Some of you may already have heard of Ready Player One. It is a speculative fiction novel which was released a few years ago with the name Ernest Cline on the cover.

The book is apparently being turned into a movie by no less a genius than Steven Spielberg. I see a massive box office hit.

The narrative contains a series of puzzles which need to be solved to inherit ownership of the VR system the whole world uses. There is a rival conglomerate trying a hostile takeover via attempting to win the contest.

After finishing the novel I was pondering some issues I had with it, these are around lack of depth of characters as well as a tendency towards telling not showing and it occurred to me all the gripes I had with it were the same as I had with The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.

The plot of Ready Player One is straight out of the Dan Brown play book and the style of writing is quite similar in my opinion.

It is not unusual for novelists trying a different genre to be asked to use a pen name so the change in direction does not effect sales of future books back in their usual arena. Speculative fiction would be a new genre for Brown as all his works I am aware of are current day thrillers.

I may be way off base here, but did Dan Brown write Ready Player One under the pen name Ernest Cline?

If he did, is there some puzzle within the novel which can be cracked to solve the identity of the writer – from what I know of him, that would be very Dan Brown.

Feel free to prove me wrong in the comments section…

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“It’ll murder me in my sleep,” is Frank’s (Frank Langella) first response to receiving a robot from his son in this light-hearted movie directed by Jake Schreier.
Set in the near future this film shows us a world where older people with memory problems can have a 24/7 companion, allowing their family who live far away to know there is some support on hand.
The film explores the parameters of this relationship and the robot tells Frank early on that he meeds a project. With initial attempts to bond being around planting a vegetable patch.
What actually gets them to bond is planning a burglary. Frank explains to the robot teaching it to pick locks is the hobby he needs.
The comparison of robot to human care is telling. Frank’s son and daughter live far away and when Madison (Liv Tyler) does visit, she doesn’t always want to do what Frank wants, while the robot has no other needs or agenda. Even the most giving human is not 100 pet cent altruistic.
There are some interesting insights into legal aspects of robots. And I don’t just mean it doesn’t come preprogrammed to not collude in criminal activity with the human it supports. But Frank cannot switch it off as its owner is his son Hunter (James Marsden) who has said he does not have user rights to do this. The machines memory can also be accessed by law enforcement, although I would assume a warrant was required, but this is not made clear – and the police seemed able to search Frank’s house on circumstancial evidence, with the victim of the crime present, with no mention of a judge considering the issue.
The movie touches on the politics of robots, notably when the machine asks if Madison is against robot labour.
One thing I thought robots who are used in health / social care settings should be programmed to request is a name. We wouldn’t give someone a pet and expect them not to name the animal. Susan Sarandon, the librarian in the film, has a work place robot she has named Mr Darcey. Part of the bonding with the support robot would be selecting a name.
Finding a project and keeping a routine are both vital for older people, particulary those with memory issues, any occupational therapist can tell you. But having someone on hand to help you keep to the project and routine will be priceless.
The film is not perfect, but it does raise a number of issues we will face in the near future in an accessible way.

* I mentioned this film when I first heard about it, but have only recently got round to watching, so my post is quite tardy.

Top AI in film

March 12, 2016

Following on from last week’s post about the AI movie Ex Machina, here is a list of my favourite movie AI:

HAL – the machine in 2001 A Space Oddessey. Space ship has conflicting programing with consequences for the crew.

Sonny – I Robot – based on the books of Asimov, this movie was good fun, Will Smith gave a good performance and played really well with AI debating which of them could create an artistic masterpiece.

The Terminator – the determined machine with one task, kill Sarah Connor. The special effects look a bit dated, particularly the scene with the part human part machine face, but the concept was so strong it launched a franchise of films, a tv series and some under rated comics.

The Matrix – the false world humans live inside as part of a great lie perpetuated by machines. The most interesting part of this is the discussion of the early version where everyone got what they wanted, but it failed as no one believed in it.

False Maria – Metropolis. A fake girl who changed film forever. Love the look.

Feel free to tell me your favourite AI in the comments section.

The Turing test is a concept which most people interested in computers and particularly AI have heard of. Named after genius Alan Turing of Bletchley Park fame (the type of fame which comes after your work is declassified many years later) who was finally posthumously pardoned for the non crime which scandalized his career.
Turing set the test for AI two decades before Bill Gates dropped out of college with the ambition to put a pc on every desktop.
The premise of Turing’s test is a simple one. Can a machine pass for human?
Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina turns the test into drama. His skill as a writer is evident when he explains the test in conversation between the two protagonists. The concept of the movie is one which touches on some of the fears of our age. How are those who oversee all of humanity’s internet searching using that data? Are they training AI to spot when a human lies, are they tracking an individual’s searches so they can build an AI body which matches those desires? There is also the underlying issue of once you have built a sentiment AI, is it your property? Should it be free?
Garland wrote the novel which became the excellent Danny Boyle movie, he also wrote the screenplay for another highly acclaimed Boyle movie 28 Days Later as well as penning Sunshine which Boyle also directed (as an aside, I thought the better tale would have been what happened on the first ship which failed in its mission rather than the second attempt).
The movie is well acted and Garland does get under the skin of his characters, including the AI – which in a movie about the Turing test is vital.
The special effects are at the standard you would expect, but this movie is really about the interaction of characters, human and AI.
I highly recommend watching Ex Machina.
(as a further aside Garland ends the film in a place where many would have started a film about AI. And perhaps that film in Garland’s hands would be interesting, but he has done a brave and intellectually challenging thing, making the Turing test into great drama.)

Professor River Song is among the best characters ever to grace Doctor Who.
My brother complains she is essentially a renamed Bernice Summerfield from the spin off books from the 1990s . But the on screen coup of getting Alex Kingston to play a recurring character in the series cannot be underplayed.
From her first appearence in the Library she was a force to be reckoned with. The constant use of wibbly wobbly timely wimey to show what would really happen to time travellers who cannot possibly meet in the right order.  River’s last chronological lines before she dies are that through everything they have been through he has always known how she is going to die. At that point she is basically a stranger to the 10th Doctor.
The 11th Doctor then slowly gets to learn more about her as they meet again and again all the while more mystery being revealed as we discover who River is and how she fits in to the lives of the 11th Doctor’s other friends.
The way she gets to know more than the Doctor is a refreshing change for a show which has run, with a break, since 1963. Previously the only characters who have got anywhere near him have been other timelords.
Her entrance into the 11th Doctor’s life involves some pretty awesome shoes followed by psychic lipstick and a cameo from Mike Skinner of The Streets fame.
The Weeping Angels, one of the best baddies of modern Who play second fiddle to her.
The juxtaposition of transformation is one of the funniest elements of the show in recent years. The Doctor doesn’t recognise himself when Prisoner Zero takes on his form, but the first thing River does is find a mirror.
Rule number one is the Doctor lies, which River oft repeats. But she is a liar too and this is clear when she sees Amy just after she has defeated the Weeping Angels, but much later on in Amy’s timeline.
The definitive moment of River Song is when facing a dalek in the pandorica story, where the dalek predicts she will let it live and she says: “I’m professor River Song, look me up.” It’s response after looking her up sums up why River is so unique in Doctor Who.

You may not have heard of The Martian yet, but I suspect soon enough you will have.
Matt Damon is about to star in the big budget Hollywood version of the book. Trailer here.
Damon is a big name to play the role of astronaut Mark Watney. This big name actor and Hollywood movie are an indication of the immense success the novel has had.
If the film follows the book closely enough, it should be a good film and a huge box office success.
Perhaps this blog will cover the film after it is released (or perhaps not).
The novel is a rare thing, a self-publishing smash hit. Andy Weir released the ebook in 2011 and it sold and sold and sold by word of mouth alone of just how good the narrative is.
A publishing deal followed with an imprint of Random House, hardback edition followed by paperback.
The novel is really well written in the vein if your classic adventure story of a stranded man trying to survive in a hostile environment (Robinson Crusoe in space anyone?).
The pacing is superb. You roll along with Watney at a great speed bouncing from one problem to another sharing his highs and lows.
There is a fair amount of science in the novel too. The technical challenges of growing vegetable matter on Mars should bore the pants of you, but it doesn’t.
You find yourself wanting to understand the process as it is a matter of life and death to Watney. Making you care about this biological problem demonstrates Weir’s masterful writing.
Bearing in mind the majority of the text is about one man alone in a hostile environment, the narrative races along.
definitely read the novel, if you like it, try the film when it comes out too.

Today the BBC is celebrating 50 years of Dr Who (no one is dwelling on the decade and half (ish) when they did not make the show for TV (aside from the under rated US pilot).

Why has the show endured for so long, especially during that TV show blank period (altho I understand the continuation books flew of the shelves during this era). There are countless audio books available and fan sites, blogs and the British tabloids go properly nuts for any snippet of Dr Who news.

But why is this the case?

Well, certainly domestically, the Doctor is very British. An eccentric, intelligent gentleman (so far – am personally very pro a female Doctor as that would be within the (modern) show’s ethos of refreshing itself). There is a bit of Sherlock Holmes in there and as quoted in the BBC dramatisation of the genesis of the Doctor a bit of HG Wells, CS Lewis and father Christmas. British quirkie-ness, British geekie-ness (before the term geek probably existed).

Outside of the UK, why has the Doctor endured? Well in the US he is so that lone hero character so popular in Westerns and beyond: think Clint Eastwood in the Dollars trilogy, Batman or Superman or the Lone Ranger. Even Buffy – which I remember reading somewhere the 2005 return was particularly influenced by, in terms of the companion element of the narrative. Buffy was that lone hero who had friends, but walked a path they could not ever fully understand. The Doctor walks a path like that too.

And what has contributed most to the longevity of the Doctor on TV? The genius idea of regeneration – or what to do with your TV show when the star wants out. This sci fi way of dealing with the problem is completely genius and works so well within the narrative universe of the Timelords. This also gives the producers a way of refreshing the show every so often and, in theory at least*, allowing it to go on and on. What is not to like: a little blue phone box; new Doctors every now and then; endless new companions; adventures across all of time and space.

 

* There is that lingering plot device about the Master being on his last regeneration (13th, if memory serves) but I am sure some genius already has that covered (spoilers alert) – I expect River Song gave him all of hers when she saved his life that time, or maybe he has all of the Timelords regenerations ever, assuming it was he who wiped them out during the Time War.

 

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