Thursday, July 25, 2019

We Don't Need to Worry About Skynet Any Time Soon

Disclaimer: This is a rant, the only sources are personal anecdotes and it should be considered as food for thought and nothing else. Ranting in the comments section is welcome!

I read an article in Swedish magazine Axess the other day. In it they had interviewed a man named Ulf Danielsson, professor in theoretical physics (ie a lot of difficult maths) at the Uppsala University in Uppsala, Sweden. They discuss the dawn of AI and whether it is even possible for a program to gain consciousness. Ulf does not think so, in fact he says he doesn't believe in the duality of the body at all - the idea that we have some sort of "soul", "essence" or "consciousness" that can be spoken about as separate or even separable from the body. According to him the body is the consciousness. You don't have a body, you are the body.

I thought it was a very interesting line of reasoning that of course would have huge ramifications for science fiction. I also find it very plausible that he is correct. I don't believe in a duality either, I don't think there is something inside us that makes us "us" that isn't deeply connected and entrenched with what is also our body. Imagine all those body swap movies/animes/sci-fi books? Imagine all the fiction about downloading your consciousness into a computer or saving your brain in a jar? Would it ever be possible?

I think, therefore I am. But what am I?

If you really think about it, it seems like a daunting task. We already know that our mood, behaviour, feelings and thus everything we are come down to things like neurotransmitters. Without being an expert on anatomy, the neurotransmitters themselves are in turn affected by bodily functions that would have to be replicated as well. Could we build a machine that could successfully not only translate the function of these neurotransmitters into 1s and 0s but also make them function with a conscious mind the way they do in the brain and the body?

Even if we could, we now know that there seem to be other body parts than the brain itself that has a big impact on our personality. Lately it's become a bigger and bigger field of research to find out how our gut and the microbiome that lives in there affects everything from what we like to eat to how we feel and even think about things. While we know very little about these things yet, we can probably safely draw the conclusion that a brain without a stomach or any other microbiome would act differently to what we're used to (we're in fact more microbiome than human!). Of course we don't know how yet. And we also don't know if this extends to other body parts. How much will we ever really know about how our muscles, blood, lungs etc affect our personalities, our capability to form thoughts and what those thoughts are?

Even if I could picture us being able to take a snapshot of an active brain the way it is at any given moment, it seems like one big leap to go from that to being to progress it forward in a natural way. So I could basically have a mental image of my consciousness as it was at some date in time, but getting that to be active on its own, to be able to react to the surrounding to form new feelings, memories and thoughts?

I think what I am trying to say is that if we ever want to create an AI that could call itself conscious we would first of course have to know every intricate detail about what makes a human conscious (and call me a pessimist but I never think we will). And then we need to successfully translate that into a program that can not only run all that data in the way it needs to but also be able to react to the outside world the way it needs to. It can not be separated from input, and that input has to be a lot more than just audibly and visually.

Asimov's Robot-series is also very good.

In a way this then becomes similar to the discussion about whether we would ever be able to reliable predict the future. I know at least one really interesting sci-fi series has been written about this subject, I am of course talking about Isaac Asimovs "Foundation"-series. I believe it is theoretically possibly to have so much data about everything going on that you could predict how something, by law of nature, is going to go down (although the Foundation series is about the laws of society, but the core concept is the same. You need a lot of data). But practically it will never be possible for us to calculate all the variables. The same will be true when it comes to creating an AI.

We will probably be able to create programs that are clever enough to outsmart humans in different areas, even intricate conversations like the Turing test (didn't they already do that by the way?). But create a self-conscious robot/computer like in the books and movies? No, I don't think so.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country - Review

Everybody's human.

I don't know if I actually re-watched this not that long ago already or if this is just a bit more memorable than the previous movies, but everything felt really familiar when I re-watched The Undiscovered Country the other night. Released in 1991 it's also the first movie in the series to be released when I was old enough to possibly remember (6 years). I don't, probably because I was still only into Disney movies at that point…

The Undiscovered Country is extra interesting because to me it really is a good example of what good direction and production can do to a movie. This movie has all the possibilities to be a slog and a snore, but it manages to keep the intensity and tempo going throughout. It's obvious from the first scene that it's a comment on the relation between east and west (on actual Earth, as in USA vs Soviet) so again with the political commentary! This one does it so gracefully too, while the reference is obvious as day the end result is neither black and white nor on the nose with right answers. This is Star Trek using its voice in the best kind of way, letting the characters stand as examples of the human nature the way it was always intended. I have been nagging on about character development and relations in my previous reviews, well here they are front and center and it's respectfully and well done.

It starts after what feels like an eternal intro of just names scrolling past with some music, making me think I've accidentally jumped the movie to the credits, with us seeing Sulu as the captain of the Excelsior when they're suddenly hit by a shockwave. They find out that the shockwave originated from the Klingon moon Praxis, but the moon itself seems to be nowhere to be found. It seems like a major disaster has struck the moon which has resulted in a massive energy crisis on the Klingon home world of Kronos. The Klingon home world has basically about 50 years left to exist before it can't sustain life anymore, but when asked about it the Klingons just want to hush it down. Sounds familiar? It is pretty much ad verbatim what happened with the Soviet and the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. When this movie was written and filmed, Soviet still existed but I'm sure everyone knew where it was heading. This movie couldn't have been better timed.

Kirk, who is back to captaining the Enterprise, and his crew are three months from retiring when they get called back to Federation HQ for a debriefing on the situation on Kronos. They get told that the long standing war with the Klingons have finally come to an end and that the Klingons are dying. Kirk, who has never liked the Klingons, is visibly happy with the news. The movie refers back to the death of his son from The Search of Spock to explain is animosity, but the hatred runs a lot deeper and farther back than that of course. Kirk was already a big enemy of the Klingons in the series, but it's not difficult to see that the murdering of his son was the final straw that made any possibility of Kirk thinking otherwise impossible. It's unfortunate that the event happens in such a throw away scene in what is among the worst Star Trek movies (read my review of that to see why), but Kirk plays out all his hatred so well in this movie.

Dreamy eyes and curly hair… he didn't get much from his father.

Spock, who has been missing so far, shows up to explain that there is a possibility now to extend a helping hand from the Federation to the Klingon Empire, to show them and the rest of the Universe really that this is what the Federation is all about. They even help former enemies in need. Many, including Kirk, are strongly opposed to this idea, fearing that the Klingons would see this as a weakness and abuse it to their own benefit. Nonetheless, a chancellor Gorkon is going to be escorted through Federation space by none other than Kirk and his Enterprise team.

Kirk is fuming and has a really great scene with Spock where he basically tells him that he feels betraid by Spock even suggesting such a thing. This might be the first, or at least one of very few scenes, where we see their friendship being tried hard. Both Shatner and Nimoy play it out perfectly and when Spock tries to reason with Kirk by telling him that the Klingons are dying Kirk says his now iconic "Let them die!" with such intensity, we believe without a doubt that he truly feels that way. This first act is absolutely amazing at building up the tension and the stakes even though it's really "only" about some chancellor coming on board the Enterprise. It's done superbly with skilled musical scoring, dialogue writing, acting and direction.

New on board the ship is Lt Valeris, a Vulcan who has distinguished herself at the academy and who we soon find out Spock intends to succeed him as the science officer on board. Valeris and Spock have an interesting and significant conversation early in the movie. One of the most important aspects of it is to show how much Spock has grown and changed as a character. From practically despising his human side (and it's still not something he embraces), when he at one point tells Valeris the also now famous quote "Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end" we see how far he has travelled in his journey to understand the human mind and his own place within it.

BFFs. Except not forever.

When the chancellor is beamed aboard he is joined by his daughter Azetbur, General Chang and some random warriors. General Chang, played by a Christopher Plummer who clearly enjoys the role, immediately makes an impression with his interaction with Kirk which is passively aggressive in a way that a Swede like me (masters of massive aggressiveness) really enjoys. Without saying it clearly, it is obvious that Chang understands Kirk and that Kirk would rather see them all dead than helping them. What I love about it is that rather than going "oh yeah, there is the villain" you'll go "oh hmm, he clearly is someone to keep an eye on".

A tense first meeting is followed by an even tenser dinner reception in which Azetbur criticizes the humans for their arrogance and presumption that everyone wants to live their life the way they do. What a sweet and not overly subtle punch in the gut of Americanism and the politics of USA of that day.

One interesting aspect about this movie that soon becomes a bit of a confusion are the Klingons themselves. The first couple ones that we see in the movie look very human-like, with small ridges. At first I thought they were using the classical TOS design, but later on in the movie we get a couple of Klingons that look more like the ones in TNG. I don't know if the intention was to make a bridge-over of sorts between the two styles, showcasing both as an explanation for the difference (other explanations have been given, I know) but the end result is more befuddling. It seems then as if some actors just refused the more invasive Klingon make up and were allowed a milder version, but to be fair I almost prefer it that way. Without digressing too far, the way the Klingons turn out in TNG, DS9 and VOY, they're almost too much of a caricature and very difficult to take seriously. That is alright for a lot of what they do, but sometimes I end up feeling the 90's Klingons are a lot more stupid than they are cool.

Chang first had a stint as a bad-guy in Street Fighter.

These scenes between the Klingons and the Federation are tense and well done, but before we have to worry about things going too talky-talky and political the movie steps up the next gear. Suddenly the Enterprise fires torpedoes at the chancellors Bird of Prey, rendering the gravitational field on board non-operational. Two individuals in full Federation space suits, with gravitational boots and masking their faces, walk around shooting Klingons on board but we quickly find out their real target is chancellor Gorkon. When they've shot him they beam back off the Klingon ship and back on board the Enterprise is Kirk and crew completely at a loss as to what just happened. Kirk is trying to figure out whether the shots were actually fired from the Enterprise, getting the answer that the computer says yes.

Kirk and McCoy beam over to see if they can help out and start solving the massive diplomatic disaster that just happened. McCoy tries to save Gorkon but fails and Chang arrests them both for the murder. Fortunately Spock has put a glaringly obvious tracking device onto Kirks shoulder, which for some reason the Klingons don't bother removing. This is one of the few plot holes in the movie fortunately, so I'll let it slide.

Kirk and McCoy get Worf as their "lawyer", I use that term lightly because it is clear that the trial is more of a farce than meant to be taken seriously. While they don't get executed, which I guess must be seen as extremely lenient in any Klingon sentencing, they do get sent to the penal colony of Rura Penthe, which is pretty much the same thing as a death sentence and so obviously a reference to the Soviet Gulag they even refer to it as the "Klingon Gulag" in the movie. The Klingons make clear that any attempt to rescue them will be seen as an act of war.

Spock has taken over command of the Enterprise and Starfleet is ordering them to come back. Spock and the crew understandably have other ideas as they intend to rescue Kirk and McCoy but also reveal who is the real culprit. Spock uses some great deductive reasoning to come to the conclusion that the shots must've been fired by another ship in close vicinity to the Enterprise that was also invisible. A Bird of Prey that can fire shots while cloaked perhaps? Spock then further deduces that there must also be enemies on board the Enterprise, since either someone altered the records on the computer, making it looks like the shots were actually fired from there or the shots were in fact fired from there. Once they've made sure that all Enterprises' torpedoes are accounted for they have their answer and the hunt is on. While they do the search on board, they also decide to save Kirk and McCoy from Rura Penthe and head there.

Meanwhile back in Starfleet Headquarters, the plan to possibly send in a team to rescue Kirk and McCoy (despite the Klingon warnings against it) are being presented to the Federation President who, pardon my French, looks like an absolute muppet. I've seen many different make-ups throughout the years of Star Trek but what were they thinking when they came up with this one? What is he supposed to look like anyway? A wise old man? He just looks like someone who fell asleep on some hair gel and got it all over himself. I realize he is part of a species, The Efrosians, who are supposed to look like that but this one just looks so silly it detracts and distracts from every scene he is in. Fun to see Rene Auberjonois (who plays Odo in DS9, but I don't have to tell you that) in a minor role as colonel West though.

Poodle style.

Shift over to Kirk and McCoy who are getting not-so-comfortable on Rura Penthe. The penal colony is on an ice planet meaning it doesn't need more in terms of security than an anti-beam-out-field, everyone else are free to take their chances in the freezing cold. Kirk quickly makes a friend in Martia the Chameloid, aka shapeshifter who quickly agrees in helping them get out of there. Of course it turns out that the whole thing is a set-up, which also of course, Kirk sees through (not that it's hard to do) and confronts Martia. She shapeshifts into Kirk and Kirk gets to have a fun scene trying to kick his "own" ass. "I can't believe I kissed you" he says to Martia looking like him. "Must've been your lifelong ambition!" Martia quips back. Quite right Martia.

Martia's accomplices show up, only to murder her first so that there are no witnesses (what was she thinking really?). Fortunately at this point exactly, Spock has managed to make his way to Kirk and beam them both up before they get shot. Also just before the bad guy henchman reveals who the main bad guy is, but I am sure everyone but Kirk knows it by now. Spock blames himself for getting Kirk into this whole mess and says "you and the doctor might've been killed". "The night is still young", Kirk replies.

On board the Enterprise, the search has led them to two dead crewmen meaning that someone has tried to silence the killers of the chancellor. Spock and Kirk trick this person into revealing themselves and it turns out it is....... Valeris!

The funny thing here is that if you only watch The Undiscovered Country on its own, it's pretty easy to figure out it has to be Valeris who is involved with whatever is going on, simply because she is a new character in a prominent position story-wise. However, if you like me have been chaining these from the first movie, you've been primed into thinking that this is normal because of Saavik. She is a new character who is given a fairly prominent role without it actually amounting to very much. So going into this movie the first time I didn't think Valeris was going to be much more than just another Saavik. Seeing that she turned out to be one of the bad guys actually surprised me.

As they try to interrogate her we get to see Spock show some emotion, he is definitely angry and disappointed in the path she has taken when he had such high hopes for her. This scene is great and believable, throughout the movie we have got to see the two of them interact and have discussions in which Spock is trying to teach Valeris. They have a great exchange in which Valeris tells Spock that she tried to tell him but he hadn't been listening. Spock replies saying that he too had tried to tell her things, but she hadn't been listening either (basically all that stuff about logic not being the end of wisdom). When she won't answer their questions about who the mastermind is Spock engages a forced mind meld with her in another tense and great scene. Kim Cattrall who plays Valeris does a really good job throughout and even though we get little backstory or motivation on why she would act this way, she sells it and it feels believable. Simply put, Valeris is on the same page with Kirk that the Klingons can't be trusted. Interesting turn however, when it turns out that the main bad guy is none other than General Chang, in liaison with some Federation and Romulan parties. The irony of having a truce between these three groups to essentially prevent a truce between these three groups is heavy and brilliant.

Chang turns up with the prototype Bird of Prey that can fire while cloaked and is set to make an easy job out of blowing Kirk out of the skies when the Excelsior, captained by Sulu remember?, shows up to save the day. By taking some of the heat off the Enterprise, the Excelsior is buying them just enough time to modify a torpedo to be able to home in on the Bird of Prey. When the torpedo hits both ships are then able to destroy it without much trouble. The scene is made extra fun by the fact that George Takei basically shows up to save Shatner. Kirk thanks Sulu, and all I can think of is all the animosity between the two behind the scenes. It doesn't show on screen though.

This rather short battle also highlights another thing about Star Trek, namely that the shields of the ships seem to do different things depending on what is needed for the story. In this scene specifically the shields of the Enterprise are up throughout (except right at the end) but the hits from the Bird of Prey still hit the hull. In other fights the shields seem to absorb pretty much anything until they fail. So I've never really understood exactly how the shields work to be honest. Guess it's just one of those things that changes depending on the mood of the writer.

What I haven't mentioned so far is that chancellor Gorkon's daughter Azetbur has taken over his role and moved the peace talk conference to a secret location. Kirk and friends find out where it is and rush there just in time to thwart an assassination attempt on the President. THE END! Almost.

Then we get the ending... and it is THE Ending with a big E. Everyone is about to retire, the Enterprise gets ordered to come back to be decommissioned. This is it. All the actors and all the people watching the movie know that they are turning over the reins to the next group of people, when this movie was released The Next Generation had already been on air for four years. Fortunately, after a fun ride of a movie, they don't botch things here and do something overly sappy or long like in Lord of the Rings. "So this is goodbye" says Chekov. Spock basically suggests they tell Starfleet to "go to hell" and after looking around the room of the bridge at each other they unanimously decide to yet again ignore Starfleet orders to return to dock. When Chekov asks Kirk where they should head next he answers "second star to the right, and straight on til morning". Which apparently is a reference to Peter Pan, I never knew. Until just now. Then Kirk wraps it all up neatly by announcing that the next generation are going to "boldly go where no man, where no one, has gone before".

It's nice and neat and actually quite sad. It's a lovely finishing touch when the credits start with the main actors signatures going across the screen, like they are all literally signing off on this project. We know now that some of them turn up again in other Star Trek projects, but when the movie was released this must've been a very heavy moment for true Star Trek fans.

This movie has a lot in-common with A Voyage Home in that something about it just works. Although a lot of it is essentially material that could've turned out boring, the movie manages to keep a good pace and intensity throughout that never fails to keep my interest. The two movies are completely different in tone, yet there are some key components that they share that could go some way towards explaining why I enjoy them both so much;

1) A contemporary setting. By this I mean that they both place the crew in a story that makes them feel relevant to us here and now (obviously especially at the time of release but they hold up). They manage to find a way to connect the viewer directly with the events taking place, giving us that oh so important feeling of being able to relate.
2) A focus on the relationships between the different characters of the crew. I said it in my review of A Voyage Home as well, but capitalizing on the time we have invested in getting to know these personalities and how they would interact can pay off so much when done well. When done with the respect to the viewer that you believe that they will understand subtle meanings in dialogue simply because we know what these people are like in different situations.
3)Well-written dialogue that make for really fun to watch and memorable scenes, scenes that not only are enjoyable the first time around but that you want to return to.

And when the credits roll you realize what an awesome thing the entire movie manages to pull off in not only being a commentary on the "Undiscovered Country", ie future, of contemporary actual events going on in the world, but also the future of the Star Trek franchise. This is exactly what Star Trek is about. It manages to make it look effortless when it places itself smack in the middle of fiction and reality.

The end result is a worthy and respectful goodbye and definitely well worth watching. 

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