Thursday, 28 May 2015

MailOnline fails the Turing Test

The best of humanity are characterized by an open mind, insatiable curiosity, and a youthful - indeed, childlike - sense of wonder and delight. For these qualities, few surpass Lord Rees, the Astronomer Royal. If you get a chance to hear him talk, don't miss it. I was lucky enough to attend his lecture on "Real and Counterfactual Universes" a few years ago and the experience was like having a new section of my brain switched on.

Here he is writing in the Telegraph about artificial intelligence:
"By any definition of 'thinking', the amount and intensity that’s done by organic human-type brains will, in the far future, be utterly swamped by the cerebrations of AI. Moreover, the Earth’s biosphere in which organic life has symbiotically evolved is not a constraint for advanced AI. Indeed, it is far from optimal – interplanetary and interstellar space will be the preferred arena where robotic fabricators will have the grandest scope for construction, and where non-biological “brains” may develop insights as far beyond our imaginings as string theory is for a mouse."
And he concludes:
"Abstract thinking by biological brains has underpinned the emergence of all culture and science. But this activity – spanning tens of millennia at most – will be a brief precursor to the more powerful intellects of the inorganic post-human era. So, in the far future, it won’t be the minds of humans, but those of machines, that will most fully understand the cosmos."
Anyway, it's a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece and you should read it in full. But why I mention it here is that, a few days after the Telegraph article was published, I saw this headline:

Good grief. How did we get from Lord Rees's article to that? It's like reporting on the crucifixion with the headline: "Jesus says human beings are all idiots who deserve hellfire". The clue is that this piece appeared in the Daily Mail. A friend once told me that the MailOnline website is the most popular news site in the world. If true, that explains a lot about the mess we're in today.

First, this isn't an original interview with Lord Rees. The Mail's "reporter" Ellie Zolfagharifard has simply quoted extensively from the Telegraph article and interposed her own interpretations. For example, look at Lord Rees's point above about advanced AI not being constrained to the tiny film of air and water around our own round piece of rock. "Interstellar space will be [their] preferred arena." Then look at the Mail's reading of that statement:
"The fact that AI isn't constrained by Earth's biosphere, makes it an even deadlier threat."
The extra comma is theirs, by the way. Continuing this epic fail in the art of précis:
"Sir Rees suggests that super-intelligent robots could be the last invention that humans ever make."
Quite apart from not being what he said at all, that should of course be "Sir Martin" if for some reason you don't want to give him his correct title as Baron Rees of Ludlow.

That use of "Sir Rees", though, at least accurately reflects the journalistic standards of the MailOnline. It's bad enough to cobble together your content by swiping from another newspaper, without then applying a scaremongering interpretation that is the direct opposite of what the original author was saying. MailOnline is the most popular news website in the world? Then hire some subs and some proper journalists, you cheapskates.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Loud & clear - but case not proven

I see a lot about “show don’t tell” on the Internet. Suddenly everybody has writing advice to offer, and the trouble is that most of it is wrong. Here’s an example of would-be show-not-tell from Age of Ultron - a movie that I’ve already been thoroughly unkind about but its carcass is still twitching and my blood is up, so here goes.

Spoilers ahead, by the way.

You know the scene I really liked? Thor puts Mjölnir on the coffee table and everybody has a go at lifting it. In the comics (I’m sure you know this; I’ll say it anyway) there’s an inscription on the side of the hammer: "Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.”

Even before making the attempt, Tony Stark proves himself unworthy with his crack about reinstating jus primae noctis. And there’s a lovely character bit a little further on. You know the moment I mean. Anyway, nobody gets to wield the hammer and that’s that. Nice moment in between all the surround-sound action. Except, this isn’t just a character scene, it’s the set-up for something that comes later:

Now then. The Vision gives Thor his hammer back. (Yeah, I did mention spoilers, didn’t I.) You know why that's there. Because Joss Whedon has a dump truck full of characters to cram into this movie. Even worse, the Vision has been created in almost the exact same circumstances as Ultron, and he’s the reason everyone is running about and shouting jokes at each other. So how do we show that the Vision is worthy? Why, by having him pick up Thor’s hammer.

Except – that doesn’t show us, it tells us. When Cap budges the hammer slightly, that draws on many scenes from earlier movies where we’ve seen that he’s just about as decent a human being as you're ever going to meet. (Steve Rogers don't break no bad guys' necks.) There's another one of those scenes later in the movie, when Cap refuses to evacuate Laputa or whatever it's called and leave thousands to die. But the Vision – well sure, I know he’s worthy ‘cause I’ve read the comics. But in the context of this movie, all we see is that he is able to pick up an item that we’ve been told detects a character’s moral goodness. It’s second hand. We don’t see him do anything to earn it. We shouldn’t feel something just because Mjölnir tells us it’s so. Show us the thing itself, Joss, not the label.

There was no other way to do it, of course. The finale was roaring in like a juggernaut (but not the Juggernaut, which would have been fun) and we already know the whole team will have a big CGI fight with lots of jokes and then kill Ultron. So we just need to get rid of the annoying inner voice that’s saying, “What, you’re going to trust this red robot? Sorry, synthezoid. You just met him!” So it’s: look, he can pick up Thor’s hammer. So shut up and eat your popcorn.

As we left he cinema, my friend Rob Rackstraw said, “A movie like that is a hell of a thing to land safely.” And indeed it is. But a dog walking on its hind legs is also doing something pretty tricky, and there I’m with Dr Johnson.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

A.I. candy

Age of Ultron, then. I know you don’t want spoilers. How would I spoil it, anyway? You already know the arc of the movie long before you see it, because it’s the arc demanded by the sheer weight of franchises and star contracts, by the simple need to toss bread to the international circus-goers, never mind selling an SUV-load of toys to their kids.

Scientists create an artificial intelligence and it’s benevolent and means only good for mankind. No? How about: scientists create an artificial intelligence, spurn it, and in doing so teach it only to respond with loveless rage and destruction? Uh-uh, for something as sophisticated as that you need an 18-year-old girl. The AI tries to take over the (yawn) world, then. Hilarity ensues. (No, really.)

Taking over the world starts by Ultron getting into the Internet. Possibly that explains why he also becomes artificially dumb, as whatever the software you’re equipped with, the entire Internet doesn’t have the processing power or complexity required to simulate one human brain. That could explain why he wastes time looking for the Pentagon’s nuclear missile launch codes, which even with staff cuts are hopefully not actually connected to the freakin' Internet. And don’t get me started on how a super-genius AI copes with global bandwidth.

OK, so lots of dumb decisions later, the inevitable big-as-Dumbo climactic battle. My main takeaways from this are, first, that robots are pretty fragile, especially the armour-plated variety. You hit them with anything hard, even the butt of a gun, and it’s likely a limb will fall off. Also, they become weaker in proportion to the number of robots in the army. Oh, and they are really, really stupid.

Maybe the problem is villains, period. We know that the world’s problems go so much deeper than one bad apple, so the villain just seems like a trivial and ineffectual pantomime bully. And villains’ dialogue always sucks. It’s like everyone involved knows that the villain is a lame carry-over from moustache-twirling landlords in old silent movies, doomed to talk a good fight till the final prole-pleasing punch. Next up in this never-ending Marvel merry-go-round: acromegalic alien beetroot Thanos. Oh god, kill me now, just don’t monologue like a silkily smooth thesp for five minutes before you do it.

Second takeway: if you’re putting a new superhero into a movie, you really need to give them powers that the viewer can easily grasp. You need it to be show not tell. Spider-Man shoots webs, climbs walls, and is strong and agile. Reed Richards can stretch. We don’t have to know exactly how strong the Hulk is, but we know he can bust stuff up and lift a really big weight. Being flesh rather than metal, no limb will ever fall off him. Well, maybe one tooth, if a building is dropped on his head.

But when we’re told that a character has powers of “telekinesis, telepathy, other psionic effects” then we are never going to have a clue what they can do. Whatever the plot requires, probably, just as long as they prance like a tit while doing it and a CGI geezer is on hand with his particle effects package in Autodesk Maya.

I said hilarity ensues, and I wasn’t kidding - unlike Joss, who never stops. Each character has a stock of quips. It soon feels relentless, as though Buffy Summers has taken over everyone’s heads and given them a snappy teen one-liner to see them through the gruelling times when the sticky tape holding the story together looks like giving way. The cinema audience laughed and laughed, but that doesn’t mean much. The same kind of people also gave a snigger when Nero set Christians on fire. I just thought: Joss, baby, don’t you want me to care? I think he was desperate. In between all the shouting and ‘splosions and the damned soulless CGI, he just clung to what he does well.

What he does well, he does very well. The scene when Cap tries to lift Thor’s hammer, the look on Thor’s face. That’s gold, a lovely character moment. A shame, actually, that it turned out to just be set-up for a payoff scene that came later. The payoff wasn’t nearly as good and in retrospect it cheapened the earlier scene. Oh well, it came towards the end – and then again, the same payoff with added joke, in case we missed it the first time.

And a nice scene between Clint Barton and his wife, gently ribbing him for failing to notice an Avengers office romance. (And by the way I’ve never seen any evidence in real life that women are so much better tuned to that stuff than men. Possibly they’re more interested in feelings, on average, unless that’s a myth too, but they’re certainly no better at intuiting them.) And here I was thinking Joss was really down on gender clichés after his remarks about that Jurassic Park teaser. Anyway, quibbles aside, he does that stuff well and the “Hawkeye” line was perfect.

And then – like hope flitting up from the bottom of the jar – there’s Mark Ruffalo. Oh, such brilliance in every expression, every line reading. He’s worth the price of admission just on his own. If only Joss could give us a Hulk movie. A Banner movie, I mean. Fewer characters, more time to develop a story, more character moments so that when the stomping and growling kicks off we might actually care. That would be worth your 15 bucks for sure.

Look, I honestly don’t have the time or the will to review the movie, but Sady Doyle did and I agree with much of what she said. Here it is if you’re interested, but I know it won't change anything.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Fantasy has to mean something

I was quite mean about Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant in my review a while back. Not that I suppose he cares a jot, but I've had a few qualms. No review can express the totality of what you feel about a book, and once I'd started criticizing Mr Ishiguro's storytelling craftsmanship the whole thing flew off in one direction and, while I did make mention of the elements I liked, maybe the overall tone doesn't give an accurate impression.

You can see the other side of the coin in my remarks on the Fabled Lands blog here. I like fantasy, but it has to serve a purpose; it can't just be escapism. Mr Ishiguro feels the same way, it seems, as he told The Guardian's books editor Claire Armitstead in this podcast interview. His example of the pixies and what they stand for is indeed a reminder of the powerful impact the book has in places. It still isn't a patch on Never Let Me Go, but a work of quality nonetheless. I won't even mention curates' eggs.

That interview is partly a riposte to Ursula K Le Guin's defence of fantasy in reply to an earlier interview with Kazuo Ishiguro in which she felt he was denigrating the genre. Gosh, what a set-to when authors start sniping over the barbed wire of genre boundaries. The debate about The Buried Giant obviously inflames fiercer passions than would ever be stirred up by reading it. Oh, there I go again. Don't take any notice of me. As I said before, you should judge for yourself.

As it happens, I sympathize with the point that Mr Ishiguro apparently wasn't making. Coming to a novel with a set of genre expectations means that you are locking out the overdetermination that (whether intended by the author or not) is open to you when reading a non-genre work. See for example "Can we really call Frankenstein science fiction?" on this blog a while back. Genre invites a literal interpretation - that dragon is unequivocally a dragon - whereas if you find the same book in the LitFic section of the bookstore then you'll likely approach it with an open mind.

I have nearly first-hand experience of this because of my wife Roz Morris's novel Lifeform Three, which tells the story of a robot who was built to serve mankind but finds himself wanting something more. The word robot is never used in the novel and, while I'm sure Roz wouldn't be ashamed of parallels with Ray Bradbury or even Isaac Asimov, that's not really where her book belongs. If you think I'm slighting genre by saying that, let me just direct your attention to the masthead of this blog.