Cylons don’t use Backups

There are two storytelling crutches that often come into play to “hand wave” over some plot inconsistencies or explain something odd and unusual. One of them is called magic, and the other one is called technology. They are both used as explanations of improbable and impossible events which are supposed to help the viewers suspend their disbelief.

It is usually very easy to make viewers accept magical events. All you have to do is to make up some magical system and say “this is just how magic works in this mystical world”. After all, we don’t have magic in the real world, so we might as well go with it. As long as the rules governing this magical system seem logical, consistent within the story, and do not contradict themselves it is easy for us to accept it.

Technology tends to be used the same way. Unfortunately, unlike magic we are pretty good at science. A lot of viewers have scientific degrees and at the very lest, most people took a science class or two in school. So if you start bending and contradicting laws of physics, we can easily call you on it. When you introduce a futuristic technology it must not only be consistent, but also plausible. Of course if you are blatant enough about it, and make it obvious you don’t even pretend to be using “real science” you end up in the same realm as magic. For example Lightsabers are so far fetched that we just accept them even though it would be impossible to construct them. Same goes for various methods that allow spaceships to travel faster than light. We all know it’s impossible, but we agree on this convention because it makes the story more interesting. These devices have no scientific basis for them so they are really nothing more but techno-magic. But closer you show us something that looks and acts just like existing real world technology, we will sort-of expect it continue working within the same limitations and in the same way.

Having a degree in Computer Science and working in IT for a long time doesn’t help me suspend my disbelief when writers try to include technology in their stories without actually bothering to understand how it works in the real world. Usually any movie or show that features “hackers” or computer security experts and etc.. makes me roll my eyes so hard, and so often that it actually hurts. :P Science Fiction often doesn’t cause as much eye strain for me – often because it’s usually pretty good about portraying science and technology in plausible way. Still, every once in a while even hard SF or Space Operas manage to drop the ball and annoy me with inane or poorly researched and thought out “future tech”.

For example, let’s take one of my all time favorites – Battlestar Galactica. The Cylon resurrection system that is an important part of the story has been pissing me off for a while now. I don’t have a problem with the system itself but it is portrayed as having an inherent flaw that more than once was used as a plot device. It’s just that the flaw is ridiculous, and it is almost inconceivable that no one ever worked out a countermeasure for it. Any engineer or sysadmin would ask two questions during his first visit to a Cylon resurrection shop – “how do you do backups?” and “What is the emergency restore procedure to the when a unit fails away from the ship without having a chance to transmit the latest state?”. Sad part is that it seems that no one ever thought about that.

For those of you who haven’t watched the series let me explain.

In the BSG universe, when an individual Cylon dies his or her consciousness is instantaneously transferred into a vat grown spare body which is kept on a specialized, well protected Resurrection Ship. The transmission seems to be instant, and happens at the exact moment of death but this process seems to have a limited range. This is why every Cylon fleet takes at least one Resurrection Ship with them wherever it goes. So far, so good – I don’t have a problem with that – in fact it is a pretty good system. Personally, I’d have a resurrection chamber on each Base Star and turn it into a distributed system, but I guess growing new bodies requires space and resources so centralizing this function is not such a bad idea.

The show however came up with an interesting idea. Want to truly kill your Cylon enemies in a way that prevents them from ever coming back? It’s easy as pie. All you have to do is to destroy the local Resurrection Ship and then simply do your thing. Yep, it’s that easy. Imagine being a Cylon and having to deal with that. If you accidentally die 10 feed beyond the range of the closest R-ship then BOOM! Permadeath! Your near immortality is over.

The sysadmin part of me reels in horror after hearing this. Who designs systems like this? What we have here is a permanent, irrecoverable data loss happening every time an expendable and temporary shell for your AI expires beyond the range of your wireless network. Thats is a criminally stupid design flaw – and one which could be easily fixed! Didn’t these people hear about backups?

Let’s think about it – the transmission of consciousness is almost instant. We have seen it on the show many times. Old body dies, and the Cylon wakes up in a vat of goo almost instantly. This tells me that it takes only a split second to send given Cylon’s memories and personality back to the resurrection ship, and few more seconds to actually upload it to a spare body. Since they are able to do this at all I think it is indisputable that heir consciousness can be fully digitized. There is this notion out there that digitizing human consciousness will never be possible because there is actually more to it than a mapping of neural connections and distribution of electric charges. I don’t know whether or not this is true, but obviously Cylon psyche can be transmitted digitally without any problems. If you can digitize something, you can back it up to permanent storage.

In other words, if Cylons have technology to upload the transmitted consciousness to a vat grown body, then they absolutely must have a technology to temporarily or permanently store this data on some sort of media. I mean it is a prerequisite – before you can put the consciousness in a body, you have to be able to store it somewhere. In fact, I imagine that the Resurrection Ships must be buffering these transmissions in some way before they do the body uploads.

For example, what happens if a Base Star is destroyed? Now you have instantaneous transmission from hundreds if not thousand Cylons streaming down from the wreckage, probably on the same frequency. What happens if the vats are not ready? What if there is a temporary power outage in the vat room? What if the prepared bodies turn out to be defective and need to be discarded? What if the transmission comes in with potential errors caused by outside interference? It’s just simple engineering concerns – you need to have a buffer which will hold the upload until the body is ready. Otherwise you would often miss the window of opportunity and consciousness transfers would simply get lost in space for silly reasons. Not to mention the need to check for transmission errors. It would be a pity to see a Cylon emerge from a vat half-retarded because the post-death transmission included static noise that could have been easily removed in some pre-processing CRC check.

So, if they are processing and buffering the signal there is no reason why they couldn’t just dump it into storage for safe keeping. What is the difference between storing it in memory for 20 seconds and saving it in storage for 3 days? Well, main difference is that the latter is cheaper than the former on all counts – at least by current technology standards.

So why not do a daily backup? Or even hourly incremental backup for that matter? Or even a continuous rolling sync to the R-Ship storage since it seems the consciousness transfer is almost instant? If the Resurrection Ship kept the “last good copy” of each Cylons consciousness then instead of permanent death, a stranded Cylon would simply loose last few hours or days of his/her life. If you would make Resurrection Ships sync up their backup data on regular basis, you now have a highly efficient distributed system that offers you virtual immortality. Permadeath would only be possible if someone would manage to track down all the Resurrection Ships with the copy of your consciousness.

I’ll go even further – why not allow Cylons to make emergency backups to personal storage they could then stow away in a safe place. Drop a thumb drive in a safe deposit box on Caprica before going on an important mission and you can be restored even if your whole fleet was wiped out.

So yeah, I don’t buy the whole “Oh noes, where is the R-ship? If we die now we die FOR REALS!” I just refuse to believe that a race of sophisticated intelligent machines would neglect something as important and basic as backups. It is a small thing, but it bugs the hell out of me.

[tags]bsg, battlestar galactica, cylons, backups, resurrection ship[/tags]

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14 Responses to Cylons don’t use Backups

  1. Teague UNITED STATES Internet Explorer Windows says:

    The only nitpick about your rant is that I don’t remember anything stating that the resurrections were that quick. Sometimes they cut right to it, but who knows how much time actually passed? Maybe the process isn’t as “clean” as would be backing up a hard drive. Remember how Lucy Lawless’ character was killing herself over and over to see the final 5, and it was getting more and more painful/difficult? They are essentially cloning the same material over and over, and the whole degradation over many iterations thing has been brought up many times in many ways in sci-fi with respect to cloning. Maybe that’s going on here, too?

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  2. gooli ISRAEL Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    They do actually. I clearly remember the last episode mentioning that the three’s were in cold storage and there was some argument about bringing them back to life. That means they do have the means to store consciousness, they just don’t use it in the way you’re suggesting.

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  3. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    [quote post="2405"]Sometimes they cut right to it, but who knows how much time actually passed? Maybe the process isn’t as “clean” as would be backing up a hard drive.[/quote]

    True, but then why not make a snapshot and save it in storage every time your consciousness is sent to the R-Ship. This way, you could at least roll yourself back to the last time you died. You would lose months or even years, but that is still better than permadeath.

    Plus, it would allow cylons to roll themselves back to the previous “state” if they experienced something traumatic. For example, Boomer could choose to roll herself back to a clean pre-invasion state to forget the trauma of realizing her nature and then betraying her people.

    [quote post="2405"]They are essentially cloning the same material over and over, and the whole degradation over many iterations thing has been brought up many times in many ways in sci-fi with respect to cloning.[/quote]

    I actually never understood the whole degradation over generations deal. I think that is an old, old SF convention from the time before the human genome project. If you know the exact DNA sequence there is no reason why it would degenerate with each generation baring a faulty process or lack of verification.

    You do make yourself vulnerable from an evolutionary point of view (ie. you are not developing immunities to new diseases and etc..) but your clone should still be in perfect condition unless, as I said, your cloning process sucks and you do not get perfect copies each time, or if you are conning from last iteration rather than from the original each time.

    I think the difficulty #3 alluded to was purely psychological one. I’d think that killing yourself repeatedly would do a number on your head no matter who you are. But I might be wrong.

    [quote post="2405"]I clearly remember the last episode mentioning that the three’s were in cold storage and there was some argument about bringing them back to life. That means they do have the means to store consciousness, they just don’t use it in the way you’re suggesting.[/quote]

    Actually I thought that they were simply keeping them unconscious in cryo-stasis. But if they do keep consciousness separately in storage, then that’s just another argument to support my nitpick.

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  4. Aaron UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    Maybe it isn’t a technological question and more of a “spiritual” one. When you are able to download your mind into a different type of hardware, it is the same as cloning yourself in the real world.

    People have issues with cloning in the real world for moral and religious reasons, so it seems that they would have a problem with cloning someone’s mind.

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Well it could be a religion thing. I mean, they do have that whole religious thing going on so perhaps backups are forbidden? Kinda silly, but then again, which religion doesn’t have this type of odd prohibitions that have no practical and scientific basis.

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  6. vacri AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    maybe the cylons can’t make backups due to DRM?

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  7. Tino GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Covering for what other people consider as plot holes is a bit of a hobby of mine :). So here we go:

    Could it be that the technology to read off a mind for transmission would be fatal if done while the Cyclon were alive? Hence, there goes the idea of doing backups.

    There also is all kinds of funky stuff at the quantum level. Look up the ‘no cloning theorem’ at Wikipedia. Basically, if the Cyclon mind is composed by ‘quantum states’ it may be physically impossible to backup them; whereas it still is possible to transfer them.

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  8. James Heaver UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    What if the transfer of the backup from the cylon mind is a destructive procedure?

    That the cylon’brain cells’ are destroyed as they are being digitised.

    This wouldn’t matter if the cylon is dieing since, well, they’re dieing. It would account for the cyclons not making precautionary brain dumps.

    Anyway, do we know that the cylons store data, and particularly data this complicated digitaly? Could there not be a technical restriction to the cyclon backups that require them to be kept ‘active’ at all times, they can only be stored in RAM, not written to disk. Some kind of quantum, or holographic storage?

    Perhaps being stored in RAM – active but not alive – is what is painful to the cyclons. If so then you wouldn’t want to store backups for longer than is neccersary to restore to a clone.

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  9. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    [quote post="2405"]Basically, if the Cyclon mind is composed by ‘quantum states’ it may be physically impossible to backup them; whereas it still is possible to transfer them.[/quote]

    Oh wow.. Good theory. I totally didn’t think about that. I’m pretty sure the writers didn’t think of it like that, but I’ll buy it. :)

    Also, transferring quantum states is (if I remember correctly) pretty reliable and safe from background interference or other “noise” type disruption which would mean error checking would not be as necessary as I thought.

    [quote post="2405"]Perhaps being stored in RAM – active but not alive – is what is painful to the cyclons. If so then you wouldn’t want to store backups for longer than is neccersary to restore to a clone.[/quote]

    Hmm… I didn’t think they would be aware of being stored this way, but perhaps you are right as the Cylon tech seems to be largely organic.

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  10. Guest UNITED STATES Safari Mac OS says:

    Two questions:

    1. Assuming a back-up process as you suggest, let’s say you’re a cylon out on a long-range solo mission. You die beyond the range of the resurrection ship. Who would know? And how would the resurrection ship or the other cylons know to put the back-up into a new body? Seems like that would only work if you died in the presence of others, and they survived as well.

    2. Bigger picture is the idea of “consciousness” versus “soul.” A central part of the BSG subplot is about whether or not Cylons have a soul. If they do, it does not seem possible to keep a back-up copy of ones soul. A copy of memories, experiences, yes. But the soul? A soul indicates a connection to something beyond oneself, and therefore does not seem like it could be copied — especially since the cylons (or even humans for that matter) don’t have an understanding of what a soul really is. How do you make a back-up copy of something you can’t define, detect or understand? Perhaps they did indeed try a back-up plan, but it kept failing for that reason?

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  11. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Very good points – both of them.

    Regarding the first issue – this is an interesting question in itself. If backup of ones consciousness was possible what would we do with “missing persons”. Do you resurrect them or not?

    I guess this would be a legal matter. Most jurisdictions have some guidelines for dealing with missing persons property. After enough time elapsed, and the person is believed to be dead but no body of proof of death can be found, whoever holds the power of attorney over the estate of the missing person could make the decision about resurrection.

    I like your explanations almost as much as the quantum stuff from above. :)

    Also, depending on the nature of backups it could be possible to merge two personalities that became disjointed due to a premature resurrection. Then again, question is whether or not it is ethical, or if anyone would actually agree to such merge.

    The other question is more difficult – can soul be digitized. Good question – it depends on how we define soul. If it is indeed some mystical, spiritual factor of consciousness that cannot be measured or quantified by science then no.

    Then there is that whole thing about artificial beings having souls. Is soul a unique property of living beings? Can soul be acquired by any sentient being at the point of their awakening to consciousness? Can a fully artificial, but sentient and conscious machine have soul? Theologists and philosophers have been battling over this for ages.

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  12. ikaruga UNITED STATES Konqueror SuSE Linux says:

    Seriously, dude, I think you’re thinking way too hard on this. It’s television — that is, mindless entertainment. If you want to think, get a PhD. You’re ruining the show for yourself.

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  13. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Nah. Watching Familly Guy or Robot Chicken is mindless entertainment. I expect science fiction and drama shows to be intellectually stimulating. :)

    Besides, over analyzing TV shows is fun. :)

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  14. Teague UNITED STATES Internet Explorer Windows says:

    Apparently, over analyzing blog posts is fun, too. ;)

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