When I feature movies on this blog, I tend to focus on classic sci-fi films that have proven staying power, or newer films that are just real good. But anytime a sci-fi offering comes out with an original or unique idea, it is worth noting just for the discussion value. In fact, it is the new idea that usually gets the Hollywood execs on board to finance it. That is why it is such a tragic waste when that new idea is introduced into the public eye via a badly made film. It means we won't be seeing a good treatment of the concept, the way it should have been done, for many years to come.
Such is the situation with the recent film Surrogates, with the always wonderful Bruce Willis filling in the lead role. The overarching concept is quite intriguing, especially in this day of internet cafe's and avatar role playing games. What if we could use a robot as an avatar to the real world? This requires several leaps of technology:
1) The robots must have enough dexterity to allow us to accomplish daily tasks.
Today's robots have enough dexterity in the area of hand controls to accomplish complex tasks as delicate as surgery. The weakness today is in overall mobility - walking, running, jumping, etc., but not impossible to achieve sometime in the future.
2) Our control over the robots must be fine grained enough to allow easy manipulation.
The easy way to do this is to create a harness that detects actual movement, similar to current virtual reality systems. If you turn your head, the robot turns with you. If you move your arms, the robot's arms mirror the movement. The harness would have to capture a wide variety of body movements, so an even better method is to use a motion capture system like is done for computer animation on the big screen. All you would do is wear a suit with infrared reflectors all over it and a camera system that captures the position of the reflectors in real time and translates that into the robot's body movements. Of course, you'd still need something fancy to allow you to walk in place. Anyway, this would allow people to still get their exercise since they would actually be moving.
3) We must be able to continuously control the robots from a remote location.
If you think dropped calls on your cell phone is annoying, how about losing control of your surrogate body due to bad coverage? It's probably not a huge leap to imagine something akin to a cellular grid that beams signals to nearby avatar robots, and has enough redundancy to be at least as reliable as the internet.
4) The robots must look and behave close enough to actual real human beings.
In addition to these technological advances, we would also need a social change that has everyone in a particular geographic area agree to interact via surrogate. The reason is that since a surrogate cannot feel pain, or even send pain signals back to its host (who would want that?), then a person using a surrogate could in fact use it as a weapon and hurt real people. Even with law enforcement available, I don't think most people would feel safe around surrogates unless they were safe behind their own mask. So in the film this is correctly handled by having no-surrogate zones so that people who don't want to use surrogates can live in peace.
Second Life, an on-line virtual world where you can be someone else. That idea is touched upon in the film, at least on the surface. We naturally offer different levels of trust to people based on how they look, act, and respond. How would this dynamic change if we could not be sure of the true nature of the person that we are talking to without digging a lot deeper than usual? And why do people wish to change themselves? Such motivations are explored a bit in Surrogates. Some people do it to deceive, others may be ashamed of who they are in real life and want to portray a more ideal version of themselves. And as illustrated in the film, people might easily become dependent on their surrogate because, without any feedback from the world about the real you, your sense of confidence without the veil would naturally diminish over time. I suppose there are dozens more of these interesting questions that could be posed about how such a society would look.
There is a quick synopsis at the beginning of the film trying to explain the societal and technological changes that led to this surrogate world, but it is largely unconvincing. Then we are introduced to the main plot line involving a murder case, with Willis playing the FBI agent who investigates. The ultimate solution to the murder mystery is an over-the-top scenario of the original inventor going mad with jealousy and guilt and attempting to kill almost the entire world population. Does that sound like a campy two-dimensional comic book plot? Well, maybe that's because it is. The original story was adapted from a comic series, but unlike most such adaptations, they forgot to flesh it out so it could work as a film. I think the biggest problem here was just really bad script writing.
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