Matrix Musings

The Matrix movies usually have a special place in hearths of most of us geeks. They are peculiar breed because they get so much stuff right, and so much stuff wrong about computers at the same time. Let me give you some examples here. In one of the movies there is a scene where trinity hacks into the mainframe controlling a power plant using npap and an old ssh exploit:

trinity-nmapscreen.jpg

How awesome is that? Someone in Hollywood actually went out of their way, hired a technology consultant and got “hacking” right. This in itself is enough to overlook many flaws of the movie trilogy.

Then there is that whole “I’m so fucking 1337 I can read the scrolling matrix code” thing you see over and over and over again:

matrix.jpg

No you cannot. No one can. Even if the code was meaningful – for example hexadecimal memory dumps (which it’s not) you would not be able to read it because:

  1. It scrolls way to fast for even reading English text
  2. It scrolls vertically – how well can you read vertical scrolling text?
  3. The columns overlap each other
  4. It doesn’t seem to have any structure or organization to it
  5. No one reads debugger output in real time – you stop the execution and step through it one instruction at a time

So they get the hacking right, but fail at a simple thing like – I don’t know – reading code. Still, the matrix “code” is a cool effect, and I still use it as a screen saver.

Random anecdote time: one day I was sitting at my desk and hacking away on some laptop – probably removing spyware or something like that (ah the joys of IT work). Since I wasn’t using my own computer, it went to screen saver which is the scrolling matrix code. A coworker was passing by and was like “Woha! What is that?!”.

“Matrix screen saver” I explained. He looked disappointed.
“Oh… I thought you were programming or something like that” he mumbled, and left the stage before I was able to go all *facepalm* on him. I mean, it’s like a compound double fail. One fail for not recognizing matrix code. Second fail for thinking this is how programming looks like.

I actually had people argue with me that reading the matrix code thing is plausible to which I usually respond by challenging them to try reading it. “Oh, I can’t do it but if you were really good at it like the guys in the movie you could totally pull it off!” Sigh…

We were reflecting on this the other day, and started ripping the movies apart. There is actually more wrong in them than right stuff. For example, I never understood why you can’t just disconnect people from the Matrix feed while they are on the inside. After all, that’s exactly what they did to Neo in the first movie. They interrupted his signal, got him unplugged and then fished him out of the sewage. And yet, when the freed people go back into matrix they need to reach an exit point to get out.

I mean, I understand why the Wachowski brothers designed it that way. It was for dramatic effect! This way they were free to include many exciting chase scenes in the movie. Because of this weird rule Morpheus was able to be be trapped inside the matrix and the heroes could have mounted the memorable, daring rescue operation while their ship was being ripped apart by the squid robots. That’s some damn good, nail-biting, edge of your seat shit right there.

But, it’s a bit silly if you think about it. Why do you need to fine an old fashioned phone to exit the matrix? There is really no logical reason I can think of that would require this. You should be able to disconnect wherever and whenever you want. Matrix runners should be able to do this “Oh shit, agents! Disconnect me!” But, that would not make for a very exciting movie.

I don’t know – maybe there is some official lore that explains it. I’m not that much into the Matrix universe to know about it though. I watched the 3 movies, I finished that one video game and saw bits and pieces of Animatrix though I never sat down and watched the whole ting in one sitting.

Of course the biggest question here is, why does the matrix exist at all? If machines are using humans as chemical batteries, then what use do they have for our minds? Wouldn’t it just be easier to lobotomize humans at birth? Just severely damage the frontal lobes while leaving the more primitive areas of the brain responsible for maintaining basic bodily functions, intact. Now you have nice, comatose batteries that do not need an expensive virtual reality simulation to support them, and won’t attempt to escape and rebel against you.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the whole “reality is just an illusion” angle. It is a great trope, that dates back to gnosticism. It’s just that the explanation is a little weak, and can be taken apart. Unless of course you buy into that whole convoluted explanation about the symbiosis between humans and machines, and how they needed the “Chosen One” to defeat the rogue Agent Smith. Of course Smith went haywire after Neo discombobulated him in the first movie.

In the comments we tell Matrix related anecdotes, and try to rationalize the weaknesses in the Wachowski brother’s universe! Go!

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20 Responses to Matrix Musings

  1. Nathan UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    ‘Matrix code’ actually consists of Japanese characters, primarily katakana, mirrored so as to be less immediately recognizable. Presumably it scrolls vertically because Japanese text is traditionally read top-to-bottom, right-to-left. Near as I can tell, even if you were to sound out the characters to try and “read” it, you would wind up with gibberish.

    I don’t think the hackers in the Matrix are doing actual debugging; I would guess that they’re monitoring the system as it’s running, looking for gross abnormalities (which presumably they would be trained enough to recognize). When I’m doing work, I’m occasionally looking at diagnostic text flying by in a console window. I couldn’t tell you what all was happening at a line-by-line level, but if something went wrong I can spot it, halt the readout, and figure out what happened.

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  2. Steve CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Back to your question about the way they have to exit the Matrix. Even if you make allowances for dramatic effect, I always wondered just WHAT picking that phone up did? Pass your consciousness back to your body via some style of modem sound tones? If that was the case, why did it have to be landlined? They were running around with cellphones…couldn’t they have used cellular signals to pull someone out? Or were those too “exposed” to the machines?

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

    @Nathan: Ok, good point. I guess it would probably be possible to see events such as arrival of the agents by just looking at the feed. I’d assume that these guys would have very funky, peculiar signatures and you could probably spot them coming or transferring bodies pretty easily.

    That whole “oh, check it out – this is a blonde, this is a brunette” thing doesn’t seem as likely.

    @Steve: Exactly! Why does it need to be a land line? What’s wrong with the cell phone.

    Furthermore, I believe in one of the chase scenes the operator “inserts” a door on the wall for Neo when he runs into a dead end. Couldn’t they just “inject” a phone at any given location and use that?

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  4. Ian Clifton UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Maybe connecting to the Matrix removes your consciousness and converts it into a program that can be inserted into the Matrix. The program can then go all crazy, doing whatever it does, but to get out you have to have direct access to the program, which a land line represents…. yeah, that’s a pretty weak though. I mean, if they could directly access the Matrix to add and change things as they wanted, why even go “in” at all?

    Maybe we’re looking too deeply into it. It could just be that the humans aren’t very good with computers (and that’s the real reason they stare at the Matrix code; they couldn’t get the GUI to work). The phone represents Windows Explorer and the only way the operators know how to access anything in the Matrix.

    Perhaps they don’t alter human (brain) development because that would drop us from 1.5V to 1.1V, which is too low for their systems. Then again, I think that’s what Dreamhost uses to power their servers….

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

    [quote post="2824"]Perhaps they don’t alter human (brain) development because that would drop us from 1.5V to 1.1V, which is too low for their systems. Then again, I think that’s what Dreamhost uses to power their servers…. [/quote]

    LOL! This can be read on more than one level:

    a.) Dreamhost uses 1.1V batteries to run their servers
    b.) Dreamhost uses humans with lobotomized brains to run their servers
    c.) All of the above

    Also, how would you “remove consciousness and convert it into a program?” That would involve copying your consciousness in-silico – and I’m pretty sure we already established that this counts as “twinning”. (Search for the “Consciousness Interruption” post – to lazy to link to it now.) Which means now there is two of you and if you somehow erase or overwrite the biological self you are essentially dying a real death.

    So each time you connect to the matrix you die, then a copy of you – which is not you wakes up in the matrix. Then that copy dies, and another copy (which is neither of you two) wakes up in your body. I think Occam and his razor wouldn’t be very happy about this.

    It’s just easier to assume that when you connect to the Matrix the I/O port in the back of your head simply overrides the signals that come from your body. So I guess suffering severe trauma in the Matrix could send your body into shock and possibly be lethal if you didn’t disconnect and seek medical attention or just rest.

    I guess abruptly disconnecting from the matrix would be a bit of a shock too – maybe give you a nasty headache or “Matrix Hangover” – still, I do not understand why the phone line.

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  6. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I wonder if the energy output of a human is worth the input required to keep the human alive.

    Human creation: growing a human seems like a cloning process.
    Basic nutrition: the dead is liquefied to be fed intravenously to the living.
    Running the matrix: the whole illusionary world surely requires some sort of super mainframe for millions of people to connect to.

    These activities must be super efficient!

    There also seem to be a lot of electrical activity in the sky. Why not just harness that?

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  7. Ian Clifton UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    [quote comment="11574"]LOL! This can be read on more than one level:

    a.) Dreamhost uses 1.1V batteries to run their servers
    b.) Dreamhost uses humans with lobotomized brains to run their servers
    c.) All of the above[/quote]
    Well, the batteries run the servers from the electrical standpoint. The degenerate humans run the servers from the sysadmin standpoint. So, like always, C is correct.

    [quote comment="11574"]So each time you connect to the matrix you die, then a copy of you – which is not you wakes up in the matrix. Then that copy dies, and another copy (which is neither of you two) wakes up in your body. I think Occam and his razor wouldn’t be very happy about this.[/quote]
    Isn’t that how the transporters in Star Trek work? If it works in one fictional universe, it can work in any ;)

    [quote comment="11578"]I wonder if the energy output of a human is worth the input required to keep the human alive.[/quote]
    Yeah, that part (among others, obviously) always seemed seriously flawed to me.

    [quote comment="11578"]There also seem to be a lot of electrical activity in the sky. Why not just harness that?[/quote]
    They’re too busy making out the welfare checks to the squidy mom… she’s like that octuplets lady.

    If the sun was shut out, pretty near all of the plants died. I hope not too many people gasped as that happened or they might have run out of oxygen ;)

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  8. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Ian Clifton: LOL! I didn’t think of that plants bit. I want more plot-holes! More!

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

    [quote post="2824"]Isn’t that how the transporters in Star Trek work? If it works in one fictional universe, it can work in any[/quote]

    Well, I’m not a big Star Trek fan to begin with. Also, I guess you could argue that if their transporters work based on quantum entanglement so your consciousness could possibly be transferred. I don’t know – maybe.

    [quote post="2824"]I wonder if the energy output of a human is worth the input required to keep the human alive.[/quote]

    I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be. I don’t have the numbers to support this but I really think that we do require more input energy than we output thermally. I mean, think about it – we use the calories we eat for much more than just heat generation. In fact we do have a pretty good thermal regulation system that ensures that our bodies do stay at constant temperature most of the time. A lot of the energy is used up in maintenance processes that replace old cells, grow new ones and etc. Some of it is converted to kinetic energy and any extras are stored in fat tissues for future use. So it would be a net loss for the machines.

    I really think they could get much, much better net energy output with simple chemical batteries which get much closer to a 1:1 ratio.

    [quote post="2824"]If the sun was shut out, pretty near all of the plants died. I hope not too many people gasped as that happened or they might have run out of oxygen[/quote]

    Not only that, but this kind of perpetual night is what we call a Nuclear Winter. So the charred wasteland around the machine city would probably be covered in snow and ice. Unless of course they are boiling off the snow to recycle the oxygen to keep the humans live. Which would again be grossly energy inefficient.

    [quote post="2824"]There also seem to be a lot of electrical activity in the sky. Why not just harness that? [/quote]

    Very good point. I bet you could somehow tap into that energy.

    Also, it seems that it was pretty trivial to get above that cloud layer. Neo was able to “jump” above with a ship that was designed to travel underground and used magnetic repulsion pads for propulsion.

    I think it would be trivial for the machines to build bunch of zeppelin type floaters and then deploy them above the clouds to collect solar energy. They could also use stuff like floating wind turbines which we already have now.

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  10. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I think I just realized that once machines become sentient and self-aware, like humans, they also seem to become dumb, like, er, humans. :P

    Hmm.. Did I just correlate sentience and self-awareness with stupidity?

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  11. astine UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    Since I wasn’t using my own computer, it went to screen saver which is the scrolling matrix code. A coworker was passing by and was like “Woha! What is that?!”.

    “Matrix screen saver” I explained. He looked disappointed.
    “Oh… I thought you were programming or something like that” he mumbled, and left the stage before I was able to go all *facepalm* on him. I mean, it’s like a compound double fail. One fail for not recognizing matrix code. Second fail for thinking this is how programming looks like.

    Remember a story on the Daily WTF where a biologist saw a Matrix screensaver on one of simulation computers in his lab and asked the coder a similar question. The coder responded that he didn’t see the code anymore and only saw things like blond or redhead. The biologist never caught on apparently.

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  12. astine UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    [quote comment="11578"]I wonder if the energy output of a human is worth the input required to keep the human alive.

    Human creation: growing a human seems like a cloning process.
    Basic nutrition: the dead is liquefied to be fed intravenously to the living.
    Running the matrix: the whole illusionary world surely requires some sort of super mainframe for millions of people to connect to.

    These activities must be super efficient!
    [/quote]

    No, of course not. It’s the first law of thermodynamics, no system can output more energy than it receives. The best the machines could hope for in a regime of growing people from scratch and harvesting their energy output (in all forms, including the kinetic energy output though pooping,) is to break even. This is assuming that the process requires is absolutely efficient and that every energetic output is gathered.

    In practice, our electrical output is only a small subset of the energy needed to keep us alive, so the machines would be operating at a fantastic loss. So, no, there is absolutely no way in hell that the scheme in the movie is sustainable. Until you reach the “combined with a type of fusion” part, at which point, you wonder why they don’t just use the fusion alone. It must be very efficient to fuel this human-growing scheme.

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  13. Tino SWEDEN Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    I don’t have the numbers to support this but I really think that we do require more input energy than we output thermally.

    You seem a bit confused with the physics here. Energy is not created or destroyed. The energy that goes into a human increase the mass of the human until it is later released in some form (thermal, or mechanical, or poop-mass, etc.). The sum exactly adds up, except for the mass that stays inside our body when we grow (well, for people who appreciate finer details, there is supposed to exist a loophole through general relativity, but that is not very relevant here). All “energy production” is energy conversion. One get energy in inconvenient forms (e.g. sunlight) and needs to convert it into convenient forms (e.g. electricity). This is the problem the machines in the Matrix has.

    Hence, there is no sense in arguing “there is no point with this, growing humans cost as much energy as it produces”. The same thing goes for growing crop, or farming animals. Yet, these are activities humanity is engaged in today because we cannot absorb sunlight. We prefer our energy converted to e.g. wheat and meat that we can absorb.

    Now, my take on the movie is that the machines are well equipped at using the energy in human neural signals. Remember, they have evolved from technology developed by humans, and I am sure that at some point in our future it made sense to power e.g., smart computers with our own neural energy.

    Hence, when solar panels did no longer work, this was the energy type the machines were best equipped for using. So they grew humans and constructed the Matrix for extracting neural energy from the grown humans. This “fake world” was needed, because the brains have to be stimulated to exert neural energy. The Matrix is like a gigantic milking machine.

    Of course, I have no references for any of this. It is just my interpretation of what goes on in the movie.

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

    @Tino: Yeah, you are correct – energy is conserved. I believe that the Matrix movies specifically stated that they use thermal output of human bodies as energy source – which would mean that they are not tapping to the kinetic energy, the chemical energy and etc. But maybe I’m confused.

    Still, they probably be at a loss because we do store energy in fat tissues for future use and this energy wouldn’t be easily accessible to the machine – it could be eventually extracted post mortem or by inducing muscle spasms which would then theoretically use the calories stored in fat tissues and output them in the form of kinetic energy.

    The thing with neural signals is that their output would be minuscule compared with what they could get from thermal output alone. But I like your theory.

    Oooh! Maybe it’s like in Hyperion novels where (FALL OF HYPERION SPOILER) the AI were using human brains as their processing medium. So humans are not really batteries but a gigantic distributed cluster running the machine city AI. The matrix is just a simulation that keeps the people occupied and distracted while the machines are using their brain power for processing.

    I wonder if a biological cluster of human minds like that would actually have lower energy requirements than an equivalent cluster constructed with traditional hardware. It probably would.

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  15. astine UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    All “energy production” is energy conversion. One get energy in inconvenient forms (e.g. sunlight) and needs to convert it into convenient forms (e.g. electricity). This is the problem the machines in the Matrix has.

    This would make sense except it doesn’t square with what happens in the movie. If the entire purpose of the matrix is to convert the calories in human tissue into electrical energy, it would have been far more efficient to simply burn people as a fossil fuel.

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  16. Ian Clifton UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Maybe the machines’ AI only got to the point of being a 5-year-old with a magnifying glass, and we’re the ants. The Matrix is really just an elaborate way to screw with us.

    I like the idea of them using our brains as processors. That makes more sense to me and the whole battery idea could be propaganda that they spewed out because we would figure they have plenty of power, so there’s no reason to disconnect (and sacrifice) a bunch of humans. However, if we knew that the brains were being used to process their AI, we would potentially be able to figure out which clusters are most important. Though, if this were the case, it would probably mean that the cycles necessary to run the Matrix are also coming from this brain network. So we’re really screwing ourselves over. Gosh guys, can’t you just pretend my life is the coolest ever for a few minutes?

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  17. Tino SWEDEN Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    [quote comment="11590"]I believe that the Matrix movies specifically stated that they use thermal output of human bodies as energy source – which would mean that they are not tapping to the kinetic energy, the chemical energy and etc. But maybe I’m confused.[/quote]

    I think you are confused, this is what Morpheus actually says: “The human body generates more bio-electricity than a 120-volt battery and over 25,000 BTUs of body heat. Combined with a form of fusion, the machines have found all the energy they would ever need.” I read bio-electricity to mean electricity tapped from our neurons through the Matrix. I think this is the important energy, and that the “BTUs of body heat” are basically only used just like we try to use surplus heat from e.g. reactors for heating homes.

    The thing with neural signals is that their output would be minuscule compared with what they could get from thermal output alone.

    [quote comment="11591"]If the entire purpose of the matrix is to convert the calories in human tissue into electrical energy, it would have been far more efficient to simply burn people as a fossil fuel.[/quote]

    Are you sure?

    First: Burning humans and converting the heat to electricity works well enough as long as there are humans around to burn. But what do you do when you run out of “fuel”? You need to establish some kind of re-growth. Hence, you do need to grow humans for crop anyway, etc.

    Second: the processes in our bodies convert chemical energy in our bodies to bio-electricity. How have you concluded this conversion is so inefficient? Maybe the way the Matrix is setup this conversion happens to be more efficient than a typical heat engine.

    [quote comment="11590"]Maybe it’s like in Hyperion novels where (FALL OF HYPERION SPOILER) the AI were using human brains as their processing medium.[/quote]

    I do like this line of thinking. I think it is clear that the Matrix has become a very integral part of the machines, and maybe it has several purposes.

    [quote comment="11592"]The Matrix is really just an elaborate way to screw with us.[/quote]

    I have also been thinking along similar lines. Maybe deep inside the AIs that control the machines there are some code embedded that establish a “need” for the machines to take care of humans. A bit like Asimov’s robot laws. Hence, the existence of the machines would be meaningless without humans and they constructed the Matrix to be able to keep humans around in a way that best guarantee our survival.

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  18. astine UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    First: Burning humans and converting the heat to electricity works well enough as long as there are humans around to burn. But what do you do when you run out of “fuel”? You need to establish some kind of re-growth. Hence, you do need to grow humans for crop anyway, etc.

    Even by your interpretation, humans as an energy source are finite. The difference between burning people and ‘growing’ them, is in immediacy and effort. It clearly takes the machines a stupendous amount of energy to grow, and contain the humans. It also takes a lot of time, and they aren’t increasing their lot by doing it. Assuming that they have batteries of even moderate efficiency, (as opposed to those huge and constant electrical discharges you see in the movie,) I think that they’d be better off simply burning people from the get-go and storing the energy in a more convenient form, or freezing people and burning them when they need the energy.

    Either way, the movie strongly suggests the notion of humans an indefinitely renewable energy source when that is simply an impossibility. Humans ultimately derive their energy from the sun, and without it, the machines need to draw from their own stockpiles to grow them. It simply goes in a circle with a constantly decreasing stockpile.

    Maybe the way the Matrix is setup this conversion happens to be more efficient than a typical heat engine.

    No matter how energy efficient the Matrix was, I’m pretty sure that by applying the same techniques to a heat engine would be more efficient, simply because there are so many fewer points of failure, and opportunities for heat loss.

    Then again, I’m not an evil machine from the future, so , what do I know?

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  19. Tino SWEDEN Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    [quote comment="11600"]Even by your interpretation, humans as an energy source are finite. [...] [T]he movie strongly suggests the notion of humans an indefinitely renewable energy source when that is simply an impossibility. Humans ultimately derive their energy from the sun, and without it, the machines need to draw from their own stockpiles to grow them. It simply goes in a circle with a constantly decreasing stockpile.[/quote]

    I agree with your conclusion, but not your premise. How did you come to the idea that no energy whatsoever enters the system? Humanity “scorched the sky, not “turned the sun off”. Some external energy will still be entering earth; the only thing we know is that the sunlight is too weak, too irregular, or at inconvenient frequencies, for existing solar panel technology to be useful.

    So the key question is indeed: what are the machines feeding the grown humans to add energy to the system? (Morpheus mentions the recycling of dead people, but that is merely recycling of resources, it does not add energy.) I think a fair guess is that some algae, plant or bacteria used to very harsh environments (and thus not dependent on direct sunlight) may have survived — or — was possible to quickly bio-engineer. However, algae, plants and bacteria do not produce electricity, so you need to convert those specific kinds of chemical energy to electricity with optimal efficiency. My point is that it is not self-evident that burning the algae in a heat engine is better than using a setup like the Matrix.

    [quote comment="11600"]No matter how energy efficient the Matrix was, I’m pretty sure that by applying the same techniques to a heat engine would be more efficient, simply because there are so many fewer points of failure, and opportunities for heat loss.[/quote]

    Here, I simply do not agree. If we start with some kind of chemical energy in an algae (which derive its energy from incoming weak sporadic sunlight or radiation, or similar.) this is a fairly low-entropy form of energy. A heat engine would first convert the chemical energy to heat, which increases the entropy of that energy. The limit for best possible efficiency is then set by Carnot’s theorem. On the other hand, a non-heat-engine conversion method can avoid the first entropy-increasing step of converting the energy to heat, and can thus achieve a higher efficiency. Maybe such a conversion method could be compromised by the human digestive system -> neural electric energy.

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

    @Ian Clifton: Oooh! Interesting. I like the propaganda idea. :)

    @Tino: Thanks for clearing up the Morpheus quote. I was indeed confused. Good catch! Please disregard whatever I said about the thermal energy then.

    Also, interesting idea about the deep compulsion to care about human race. This sort of plays into the movie mythology in which human element in the form of “The One” was sort of a self-balancing element of the matrix.

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