Thursday, April 23, 2009

Bacon - Blade Report

Technology exists everywhere in life. It ranges from computers to abacuses, from cars to horse drawn carriages, and from Gatling guns to dirks. It can be categorized into many different areas, such as purpose or time of creation. One particular categorization separates those technologies that have no ethical or philosophical dilemmas from those that do. By ethical or philosophical dilemma I do not mean to say that the use of a given technology could be wrong. Consider a knife. Individuals can use the tool to carry out ethically wrong goals, such as murder, but there is no debate on the ethicality of a knife itself. After all, a knife can be used for a countless number of beneficial purposes. I define ethical or philosophical dilemmas by whether the ethics of a technology itself is called into question, or whether the technology sparks or comes out of philosophical debates, such as the meaning of life. For example, the technology created for embryonic stem cell research was an intensely debated topic during the Clinton administration, and still is, because of the ethical debate about conducting tests on embryonic cells. Also, the possible future of android technology is something that greatly blurs the distinction between human and machine, and therefore deals heavily with the issue of the definition and meaning of human life. And so, it will be this type of ethically or philosophically involved technology that I am referring to when I speak about technology.

One of my favorite films that deals with such technology is Blade Runner. It has developed into a cult classic and has established itself as a landmark in the film industry. Its style and cinematography is hard to find in contemporary films. Another film of interest is Minority Report. Though certainly inferior to Blade Runner, Minority Report shares many similarities with it. To begin, both films are loosely based on Philip K. Dick stories – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and “The Minority Report”. Technology is also a central focus of both films, both containing technologically advanced societies of the future. But most importantly, as I will show, both films display an ultimately negative attitude towards their respective ‘highest’ technologies. Furthermore, Minority Report in particular mirrors the way in which controversial technology is approached in real life.

To begin with, let us explor some background on the two films. The plot of Blade Runner takes place in November of 2019 in Los Angeles. Genetic scientists have created the Nexus 6 android known as a Replicant, ‘more human than human’, their highest achievement in technology. However, due to an off-world revolt of Nexus 6 slaves, Nexus 6 androids have been declared as illegal on earth. A certain group of police officers, known as blade runners, are told to search and destroy any remaining Replicants on earth. A few Replicants have escaped prison, commandeered a spaceship, and have headed for earth, specifically LA, in search of their creator in order to expand their current four year life span. Rick Deckard, a former police officer, is called upon to find and retire them. In Minority Report the year is 2054 in Washington, D.C. A police unit has been using a new technology called PreCrime to stop murders before they happen. Three humans are drugged and symbiotically linked to computers and to each other, and thereby enabling them to predict the future, and furthermore reveal the victim and the perpetrator. In one case, a cop by the name of John Anderton sees himself as the culprit of a murder and he is therefore forced to flee to avoid capture.

The technologies represented in both are more than just problems that need to be fixed. Rather, they are rooted in a life long discourse on ethics and philosophical debates inherent to such technologies. On the one hand there are androids. In one of the film’s original scripts someone says that an autopsy was performed on a replicant and three hours in they still thought they were cutting open a human. Furthermore, the replicants are programmed for nearly an infinite number of human responses. Some are even implanted with real human memories. They are as close to being human as is possible without being human. Blade Runner is clearly begging the viewer to ask, “What does it mean to be human?” And on the other hand cops are putting people to jail based on the predictions of three precogs. Minority Report is asking, “Is pre-determinism a valid reason for putting people in jail?”

Although Blade Runner does, to a certain extent, deal with the meaning of humanity head on, it primarily deals with the issue implicitly. Though there aren’t any flat out claims from the characters that the technology of androids is ethically wrong, the android technology is the antagonist throughout the film. The beginning of the film shows an interview between a blade runner and a replicant, and the process of determining whether someone is human or a replicant is shown to be difficult. Even when Deckard knows what the replicants that he is after look like, he cannot approach someone on the street and ask if they have seen an android, they wouldn’t know if they had. The distinction between human and machine has completely vanished. But, by the end of the film, the Nexus 6 technology has failed. As far as the blade runners know, and apart from the debate as to whether or not Rick himself is an android, all of the remaining Nexus 6 androids on earth have been destroyed. The film takes technology fused with philosophical questions and possible ethical dilemmas and rejects it. The technology is a negative force throughout the film and is subsequently destroyed.

Similarly, Minority Report contains three individuals trapped in a pool for the ‘greater good’ of D.C. because they can predict future murders. The technology involved in the whole PreCrime process is presumably very complicated and advanced. The use of it is scrutinized during an audit by a Department of Justice agent, Danny Witwer. He rightfully asks if it is ok to put trust in the predictions of others in order to prevent murders, for how could one know that they hadn’t predicted a false murder and thereby jailed an innocent person? Although at times Blade Runner can be very direct in dealing with philosophical issues, Minority Report tends to be much more direct throughout the whole movie, the validity of predicting the future driving much of the plot. But through most of the film, this technology has a fairly balanced view. On the one hand there are the PreCrime cops who believe in their technology with heart and soul, while on the other there is the Department of Justice that has a skeptical, if not negative, view of PreCrime. But the view of PreCrime in the audience’s eyes slowly turns negative with the revelation of Anderton regarding his discovery of the minority report. Though this discovery doesn’t necessarily make PreCrime a failed experiment, it does leave room for others to exploit the minority report for their own plans. As if that isn’t enough however, PreCrime does in fact fail on itself at the end of the film. It predicts Lamar Burgess murdering Anderton but instead, Burgess kills himself, proving that PreCrime is not always correct. Again, as with Blade Runner, the film takes a hotly debated technology and causes it to fail in the end.

And so, given the films’ topics and how they played out, I believe that apart from being made merely for entertainment they are in effect a warning against such kinds of technology. Although both films focus on specific areas of technology, they are made to represent the broader realm of all philosophically/ethically involved technology. The technologies may be fascinating, but ultimately they will fail one way or another.

Apart from both films rejecting such technology, it’s worth while to look at the characters’ as well as the audience’s view of the technology as Minority Report specifically progresses. They mirror how people today view real life technology as well. The technology in Minority Report is hailed as a great achievement at the beginning of the film with commercials all over the place saying how PreCrime has greatly reduced the murder rate. According to the statistics, there is no real reason to doubt PreCrime. However, even with such a ‘proven’ technology, there are still doubts concerning pre-determinism. Witwer shows that there were doubts present even at the beginning stages of creating PreCrime. But regardless of these concerns, the police department went ahead with the completion and implementation of PreCrime with plans to make used nationwide. However, this eventually backfires.

Although we have yet to experience any backfiring of our own technology, we are on a very similar path. In his article “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us”, Bill Joy spends a lot of time dealing with the future of androids. He admits that we are making groundbreaking technologies in the area of robotics, just look at Honda’s Asimo humanoid, but he fears that the future of androids could go horribly awry. One of his main concerns dealt with humans and robots fusing together, and though that is an amazing future, it could be scary without heavy constraints placed upon them. “In the hotel bar, Ray gave me a pertial preprint of his then-forthcoming book… which outline a utopia he foresaw – one in which humans gained near immortality by becoming one with robotic technology. On reading it, my sense of unease only intensified; I felt sure he had to be understating the dangers, understating the probability of a bad outcome along this path,” (Joy). Is it safe to create super-humans? Or simply, super-human-like robots? Could they somehow mutate beyond the boundaries that have been given to them? Joy is not the only one who recognizes that there is room for problems in the future of robotics. Many robotics engineers recognize this and yet they still proceed forward in their research. Now that is not to say they are not, or will not, put restrictions on possible androids, but who is to say that they will be sufficient and not overcome? Just like the PreCrime experiment, we are working and pushing for extraordinary technology that could be beyond our reach to truly understand and control, which could, in turn, come back to hurt us.

Despite the views of the films and Joy’s assessment of the future, I don’t fall in line with all of it. Some technologies I don’t agree with, such as embryonic stem cell research. But other technologies, such as the future of androids, I do not think poses much of a problem. With full admittance that I am no authority on such an area, I believe think we will ever get to androids as sophisticated as those in Blade Runner or other films like The Terminator. That being said, if androids like that were successfully created, or even human-robot hybrids such as the Borg, I would think twice before mass-producing them.

Works Consulted

Android World. Ed. Chris Willis. 14 Apr. 2009. 23 Apr. 2009 .

The Home of Blade Runner. Ed. David Caldwell. 2009. 23 Apr. 2009 .

Joy, Bill. "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us." Wired Apr. 2000. 23 Apr. 2009

Scott, Ridley, dir. Blade Runner. 1982. DVD. Warner Home Video, 2006.

Spielberg, Steven, dir. Minority Report. 2002. DVD. Dreamworks, 2002.

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