Rosie vs. Roomba, Place Your Bets!

This last weekend was spent at Anime North, the largest anime convention in Canada and the third-largest in North America, and a good time was had by all.  So good a time was had, in fact, that it's only now that I've managed to pull together enough energy to get back into the swing of all but the most necessary of things.

Artificial intelligence.  It's a hallmark of science fiction storytelling, and for good reason.  Nothing says 'the future' like robots, and if you're going to have robots, then there's not much point in having unintelligent ones.  But quite frankly, there's a fundamental issue that most science fiction doesn't really bother to address.  Why?

Besides the obvious.

True artificial intelligence is a remarkably difficult proposition, one that's been thwarting some of the most ingenious computer scientists Western society has produced.  The greatest success to date has been Watson, the Jeopardy!-playing 'AI' which in fact was more a next-generation Google, an especially-well-built search engine premiered in a particularly well-conceived three-day marketing program.  Mapping out every possible outcome in any situation an AI would come into contact with is an impossibly time-intensive proposition, and to date there's been little to no success in heuristic programming, in creating machines that can learn.  If we want to get our hands on Rosie or Robbie or our very own Cylons, we're clearly going to need to step our game up.

But do we want those things?  Robot maids and construction workers are all well and good as window-dressing for a scifi production, but what is their practical utility?  The all-in-one model of service-industry robotics is as passe as silver jumpsuits or wanting dinner in a pill, and for good reason; it's needlessly complicated and offers little benefit for its costs. Going to all the trouble of creating self-aware AI just so it can do construction work or clean up the house is a grotesque waste of the tremendous amount of effort required to rise to that level of programming sophistication, particularly when most of the discrete tasks those all-in-one models are pictured doing can already be done, either by the devices people already have in their homes or by only slightly upgraded devices.

But if there's no meaningful economic benefit to individual sentient robot-ownership, or even large-scale industrial sentient robot ownership, is there any need at all for AI?  Beyond the sort of 'because it's there' motivation that tinkerers and inventors have always possessed, it's hard to see much to be gained by pursuing fully humanoid synthetic consciousness, particularly given our species' rather terrible track record of treating servants humanely.  The odd slave revolt was bad enough, but imagine what would've happened if, rather than just being out in the fields picking cotton, American slaves had been fully integrated into the water and power grids, given control over military hardware and distributed through the entirety of the communications grid?  I don't necessarily think that a Robot Rebellion is a foregone conclusion, but given the shoddy construction techniques mass-produced AI would be subject to, and our history of utterly abysmal behaviour towards anything even slightly weaker than we are, I also don't think it's the impossibility that Asimov did.  And that doesn't even get into the dangers of, say, a foreign power trying to hack 'our' AI to use them as weapons.

Behold, our doom!

So, if they're not economical and they're a constant potential danger on top, what's the point of pursuing AI at a societal level?  Will we ever have U.S. Robotics making us metal friends and helpmates, or is the future of true AI that of Noonien Soong, toiling in obscurity to create a single life?


All the galaxy's a stage

For a miniatures wargame, the game itself is just one facet of what draws a player in. While good rules and nicely-made models are important, the lure of the universe and the customization options afforded to the player are often what first draws a person to the game. Some games, like Warmachine and Hordes ('Warmahordes') and Mallifaux have excellently sculpted models and well-constructed rule sets, but lack the elbow room for a player to truly make their force their own. But Warhammer 40,000? Ahh, in the grim darkness of the far future, there is only anything you can imagine.

Yes.  Even this.

There are a thousand Space Marine chapters, and less than a tenth of those have even been named. A thousand men in a thousand chapters are a rounding error in the great hive cities of the Imperium, and there are uncounted hive worlds from which to draw the sledgehammer that is the Imperial Guard. An unknown number of Eldar craftworlds sail the stars, their populations as proud and heroic as their stories are tragic. Each Ork horde is unique, a reflection of the clans that populate it and the biggest, toughest, 'ardest Orks that lead it. The piratical Dark Eldar operate in small bands of roving marauders, each one distinct, and the even more corrupted forces of Chaos and its warped Chaos Space Marines allow for a very personal background, built around individual squads and warlocks and merciless killers. The Tyranids' hive mind seems at first to limit the ability to innovate, but each swarm that descends upon a world is tailored for that challenge, and each swarm that takes to the table can lay claim to innumerable worlds left dust-dry in its wake. Perhaps only the undying Necrons hamper the ability to establish a wholly discrete force, and even there Games Workshop promises a meaningful change in the upcoming Codex: Necron, making the lifeless, striding cyber-skeletons a manifestation of their leaders' will.

But it was the Tau who drew me in, with their youthful energy and their AI attack-drones and their mecha battlesuits. The Tau Empire is small, a pinprick compared to any but the Space Marines and the Dark Eldar, but even they offer hundreds of worlds from which to draw an army, a commander and a history of war and sacrifice. The endlessly innovative Tau are a gift to any player who longs to fight on the battlefields of the future, their battlesuits modifiable and their swooping grav-tanks and skimmers sleek without being frail, as mobile as they are heavily armoured as they are well-armed. Their standard troops carry the strongest, longest-ranged standard weapon in the game, and their jetpack-equipped elites have the almost-unparalleled ability to leap from cover, fire, then duck back in to weather their opponents' shooting phase. And the railgun is the strongest anti-vehicle weapon in the game, while the tank-mounted version offers anti-infantry blast weapons as well. The only two things the Tau truly lack are a close combat unit, which is admittedly out of keeping with the martial strategy of the Tau Empire, and decent special characters. And since the great draw of 40K is the ability to invent one's army from the very ground up, the lack of named characters, while somewhat handicapping in game terms, is less than a serious problem in terms of background appeal.

For kind of good reason, actually.

And of course, hand-in-hand with that freedom comes the expectation that a player will use it. Like any good 40K nerd my own army has a long and storied history, full of stirring triumphs and heroically heart-breaking defeats. I'll get to that history soon enough, but for now I wanted simply to lay down the basics of the universe, and praise Games Workshop's foresight in providing such a staggeringly sprawling canvas upon which each player can leave their pinprick mark.

Why I'm Not Excited About Star Trek 2

Like pretty much every scifi nerd with disposable income in his pocket, I went to see J.J. Abrams 'Star Trek' in 2009, lured by the siren call of a Trek movie that, for the first time since First Contact in 1994, didn't look like it was designed specifically to suck.  Fifteen years is a long time to wait for a good Trek film, and I was understandably helpless to resist, even in the face of all that damn lens flare.

But a funny thing happened.  I loved the first section, with George Kirk, but as soon as the plot really got rolling with his son my interest started dropping, and largely never picked back up again.

So, there are rumours abounding about Star Trek 2; Roberto Orci has said they have a script waiting for Abrams' final approval, and Zoe Saldana inspired a micro-fury on the Trek blogs when she hoped her Uhura could get to kick some Romulan butt next film.  But I just can't work up any interest in this film, and I think the reason why has to do with what I have always seen as the sort of 'soul' of Star Trek.

When Star Trek was first produced, it featured a female first officer, and the second pilot introduced an African-American woman and a Japanese man as figures of respect and authority.  This was, of course, huge in 1966, just two years before Martin Luther King Jr. would be assassinated and less than a generation removed from the 'yellow peril' and the horrors of Imperial Japan.  That it later added a Russian man, at the height of the Cold War, spoke to the show's commitment to a sense of a brighter future. And, to varying degrees, those Star Treks that came after the original have tried to continue that tradition.  The Next Generation introduced a blind man first at the helm, then transferred him to Chief of Engineering, and actually spent a whole episode on a legal plot to demonstrate not only why the android Data was himself a person, but why non-personhood extended to thinking machines in general would be tantamount to slavery.  Deep Space 9 had a black captain and a female first officer who had been a terrorist quite recently, and later introduced several genetically enhanced people, showing both the good and ill that such technology could produce.  Even Voyager tried, and though I personally don't feel it succeeded as well as the others, the Doctor continued and expanded on Data's earlier struggles for synthetic personhood, while a female captain and a Native American first officer rounded out the cast, at a time when women were far less than equitably represented amongst the leadership of any industry you care to name, and Native Americans were lucky if they were allowed to show up at all.

But what does J.J. Abrams' Star Trek offer?  A woman answering the phones, a Japanese man who fights with a katana and a Russian puppy-like ensign.  What was revolutionary in 1966 is rather less so in 2009, and that lack of representation rankled me.  Where was the homosexual officer?  Why aren't there any Arabs or Muslims in the future?  Star Trek, to me, is as much about a vision of a more egalitarian future as it is about any specific story, and the total disinterest Abrams' Star Trek demonstrated in showing us any kind of meaningful advancement from where we are now just made it difficult to latch on to.  Of course, African-Americans still have a long way to go to achieve real equality in many parts of the Western world, but just a year later Barack Obama was elected president.  And Stargate SG-1, that notoriously fluffy bit of scifi guilty pleasure, managed to deal much more interestingly with actual ex-Soviet Russians, something you'll hardly be able to fit into the 23rd century. 

Star Trek thrives on its characters, and the characters of this new Star Trek just aren't that interesting.  Most of them are less fleshed out than their 60's predecessors, with the new Sulu even managing to lose a point by going from a European rapier to a Japanese katana for his sword fight scene.  Zachary Quinto's Spock is the only even moderately interesting character in the whole film, but one good character does not a successful film make.  So when it comes time for him to put on those pointed ears again, I think I'll just sit the theatrical run out, and maybe check it out on dvd.



Reaching towards the future

This is an extremely important moment in the march towards the future.  Two men, a Serbian identified as 'Milo' and an Austrian named Patrick, have undergone voluntary amputations to remove whole but non-functional hands, and replaced them with functional prosthetic replacements.  Though the story provides little in the way of specifics, there is mention of the men being able to grasp and pinch, and even possessing enough fine motor skill to tie shoes and open bottles.  While the accomplishments of Viennese surgeon Professor Oskar Aszmann are well worth recognizing on their own merits, it's less what has been done that interests me, and more what will be done.

Prosthetic limbs designed to function at human levels are the obvious first step.  They can be used to replace damaged limbs, to return a person to their original level of functionality or even offer up the ability to do things that birth defects might have left a person incapable of ever accomplishing.  But there is no reason to assume, based on the entire recorded progress of human technology, that anyone will be satisfied with 'good enough'.  What Professor Aszmann and those like him are producing isn't just a system to restore lost potential, but the first stage of the systems that will lift humanity beyond its biological limits.

Pictured: The Immediate Future

Because the end result of these technologies is neither more nor less than the reinvention of the human animal.  The ability to make artificial limbs interact with the human nervous system is a quantitative, rather than just qualitative, leap forwards from all previous prosthetic technologies we have devised.  And given that all our tools are, in some form, prosthetic technologies, there are no reasons beyond the purely practical not to integrate increasingly efficient and effective prosthetic systems into our bodies, enhancing and augmenting and, even, replacing entirely biological systems that simply can not compete with plug-and-play parts.  Why wait for a broken arm to mend when you can just slot a replacement in?  And if you've already replaced your arm, why limit yourself to a system that can only lift what the average human can?  There's no reason not to build an arm, connected to a shoulder, connected to a body capable of lifting multiple times what even the strongest human being could manage.  We could become two-legged fork lifts, walking bulldozers and wrecking balls.  But that is only the very tip of what we can, and what I firmly believe we will, become.
Pictured: The Slightly-Less-Immediate Future

Such a fundamental change in the capabilities of the human animal are, of course, a long way off.  But barring any cataclysmic upheaval, there is no reason to assume that there aren't people alive today who will not die with all their original parts, not because they wasted away and had to be replaced by clumsy external support systems, but because they chose to augment their bodies to make them more capable than nature ever could have.

The future is coming.  And it all starts with a hand.


In the Grim Darkness of the Far Future...

There is only the Tau Empire!

For those unfamiliar, the post's title comes from the tagline for Games Workshop's miniatures wargame, Warhammer 40K.  Originally a sci-fi version of their Warhammer Fantasy Battles line, 40K has since moved away from being nothing more than elves with grav-tanks and orcs with machine guns, opening up its universe and coming more fully into its own.  The game is as expensive as it is time consuming, but fortunately it's also as much fun.

For myself, despite initial forays into the Tyranids (the inspiration for the Starcraft Zerg) and the Imperial Guard (WWI armies with lasers and psykers), it wasn't until the introduction of the Tau Empire that I really got into the game.  Although it probably helped that their introduction roughly coincided with me getting my first decent job, and therefore having enough money to actually build a decent army.  And yes, that means I did try to play the horde-based Tyranids and IG on a shoestring budget.

The universe of 40K is a world that Thomas Hobbes would recognise in a second; life there is nasty, brutish and, quite frequently, short.  To give a sense of the mood, the Tau Empire is a totalitarian caste-based system, ruled by a group who command unnatural loyalty from all those around them, dedicated to the conquest of the galaxy and the extermination of any races incapable of submitting to their rule.  They've been accused of practicing mind control-based slavery with the insectoid Vespid, and even of sterilizing whole human populations on rebellious worlds. 

But because they actually give you the choice of surrendering before they shoot you in the face, they're as close to 'good' as this setting gets!


The worst thing about Thor is Natalie Portman.

Well, no, that's not exactly true. Portman herself is fine. No, the worst thing about Thor is Natalie Portman's character, who I want to call Jane Seymour but who was so bland I honestly can't really remember much about her. Jane is a scientist who does no interesting science, and a romantic partner who has no meaningful romantic moments. Her only two accomplishments in the film are transporting Thor and providing him with someone to feel connected to, and when your female lead could be turned from a scientist into a cab driver with a puppy, you know you've wasted a character. Even worse, she doesn't even have an arc; she's a scientist who hasn't accomplished anything at the start of the movie and a scientist who hasn't accomplished anything at the end of the movie, and she's about as interested in Thor at the beginning of the film as she is at the end, which is to say, she basically immediately decides to trust and help the guy who's been hit with a car twice, tasered and sedated, and who is going around claiming he is Thor Odinson, and that he'll give her all the answers she wants as soon as he gets Mjolnir back.

The best thing about Thor also isn't the titular hero, though that's not to say that he's bad. Chris Hemsworth does a pretty good job with a pretty standard hero formula, managing through his acting to do a slightly better job than the script itself. But it's Tom Hiddleston's Loki who steals this film. 

Loki is perhaps the most sympathetic of villains, the shining example of what George Lucas tried, and failed so spectacularly, to do with Anakin Skywalker. A mischievous trickster who nonetheless loves his family and his kingdom, Loki is basically met with nothing but scorn and mistrust from the start. He's considered a weasel and a sneak for warning Odin about something, even though it's only Odin's direct intervention that keeps Thor's friends, Loki, and perhaps even Thor himself from getting killed. And no sooner has he assumed the throne than seemingly everyone in Asgard turns against him, in some cases for no particular reason. Watching Loki, one gets the sense that he has no friends on Asgard, that nobody gives this poor fellow the time of day, while people just can't fawn hard enough over Thor who, because someone insulted him, pretty much starts a war.

The choice to make Asgard an alien civilization, rather than a mythical one, was a thoroughly pragmatic one when Jack Kirby and Stan Lee made it decades ago. The realization of that alien civilization in this film is a stunning victory for the effects teams. The city gleams, arranged in an alien but still obvious way, with the odd little jaw-dropping element hiding here and there in the corners. Although I must say, aside from Thor's coronation day ceremony in the beginning, the city does seem rather empty; there are rarely more than, say, six Asgardians on screen at any given time. But perhaps that's what happens to a technologically advanced civilization; maybe they're all inside, watching movies on their 5D tvs and playing the Asgardian equivalent of Halo?

Thor isn't quite as good as the Iron Man films; it's not quite as fun, the hero isn't quite as charismatic, the female lead isn't nearly as interesting. But it's a lot better than Ang Lee's Hulk movie or the two Fantastic Four outings, and it seems like a worthy set-up piece for the ever-nearing The Avengers film. I'd definitely recommend this movie, with the caveat that if you ever need to go to the bathroom or refill your soda, you do so when Natalie Portman is on screen. Trust me, you wont miss anything.

Only the Good Die Young

Science-fiction television is perhaps one of the most frustrating things to be a fan of, second only to the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Kyoto Accord.  But sometimes, in spite of how often the best shows seem to get cut down in their nascent prime, it can be so very worth it.

Stargate: Universe was the third entry into the now-venerable franchise, continuing over a decades worth of universe-building.  The series was based around a group of soldiers, scientists and general civilians trapped on a millenia-old ship, billions of light years from Earth, with limited supplies but no shortage of problems.  The 'lost in space' premise is an easy one to get wrong, whether you simply ignore the premise, a la Star Trek: Voyager, or whether you let it get subsumed by dysfunctional family drama and unsatisfying pseudo-religious elements, as Battlestar Galactica did.  But, and this is only my opinion of course, SG:U manages to rise to the challenge, presenting a story that is about personal conflict without becoming overly personal, and which never forgets its premise, even while it seems willing to break away from it for episodes at a time.

Or, sadly, I suppose I should say it did manage it.  Because, as comes as no surprise given the opening to this post, SG:U has been officially canceled after just two seasons.

So why am I talking about it, then?  Well, because I think it was some of the best science-fiction television to air in quite some time.  And because I think it would be worth the time for any fan of science-fiction television, Stargate fan or not, to sit down and watch this program.  It's a frankly brilliant story, and despite having been canceled out from under the writing staff it even manages to present a relatively satisfying finale, closing off one chapter of the crew's story without shutting down the potential of the universe itself.  Funny, exciting, clever, and yes, sometimes sexy, SG:U was a much darker and more contiguous series than its predecessors, something I think helped to catapult it into the position it holds as a prime example of science-fiction television done right.  I wasn't much a fan of Stargate:SG-1 or Stargate: Atlantis, but I can honestly say I'm a fan of Stargate: Universe.

And no, even though it's canceled, I won't put that in the past tense.

Watch the trailer, decide for yourself.  You won't be disappointed if you give this show a chance.


Inaugural Edition

Welcome to Forward the Future!, a blog with only slightly problematic punctuation, dedicated to all things future-esque.  Science fiction, scifi, SF, call it what you will; I call it interesting, and I aim to talk about it.  In fact, I aim to talk about it so much that here I am, talking to myself.  This is, after all, the inaugural post, which means there can't be anyone but me here to talk to, now doesn't it?

But hopefully that will all change, soon enough.  It's a tough old internet out there, but surely it's not too much to ask for a few extra sets of eyes to wander my way?

Well, only one way to find out  As the title goes, Forward the Future!