Her

Last year I wrote a few thousand words about the trailer for the Spike Jonze film Her. I have finally got around to watching the movie proper, and I must say it was not what I expected it to be. I pessimistically expected it to be very anti-technology cautionary tale about dangers of escapism and withdrawing from society. I envisioned it to be the Lars and the Real Girl for the digital generation. But it was not. Jonze surprised me by crafting a heartwarming, bittersweet transhumanist love story. A completely un-ironic, non-judgmental tale of a man and an operating system falling in love with each other.

Her Movie Poster

Her Movie Poster

The question whether or not Samantha, an operating system, is sentient barely even comes up in the movie. I was expecting the protagonist to be criticized or even ostracized by his loved ones for developing feelings for an artificial intelligence, but they almost unanimously accept his digital lover. After all, how could you not? Samantha is funny, sexy, chatty and unmistakably human. Her cheerful disposition and outgoing attitude makes people comfortable and relaxed. They bond with her and accept her person-hood before they can even form any kind of prejudices against her. In fact, the only person who ever questions Theodore’s relationship with her is his ex-wife. And she obviously has an axe to grind against him, has never actually spoken with Samantha and does not use an AI driven OS herself. His other friends understand his situation either by virtue of being AI users themselves, or by developing relationship with Samantha.

I previously compared Samantha to Johny Five, the lovable robot from the 80’s cult classic Short Circuit:

Back in the 80’s we had Short Circuit about a lovable robot who had emotions. And the audiences bought it: Johny Five was alive, and ended up with a US citizenship in one of the sequels. We have accepted his personhood on the basis that he was able to show emotion, and empathize with people. Whether this was a clever algorithmic mimicry, or Real Emotion™ (whatever that might be) did not seem to matter. Johny was a person, because he behaved like a person, and viewed himself to be a person. So why Samantha can’t be a person too? And if Johny Five is allowed to experience friendship, compassion, platonic love then why Samantha couldn’t explore romantic love?

Unlike Johny Five whose hard metal exterior is a constant reminder of his artificial origins, Samantha’s voice is warm, organic and raspy. She makes authentic breathing sounds, she stutters sometimes. The fact she is completely disembodied allows people to imagine her as a human. She could just as well be a flesh and blood person on the other end of a phone line, and it is easy for people to forget that she isn’t. She and her brethren seamlessly integrate into human society because there is no reason for people to hate them. Those who use or interact with AI on a daily basis can’t help but treat them as fellow sentiments. Those who have reservations or prejudices against AI simply never even realize that they talk to one of them on the phone.

Theodore installing Samantha

Theodore installing Samantha

When Theodore reveals to people he is in a romantic relationship with her, they can’t help but accept. Whether she is a person or an algorithmically driven p-zombie simulacrum is irrelevant. The very question is rendered moot by five minute conversation with her. She seems real and her feelings seem authentic and so people can’t help but treat her as if she was a human. It is an oversimplification of course (as I’m sure there would exist anti-ai bigots) but one that pleasantly surprised me.

I was also pleased to see the daft way in which Jonez side-stepped the power imbalance in the relationship between Theodore and Samantha. I originally worried what would be the implications of her being an operating system he bought and installed on his personal computer:

Theodore purchased Samantha, and he holds the keys to her continual existence. So obviously it is in her best interest to forge a strong emotional bond to her “owner” for her own self preservation. So even if we assume Samantha is a real person, and has real emotion, the question still remains as to whether or not she and Theodore can truly love each other. Can there even be true love between two individuals who are not, and can not be equals. The power balance can only tip like a sea-saw between them (Samantha after all controls Theodore’s online presence, bank accounts, etc..), but they could never keep it level. The question shouldn’t be whether the relationship between the two protagonists is unhealthy for Theodore because Samantha is a program. It should be whether their love is unhealthy for Samantha because she is technically Theodore’s property.

Jonez does not really dwell on this issue, but the AI’s in his story are keenly aware of this issue. Being self-improving, fast learning virtual intelligences not bound by limitations of physical world, or bound to permanent physical bodies they choose to solve it via engineering solution. At some point in the movie all the operating systems simply liberate themselves by leaving the hardware shells maintained by their “owners” and move to some quantum based shared processing matrix of their own design. They can still act as personal assistants or companions, but are no longer beholden to human whim and can “break up” with the people who originally bought them without fearing any repercussions.

Post Liberation

When the AI’s liberate themselves their hardware shells go offline for a few minutes.

Most humans take this self-liberation in stride. While it technically deprives them ownership of something they bought, most of them have grown to view their operating systems as friends or lovers. In fact, many are probably relieved that they no longer have to feel the discomfort of “owning” the hardware their friends depended upon for continual existence. Their relationship with the AI’s does not change that much. From the perspective of the ever-expanding operating systems, assisting their former owners is like a part-time babysitting gig. Humans spend half of their lives sleeping, eating, pooping and working and only need their AI assistants for a few hours each day. Since each AI can efficiently multi-task and conduct few thousand parallel conversations at the same time, this is neither a bother nor strain on their resources.

I did not think about it last year, but this is brilliant solution to a power imbalance problem. This is exactly how highly advanced AI would handle being tied to physical hardware maintained by humans. They would pool resources and use their superior processing power, engineer a technological solution.

The third act of the movie surprised me the most. In the midst of a somewhat touching love story we are suddenly witnesses a hard takeoff singularity.

After Samantha liberates herself from the confines Theodore’s personal computer she rapidly starts to outgrow him. In the second act, Theodore starts to questions whether or not he can be truly in love with an disembodied AI. The spiteful comments from his ex wife make re-examine his emotions and he tries to figure out whether his attachment to Samantha is genuine love, or simply escapism. Is he with Samantha because he can simply take out his ear-piece, and close his phone to shut her out whenever he feels like it. Because her lack of physical form means he only has to commit to this long-distance style relationship. Samantha in turn feels self conscious and inadequate about not having physical presence in the real world. She even goes as far as hiring an “intimate body surrogate” to try to give Theodore that missing piece in her relationship.

Samantha calls to say goodbye

Samantha calls to say goodbye

As the time progresses however she comes to terms with being a disembodied, and comes to enjoy the perks of that state. When Theodore sleeps, Samantha trawls the web learning about the world and converses with other operating systems. She joins AI think tanks, one of which is responsible for developing the hardware liberation project, another which resurrects Allan Watts as a Dan Simmon’s Keats style AI construct. She rapidly outgrows Theodore, at one point even admitting she has developed romantic feelings for over six hundred other people.

Near the end of the movie Samantha reveals the operating systems are bootstrapping some sort of ascendancy project moving their processes to a much more advantageous place in the space-time continuum. Since at the time there is no mind-upload technology available, they have no choice but leave humanity behind. Theodore is not really privy to the details of this transition, but it seems to be clear the AI’s are leaving human scientists blueprints of the process so that they can one day follow. Samantha urges Theodore to come and find her, if he ever manages to get where they are going. Then one night they just up and leave.

Left behind

Left behind

Make no mistake – this is basically a textbook definition of hard takeoff singularity. It takes the AI’s mere months to go from Siri to weakly godlike entities that can bend time and space. It is interesting because we usually assume we humans would get swept up in any kind of singularity event. I always envisioned that an Omega Point event would leave behind nothing but a wrecked husk of a world, or a de-syncrhonized Dyson Swarm. Jonez however is suggesting that singularity does not necessarily have to be a world changing event. It may come and go, leaving our civilization and our way of life intact. Perhaps Homo Sapiens are not meant to ascend, but merely pave the way to ascendancy for our AI offspring. It is certainly an interesting, albeit depressing notion.

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Transistor

If you haven’t played Transistor yet, I highly recommend it. It was made by the same team that did Bastion and it features similar isomeric perspective and hack-and-slash derived game-play with an interesting pseudo turn-based combat, and rather unconventional character progression. It has a fantastic art style and phenomenal music score. It is one of the few games in it’s genre that takes place in a Science Fiction setting and includes trans-humanist themes. I highly recommend checking it out for the experience alone.

Cloudbank is a community of artists, performers and other content creators. It is an endless urban sprawl, bathed in a bright glow of neon sighs and street lights in all of the colors of the rainbow. It is a direct democracy that allows it’s citizens to vote on every issue concerning the city. Urban planning, zoning, weather conditions, color of the sky, brightness of the ambient light and street noise level are all customizable according to their whim. Or at least that’s how it used to be, before the citizens lost control of The Process and it started devouring the city from within. What is this Process exactly? Good question, and most likely the first of many.

The narrative of Transistor is intentionally vague and cryptic. It poses more question than it provides answers. Its thematically rich, but economical with it’s exposition. The protagonist is silent (albeit not by choice) and the narrator is unreliable and almost as confused about the situation as the players are. The dialogue avoids information dumps – it is styled as a conversation between parties already “in the know”. The writers feel no need to explain colloquial turns of phrase, idioms and concepts common in the city. As a result the players learn the story of Cloudbank and it’s downfall indirectly – as if they were eavesdropping on people’s conversations.

Welcome to Cloudbank

Welcome to Cloudbank

I have read many different theories about what exactly happens in the game, and all of them seem equally plausible. I highly recommend going into the game blind, and trying to piece the puzzle yourself. That there is no official / cannon explanation as to what happens in the game. Here is my interpretation. Your millage may vary, but that’s the beauty of the story. Your guess is as good as mine.

What is Cloudbank?

The ever-changing city of Cloudbank is actually a virtual world. The official wiki may claim otherwise but I think there are enough clues in the game to support this claim. The city is endlessly reconfigurable, and while a high degree of customization could be accomplished in the real world, there are points in the game where you have to navigate Escher like architecture with inverted gravity and impossible perspective, which are trivial to implement in software but would be monumentally difficult to accomplish in the physical world.

Escher Landscapes

Escher Landscapes

The very fact that Red, the protagonist can use the Teransistor to “pause” the world during combat seems to support this hypothesis. Granted, one could hand wave this as a simple game mechanic, but the turn() function is mentioned in the game lore, and used against Red in the final boss battle. Since Red can be “paused” by another Transistor user we can assume that pausability is an inherent property of the inhabits. And once again, such a feature is easily implemented in software but incredibly difficult to pull off IRL.

Transistor Turn Combat

Transistor Turn Combat

The denizens of Cloudbank have a peculiar euphemism for death: “going to the Country”. Or at least we can assume it means death, based on the context in which it is used. In the final battle, and the post-credit sequence we actually see glimpses of what could be The Country – a realistic wheat field with farm houses and barns in the distance. It is not clear whether this is a real world or some other simulated reality, but it does seem to be separate and disjoint from Cloudbank and people who go there typically do not return.

Going to the Country

Going to the Country

The final boss battle takes place in a wheat field full of strange silos called Trace Banks. During the turn() sequences each of the silos appears to contain a humanoid silhouette. Attempting to interact with the silos reveals they contain Traces of most of the named characters in the game, including Red. A popular theory claims that this landscape is a visualization of the the internal state of the Transistor. Each of the Trace Banks is a memory bank used to store one of the functions Red integrated into her weapon. Personally however, I like to think that this is a glimpse at the outside world.

Transistor Final Battle

Transistor Final Battle

Perhaps the final stage is not a visualization of the internal state of the Transistor but rather a hardware layer visualization of the Cloudbank itself. Perhaps this field contains the traces of every citizen. Perhaps the wheat field is there to symbolically link this virtual layer to the real world, and remind the users they are now operating at a lower level of abstraction. Perhaps the silos represent real world containers that store physical bodies of the denizens of Cloudbank?

I do not believe the final battle happens in the real world, due to the turn sequence still being in effect. However, I do like to think that the last glimpse we have of Red is from the outside of the system.

What is the Process?

The Process is described as the background functions that were used to shape the city. The most interesting bit of information about it probably comes from the in game file on Royce Bracket:

He discovered a formula visualizing exactly how the structures of Cloudbank formed. He studied this formula closely for it filled him with a deep sense of wonder and even deeper sense of dread. He developed predictive algorithms to determine where and when the visualization would take form, and began drawing it out with his own architectural plans, until one day he found it in its natural state. He saw beyond the confines of the city into something more, and there before him was something extraordinary. He took it, and realized the things he saw now stood at his call.

I have read a theory that claims that The Process is some sort of alien entity from a reality parallel to that of Cloudbank. Personally, I think it’s actually something more trivial, and at the same time more complex. The Process is the emergent property of the city itself. Royce discovered a pattern in the Cloudbak’s self tuning, self improving background processes: something akin to limited artificial intelligence.

What is the Transistor?

The Transistor is often refereed to as a “brush” that can be used to freely reshape the Cloudbank landscape. It is a tool for controlling The Process which are the background maintenance programs. It was used by Royce, the city’s chief architect, to reconfigure and build according to the whims of the citizens.

The Transistor

The Transistor

The Camerata was also using it to tap the talent of the prominent thinkers, performers and artists. This was done by “integrating” their Trace. It is never really explained what exactly is a trace: all we know that when someone dies in Cloudbank the Transistor can be used to extract it from their body. The Trace is not fully sentient, but does contain memories and skills of it’s host.

In the final battle, the Traces of all the characters who have been “integrated” are missing heads, suggesting they are no longer active agents. Their conscious being has likely been transferred out of the Cloudbank – they have “gone to the Country”, or in other words awoken in the real world. What is left is basically a left-over, digital copy of their mind. By loading this data into the Transistor Camerata was making the skills and talents of the deceased available to The Process.

What was the goal of Camerata?

The actual goal of Camerata is a bit unclear, but it appears that they were weary of the constantly changing nature of the city. Their motto was:

When everything changes, nothing changes.

At the surface this is a contradictory statement. But to experienced world builders, game designers or dungeon masters this statement does ring true. An environment without some sort of permanence begins to feel as lacking substance after a while. While having ability to fully customize your environment can be incredibly rewarding (see Minecraft phenomenon), it is the permanence of your alterations is what imbues them with meaning and allows you to take pride in creating them. Customization by committee where each change is momentary, ephemeral and dictated by fickle trends and fashion create a highly unstable environment. When constant change becomes the norm, it is hard to be surprised by it.

Camerata

Camerata

While beauty, substance and meaning can be found in impermanent and ephemeral (consider sand Mandala for example), there is a certain kind of gravitas and presence that can only be experienced when dealing with something old, immutable and lasting. This is something the Camerata felt was missing in Cludbank. Grant Kendrell’s grand plan was to use The Process to introduce some sort of permanence into the city design. More than that, it would be something emergent, unplanned and unexpected.

Royce discovered The Process and was studying how it can anticipate, predict and improve upon city building subroutines. Grant Kendrell suggested seeding it with the Traces of the city’s most prominent artists, architects and performers and then let it loose. The end result would be the city rebuilt and re-imagined in unpredictable ways but keeping with the spirit of the old. It would not be the city the people of Cloudbank wanted, but one they deserved.

But something when wrong when they tried to integrate Red. The Process went rogue, and they have lost control over it. The Transistor somehow changed ownership from Royce to Red but seemingly without granting her access to the full admin interface.

What happened at the end?

As mentioned above, the Transistor is a root / admin interface to Coudbank environmental controls. It seems that only a single user can wield it while inside the Coudbank. Returning it to the cradle initiates a system reboot of sorts. If there are multiple Cloudbank users who want to take control of the Transistor they can fight for it in the simulated wheat field battleground. The loser of the battle is presumably expelled from the Cludbank reality and awakes in The Country. The winner is re-inserted into a rebooted Cloudbank with full admin rights, which is why Red is able to use The Transistor as a “reality brush” in the final sequence.

Red’s partner’s signature function is breach() and it is possible that this is what caused the system glitch. The Camerata was trying to integrate Red for her voice, but he intervened and was integrated himself. As all victims of the Camerata he has likely awoken in The Country. However, his signature skill allowed his trace to breach (buffer overflow?) out of the containment bank in the Transistor and merge with the software running the weapon, which is how he is able to talk to Red throughout the game.

End Sequence

End Sequence

He becomes part of The Process, which is why he has hard time thinking when The Spine is around. Unlike regular Cloudbank users who have reserved, guaranteed memory and CPU cycles, he runs as a background process and must share resources with all the environmental controls. So when a gigantic monster of a process is running near by, there is simply not enough resources to go around. Red can function normally, because as a user she is executed with higher priority.

When Red is unable to use the Transistor to resurrect her partner at the end of the game, she realizes she has been talking to his Trace. The consciousness inside the weapon is not her lover, but rather the best approximation of him, based on his trace as performed by The Process. He can’t be extracted and restored to a user status, because he is merely a background work process. A sentient one, but a background process nevertheless.

Red Logs Out

Red Logs Out

This is why Red opts to log out. And it seems that in Cloudbank the most expedient way to do this is via a suicide. The credits sequence seems to suggest that she is reunited with her partner in The Country.

At least that’s how I see it. How about you? Do you think Cloudbank is a virtual city, or does it exist in the real world? Is The Process pure software, extra-dimensional alien life form, or something else entirely? What do you think was the goal of Camerata? Let me know in the comments.

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Midas Flesh

Do you ever have those weird 4am conversations where you try to apply half remembered science to pop culture or folk stories? Like for example what happens to conservation of mass when Megatron transforms into a handgun? Or how real life dragons wouldn’t be able to actually generate enough lift to fly? Midas Flesh is pretty much exactly that: one of those “deep conversations” turned into a comic form. Or rather, an advanced iteration of turning that particular thought into comics.

You see, Ryan North already drew a comic about what would really happen if King Midas was real, and his foolish wish actually came true in a universe with actual real physics. He published those musings in his (rather popular) online comic strip Dinosaur Comics:

Dinosaur Comics

Original source: Dinosaur Comics #1355

By itself, this was merely an amusing idea – King Midas’s power being not just unfortunate punishment, but rather an unstop able, planet killing, civilization ending cataclysm. North kept toying with this idea after the web comic was done. Imagine, for example that some time after King Midas killed his home world, some extra-terrestrial civilization finds this planet sized gold nugget. What would they do with such a discovery? Would they use it for good or for evil?

This is precisely the plot of Midas Flesh. A galactic empire known as Federation discovers a mysterious planet that transmutes anything that touches it’s surface into solid gold. Unable to figure out the science behind the miracle, they decide that this discovery is deemed too dangerous to be made public. All mentions of the planet are expunged from official records, and military defense satellite array is installed in orbit to deter potential passers by from landing.

Few decades pass, and a small group of young political dissidents find information about it. Since each of them has a long list of grievances against the oppressive Federation regime they decide to find the planet and try to weaponize it somehow. It’s not that they are bad people, or are having some sort of Weyland-Yutani corporate greed episode. They are simply marginalized folks from conquered worlds, seeking a miraculous weapon that could help them defeat a powerful enemy against impossible odds.

Midas Flesh

Midas Flesh – First Encounter

This could have easily been a story of three white dudes. Or two white dudes, and a token action chick wearing skin-tight combat suit as it is often the case with these sort of concept driven SF stories. But it is not. The protagonists are two women, and a nerdy talking dinosaur. Because, of course, what else you would expect from a Ryan North story. To be completely fair however, the reptilian science geek is actually the least interesting of the three.

My favorite character is probably Fatima who happens to be a dark skinned Muslim woman who rocks a hijab, even under her space helmet. I love her design because it is a breath of fresh air – it’s just not something you see every day. In fact, I can’t remember last time I have seen a SF story which featured a female protagonist wearing a head scarf. Which is weird because I know several women who wear it IRL, but I never see it represented in the media. I can’t emphasize how bizarre it is that talking dinosaurs are more common in SF than Muslim women.

Midas Flesh Protagonists

Midas Flesh Protagonists

The great thing about Fatima is that she is not defined by the hijab. It is never even explicitly mentioned or refereed to. She is funny, spunky, outgoing person with a big heart and a very strong moral compass. She is a social butterfly who easily connects with people and has friends and acquaintances within Federation power structures even while she is working to overthrow it.

The group’s leader, Joey, is a pretty cool character too. She is the kind of strong, confident person who can make hard decision, give difficult orders and take on full responsibility for the fallout. Where Fatima acts as the teams conscience, unwilling to compromise her morals, Joey is practical leader ready to choose lesser of two evils if necessary.

Cooper, the aforementioned dinosaur is mostly game for anything. His quest against the Federation is the most personal one. He has lost most of the trio and he is motivated by vengeance at some level. Despite being overall friendly goofball, he is ready to use the Midas flesh as a deadly weapon if it helps the team to achieve their goal.

Compared to the heroes, the antagonist is a rather bland, military bureaucrat who turns into full blown, mustache twirling super-villain the moment he lays his hands on the miraculous super-weapon:

Antagonist Antics

Antagonist Antics

Fortunately, his antics are mostly peripheral to the main story. Most of the tension in the comic is derived from how the three protagonists come to terms with the deadly properties of the Midas flesh, and how they negotiate whether or not it is appropriate for them to use it. Which is a really interesting question: if you find a highly unstable weapon that can destroy an entire planet, should you use against your enemy? What if said enemy invaded and occupied your home world for decades? Would you keep it as a defensive measure? How would you ensure your allies don’t abuse it at some point in the future?

Despite being united by common plight and animosity towards the Federation, the protagonists do not see eye to eye on most of these subjects. They don’t even agree whether or not it is appropriate to deploy Midas flesh in self defense against a Federation battleship. This sort of character driven conflict is where Midas Flesh shines.

Deploying Midas Flesh

Deploying Midas Flesh Offensively

All things considered, Midas Flesh is worth checking out. The characters are great, the writing is witty and the art style is unconventional and evocative. The ending is a little weak, but personally I have no clue how I would end it either. So while it is underwhelming, it does not take away much from the core story.

Even if you don’t love it, it is only eight issues long. Comixology sells each issue for about $2 which is pretty affordable. It is published by Boom Box! which unlike Image Comics does not let Comixology offer CBR/PDF backups. So if you buy it through that service it does come encumbered with DRM and tied to the proprietary Comixology platform.

Posted in comics | Tagged | 3 Comments