Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Surrogate World

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.

The film poses a much more difficult method, which is to control the robot with the mind. The "driver" sits still with a type of helmet that detects and interprets brainwaves and translates that into control commands. This is why the people need to continually exercise to keep from atrophying. Personally, I think that such technology is a long way off and perhaps not even possible. I think the only feasible way would be to train the machine by having it record signals it reads with actual movements you perform. Then duplicate those movements in the avatar upon detection of the same signals. Many brain studies show that when you think about moving your arm, the part of the brain that lights up when you actually do move your arm shows activity. Could we get the level of control required just by thinking? Maybe with practice, but then would your brain get confused about what it is controlling - your real body or your surrogate body?

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.

This requirement is really to enable one of the premises of the film, which is that a majority of the world's population choose to live vicariously through their surrogate robot rather than on their own. It's one thing to see a robot walking about once in a while, but if most of the people I interact with are behind their surrogates, then they had better well look human enough that I don't feel like I'm on another planet. This holds true even when I myself am using my surrogate. Of course, that does not mean you can't design your surrogate to be quite a bit stronger and more durable than a normal human, and that is illustrated in the film as well.

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.

But there are a number of things that you could not do with a surrogate. People still need to eat, and they will want to eat with friends. Since the robots do not need food, indeed cannot eat it, people will still want to meet in no-surrogate zones for dinner, parties, etc. In the film, I think it is assumed that people just don't go out for those things anymore, which seems unlikely. Using a surrogate, you would most likely lose your sense of smell, temperature, and pressure. What about sex? In the opening scene, it shows these dance club-like places where people meet and have sex with random strangers via their surrogates, but there is a serious problem with that. If the surrogate cannot send pain signals back to its host, then that implies it does not send pleasure signals back either. Even if such feedback was possible, how could you separate your partner's influence from that of the machine's interpretation of it? Ultimately, what is happening is two people are imagining having sex with the help of an intermediary technology, and that is pretty much equivalent to what is sometimes referred to today as cybersex. Would it happen? Sure, but it could not replace the real thing. People might use surrogates as a safe method of getting to know a new dating partner, but eventually they will want to interact in real life. The film doesn't really explore this except to show that married couples, since they live in the same house, can still take off their masks with each other.

One phenomenon of today's internet is that of people using the medium to represent themselves as something they are not. My favorite example of that is 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.

But it is still a fun movie to watch. Seeing things like surrogates in beauty shops getting literal makeovers by having their faces pulled off, people using generic "loaner" heads while their actual surrogate head is in for repairs, or seeing someone get their legs blown off and still be able to crawl away without even flinching. How about seeing someone lie down on their machine as one of the surrogates on the wall comes to life when they transfer over to it. Then they walk over and take a look at themselves on the machine. How's that for an out-of-body experience? This is the kind of eye candy that makes Surrogates good for at least a sci-fi rental escape.

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