Sunday, September 29, 2019

A Different Form of Separation- Part One




Erin Moore spent her last free day on Earth with James Thomas at their favorite resort on the Brazilian savanna. James was still in bed asleep as she sipped a cup of coffee while sitting on their room's balcony looking out toward the giant domes that preserved the last remnants of the Amazon Rain forest.

For a moment she considered taking a picture of the massive structures to show her future children, but ultimately decided against the idea. If the mission counselors stumbled upon the holographic photos as the last of her personal effects were uploaded to the ship's servers they might get a wild hair and takeaway her flight status. Too many global credits had gone into the mission to have even one crew member dealing with the psychological trauma of permanently leaving Earth. What was truly bothering her was the message flashing on her personal datapad.

The legal A.I. entity her lawyers employed had finally worked out all the details on the termination of Erin's five-year marriage contract with James. The pad screen listed out how their mutual property was being divided along agreed lines. The whole procedure being a testament to the timeless idiocy of legal mumbo jumbo since her personal property mass limit was five kilograms. Erin's situation simply didn't lend itself to keeping any of the items they bought as a couple.

Is this an example of the separation anxiety the mission counselors were always warning us about, she thought to herself. Erin took refuge in the idea that the reason she and James did a five-year contract was that their careers were always going to be considered above the relationship. She had applied for a slot on one of the Alpha Centauri colony missions right after graduating from university. James, already a pilot in the United Earth Space Navy, required the marriage leeway to keep his career viable. Having to turn down a possible posting someplace faraway like the habitat orbiting Pluto because of a wife and kids would kill his chances for promotion. The cold war between Earth and Mars might be over, but there were still colony habitats beyond Saturn that adhered to the totalitarian Neo-spartan ideology.

It wouldn't matter to me, she thought to herself as she climbed back into bed and moved closer to her former husband. She would be on the Gaia by tomorrow afternoon leaving James forever. She knew he had already started communicating with one of the female members of his squadron. Erin cynically figured they would be an item before her cold sleep chamber had fully suspended her body between life and death.

Even though Erin was nursing a self righteous grudge, she maneuvered herself into James' arms. This was no time for second thoughts Erin continued to herself, years of struggling to make it through the selection process and then even more time training for the chance to be part of the last crewed colonization expedition to Alpha Centauri was something she couldn't pass up. Even if it meant letting James go as she and the six-thousand other pioneers went into cold sleep for the fifty year voyage to the planet now called New Haven.

***

The cargo shuttle lifted off from the Boa Vista complex carrying the last batch of crew members for the Gaia. In her seat, Erin clutched the small box James had given her just minutes before boarding. After making her promise to open it before going into cold sleep, he turned and coldly walked away without saying goodbye. Not exactly how she imagined their last moments, but Erin was ready for it nonetheless. Feeling slightly hurt, Erin walked down the passageway to the shuttle and found her seat. Barely ten minutes later the shuttle rolled onto the runway and lifted off into the atmosphere and beyond.

The trip to the Centauri colony shipyards at the lunar Lagrange-4 point took a day and Erin used it to close up all her other loose ends. She made one final call to her mom and dad in San Diego then to a few former teachers and professors. Erin felt strangely detached talking with her parents for the last time but she ended the call without shedding a lot of tears. Her younger brother was married and living with his wife and child in Scotland. Given that the global restrictions on family size had been removed, her parents would almost definitely see another grandchild and maybe even a third. Babies running around a house did a lot to sooth the pain of of parents missing their crazy daughter who wanted run off to another star system.

It wasn't until the latter part of the flight that she finally opened the box James had given her. Inside was an even smaller box that had a strange type of memory crystal embedded into the top. A small strip of paper had the words: “Push down on the crystal with your thumb.”

Unfolding the small table attached the seat in front of her, Erin placed the box on it and followed the instructions. A couple of seconds later a miniature, hologram of James appeared above the crystal. When it began to speak, Erin lost all her carefully crafted composure.

“Hi sweetie,” the hologram said in James' voice, “bet you thought you would never hear or see me again. This is one of the newest toys the damn Martians created in their labs. When I was there as an liaison with the provisional government one of the Martians told me about these keepsakes. See, they take a scan of your brain down to a molecular level and embed it onto a hyper-memory crystal. Through the use of some seriously crazy software this device creates an artificial personality allowing a limited form of interaction.

While this representation of me isn't a true artificial intelligence, we can still carry on a conversation. Hope you don't mind me tagging along to New Haven. And no, this avatar doesn't have an emotional algorithm, so I'll never be jealous of whomever you hook up with at the end of your voyage. Just imagine, you can show your grand kids the weirdo you were married to back on Earth.”

For the rest of journey on the shuttle, Erin hid in one of the zero-gee restrooms crying.

***

Gaia was falling towards Earth using the planet's gravity to slingshot out into interplanetary space where its main engines would then ignite. Erin was in engineering monitoring the several orbital tugs guiding the colony starship on the first leg of its long journey. Earth filled the large screen above her workstation with Erin wondering just what James was doing down on the surface. She had tried to call him several times but was sent to voicemail after each attempt. It was clear their breakup wasn't as cut and dry as they originally planned.

Erin duties did not prevent her from enjoying the majesty of her home world. The Earth's human population was down to under six-billion with it projected to fall much further due to two centuries of global planning and management. It took the Chaos Times of the twenty-first century to finally force humanity to evolve beyond infantile ideologies and realize their own extinction was a real possibility. Born in the mid-twenty second century, Erin couldn't fathom the world that had existed up until the 2050's when the stirrings of the New Rationalists began to be heard over the continuous, destructive static of what was then human civilization.

While much had been done to first stop the destruction then repair the damage, the flooded coastlines of the continents were a testament to human stupidity. While the atmosphere was approaching pre-industrial levels and the planetary climate had stabilized, the massive flooding that had devastated whole countries and submerged entire islands was irreversible.

Once clear of Earth and its orbital system, the Gaia's main engines were pushed up to one-hundred percent it was time for the crew to enter cold sleep. Erin entered her cold sleep chamber with the assistance of two human technicians and a restrict intelligence robot. The drugs slowing her metabolism and preparing her body for the cold temperatures made her thoughts hazy. The numerous intravenous lines and monitoring cables attached to her body made Erin feel less than human.

“Okay lieutenant,” the technician said as she calibrated the readings on Erin's medical panel next her chamber, “when you go under all brain activity will stop. The next time you wake up wee will be in orbit around New Haven or whatever the people there finally decided to call the planet.”

As instructed, Erin began counting backward from twenty feeling her mind increasingly slow down. She never reached fifteen before she went under and the techs and robot moved on to the next crew member. However, a final sliver of a thought about James crossed her mind before she was engulfed by the abyss. It was more a feeling than actual words, but as her mind faded she wished to be back on Earth with him.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Netflix's I Am Mother--A Review



America's collective societal angst is a subject that really should be looked at deeply by whatever compassionate and intelligent people are left. It doesn't matter what end of the political spectrum you sit, but most Americans seem to spend their lives engrossed in their real and imagined fears. Our movies, books, television shows, and even news programs are often overwhelmed with a steady supply of post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories that actively feed on our fears. A sad statement for a people who claim to live in the, “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.”

Please understand, I'm not saying there aren't real dangers lurking out in the world. Some are literally world-ending with the worst being climate change and environmental destruction. Pushing aside the willfully ignorant and their irrational cries of denial, the burning of fossil fuels to power our civilization has just about become a form of suicide but also an attempted murder of all life on the planet. But on the other end of the spectrum, I'm not cowering in fear over the Muslim guy sitting two rows in front of me on the airplane. Nor the Hispanic family sneaking across the southern border because they don't want to be murdered in their sleep by the local gang.

There are more esoteric fears though that while potentially real, are far more nebulous and detached from our everyday lives allowing them to be examined in a thoughtful way. The Netflix movie, I am Mother fits that description even though it has several flaws in the story and premise.

I am Mother is essentially another killer-robot story dealing with the usual Artificial Intelligence system out to rid the world of those nasty humans. The nice twist in the story though is that the genocidal A.I. only wants to drive humans extinct as the first step in bringing them back. The movie opens with the camera strolling down deserted futuristic corridors of an underground facility with titles telling us that an extinction level event has occurred on the surface and that the human population is now zero. But the next title says that the corridors we're seeing are part of a Repopulation Facility housing 63,000 preserved human embryos.


"Daughter" with her siblings

We then see Mother, a clunky looking humanoid robot who can curiously move with the grace of a dancer and the speed of an athlete, place one of the embryos into an artificial womb, a spherical glass container, where it grows to a normal-sized baby and is later decanted, for the lack of a better term. While Mother looks overwhelmingly like a machine instead of a human female, it raises the baby with a tenderness that rivals the abilities of real flesh and blood caregivers.

Mother calls this female child “Daughter” and tells her that when the time is right she will have numerous brothers and sisters who will then go on to repopulate the devastated Earth. But first Daughter has to endure years of training in every conceivable subject from electronics to philosophy.

As Daughter grows into a young woman she naturally becomes restless with her bunker lifestyle and wants to see the surface. Mother avoids actual details but says such an excursion is impossible because everything above is both dangerous and toxic. But a line is crossed for Daughter when a simple mouse gets into the facility and gnaws into some wiring disabling Mother and other systems. Daughter is able to capture the mouse and restore power to Mother, who promptly flips out and throws the innocent rodent into an incinerator and then scrubs down a large section of the bunker.

Soon after that Daughter decided to put on a hazmat suit and go outside without asking permission. Here's where I have my first problem with the movie, because just as Daughter is about to open the massive metal doors to the outside world she hears someone pounding on them. The moment seemed to me to be highly contrived damaging the overall excellent story.

Whatever the case, Daughter opens the door to find a wounded woman begging for help. Daughter brings in the stranger and tried to hide her from Mother while not explaining to the injured woman the physical makeup of the “person” she shares the bunker with. It doesn't go well because the stranger has an infection from her injuries and is close to dying unless surgery is performed, something Daughter knows Mother can easily perform.

Once Mother and the stranger learn of each other things go heavily sideways. The stranger demands the weapon Daughter confiscated after she crawled into the bunker's airlock and passed out. She tells Daughter that robots like Mother hunt humans on the surface while refusing to let the robot near her. That robots like her have come close to sterilizing the surface of all life. Mother in turn throws up her mechanical hands playing it cool telling Daughter the stranger is nuts and if she dies it's her own fault.

Daughter forges a compromise by performing the surgery herself saving the stranger. What happens next is a bit of a Cold War between Mother and the stranger with Daughter as the prize. Mother moves to reinforce her influence with Daughter by allowing her to pick a “brother” from the frozen embryos and insert it into the artificial womb. The stranger ups the game by convincing Daughter to go behind Mother's back to find the truth and she does with the results extremely unsettling. Mainly that Daughter learns that Mother attempted to raise other children before her who were killed off when they didn't measure up to the robot's standards.

Daughter decides to leave with the stranger but is stopped by Mother and thrown into a locked room. As Mother tortures the stranger for information on other survivors, Daughter breaks out and sets off the fire alarm to distract Mother in hopes that the stranger and her will have enough time to get away. It doesn't work, Mother confronts them at the airlock door forcing the stranger to take Daughter hostage and threaten to kill her if the robot doesn't open the door.

Mother lets them go and while Daughter is pissed, she does follow the stranger outside. Once outside, Daughter and the stranger spend their time crossing a desolate surface avoiding robots who recently have begun terraforming operation. Daughter also learns there are no other human survivors, and that there hasn't been for many years. Stranger lives alone in a storage container that had long ago washed ashore.

Daughter decides living with Mother in the bunker is better than playing post-apocalyptic beach bum with the stranger who ain't playing with a full deck herself. This is my second issue with the movie, Daughter discovery of previous children being murdered by Mother after they didn't measure up to her standards would preclude any reconciliation. But I let this one pass because Daughter felt duty bound to go home partly because her brother was even then cooking (growing) in the artificial womb.

Daughter heads back to the bunker and finds the entrance guarded by legions of heavily armed robots like Mother. The murder 'bots let Daughter inside without an issue where she finds Mother holding a freshly decanted baby brother in her arms. Mother explains that she is not just one robot but an A.I. system that controls them all. That she instigated the extinction event with the expressed purpose of saving humanity from their self-destructive ways. That Mother was going to guide her 63,000 kids to be more ethical and to understand the bigger picture. At that moment all I could think of was the American army officer from the Vietnam War infamously saying they had to, “destroy the village in order to save it.”

What's even more darkly funny is that I have heard several nutcase progressives-liberals say something similar explaining why they voted for the Orange Bastard or just stayed home on election day back in 2016. Seemingly proving the statement that humans are to inherently stupid and self-destructive to survive much longer. This goes back to the fact that global climate change will seriously frak up our civilization in the coming decades but we have millions of people in this country scared to death of the brown-skinned people praying differently and those fleeing dehumanizing poverty and drug gangs.

Getting back on subject, somehow Daughter is able to convince Mother to let her raise the new baby and all the other kids, That she has passed all the ethical and philosophical tests Mother had thrown at her. Surprisingly Mother agrees, and lets Daughter shoot her with the stranger's weapon in the one place on her body that will be “fatal.”

This is yet another problem I have with the movie. Just minutes before it was explained to Daughter that Mother is an A.I. system and that even then literally had thousands of identical robots hanging around outside the massive doors of the bunker. The destruction of that one robot simply didn't make any sense to me. Daughter was explained and shown in the movie to be highly educated and trained in robotic and computer repair. The scene ends with Daughter looking inside the storage room where all the other embryos await their chance at life.

Possibly to close those pesky plot holes, we have one final scene of the stranger back in her storage container home. Another robot version of Mother steps inside the container explaining to the stranger that her survival was something she planned to aid in her agenda. Mother further tells the stranger that with her role fulfilled, she had no further use of her. The final scene ends with it heavily implied Mother kills the stranger.

Okay, as an existential fear, a rogue A.I. going all murderous Skynet is something I'm not losing sleep over. Not that some famous and knowledgeable people like Elon Musk and the late Stephen Hawking haven't warned the public that there are reasons to be wary of creating sentient entities that can out think us. Whether we're near the technological level to create A.I. systems with human-level intelligence is something up for debate. But the given the warp speed advancement in computer systems,

But in the case of the fictional Mother, her genocidal approach to advancing human development has more to say about human behavior and even our past history. I feel genocidal worries are strictly something humans have created given our past behaviors. Many informed people worry about how easily groups can justify the organized murder of people different from themselves.

Conversely, some groups, stupid white folks here in America, have irrational fears of minorities ganging up on them and getting revenge on centuries of mistreatment. These delusions are one of the reasons have little to no respect for most right-wingers and have given up on “reaching them.” Fear that Muslims/Hispanics/Gays/Atheists/Liberals are on the verge of rounding up all God fearing Christians is the first step in justifying pulling a preemptive genocide strike on them. Yes, I have personally listened to such people express in actual words their fear that they are in grave danger of organized persecution.

Further fueling my own fears, I've lost count of the number of times someone on social media has said I should be “disposed of” or removed from society for expressing my view on gun control or any of a number of other “commie ideas.”

So, while I am Mother was an entertaining movie with enough interesting concepts to make it thought provoking, I don't believe a real A.I. would go all Skynet. If such a system was created with Mother's stated desire to improve humanity, I believe it would go about it covertly by taking over various computer systems. Such an A.I. could at the very least alter election polls, promote specific voices on social media, and yes, kill certain individuals who possess enough influence to hamper its desired goals.

Understand, the race to advance artificial intelligence technology is something the major nations are heavily pursuing for both commercial needs and to promote their individual national security agendas. The real near term threat that comes from A.I. is for one nation to have a major breakthrough that would allow it to easily penetrate sensitive communications or databases. The medium term threat would be an A.I. system that could be used to guess the responses of an enemy nation. This would make geopolitical strategic thinking even more of a chess game with move and countermoves.

I tend to side with the opinion that sentient A.I. systems won't be invented within the next hundred years. I've read enough to understand there is no real understanding of consciousness, so I just don't see a new version of Edison or Alan Turning building one on purpose. That's not to say we couldn't stumble into creating one or have an existing but limited A.I. evolve human-level awareness.

All things considered, I am Mother is something I moderately recommend. It's flawed but enjoyable and frankly, quite the improvement over some of the other science fiction movies Netflix has made.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

A Little Hope



From my viewpoint the world geopolitical situation is one huge alleyway dumpster fire that threatens to engulf surroundings buildings. Yeah, I fully understand that its been like that since history began. The difference from the vast majority of what has gone before being the nearly eight-billion humans now living on the planet and a whole host of apocalyptic weapons that could sterilize everything down to bacteria. Not that there isn't beauty, wisdom, kindness, compassion, and a little hope going on all over the place, its just that the blazing dumpster tends to over shadow the tiny flower growing from a crack in the sidewalk.

About a years or so ago my wife and I stumbled upon a video showcasing disabled kids living in Chinese orphanages. Being that our daughter was adopted from China, we know more than the average people about the conditions these kids have to overcome. What we learned about one small boy though broke our hearts.

Wu Keyuan was born without ears and was seven years-old at the filming of the video. We quickly learned that airplanes were his favorite thing to draw because that was what his mom and dad would use to come get him and take him home. What tore me to shreds was that past a certain age China doesn't let orphans get adopted, and that Keyuan was already past the point of easy placement for kids with no disabilities. But in the video I remember Keyuan repeatedly saying that he had to “Be patient,” that his parents would come.

It didn't take much to realize that Keyuan probably learned that response from an overworked staff dealing with more kids than they had energy and time to give. The image of little Keyuan stayed with me until I googled, “Chinese orphan with no ears” last week and learned some happy news.

A couple living in Singapore saw Keyuan and having already raised three other boys more or less moved both heaven and Earth to bring him home. As a parent of an adopted child I realize that there is no clean, happily ever after. The trauma of being an orphan and leaving his friends behind will be tough on Keyuan. Then there is his hearing disability which will require numerous surgeries to correct and years to recover. But with a family now to support him just maybe things will work out.

With the world going to shit and powerful men doing their best to make it worse, I'll take this one ray of hope as a sign things might one day get better for us all. 


Sunday, September 8, 2019

We're Nuking Hurricanes?



The one fact that I feel the average liberal/progressive consistently fails to understand is that Trump did not just suddenly appear. He is the head of a pimple on a national infection. He represents a seething underclass of barely literate and incurious individuals ever ready to bathe in their prejudices and irrational fears. Trump certainly doesn't have much intellectual capacity, but for years the bastard played this mass of proles like a master violinist making himself out to be a supreme businessman.

In the closing weeks before the November 2016 election the video of Trump talking to a dipshit entertainment reporter about groping women and forcible kissing them should have ended his campaign. After that video went viral I personally remember a Meet The Press episode where the host pretty much said a Hillary victory was now assured. In normal times such a revelation would have meant certain defeat and utter embarrassment for any public figure. But his flock of willing sheep stayed with him even though his personality and behavior violated every aspect of their supposed beliefs.

So that November night not only signified the election of man completely without any redeeming qualities but the final death of our assumed common decency. From there things have not only gotten worse but we all now live with the realization that our darkest nightmares about the fate the nation and world are possible. Curiously enough there is still a little room for the laughably absurd to creep into our minds like a tiny mouse crawling through duct work into our homes.

The recent Hurricane Dorian, yet another monster tropical storm whose parentage can be traced back to the obsessive burning of fossil fuels, spent the better part of last week tearing the islands of The Bahamas apart. For a couple of those days everyone living on the coastline from Florida to North Carolina waited nervously for the storm to finally implemented a northerly turn which could have put them in the tropical cross hairs.

Also during that time our glorious Pussy Grabber-in-Chief decided to cancel his trip to Eastern Europe so he could “monitor” the situation. Which meant him flying down to his golf resort in Virginia on Air Force One to chase his little white balls. Just right there we could talk about the violations of the Emolument Clause of the U.S. Constitution but I'm not big on dancing in the room of a patient in intensive care.

No, the new low point in Trump's reign has to be his idea about detonating nuclear weapons in and around hurricanes in an attempt to destroy them before they endanger the United States. The stupidity of the idea is only outweighed by the sheer ignorance it implies of the individual who suggested it. But for many, or if we're honest most Trump supporters such an idea fits their dim worldview dominated by action movies and an educational level that never went beyond technical school training.

No, don't get your panties in a wad, technical schools are a fine place to get an education that leads to a decent paying job. Four year colleges are expensive with many idle underachievers graduating with degrees in art appreciation and other fields with no real employment. And to go all Full Disclosure, I'm a graduate of a technical school and had conversations with graduates holding degrees in Political Science and French Literature as they delivered my pizza and served me breakfast at IHOP.

However, technical school institutions rarely require their students to take courses that prepare them for dealing with a wider world. Unless such students already have a working curiosity about something else beyond getting laid and their guns, technical schools at best turn out idiot savants. Highly trained individuals in one narrow field but unable to discern propagandized bullshit spewed by shallow, self-serving demagogues and the sycophants working for them.

Yeah, if I'm casting a far too wide derogatory net on working class folks, I'm sorry. It's just that I have to daily deal with such salt-of-the-earth, blue collar types and unfortunately have to quietly listen to their conspiratorial and tortured meanderings about all sorts of subjects. Such people use to be considered jokes, even by those who ran in Republican circles. These were the folks that wanted the United States to not only leave the United Nations, but expel the organization from the country because it represented a sinister attempt to undermine American sovereignty. Plus to them it was filled with all sorts of funny brown and black folks who should be ruled by the civilized white nations.

These days conspiratorial posturing about the U.N. has largely faded away to be replaced with the latest in the culture wars with right-wingers upset over things like gay marriage to the commie scheme to replace manly plastic drinking straws with wimpy paper substitutes. Reasonable people simply don't believe Vlad Putin over in Russia is a super-duper guy because the action movie star Steve Segal hangs out with the him. A radical departure from the days when the Right-wing masses cheered Rambo/Rocky during his civilization ending battles with the Red Menace. 



But lets not deceive ourselves, Right-wing admiration for Putin comes for the color of his skin and the fact that he makes supporting noises about protecting Christendom from its eternal enemy and stifling the nasty gays and their agenda. Trump supporters ignore his murder of journalists and his creeping encroachment on NATO countries. Oh, how I wish Zombie Reagan would arise from his grave and come straighten out his fallen flock. I would have added Zombie John McCain as well, but he's the one that started this hyper-batshit crazy era by picking Sarah Palin as his running mate.

The question that constantly plagues me these days is how low and stupid can Trump now go. His desire to throw nuclear weapons at hurricanes marks a new level of achievement in imbecilic mutterings that staggers the imagination. A science commentator, responding indirectly to the hurricane nuking idea, said that not only would detonating such weapons not have the desired effect but that it was the absolute best way to maximize the spread of highly radioactive fallout.

With Trump's good buddy, Putin hellbent on developing new apocalyptic nuclear weapons to destroy the United States, I'm sure the slimy bastard has passed this idea off to his collection of evil scientists living in their secret Siberian lairs. Oh, to return to the heady days of the early 1980's when I dreamed of the wonders the twenty-first century would bring like humans going to Mars and people starting to cleanup their messes here on Earth.

Paraphrasing Donny Rumsfeld, you go into the future with the geopolitical situation you have, not the geopolitical situation you wish or dreamed about. Okay, boys and girls crunch time is fast approaching, so don't screw up November 2020 like you did last time.