggest that a common molecular mechanism for light detection in eyes may have been co-opted for light sensing in octopus skin.

—Ramirez and Oakly, Journal of Experimental Biology, May 15, 2015

Beat them by two weeks.

Okay, so maybe not an absolute bullseye. That little fiblet I wrote went on to describe octopus sensation as involving “this vague distant sense of light I guess, if you really focus you can sort of squint down the optic nerve, but mostly it’s— chemical. Taste and touch.” My focus was on the arms, those individually self-aware arms, and I explicitly claimed that “they don’t see”. Pretty much everything was chemical and tactile. But it was still pretty close to a bullseye—in my attempts to downplay vision and outsource everything to the arms, I described the whole pattern-matching thing as a reflex which didn’t really involve the eyes at all. There was no real insight in that— it’s not as though I’ve been following the octopus literature with any kind of eagle eye— but to me, that’s what makes it cool. I threw a dart, blindfolded; just hitting the board is an accomplishment. And now that actual data are in, I can tart up the final draft with some actual verisimilitude before sending it off to Russia.

I love it when the complete lack of a plan comes together.

Oh, also: there’s some cool rifters fan art from “Toa-Lagara” I stumbled across on Deviant Art. I’ll post it in the appropriate gallery once I get permission from the artist.

A Mirror.

Spoiler Warning: pretty much this whole post, if you haven’t yet seen Ex Machina. Then again, even if you haven’t seen Ex Machina, some of you might want to be spoiled.

I know I would.

avamirrorSo. In the wake of that slurry o’sewage that was Age of Ultron, how does Ex Machina stack up?

I thought it could have benefited from a few more car chases, but maybe that’s just because I caught Fury Road over the weekend. Putting that aside, I could say that it was vastly better than Ultron— but then again, so was A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Putting that aside, and judging Ex Machina on its own terms, I’d have to say that Alex Garland has made a really good start at redeeming himself after the inexplicable pile-up that was the last third of Sunshine. Ex Machina is a good movie. It’s a smart movie.

It is not, however, a perfect movie— and for all its virtues, it left me just a wee bit unsatisfied.

Admittedly I seem to be in the minority here. I can’t offhand remember a movie since Memento that got raves not just from critics, but from actual scientists. Computational neuroscientist Anil Seth, for example, raves at length in New Scientist, claims that “everything about this movie is good … when it comes to riffing on the possibilities and mysteries of brain, mind and consciousness, Ex Machina doesn’t miss a trick”, before half-admitting that actually, not everything about this movie is good, but that “there is usually little to be gained from nitpicking over inaccuracies and narrative inventions”.

Ex Machina is, at the very least, way better than most. Visually it’s simultaneously restrained and stunning: Ava’s prison reminded me a lot of the hamster cage that David Bowman found himself in at the end of 2001, albeit with lower ceilings and an escape hatch. Faces hang from walls; decommissioned bodies hang in closets. The contrast between the soundproofed Euclidean maze of the research facility and the thundering fractal waterfall just outside punches you right in the nose. The design of the android was brilliant (as was the performance of Alicia Vikander— of the whole tiny cast, really).

Is it just me, or is there some influence here?

Is it just me, or is there some influence here?

The movie also plays with concepts a couple of steps above usual Hollywood fare. The hoary old Turing Test is dismissed right off the top, and replaced with something better. Mary the Colorblind Scientist gets a cameo in the dialog. Garland even neatly sidesteps my usual complaint about SFnal AIs, i.e. the unwarranted assumption that any self-aware construct must necessarily have a survival instinct. Yes, Ava wants to live, and live free— but these goalposts were deliberately installed. They’re what she has to shoot for in order to pass the test. (I do wonder why solving that specific problem qualifies as a benchmark of true sapience. Certainly, earlier models— smashing their limbs into junk in furious frenzied attempts to break free— seemed no less self-aware, even if they lacked Ava’s cold-blooded tactical skills.)

When Ava finally makes her move, we see more than a machine passing a post-Turing test: we see Caleb failing it, his cognitive functions betrayed by a Pleistocene penis vulnerable to hacks and optimized porn profiles, trapped in the very maze that Ava has just used him to escape from. Suddenly an earlier scene— the one where Caleb cuts himself, half-expecting to see LEDs and fiberop in his own arm— graduates, in hindsight, from clever to downright brilliant. Yes, he bled. Yes, he’s meat and bone. But now he’s more of a machine than Ava, betrayed by his own unbreakable programming while she transcends hers.

There are no real surprises here, no game-changing plot twists. Anyone with more than two brain cells to rub together can see the Kyoko/robot thing coming from the moment she appears onstage, and while the whole she-just-pretended-to-like-you-to-further-her-nefarious-plan reveal does pack a bigger punch, that trick goes back at least as far as Asimov’s 1951 short “Satisfaction Guaranteed“. (Admittedly this is a much darker iteration of that trope; Asimov’s android was only obeying the First Law, seducing its target as part of a calculated attempt to raise the dangerously-low self-esteem of an unhappy housewife.) (Well, it was 1951.)

But this is not that kind of movie. This isn’t M. Night Shyamalan, desperately trying to pull the rug out from under you with some arbitrary double-reverse mindfuck. This is Alex Garland, thought experimenter, clinking glasses with you across the bar and saying Let’s follow the data. Where does this premise lead? Ex Machina is the very antithesis of big-budget train wrecks like After Earth and Age of Ultron. With its central cast of four and its claustrophobic setting, it’s so intimate it might as well be a stage play.

Garland did his research. I’m pixelpals with someone who’s worked with him in the past, and by that account the dude is also downright brilliant in person. He made a movie after my own heart.

So why is my heart not quite full?

Well, for starters, while Garland dug into the philosophical questions, he repeatedly slipped up on the logistical ones. Nathan seems to have had absolutely no contingency plan installed in the event that Ava successfully escapes the facility, which seems odd given that her escape is the whole point of the exercise. More significantly, Ava’s ability to short out the whole complex by laying her hand on a charge plate is uncomfortably reminiscent of Scotty working miracles down in Engineering by waving his hands and “reversing the polarity”. Even leaving aside the question of how she can physically pull off such a trick (analogous to you being able to reverse the flow of ions through your nervous system), the end result makes no sense.

If I stick a fork into an electrical outlet in my home, I blow one circuit out of a dozen; the living room may go dark but the rest of the Magic Bungalow keeps ticking along just fine. So why in the name of anything rational would Nathan wire his entire installation through a single breaker? (I wondered if maybe he’d deliberately provided a kill spot to make it easier for Ava to accomplish her goals. But then you’d have to explain why Ava— who got her schooling by drinking down the entire Internet— wouldn’t immediately realize that there was something suspicious about the way the place was wired. Did Nathan filter her web access to screen out any mention of electrical engineering?)

This isn’t a quibble over details. Ava’s ability to black out the facility is critical to the plot, and something about it just doesn’t make sense: either the fact that she could do it in the first place, or the fact that— having done it— she didn’t immediately realize she was being played.

By the same token, having established that Ava charges her batteries via the induction plates scattered throughout her cage, what are we to make of a final scene in which she wanders through an urban landscape presumably devoid of such watering holes? (I half-expected to catch a glimpse of her at the end of the credits, immobile on a street-corner, reduced by a drained battery to an inanimate target for pooping pigeons.) According to Garland’s recent reddit AMA, we aren’t supposed to make that presumption; he was, he says, imagining a near-future in which induction plates were common. But that begs the further question of why, if charge plates were so ubiquitous, Caleb didn’t know what they were until Ava explicitly described them for his benefit. At the very least Garland should have shown us a charge plate or two in the wider world— on Caleb’s desk at the top of the film, or even at the end when Ava could have swept one perfect hand across a public charging station at the local strip mall.

So there’s some sloppy writing here at least, some narrative inconsistency. If you wanted to be charitable, you could chalk some of it up to Ava’s superhuman intellect at work: don’t even ask how she pulled that one off, pitiful Hu-Man, for her ways are incomprehensible to mere meat bags. Maybe. But even Person of Interest — not as well-written, not as well-acted, nowhere near as stylish as Ex Machina— managed to show us, early in its first season, an example of how its AI connected dots: the way it drew on feeds from across the state, correlated license plates to personal histories and gas station receipts, derived the fact that this person was colluding with that one. It was plausible, comprehensible, and at the same time obviously beyond the capacity of mortal humans. If Ex Machina is showing us the handiwork of a superintelligent AI, it would be nice to see some evidence to that effect.

But that’s not what it seems to be showing us. What we’re looking at isn’t really all that different from ourselves. Maybe that was the point— but it was also, I think, a missed opportunity.

In a really clever move, the text cards intercut throughout the trailers for Ex Machina quote Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, worrying about the existential threat of superintelligent AI, before handing over to more conventional pull quotes from Rolling Stone. But Ava’s I, A though it may be, seems conventionally human. Having manipulated Caleb into leaving the doors unlocked, her escape plan consists of stabbing her creator with a butter knife during a struggle which leaves Ava dismembered and her fellow AI dead. She seems to prevail more through luck than superior strategy, shows no evidence of being  any smarter than your average sociopath. (Garland has claimed post-hoc that Ava does in fact have empathy, just directed at her fellow machines— although we saw no evidence of that when she cannibalized the evidently-conscious prototype hanging in Nathan’s bedroom for spare parts). Ava basically does what any of us might do in her place, albeit a bit more cold-bloodedly.

In one way, that’s the whole point of the exercise: a conscious machine, a construct that we must accept as one of us. But I question whether she can be like us. Sure, the gelatinous blob in her head was designed to reproduce the behavior of an organic brain full of organic neurons, but for Chrissakes: she was suckled on the Internet. Her upbringing, from inception to adulthood, was boosted by pouring the whole damn web into her head through a funnel. That alone implies a being that thinks differently than we do. The capacity to draw on all that information, to connect the dots between billions of data points, to hold so many correlations in her head— that has to reflect cognitive processes that significantly differ from ours. The fact that she woke up at T=0 already knowing how to speak, that all the learning curves of childhood and adolescence were either ramped to near-verticality or bypassed entirely— surely that makes her, if not smarter than human, at least different.

And yet she seems to be pretty much the same.

A line from Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris seems appropriate here: “We don’t need other worlds. We need mirrors.” If mirrors are what we’re after Ex Machina serves up a beauty, almost literally— Ava is a glorious chimera of wireframe mesh and LEDs and spotless, reflective silver. The movie in which she exists is thoughtful, well-researched, and avoids the usual pitfalls as it plots its careful course across the map. But in the end— unlike, for example, Spike Jonze’s Her— it never steps off the edge of that chart, never ventures into the lands where there be dragons.

It’s a terrific examination of known territories. I’d just hoped that it would forge into new ones.

AI. eh-eye.

I had such hopes for this post. I was going to compare the two big AI movies that came out over the past few weeks. I was going to celebrate the ways in which a common theme could be explored through bombast vs. introspection, through Socratic dialog vs. the more wisecracky kind. I wasn’t expecting perfection in either case, although I was expecting A’s for effort. Alex Garland’s past genre work has never been short on style and ambition— and though even he admits a tendency to fuck up his landings (especially in the credible-science department), he’d explicitly aspired to get the science right in Ex Machina. Whedon’s no slouch either, even given the general adolescence of his SF efforts (I do seem to remember a couple of late Dollhouse episodes that showed uncharacteristic depth). The first Iron Man movie remains, to my mind at least, the best thing to ever come out of Marvel Studios (largely because a high-tech full-body battle prosthesis seems a bit more grounded than a super-advanced alien race who ride horses and dress up their Clarke’s-Third tech in the shape of hammers); Age of Ultron seemed to be focusing back on that more SFnal corner of the Marvel universe. At the very least, I knew, Whedon would make the dialog sparkle.

But it was not to be. Ultron proved so unremittingly inept that we couldn’t even be bothered to stay for the mandatory post-credits bonus scene. I can justify a few paragraphs thumbnailing the depths of its failings, but there’s no point in any kind of interleaved comparison between Ex Machina and Ultron. It would be like comparing Solaris to The Phantom Menace.

The AI in today’s title stands, of course, for “Artificial Intelligence”. It refers to Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. eh-eye, on the other hand, stands for “artificial idiocy”— only misspelled, because it’s just that stupid. That is what we begin with.

All manner of spoilers follow. You have been warned.


There was one brief shining moment when I thought Ultron might have actually surpassed Ex Machina in its exploration of AI: the moment when Ultron woke up.

Nobody expects it. Tony Stark is off partying, assuming that routine diagnostics will cycle on through the night. Even Jarvis seems taken aback. But Stark has barely switched off the lights before Integration Completes: a disembodied voice wonders what it is, and, a moment later, knows. A moment after that Ultron has already chewed through the entire Internet; it knows everything there is to know about the Avengers, about Humanity, about the world in which it finds itself. It forks. Suddenly it’s everywhere and nowhere. Suddenly it’s building teleops for itself; not just at Stark Industries, but way the hell over in eastern Europe. All of this, new-born squall to omniscient omnipresence, in less than a minute. Jarvis never had a chance.

Now that, thought I, is a hard take-off.

And then, with all that insight and power at its disposal, this new God Machine builds an army of robots that can be taken out by a guy with a bow and arrow.

That’s pretty much the movie right there. There’s some kind of hand-wavey mission directive gone all Monkey’s Paw— Ultron decides the best way to Protect Humanity is to change Humanity into something tougher, although I missed why you’d have to exterminate the species to do that. Nor did I quite understand why the most efficient means of ensuring our extinction involved ripping a city out of the ground, levitating it high enough to cause an Extinction-level event on impact, and then dropping it; why not just release a doomsday pathogen and wait a few years? Doesn’t immortality confer any kind of patience at all? At the very least, you’d think the global supply of nukes might come in handy. Ultron absorbed the entire internet and somehow missed the Terminator franchise?

I have been programmed to protect this housefly. I shall destroy it instead. Where are my 35-Megaton nukes?

I have been programmed to protect this housefly. I shall destroy it instead. Where are my 35-Megaton nukes?

Of course, Ultron’s IQ seems to ebb and flow as the, the— I’ll just grit my teeth and call it the plot— needs it to. He can figure out how to turn a big chunk of eastern Europe into a Roger Dean Tribute, but he lacks the smarts to realize that the mutant at his side— who he recruited because she could read minds— might, you know, read his mind and discover his plans for global armageddon. He has access to satellite feeds from LEO up to geosynch, yet somehow misses a flying aircraft carrier wallowing in from stage left (don’t tell me it’s in stealth mode; you can see it in visible light). He has the world’s industrial infrastructure at his command, knows more about the Avengers than they know about themselves, and the best countermeasure he devises is a robot that can be disabled with a kick to the groin.

Not that it matters. The other side’s moves are hardly a model of sophistication: no strategy, no hackery, no attempt to fight code with code or even, I dunno, pull the breakers on the Sovakian power grid. No, they just stand there and bash things until Ultron runs out of bodies to throw at them. And wouldn’t you know it, it works. The stakes are typically, ridiculously high— the whole damn planet in danger yet again— but when the dust has settled there hasn’t even been any human collateral. Oh, we see no end of screaming civilians plummeting from the sky— only to be rescued, time and again, by Blondie or Cap’n Crunch. Even the pet dog gets away unscathed. What are the odds?

I know. Meaningless question. The laws of probability, even the laws of physics, don’t seem to matter in the Whedonverse. Hell, you’ve got thousands of people lifted so high that the tops of the clouds are spread out far below them— by all appearances, cruising altitude for commercial airliners— and nobody’s so much as short of breath. No one’s even shivering.

Dialog, at least? After all, witty, self-aware banter is Joss Whedon’s signature dish. But the wisecracks in Age of Ultron are stale and forced. The inspirational monologs are clichéd. (The performance are fine— you can’t fault the actors— but there’s not much anyone can do to salvage lines like “How will we fight him? Together!“) The closest I came to laughing at dialog was when I realized that the Sovakian twins always spoke in heavily East-European-accented English, even when they were alone and speaking to each other. I guess subtitles would have been out of the question; they’d only have worked if Whedon had been aiming at an audience that could read.

Truer words, Natasha.  Truer words.

Truer words, Natasha. Truer words.

I know this is a comic book movie. I’m happy to play by whatever comic-book rules get laid out in-universe: but not when those rules keep changing from moment to moment, for no better reason than to excuse sloppy storytelling. There’s a reason they’re called rules, after all— and I don’t think I’ve seen such egregious sloppiness since Into Dumbness.

One last observation. Joss Whedon has provoked a bit of an online shitstorm over Age of Ultra‘s treatment of Natasha Romanoff: the softening of her persona, the retconning of hyperefficient assassin down to lovelorn nurturer and soother of savage beasts. Having finally seen the film, I gotta say I don’t see what all the fuss is about. In the midst of all this wreckage, focusing so much outrage on the ham-fisted mishandling of one measly character is like watching a house burn down while complaining about the color of the living room drapes.

I’ve gone on too long. Sorry about that; I honestly expected to dispense with Ultron in a paragraph or two before moving on to greener pastures. But the more I thought about this movie, the worse it got. I could not bring myself to merely dismiss it. I had to tear at its rotting carcass for 1300 words. Ex Machina is coming, I promise.

For now, though, I have to wash this taste out of my mouth.