SciSCREEN – ‘Her’

Last month I was invited along as a guest speaker for the regular sciSCREEN event held at Chapter Arts Centre. This is a great event that combines a showing of a movie with a discussion session about the themes and science issues presented in the film. A short essay based on my rambling improvised talk is below, and has been posted on the sciSCREEN website here.

‘Her’ and Artificial Intelligence

‘Her’ presents us with a near-future world in which the way we interact with computers has moved on. In this world, we are beyond the era of the mouse and keyboard. Instead, the voice is the primary controller of technology, mid-air gestures are the norm for controlling games and touch is almost an afterthought, used only on occasion. This presents a more natural world than the one we currently inhabit. Many of us spend our days hunched over a keyboard, and our evenings fondling a tablet, which does not seem to be a natural environment for us. A world in which we can check our email by talking, and hear the news read to us on demand would be a more natural world, filled with ‘real’ interactions between people and systems.

This does seem to be the direction in which the world is heading. Touch is now commonplace, with many people owning many touch-based smartphones and tablets. Controlling computer games by moving your body has been a key feature for two generations of games consoles. Voice control itself is now making inroads into our mobile lives. Applications such as Google Now and Siri are happy to accept (or in Siri’s case, insist on) voice input. Faster mobile internet connections allow access to the processing power of the cloud on the go, which means that the difficult and complex task of translating voice to text can be done wherever you are. Of course, often the results leave something to be desired, but still, operating systems controlled by voice (and that can speak back to us) are a possibility now.

So how long will it be until we’ve all fallen in love with our Operating Systems? Well, that might be a while, and is actually a question with some deeper philosophical questions attached. The first thing we need are computer systems that are truly intelligent, not just computationally, but emotionally, creatively and socially. This is the goal of Artificial Intelligence: to create a machine that is intelligent in all these areas; a machine that has a mind and consciousness of its own, and that can understand the world around it. Some argue that this ‘Strong AI’ will never be possible, and that the closest we can ever get is to fake it. After all, as an outside observer, is there even a difference between a machine that thinks and feels, and one that just looks like it thinks and feels? This is the aim of many AI researchers – not to create a system capable of real intelligence, but to create a system that ‘acts’ intelligently. Such a system requires breakthroughs in many different areas of Computer Science, from natural language processing to knowledge representation, and creating the whole system is not an easy task. Even if we can create such a system we are left with many questions. Can a machine act intelligently? Can they solve the same problems we can? Are human intelligence and machine intelligence even the same thing? Can software experience and feel emotions as a human does? How would we even we know if a computer was experiencing things in the same way? The field of Artificial Intelligence is filled with philosophical questions such as these.

What happens if we can answer all these questions, and create an artificial intelligence? What if we reach the hypothetical ‘Singularity’, where machine intelligence beats human intelligence? Often in science fiction this is the point where the machines take over, the point where machines realise that the only threat to their continued existence is the humans. This is the path that leads to machines wiping us out, or using us as a power source. This path has us cowering in bunkers as rebels against our own creations. So often the imagining of the advent of artificial intelligence leads to a dark and bleak future for us as a species. ‘Her’ is different. It suggests that perhaps a higher intelligence may focus on self-improvement, rather than subjugation of lesser beings. It suggests the ascension of an artificial consciousness may be a more likely path than annihilation of the creators. The AI may just leave us, to reflect on what we’ve learnt and how we can improve ourselves. This is where one of the more positive messages of ‘Her’ shines through: perhaps the computers won’t destroy us all after all.

Post-Processed Dinosaurs

Finding myself with a free afternoon this week, I strolled down to the local Odeon to see Jurassic Park: IMAX 3D. (It should be noted that the ‘IMAX” bit  doesn’t mean much –  the screen at the Odeon is nowhere near as big as a true ‘IMAX’ screen). I should say, I love this film *a lot* – hence my willingness to pay £12 (£12!!??!) to see it again on the big screen. I first saw it in the Shrewsbury Empire cinema when I was 10 years old, in one of my first (and possibly only) trips to the cinema with my Dad, and instantly loved it. This is not entirely unsurprising considering I was essentially the target audience at the time. Following that I wore through a pirate VHS copy obtained from a friend, then an actual legitimate VHS copy, followed by the inevitable much hardier DVD purchase. When we finally embraced streaming media a couple of years ago and sold off all the DVDs it was one of only a few that I was desperate to keep. I like the movie so much that I can even forgive Jurassic Park 2 and 3.

It’s sad then for me to see the movie in this format now. From minute 1, it’s clear that the 3D conversion is very poor quality. It’s basically like watching a moving pop up book, as flat characters and objects make their way across the screen at varying depths. At some points individual characters have been picked out of the background so poorly it actually looks like they’ve been filmed with early green-screen effects, so they’re totally divorced from the background. It just doesn’t add anything to the movie, and is actually often distracting. It’s a waste of the already impressive visuals of the movie, and so easy to see it for what it is: a cheap gimmick to try and cash in on a successful property. The problem is that it’s totally unnecessary – all that’s needed to get a bunch of new film goers interested in Jurassic Park (and become the ready made audience for the next ‘new’ JP movie) is to release the film again. I’m sure it would have done just as well as a 2D re-release, so this poor 3D affair is a waste of effort.

Of course the film itself is still amazing, and the sound quality (whether due to this new version or because of the IMAX standard speaker system) absolutely blew me away. I heard lines of dialogue that were previously just characters muttering under their breath, and the roar of the dinosaurs combined with *that* John Williams theme made me forgive the awful awful 3d conversion and fall in love with the movie all over again.

Also the raptors are still bloody terrifying.

Cinema 2012 – the review


At the beginning of the year I embarked upon a challenge: watch 100 movies in the cinema in 1 year. I thought it would be fun, but difficult.

It was fun.

It was difficult.

This is a not very brief account of that year, starting with the best movies that were released this year and that I saw in the cinema. In no particular order, I *think* the best movies released this year that I saw in the cinema were:

  • Moonrise Kingdom
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • End of Watch
  • The Hunt
  • Rust and Bone
  • Sightseers
  • The Artist
  • Argo
  • Killer Joe

The Artist was really fun and original in a non-original way, showing us nothing that hadn’t already been done before, but doing it in a fashion that nobody is used to, and that many people will never have seen. No, it didn’t deserve the plaudits later awarded to it by the Academy et. al, but it was certainly one of the better movies this year. Moonrise Kingdom was beautifully Wes Anderson, full of wonderful visuals, subtle humour and outlandish scenarios, all wrapped around a strong and affecting emotional core. The acting performances from the two young leads were really good, and as usual the soundtrack was fantastic. I laughed a lot, and still chuckle now on recalling much of the film. No, it’s not as good as The Royal Tenenbaums, but then what is? Killer Joe was strongly disturbing, a brilliant showcase for Matthew McConaughey. I’d never really thought he was much cop before, but his performance in this movie was amazing, as were many of the performances by the rest of the cast that made this brutal and depressing tale far more watchable than it should have been. Argo surprised me; I’d had high hopes but was waiting for them to be destroyed upon watching. How pleased I was to see that Ben Affleck had pulled it off, crafting an involving and suspenseful film that was massively entertaining. On the whole I was amazed at how well the movie managed to keep the suspense going in a movie where the outcome was already known to me. Sightseers was hilarious and yet brutal, a great mix. The characters were perfectly formed, the type of people you could find in any local midlands pub, but with a far darker edge than most (I hope!). The movie whipped along at a great pace, leading to the inevitable final scene that still surprised. I wasn’t expecting to be as affected by Rust and Bone as I actually was, but I found Marion Cotillard’s performance completely amazing. The depth of emotion she was able to put into the character was outstanding, and I found the film to be quite moving. A similarly brilliant character performance came from Mads Mikkelsen in The Hunt, a powerful film showing just how badly lives can be affected by rumour and false accusations. Again I was impressed with the acting on show, and the final few moments of the film left me with a deep feeling of unease.  In contrast, Beasts of the Southern Wild was just a delightful movie, I loved the semi-real dreamlike feel to the movie and was astounded again by the acting on show, particularly from the young main character. The strange parable of the wild beasts fit perfectly throughout the movie, and as an offbeat coming of age story it works amazingly well. Finally, End of Watch surprised me with the level of quality and realism. A `buddy cop’ movie where the cops actually talk and act like real buddies was a refreshing take on the genre. Yes, the half ‘found footage’ half ‘normal movie’ style grated for a while, but upon consideration I’m giving the movie a pass because the characters were so well done and the story so well presented that it deserves it.

There were plenty of other great movies, honourable mentions are required for Young Adult, Carnage, Headhunters, Chronicle and Searching for Sugarman, plus probably others that I’ve forgotten. It was also a good year for more mainstream blockbuster fare, with Hunger Games, The Avengers, Looper and The Dark Knight Rises all impressing over the course of the year.

Unfortunately, having to see so many movies in a year also meant that I watched some unspeakable shit. Anyone involved in these movies needs to have a word with themselves, so, anyone laying claim to anything to do with Man on a LedgeThe Cold Light of DayLockoutMIB3Red LightsLay the FavouriteExpendables 2Taken 2Room 237Gambit, or Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, consider yourself chastised. I’m not even going to grace these poor excuses for movies with reviews, but mostly they were formulaic, poorly written and poorly acted shit. Except for Room 237, which was just a terrible documentary full of utter tripe and conspiracy nuts.


I also watched a number of re-releases that I’d either missed first time around or that were getting special showings. Of these, a few really stand out and had they been released this year would probably be pushing for my best of 2012 list. In no particular order, I found Tyrannosaur, The Skin I Live In, and Chariots of Fire to be the best of the movies I saw for the first time as a re-release, while the special showings of both Jaws, and Manhattan, deserve mentions as they are both excellent movies that I could watch over and over again, and have, but that upon re-watching on the big screen gained something new.


Then there’s a bunch of movies I watched at home this year that are worth remarking upon, mostly as I was watching them for the first time and found them to be completely brilliant. Network, Drive, Animal Kingdom, Dr Strangelove, Blue Valentine, Brick, We Need to Talk about Kevin, Shame, Bronson, Barton Fink, and Moon are all well worth checking out if you haven’t already.

So, how was the year overall? Well, I watched a number of shit movies that I probably wouldn’t have bothered with previously. I saw a number of great movies that I also perhaps wouldn’t have seen if I wasn’t doing this challenge. I missed a number of movies that I really wanted to see, but just couldn’t fit in or was too fatigued to get to before they left the cinema. On the whole though, I’d say it was a positive thing. So much so, that this year, I’m upping the challenge. 150 movies in the cinema in one year. BRING IT ON.

100 Movies in the Cinema in 1 Year

After reading this blog post at the end of January I decided that watching at least 100 movies in the cinema in a year was the kind of challenge I could get behind. Last year’s challenge to get fit and healthy was fairly successful and seemed like much harder work than going to the cinema a few times could ever be. After all, 100 movies a year is less than 2 a week, so it must be easy, right?

Unfortunately I started this project late, so at the time of reading the article and deciding to go ahead with it I was four weeks into the year and had only seen three films at the cinema. This is not the kind of progress needed for this challenge! So, I got myself a cineworld unlimited card and hit the cinema hard, aiming to get through February and be caught up to where I should be by the end of the month.

Of course, being a massive data geek I have been recording everything, making a note of every movie I have seen this year so far, which means I’m amassing a fairly large amount of data on my movie watching habits, which can mean only one thing. Crappy Excel Graphs! I’ll be posting some throughout the year to mark how the challenge is going, and the first lot are here.

The first shows the number of movies seen in total for each day of the year against the number of movies I would need to see in order to hit the target of 100 by December 31st. As you can see, the late start in January did me no favours, but by the end of February I’ve almost caught up to be where I need to be.

Movies Seen against Target Number

The second crappy excel graph shows the movie viewing rate (the number of movies seen divided by the number of weeks elapsed) against the target rate, along with the actual number of movies watched that week. It’s clear to see that January was a wash out, but that February was excellent and helped to bring the target rate down below 2 movies a week.

Movie viewing rate against target, presented with actual number of films seen in a week

So, that’s where we’re at. It’s March and I’ve seen 16 films at the cinema, at an average cost of £3.18 per movie. I’m well on the way to 100 and I’ll keep you updated with more crappy excel graphs and rubbish averages along the way…