Brainy: My Newfound Obsession with Artificial Intelligence

A few years ago, I made the startling observation that I am a “hard sci-fi” film buff. Whenever I refer to myself in this way, I always raise eyebrows. What exactly is “hard sci-fi”? I’d taken for granted the meaning of this niche term for any fiction based on actual science and technology. It is why I hated Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012). And as much as I still can’t whole-heartedly embrace Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014), I find it endlessly fascinating. The science and the implications of its use in manipulating the natural world is one of the reasons why I love Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) so much.

I’m not exactly sure what led me to seek out these thought-provoking narratives about life, history, and time. In short, the nature of existence. Is it because my father, a numbers and all-around science geek, would routinely tell us children that he believes in aliens and a multiverse? “Remember, in a parallel universe, you’re my mother, and I’m your son. In another, you are green, and in another blue. Anything and everything is possible.” In much the same way that people find comfort in believing in god, I find the notion of life on other planets, in other universes, so impossible to ignore or rule out that it is almost certainly true. For me, anyway. In any case, perhaps having this open mind and this desire to gaze up at the stars, to imagine different lives and circumstances, all but ensured my eventual identification with hard sci-fi. I may not understand everything, but my determination to make sense of these narratives defines my relationship to the genre. Hell, you could say that my lifelong obsession with cinema influenced this deep-seated belief that anything and everything is possible. For what is cinema if not the exploration of alternate realities defined by space and time? Cinema is still so young, and we’ve only scraped the surface of what is possible.

Icarus Mission psychologist Searle looks out at the nearby sun, contemplating his existence. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Icarus Mission psychologist Searle looks out at the nearby sun, contemplating his existence in Sunshine. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

My hard sci-fi epiphany may have occurred when, in April 2007, I was one of only a handful of people taking in an afternoon showing of Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007) in Lancaster, England. Sitting in the darkened theater, thousands upon thousands of miles from home, and submitting to a film narrative that runs counter to our current fears about global warming, I had a visceral reaction to everything I watched on the big screen. I’d often thought about the time when the sun will die, over a billion years from now, and how its gaseous explosion will likely swallow up Earth. It was quite another thing to be confronted by a crew of astronauts charting a course to blow up the sun, to bring it back to life so that it may end the terrible Ice Age enveloping all of Earth. The physicist hero Capa can only successfully fulfill his mission by delivering himself with the payload, in the end reviving the sun in death. It seems perfectly logical to me that the film’s screenwriter, Alex Garland, would then go on to make one of the best hard sci-fi films about artificial intelligence. I fell hard for his directorial debut Ex Machina, which came out in April of 2015, and it cemented my new obsession with all things artificial intelligence.

Ava contemplates the nature of her existence in Ex Machina. Image courtesy of A24.
Ava contemplates the nature of her existence in Ex Machina. Image courtesy of A24.

Like Garland (and Stanley Kubrick before him), I believe that the next step in human evolution is the moment when we reach singularity, opening the door to a world where the reasoning of man-made machines supplants that of humankind. In Ex Machina, you root for the android Ava to escape her laboratory/modern home. She is a gothic heroine held captive by her megalomaniacal creator Nathan, and even though she cleverly manipulates and outwits her sympathetic suitor Caleb, leaving him to die on the compound after killing Nathan—even though she is a computer—you relate and identify with her plight. Ava is the future, and her discovery of the outside world suggests that our future, when it is run by machines, will not be without wonderment. It may be a scary thought that our computers will be in control one day, but we’re already headed in that direction (after all, who checks her phone for messages whenever it dings, like Pavlov’s dog?), and by the time scientists reach singularity, I will be long gone. That future doesn’t frighten me one byte bit.

On a high from Ex Machina, I devoured other cultural products about artificial intelligence last year. Chief among them were the novel Speak by Louisa Hall and The Brain with David Eagleman, a six-part documentary series that only touched on A.I. in its last hour. In the former, Hall weaves a compelling intertwining narrative around five different people from disparate times and places, people directly or indirectly involved in the science of artificial intelligence. She presents one of them, Alan Turing, the inventor of the modern computer, through letters he writes to the mother of his childhood friend Christopher, whom he loved all of his short, tragic life. The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 2014) touches on some of Hall’s themes, and I inevitably pictured Cumberbund while reading Turing’s sections of the book, but that prestige picture paled in comparison to Hall’s thought-provoking and evocative language. Here is one of my favorite lines by Hall, writing as Turing, who’s reflecting on the theoretical experiments he was never able to perform with Christopher (because he died while they were still boys at school):

… I can only imagine that our brains must grow in similar patterns: one step backwards, added to the present term, resulting in a subsequent term that combines both. Past and present, contained in the future (191)

I thought of Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), too, when reading the book. Another official voice in Speak belongs to an inventor of lifelike companion dolls for children that, upon extensive exposure, inadvertently and progressively transform the children into lifeless robots. Interspersed are the memoirs that the dolls’ creator, Chinn, writes from prison as well as chat transcripts entered as proof that his programming did (or did not) intentionally harm children. Framing each section of the book is a first-person account from one of his dolls, on its way to die in the desert. The bleakness of its fate, its battery dying, its struggle to hold onto language, for that is what it thinks makes it humanlike, reminded me of David, the robot boy in A.I. When I grieve for a fictional humanoid robot—whether on screen or on the page—I must be subconsciously grieving my own mortality.

Kim Suozzi with her cat Mikey. Image courtesy of The New York Times.
Kim Suozzi with her cat Mikey. Image courtesy of The New York Times.

That is why I found the story of budding neuroscientist Kim Suozzi so fascinating (not to mention, we share an almost uncanny resemblance). Recognizing the impossibility of beating cancer (she was twenty-three when she died in 2013), Kim spent the remaining months of her life raising the funds to, essentially, donate her brain to the science of cryonics. She fought alongside her boyfriend to preserve her brain in extremely cold temperatures so that in the future, when the science has finally been developed, her consciousness can be plugged into a computer. In other words, she would reach a singularity that Johnny Depp does in Transcendence (Wally Pfister, 2014)—only without the ability to take over the highly connected digitized world. The New York Times profile of Kim by Amy Harmon is heartbreaking, but it asks a lot of questions—the right questions. When she died, Kim knew that she was making a gamble. We still don’t know if we will ever be able to simulate our connectomes, or the connections in the brain that give us our own unique consciousness. But isn’t it beautiful to dream of that possibility? I don’t see Kim’s wish as selfish (as in, why does she get to cheat death and become immortal through reviving her brain?). I think it’s inspiring that a young woman would devote her life—however short—to science, to figuring out the mystery of whether or not we can bring a person back to life.

In The Brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman happens to visit the facility where Kim Suozzi’s brain is being preserved in order to highlight the controversial science guiding organizations like Alcor Life Extension Foundation. Ted Williams is also uniquely interred there. More so than his comments on artificial intelligence, I savored Eagleman’s distillation of complex concepts, such as identity and reality, and how these socially constructed notions first and foremost exist within the brain. They can get distorted there, too. The Brain also made an alternate reality for me all too real: what might have I become had I continued studying linguistics in college? (I checked out when phonology got too challenging.) Back in the day, I’d imagined being a sociolinguist—I still act like one, to an extent—but with my new fascination with the brain, I know for sure that I would have liked to have been a neuroscientist who studies language, memory, and the brain.

In other words, The Brain confirmed what I already believe about life. We are who we are because of what we have in our brains and because of how our brains interact with each other, transcending time and space. That doesn’t mean our brains always work properly, or in the ways that we want them to. Memory is reliably unreliable. Words escape us from time to time. These are but two reasons why I attempt to document my every waking hour, why I write down what I have seen, why I used to write about everything I have seen. I know I cannot store all of that information in my brain. But my brain allows me to create the systems I use to remember, including a coded language. It doesn’t matter; these records will always be incomplete. There are some things I forget to write down, some things I don’t want to commit to paper for fear that another’s eyes may read my words and know my secrets. I may be knowable through what I think, say, and write, but I will never be known. This is the beauty and cruelty of our human consciousness. We’ll never be able to see the world exactly as someone else does. But of all of the art forms, cinema comes the closest to achieving empathy.

Read the Montage Series, 2015: A Year in Reflection, from the beginning.

Long Take: Reaffirming Awkward in 21 Jump Street

Viewed June 26, 2012

Having been too young to watch the Fox TV series 21 Jump Street when it originally aired from 1987 to 1991, I mainly just knew it as the show about young-looking undercover cops that launched Johnny Depp, among other also-rans. That’s probably how most people of my generation (the news media has anointed us “millennials,” a moniker that annoys me to no end) “remember” it. So why not re-package it as a comedy with the up-and-comers Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum? Despite the surprisingly positive reviews 21 Jump Street (Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, 2012) received upon its release as well as my dad’s oft-repeated requests to see it, I refused to see it in the theater. Honestly, I can’t remember my specific reasons for holding so firm on this point; it was not as if I had wanted to see something else and Dad refused to go. March 2012, unless you are a dedicated follower of all things The Hunger Games, was a bad month for movies.

Why did my father want to see 21 Jump Street so badly? Well, ever since catching Superbad (Greg Mottola, 2007) on basic cable years ago, he has been obsessed with Jonah Hill’s foul-mouthed performances. That’s right: even with the channel’s edits for language and content, my dad still found the film–and Jonah Hill’s horny teenager–uproariously funny. I joke that he is the only 62-and-a-half-year-old who eagerly anticipates Hill’s films. For example, Dad still wants to see The Sitter (David Gordon Green, 2011), which I have no interest in viewing because of its allegedly racist, homophobic, and sexist sense of humor. It’s also noteworthy that my father’s Jonah Hill fandom does not extend to his more “serious roles.” Dad was disappointed that the comic actor played it “straight” in Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011), for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Anyway, we rented 21 Jump Street on DVD as soon as it became available, and we both laughed our asses off. It had been a long time since I had seen a comedy that made me laugh so unabashedly hard (it is quite politically incorrect, you know). Unfortunately, owing to the film’s mixture of genres (more on that in a moment), it loses its steam in the last act, as things become more out of control and ridiculous. Now’s a good time to alert you that, as with pretty much everything I write, I’m going to “spoil” 21 Jump Street.

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as rookie cops Schmidt and Jenko, respectively, who, after a botched arrest in a public park, are transferred to a secret unit of the unnamed city’s police force: 21 Jump Street. Operating out of an abandoned church at this address, Captain Dickson (a very flummoxed and funny Ice Cube) leads a team of young-looking cops as they go undercover in local high schools and communities to bust criminals. Dickson, his patience already exhausted, assigns Schmidt and Jenko the case of finding the dealer and infiltrating the supplier of a new LSD-like drug on the campus of a neighborhood high school. The drug’s street name is wholly unimaginative (HFS, as in “holy fucking shit”), but Dickson introduces it to the partners and audience in a novel, synced-in way: through the screening on YouTube of a video in which a teenager documents the various stages of his experience on the drug. Dickson fills in the last bit, which immediately ups the stakes of their mission: the kid in the video whose antics so amused Jenko later overdosed and died.

Schmidt and Jenko were enemies all throughout high school because the former was a geek and the latter the dumb jock who picked on him. They only recently became best friends while at the police academy, in a quick blink-and-you’ll-miss-it exchange wherein Schmidt openly admires Jenko’s easy physical dexterity and Jenko respects Schmidt’s study habits. In other words, they decide with a fist bump to “be friends,” recognizing that each other’s strengths will help him improve. Now that they are partners and BFFs, it is with a little trepidation that they re-enter high school. Will everything be the same?

21 Jump Street has been called the male-centric version of Never Been Kissed (Raja Gosnell, 1999), the romantic comedy in which the homely newspaper copyeditor Drew Barrymore gets a chance to prove her worth as an investigative reporter while reliving the horrors of high school. This comparison is superficial and off-base because 21 Jump Street is not as sentimental or nostalgic (the pre-title sequence is the only scene set in the past). Nor does the newer film’s narrative focus on the protagonists’ transformation from unpopular (or in Jenko’s case, popular) to cool (or uncool). Dickson’s stern pointer to the more handsome of the two, Jenko, to keep his dick in his pants and not have “relations” with teachers, staff, or students is a preemptive “shut-up!” to those viewers who have already made the Never Been Kissed connection (because Barrymore and her English teacher, Michael Vartan, find love). But a tiny romance with a student is slotted in for Schmidt, who’s long been petrified of girls, thereby subverting the rule that “nice guys finish last.” Jenko’s desirability is more often commented upon than his own desires are expressed, which perhaps foreshadows Channing Tatum’s unselfconscious turn and public appeal to be a leading man in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012).

In updating the television show for today’s audiences, screenwriter Michael Bacall (who developed the story with its star, Jonah Hill) combines the police procedural format with conventions from the buddy cop genre, “high-concept” action movies, and even high school-set comedies about social hierarchies. This genre mixing suggests that the film’s intended audience is very cine-literate. As a buddy cop movie, 21 Jump Street has less in common with the classics Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987) and Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991) than it has in common with the recent fan-boy favorites Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright, 2007) and The Other Guys (Adam McKay, 2010), which are both parodies and legitimate entries of the genre. For the later films speak the same language, positioning their respective “odd couple” policemen of inaction as the triumphant heroes of Michael Bay’s explosion-laden cinema. The early scene in which Schmidt and Jenko pursue drug dealers while on the beat in a public park, the action cut between their frenzied bicycle-riding in close-up, set to a rocking score, and their more languid rolling over the grass in a medium shot (without music), at once expresses the partners’ frustration with their jobs (it is not as heroic as they would wish) and their desires to live in a Michael Bay-type action film. Later in the film, they chase after the same drug dealers, this time on the ramps of a painfully obvious Southern California freeway, commandeering a number of vehicles (including a student driver car with two steering wheels and a baby pink VW bug) and turning their heads at almost every maneuver because they expect their efforts to have resulted in explosions. Whereas the first scene in the park is subtle, this later car chase scene is like a Saturday Night Live skit run amok.

Thankfully, most of 21 Jump Street‘s comedy derives from its deconstruction of high school’s social hierarchies. Other than Never Been Kissed, the film also references such classics as Sixteen Candles (John Hughes, 1984) and The Breakfast Club (Hughes, 1985) and even the resplendent TV series created by Paul Feig, Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000). Having been popular back in the day, Jenko advises his partner and friend with a number of key behaviors that will ensure he fits in, chief among them: make fun of people who “try too hard.” When Jenko demonstrates this on their first day, still in the parking lot, he receives a rude awakening. He calls one of the popular kids “gay” for riding a moped, and when accused of gay-bashing, Jenko reacts by punching the kid, who just happens to be gay. Thus the put-upon popular kid and his friends accuse Jenko of hitting him because he is gay, which Jenko of course couldn’t have known. Meanwhile, Schmidt makes the observation that everything that made him uncool in school, such as his cultural sensitivity, staunch environmentalism, and awkward sense of humor, is now in vogue. Things have changed in the less than ten years since they were in high school, and these changes precipitate an identity crisis for each.

21 Jump Street is not exactly like the teen comedies based on Shakespeare’s plays, including Never Been Kissed (As You Like It) and Gil Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew, 1999), but it does use misidentification as a starting point for comic hijinks. Since neither Schmidt nor Jenko studied their fake profiles before enrolling, they fail to identify correctly as their assumed identities in the principal’s office. This means that the dumb hunk Jenko winds up with Schmidt’s class schedule, which is heavy on the sciences (where Dickson thinks the drug’s makers are convening). The shy and awkward Schmidt is saddled with Jenko’s less academically challenging but more artistic and social courses. It’s in his drama class that he becomes close to Molly (Brie Larson), a pretty, funny girl who non-exclusively dates Eric (Dave Franco), the popular kid who took Jenko to task for bullying his gay friend. Not surprisingly, Eric is soon revealed to be the high school’s number one dealer of HFS, thereby requiring Schmidt to get close to him.

Meanwhile, Jenko uses the nerds in his science class to trace Eric’s phone calls on his mobile. He may become friendly with them, inviting the small group to a party that Schmidt hosts at his parents’ house in spite of Dickson’s forceful reminder never to do so (Schmidt has moved back in with his parents along with Jenko to keep up the charade that they are brothers new to the neighborhood). And Jenko may enjoy science more because of their tutelage of him, but of the two, Jenko grows the least as a character. Unlike Schmidt, who must get over his fear of firing his gun (definitely a sexual handicap), Jenko doesn’t have any real challenges. He hardly has low self-esteem, but hearing his best friend make fun of his intelligence with Schmidt’s new-found popular classmates takes its toll on their relationship. In the end, though, Jenko’s fun science experiments with the gang help him stop the drug dealers from getting away. He effectively builds and hurls a bomb, made with alcohol and batteries, at their runaway vehicle. Cue explosion. Schmidt eventually becomes a man of action when, in puerile, penal fashion, he shoots the drug supplier, the jocky Mr. Walters (Rob Riggle), in the crotch. Upon shooting the P.E. teacher and track coach’s dick off, Schmidt announces that Mr. Walters “peaked in high school.” Talk about rewriting the social rules of high school.

But this begs the question: should Schmidt and Jenko have grown more as characters? On the one hand, I think character development would certainly have improved the story. But on the other hand, I appreciate how the filmmakers eschew traditional storytelling methods. As I previously mentioned, Schmidt and Jenko become friends in a flash while at the academy, with the tacit assumption that Jenko had already become less of a jerk in the years they spent apart. This means that the film neither tracks the development of their relationship, from enemies to best friends, nor their own transformations. Perhaps the protagonists’ not having major narrative trajectories is exactly the point. Sure, Schmidt must learn to take risks (it’s part of his job!), and he does. When it comes to women, his becoming popular has little to do with it. Molly doesn’t like him because he hangs out with Eric; she arguably prefers him for his awkward sense of self. They feel a connection because they have a similar sense of humor. As for Jenko, hanging out with science geeks may make him one by association, but he doesn’t metamorphize into a genius. Besides, that’s impossible to convey in fewer than 120 minutes. In this way, they merely grow together from being inept cops to being fully capable of bringing the bad guys to their knees. Ooh, did I just write that in digital ink?

By way of conclusion, here are some odds and ends to 21 Jump Street that I really enjoyed. Hill and Tatum have tremendous chemistry, and Tatum proves he can deftly handle comedy, as when he tries to intimidate one of the drug dealers in the beginning with, “Hey, you want me to beat your dick off?”

As a big fan of the TV series Parks and Recreation (2009-present), I loved seeing Nick Offerman cameo as the deputy police chief who transfers the bumbling idiots to the undercover bureau. His description of the program as a rehashing of the past because the higher ups lack creativity in catching criminals constitutes a witty meta-commentary on the business of filmmaking today, what with the prevalence of sequels and reboots.

Furthermore, the characterizations of the adults at the school (weirdly named Sagan High… after Carl Sagan?) are clearly meant to make fun of archetypal teachers and principals who are ignorant of their students’ problems. For example, Principal Dadier (Jake Johnson from New Girl) and drama teacher Mr. Gordon (Chris Parnell) regularly say that they should care more about their students than they do. Mr. Walters, the creep that he is, had to have been a douche bag when he was in school because he simply never left. Perhaps the funniest situation arises because Jenko’s science teacher (Ellie Kemper) is overly flirtatious. She is physically conflicted over her desire for Jenko, both making her body available for ogling and saying she just can’t entertain the thought of crossing the line between teacher and student. The good news is that Jenko never takes advantage of her or any other woman who flings herself at him.

On the downside, the filmmakers waste that well-hidden cameo by Johnny Depp. At the end of the film, his Tom Hanson from the original series, along with partner Doug Penhall (Peter DeLuise), appears as an undercover cop who has lived with the drug dealing gang for years, going so far as to get tattoos and wear prosthetic makeup around the clock. When a gunfight breaks out between Schmidt and Jenko and the drug dealers, Hanson and his partner are caught in the cross-hairs and die gruesomely after professing their love for each other. This being a Jonah Hill movie, of course there is bromance. But doing away with these characters in this manner seems insensitive and outlandish. But what really explains this maneuver? Maybe the filmmakers weren’t expecting any fans of the original show to see the movie.