Materials and machines

From Metropolis to The Day The Earth Stood Still, from 2001 to Bladerunner, The Terminator to The Machine (which premieres in March 2014) cinema has had a penchant for robots and artificial intelligence. Moreover, writers have been preoccupied since long before that with the big questions of what makes us human, what consciousness is exactly and whether or not the once inanimate, a wooden puppet with a big nose, a glowing robot or even a whole computer network, for instance, might also have intelligence and self-awareness. Moreover, how would we know?

Alan Turing, of course, famously devised an experiment that would ascertain whether or not a correspondent answering one’s questions might be a person or an artificial intelligence. Isaac Asimov devised a code of conduct for the humanoid slaves, the androids, the robots, we might build. There shall be an ethical code, a machine’s moral compass that is, in fiction and some possible futures, repeatedly spun from true North by the magnetic whim of anthropomorphized evil embedded in the AI circuitry.

Having received a rare invitation to a movie premiere, for the aforementioned The Machine, I’ve been musing on exactly how cinema represents these androids and from what they are made. Commonly, the materials are metals and alloys and wires, in the sci-fi era, often with laser beams, glowing eyes and rotating antennae. Sometimes those metallic materials are the likes of tempered steel and titanium or in the steampunk genre bronze and brass. In even more wildly futuristic scripts, the materials of the post-apocalyptic cyberpunk bots might be smart composites that shapeshift to adapt and camouflage the machine to a given environment, spaceship or terrestrial wasteland, for example. I strongly suspect there are at least a dozen scripts that have already made it to the floor-based cylindrical filing cabinets of movie production offices that mention our favorite buzzwords, whether graphene, metamaterial or biomimetics.

Nevertheless, to the Victorians building their "steam-driven thing" of brass and flywheels and journeys in the wooden craft of Jules Verne and subsequently HG Wells, the world of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 odyssey, the boldly going Star Trek and beeps and squawks of Star Wars looked mystical beyond belief. As, the man said: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Today, we are on the verge of creating truly smart materials, responsive gels that swell and contract under specific conditions, meta-materials that can mask themselves from microwaves and may one day offer us the kind of cloaking devices predicted in Gene Roddenberry’s 1960s classic TV. And, thin films that might be layered to create molecular scale quantum circuitry to outstrip the human mind.

1984 came and went, as did 2001, other fictional years of significance featured in the near-futures of movies and books will come and go. When they turn the pages of history long after these have been crossed off our digital calendars, will our descendents perceive us with our smart phones as not so smart? We respect the Victorians for their amazing achievements, for the materials and the machines they wrought with a somewhat fanciful perspective. We even respect their predecessors, what, indeed did the Romans ever do for us and all that. And yet, every present age has its own arrogance, its conceits, its hubris. Those future historians and archivists of our scientific "achievements" will inevitably look back in awe at how little we knew, at how naïve we were to imagine that we had answered those great questions, at our flimsy and simplistic materials.

Of course, that assumes that we continue to grow and develop, that we don’t press the proverbial red button – nuclear or environmental – and there really is no rise of the machines and we do not come to the unfortunate post-apocalyptic fate predicted by so many of the film makers.

David Bradley blogs at http://ift.tt/1dXIL6e and tweets @sciencebase, he is author of the popular science book "Deceived Wisdom".

The Machine premieres in March – http://ift.tt/1d11EZB

from Comment http://ift.tt/1dgGp6l

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