Creative Bankruptcy in Hollywood…Or Not?

Just today it was announced that the famous internet meme Grumpy Cat was given a movie deal. If that’s not ridiculous sounding enough, his agent Ben Lashes is a self-described “internet cat agent.” Mr. Lashes business associate noted in the Wall Street Journal “When it comes to cats, Ben knows who is going to be big.” Following the news, most posts noted how this was “all that is wrong with Hollywood.” Many reactions quickly concluded that this cat followed a greater trend in Hollywood, that according to one smarmy poster was evidence that this is “further enabling Hollywood never having to come up with an original idea again.”

As a writer and a creative, I see where they are coming from and to a great extent emphasize with their frustration. However, I disagree with the conclusion they have arrived at: that Hollywood is creatively bankrupt. In my bid to be more of a positive person, I decided to approach this news in an entirely different way, and arrived at the opposite conclusion of most responders. While there are franchises, sequels, prequels and reboots and many more films based on proven ideas, I contend that Hollywood is not creatively bankrupt at all.

Perhaps you tuned into Oscar season last year, or maybe the year before that? Focusing on this past year, the big winners and most talked about were Argo, Les Miserables, Lincoln and Life of Pi. All of those films were based on intellectual property successful in another medium. Would the internet posters lambasting Hollywood culture for signing Grumpy Cat also hold true to the lack of an original idea in these aforementioned instances? Was Life of Pi creatively bankrupt because it was based on a book? Of course not! It was a brilliant film with breath taking visuals and CGI and one of my favorites in recent memory. Did you know that the Tiger was entirely computer generated!?

Now I understand that for the average struggling writer out there (myself included) watching Hollywood deal mostly with adapted screenplays is very frustrating. However, lets not confuse that with creative bankruptcy, because its not. Adapting a screenplay is no small feat. Sure that original idea in your head was entirely pulled from thin air, but writing a book into a film is arguably just as challenging, and more in some ways. In fact, Life of Pi was said to be “un-adpatable.”

At the end of the day, you, the writer, are not the only person who needs to eat. There is something almost selfish in the statement that Hollywood chooses dumb projects without merit. And that is because the writer or creative who makes that statement is ultimately saying that their project is more deserving. They don’t flat out say this, but excavate a bit and that is the true inner feeling. I’ve been there. But you need to prove your self worth.

It costs a lot of money to make a movie, and ultimately financiers and filmmakers are likely to be risk adverse as a result, thus the optioned properties on existing markets. So should they just bite the bullet for an original passion project because YOU think its awesome? Of course not, that would be selfish because when it fails, those backers do too. You need to prove your worth, and who knows, maybe one day from your efforts you may be asked to adapt a script (creative bankruptcy?). You may not like everything Hollywood puts out, but it does at the end of the day make art, even if that art was successful somewhere else first. And to be honest, just because something is optioned, as is the case with Grumpy Cat, doesn’t mean it will ever make it as a movie. It’s really more about owning the rights…but I digress.

It is my opinion that for every genuine piece of garbage Hollywood puts out, there is enough art being made there to counterbalance the stuff that makes us shake our heads. Writers and creatives run the risk of creative bankruptcy themselves when they consistently and continuously beat the “Hollywood is unoriginal” drum. I’m sick of it, because again, its just not true. People become writers etc. because they love the movies. So to complain about the very thing they love is sort of silly and frankly is nothing more than jealousy.

In the end if you want to succeed in this business you need to lose the negative mindset. It took me a while to realize that, but even I get it now. So Grumpy Cat the movie sounds silly. So don’t see it. But don’t conclude Hollywood sucks as a result because then you sound even more grumpy than the Grumpy Cat.

No Killer Robots, says the UN. FEAR THE MACHINES!

Science Fiction author Isaac Asimov invented what are known as the ‘Three Laws of Robotics’:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

These laws appear in place of the opening credits of the 2004 hit science fiction film, ‘I, Robot’ starring Will Smith. In the opening scene, a terrible car accident occurs. The lives of Will Smith’s character and that of a 12 year old girl are at risk of death from drowning. A robot is tasked with the decision of saving what, given the time, will only be one of their lives. The robot quickly runs a crude calculation which takes into account the productivity of the survivor and likelihood of survivability in the long turn. Based on this crude calculation, the robot saves the stronger, adult male, Will Smith, leaving the 12 year old to drown.

A human, most would contend, would be more likely to take emotion into this calculation as well. A human is likely to rule that the 12 year old is “too young to die,” and would likely sacrifice the strong adult in favor of allowing the youngster a chance at a full, productive life. That is the “humane” component of an equation most people would say a robot or artificial general intelligence is incapable of learning or ever understanding.

And it is with that critical, albeit flawed, assumption in mind that takes us to the UN today: Autonomous, killer robots.

Or, robots which could attack targets without the overriding control of a human. Think a sentient drone without any central CIA mission control room. Today the United Nations Human Rights Council has expressed concern with the potentiality for this and has recommended the ban of “killer robots” prior to their invention.

Reporting on the matter for the Human Rights Council, Christof Heyns stated:

Machines lack morality and mortality, and as a result should not have life and death powers over humans

Again, the critical assumption at work is that machines are fundamentally incapable of learning human emotions. However, leading experts in the field of robotics and artificial general intelligence disagree. World renowned inventor and director of engineering at Google, Ray Kurzweil states that we will see computers outsmart humans by 2029. He contends that by the time we reach what he calls ‘The Singularity’ we will have entirely sentient machines and a world where biology and technology transcend one another. His current work at Google is focused on improvements in Artificial Intelligence, mainly voice recognition. Apart of understanding human emotion is not that it is innate, but rather learned. Much in the way a child learns through interaction, experts like Kurzweil contend machines can learn this way too.

But what about machines used to kill? Or what about machines used at war versus human combatants? While a valid fear, I think this scenario is used in a rather demagogic fashion. I would imagine any proponent of artificial intelligence or robotics would take issue with no fail safe mechanisms for machines of war. The problem is the media runs with these I, Robot and Terminator scenarios, because that is what we as a culture are familiar with.

In this culture, people like Ray Kurzweil are made out to be unrealistic utopians without seriously addressing the many valid points he makes on the topic. We fear technology like sentient machines because the only examples we know of them are their portrayal in dystopian science fiction films and novels. There is very little, if any, cultural works on all the benefits these machines could bring to society; including in medicine, war (replacing human casualty), disaster relief and prevention etc., etc.

However, man clings to what he knows because change does not come natural to him. Man fears the sentient machine because his only knowledge of them are boxed within a negative connotation, like the hypothetical machines referenced by the United Nations. The UN has unintentionally fostered and verified the right to be afraid of the sentient machine. And while Kurzweil, and his fellow futurist Michio Kaku are best selling authors, their predictions have barely emerged from the niche audience they target. Their predictions are not enough to counter-balance the fear-driven media reports of “Killer Robots.”

Progress relies on change. Remaining the same is regressive thinking and fear is a primary reason for its occurrence. By all expert consensus, technology shows no signs of slowing down. It only points to speeding up, becoming a greater and greater part of our lives. The internet is the industrial revolution of our era. Sentient machines and technology will emerge from this era to create a new age in time where what was no longer is. Progress, especially technological progress, relies on change, and progress starts by accepting that change, not fearing it.

Your Privacy on the New Technology Frontier

Just over a week ago Microsoft launched its new system, the Xbox One. And it only took a week later for regulators in the European Union to take serious issue with privacy claims against it. This follows news that Google was fined in the EU for collecting WiFi data without consent via its “streetview” cars. Never log out of FaceBook, or Twitter? Regardless your privacy settings, their bots go undetected and visit every site you do, logging your internet use on some external server. This is happening every day, and while I see that regulators in the European Union are trying to get serious about privacy concerns, I see just the opposite occurring here in the U.S., where such behavior is in many instances supported in a Laissez-Faire position on the corporate economy.

So how bad is it becoming, this privacy issue? I contend that with new technologies, the ways companies can track and store information is likely only to get worse without enforcement by law. One need look no further than Microsoft’s Xbox One. According to its capabilities, the new Xbox will require that Kinect be on at ALL times in order for the system to work. Fair enough, but that’s not the issue. The issue comes with an improvement in sensor technology and speech recognition software, where Kinect’s camera and speakers are always listening. Regulators in the EU had this to say about the new device:

The Xbox continuously records all sorts of personal information about me. Reaction rates, my learning or emotional states. These are then processed on an external server, and possibly even passed on to third parties. Whether they will ever deleted, the person can not influence.

That should concern anyone considering the purchase of this console. Microsoft has been slow to reply, and vague when it has done so. They stated they will not use your information to sell to third parties for simple profit. They maintain that your privacy is of serious concern to them (I’m sure) and that information is only collected for system improvement. Why did I italicize that? Simply because system improvement based on personal data collection is a BS corporate loophole used to sell your information. They contend that the sale of your information is contingent upon system improvement. Only they don’t admit to this, but they do engage in this behavior, as demonstrated (albeit by the EU) by fines for such actions.

The United States Constitution takes privacy very seriously. U.S. Tort Law does too. The ‘Tort of Intrusion’ is committed where a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy and an individual intrudes upon that expectation of privacy whether intentionally or accidentally where such an intrusion is considered highly offensive to a reasonable person. The intrusion can be committed physically OR electronically. Computer hacking is a valid example. So why then are acting members of corporations not held responsible when they arguably commit such a tort?

The problem lies with being able to prove it. How does one hold someone responsible for a bot that collects data, or a benign machine, like a Kinect system? In many instances, provided one even knows an intrusion has occurred, it is hard to connect a human to the bot or code responsible for the intrusion. Scariest of all, these companies are smart about not getting caught and the unsuspecting victim doesn’t even know their privacy is being invaded. When they are caught, the CEO or other senior employee often claims he/she did not know that was occurring (riiiiiiight). In fact that was what Google maintained when the EU fined it for intruding into people’s WiFi.

With the exponential growth in technology comes the responsibility of its creators and its political regulators to assure our laws still be followed. It’s a serious problem when a multi-billion dollar company like Google is fined a mere 145 thousand Euro for hacking the WiFi of unsuspecting victims. Its even more of a travesty that some, like FaceBook, believe that you don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy when using the internet and their service in particular — and that is the belief of many technology companies according to their practices. However, ask any average Joe on the street and I am sure he would tell you he has a reasonable expectation of privacy when using his personal computer or his cell phone. He would probably have a problem with a machine recording his information and potentially selling it to third parties. I am sure he would also have a problem with bots storing information about his internet usage.

Right now, our lives are all connected to the world wide web. It is unavoidable. One cannot simply choose not to use the internet in order to infer a reasonable expectation of privacy. Our lawmakers need to start acknowledging that and realize there’s a privacy crisis at hand. Our lawmakers also need to actually learn about technology, as many of these old white guys clearly haven’t a clue about it and rely on corporations to teach them about it. Our Tort Laws and code need to provide regulatory framework to keep these companies compliant with ALL that a reasonable expectation of privacy infers. And so long as I am connected, like everyone else, I have a reasonable expectation of privacy when I use such services and its time our laws reflect that.

HEY! Where’s the New Technology?

Just today, Microsoft Inc. launched its successor to the ever-popular Xbox 360 console, the Xbox One. This announcement follows Playstation’s plans to launch a Playstation 4 for the Holiday season. Nintendo also released its latest console, the WiiU, earlier this year. But this announcement comes as disappointment to many, including myself. A passionate technophile and futurist, I am left asking: HEY! Where’s the new technology? And that question doesn’t stop with consoles, but expands to “new” technologies in general.

So some background in order to place my arguments to come in perspective…

In 1965, Intel’s Gordon Moore hypothesized that the number of transistors and integrated circuits would double every two years. In laymen’s terms, every two years we will see computer chips double in power while decreasing in size and cost. This has held constant for the past 48 years, and has given us amazing technologies in the process. It’s awe-inspiring to think about how we went from the cell phones of Gordon Gekko to the tablet devices like our iPhones in under 20 years! This is all due to his theory, formally known as ‘Moore’s Law.’

BUT all good things must come to an end. And even Gordon Moore himself has admitted that this “law” is not infinite. One need only consult the laws of thermodynamics to understand why. Ultimately, silicon, the basis for our microchips will reach a point where they cannot get any smaller while using optimal performance without heat-leakage. In other words, silicon chips will get to a certain point where they will not be able to handle the circuitry to carry out its processes. Experts contend this will happen by the 2020s. But futurists need not worry, there are many alternate options other than silicon, such as bio-integration of circuitry, nano-wires and other far-fetched but possibly practical ideas (currently in development).

SO, why bring this super technical rule up? Because along with Moore’s Law comes this belief that we ought to see crazy new gadgets…but in the past few years…we really haven’t.

OK, yes there’s the 3D printer and AMAZINGLY cool things on the horizon, especially in medicine. BUT for the average gadget consumer out there, like the guy who wants to buy the next Xbox, or the newest iPhone…This guy is left completely underwhelmed.

The Xbox One is just that. It’s really just technology for technologies sake. It’s this console (box) with a whole bunch of stuff wrapped into one (ah-ha I get the name now!). So I can browse the internet or watch movies and do this all with voice-activated command. But just like Siri for iPhone, these cool gimmicks wear thin quickly. And that’s because true technophiles (which is most gamers btw) don’t want technology for technologies sake, they want something that works and that they will use often. I will probably use my controller, which I actually use to play games far more often than inaccurate voice commands. Even if I want to watch Netflix, I don’t want to repeat “play Mad Men” 10x for the AI to get it right!

Often companies are so crazy about the next gadget or new toy, they miss the programming part entirely. OK, cool, so I have Siri on my iPhone, but she can’t even differentiate between my iTunes playlist, let alone find my way around Brooklyn. So we have all this new processing power, but we are advancing so fast we haven’t given programmers the proper chance to catch up. By the time a team researching natural language for artificial intelligence creates an algorithm for a particular device or platform, its probably obsolete, now they have to rework it for another device. And that gets SUPER expensive! We haven’t given them a financial incentive to invest the millions into a code that works. And that’s because companies are releasing software and hardware to fund THE NEXT THING. I.e Vista was just a way for Microsoft to test Windows 7 and fund its investment…Still while not realizing full potential of its devices.

Instead, we have opted for empty hulls in many instances of late. We have these fast, new devices. But do you really notice a difference between your iPhone 4s or 5? The average person won’t, in fact, it’s probably only a couple seconds difference in speed. And 4G isn’t fully developed still in many areas of the country.

The way to impress people again is to not just give someone a NEW device. Consumers have become a lot more sophisticated. They crave more than just the NEXT thing. They want something innovative. The first generation iPhone was amazing because for the first time we were using a friggin’ computer all by touch…and it could also make phone calls. Technology began to consolidate our lives via devices into one convenient device. This was mind boggling and amazing. The same happened with Xbox. Microsoft revolutionized the way gamers behaved. It created a social community to take advantage of its new improved hardware over its LIVE service. Gamers could now connect via a sort of social network and play with one another and share content.

Today, we don’t have as much innovation along with our new devices. And when we do, the technology is often in its infancy (like voice recognition and AI) and looses its appeal quickly because its BLOODY FRUSTRATING. So where’s the new technology is the question I am left asking. Why should I break my contract for an iPhone 5 (bc it’s thinner and bigger?!). That seems like a stupid reason to spend $700 to me. Or why spend $300 on a new console when my old one does the exact SAME things (bc Xbox Kinect is on system? – who cares, Kinect games SUCK, give me HALO!). 360 and PS3 are still VERY solid pieces of hardware. The concentration should be on software development! *hits head against wall*

Eventually as Moore’s Law slows down and we approach the need to move beyond Silicon for our processing power (The Post-Silicon Era I call it) we will see programmers catch up. By all expert consensus, as we reach a limit in the Silicon era, we will see the existing hardware be put to FULL use. I.e. I have 4 cores of processing power on my MacBook Pro…I barely ever need to use even two… So I am optimistic that technology for technologies sake is coming to a close. We will start seeing AMAZING breakthroughs in programs which take full advantage of existing processing power and Moore’s law. And I for one look forward to it!

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Predicting the Future through Film

Predicting the Future with Film

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The last time I spoke about current trends in science fiction film (http://bit.ly/13p1zcU) I noted three reasons why they often suck, and why they shouldn’t. One of the single most important things I noted is that science fiction today touches upon the same topics over and over again. Despite a future completely unwritten, our creative engine seems exhausted by the same trends. It’s hard to say if this is because one is limited to marketing forces. However, for the purpose of this article, I will operate under the assumption that it is a lack of creativity and often a writer/creative team unfamiliar with the science component of science fiction. I am personally drawn to science fiction, because as both a futurist and technophile, I believe we are on the precipice of unbelievable and radical changes in technology. These changes will have far reaching impact and consequences on all of our lives. And unlike many of these post-apocalyptic and dystopian futures depicted in so many of todays science fiction films, I am going to take a more optimistic view in many instances. In my bid to challenge the status quot of the same old sci-fi stories, here are a few ways I think science fiction film can both accurately predict the future, and make an entertaining movie-going experience.

SPACE EXPLORATION:

Ever since Nasa officially closed its space exploration operations, private companies like Elon Musk’s Space-X and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic have been following in their shoes. The stories of these men alone are movie worthy, but what about the conflicts they present? Its no mystery that private corporations are motivated by profit, which doesn’t always represent the collective goals of society. Not just anyone can afford to finance and build a space-exploration operation, only the super wealthy and savvy. Perhaps land-faring humans versus wealthy planet-colonizing counterparts/rivals? Or more likely, these operations will become more affordable as technology advances, presenting the opportunity for average folks to encounter our solar system like never before, giving way to a whole line of adventures through film.

The adventures one could come up with arising from a new era of space-exploration have not yet been broached, at least not accurately, only theoretically, often leaving earth destroyed. What kinds of issues will we face when we start mining asteroids? What happens if we unknowingly introduce space-born illnesses to a geocentric population? OR what happens as human curiosity takes the lessons learned from Manifest Destiny to the edges of the universe? What happens as we learn to take care of our own planet, or don’t? What sort of industry is likely to result from these ventures and how will they give way to new story-telling and ideas? Will our planet be more like Star Wars (no Earth left) or Star Trek (Earth is healthy)? As we get closer to the reality of frequent space travel, the science fiction which could stem from a radical reality will be diverse and plentiful in terms of possible stories and fascinating adventures. And before space mining corporations and space airlines are fully realized, now is the time to explore these stories.

ECONOMY:

Following one of the worst recessions in our life time, economists all sought to assign blame and to make sense of why it happened, and why now our recovery is so slow. Of those economists, only two really focused on the technology component of the stagnant recovery. Those two economists are MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. They contend that increasing automation is ruling out human labor in the workforce. Combine this with an exponential growth in technology, particularly processing power, and artificial general intelligence, and this scenario is only bound to worsen. They contend that companies have invested more in computer automation and artificial intelligence than they have human labor (c. 2010). Initially this was the case in many blue collar factory jobs, but these economists, along with many leading AI experts, contend that with the advance in technology we will see this happen to many white collar jobs as well. They urge workers now to be prepared for what they call the “race against the machine.” To prepare for a radically alternate, technology-centric economy.

So how will this be covered in film? What questions are going to be explored?

1.) How will humans be working? 2.) Will humans be working? From these two questions comes another set of questions. What sort of political reality arises from these struggles? On the one hand, humans may live in a post-work society, providing new ways of time spent. On the other hand, humans will be forced out of work until they can compensate their skills to the technological reality. They will be hostile towards those with these skills. Rifts will form between those who embrace technology and those who fear it. Political parties may form around such strong opinions, galvanizing support around promoting or rejecting technologies. Perhaps we will have sentient machines, like leading futurists such as Michio Kaku and Ray Kurzweil suggest. Will these machines adapt to society? How will humans interact with them? Will they oppose or embrace them?

This remains in my opinion one of the most fascinating topics to explore through science fiction film because we are seeing the beginning of it right now. Anyone with or without a job has an opinion on the economy, so lets see some exploration of this issue in science fiction film.

HEALTH & WELLNESS:

Along with the exponential growth in technology comes the merging of health and technology. Biotechnology research is one of the fastest growing fields in the world today. And in fact, if you want to win the “race against the machine” its probably a field worth considering. Going back to Ray Kurzweil for a moment, he argues we will see immortality within our life time by way of merging man and machine. If not that, then at the very least, leading experts foresee a major increase in life expectancy due to the merging of technology and biology. We have seen researchers artificially create major organs, code DNA and now the Obama administration wants to fund research to map the human brain. Researchers hope that by understanding how the brain works we can unlock the mysteries of diseases and other mortal human ailments.

This question is already being explored in film. TRANSCENDENCE, starring Johnny Depp, just began filming out in LA. The film deals with the consequences of technological immortality and a scientists (Ray Kurzweil?) pursuit of it. Prior to learning about this film, I wrote my first script on the same issue. Its a fascinating one, and despite the fact my script sucked, I asked a lot of questions I still want to explore as a writer and a futurist. How do we define the course of a life if it never ends? What will pharmaceutical industries do if their profitable pills become pointless? How will politicians deal with the ever changing landscape of health-care in the era of Obamacare? Will these procedures be available to average folks? Or will the ever increasing cost of health-care doom these innovative procedures to obscurity until price curves normalize?

Whether or not you are willing to go as far as Kurzweil is one thing. But there is no doubt we will see as a result of this research a radically different health-care system. Our lives will see a new golden age of medicine. & I don’t want to see TRANSCENDENCE the only film to deal with this issue. I want to challenge TRANSCENDENCE and I also want to supplement TRANSCENDENCE. This is an absolutely fascinating field. & I am excited to see it on the big screen.

SECURITY & COUNTER-TERRORISM:

Ever since the Patriot Act expanded the US governments access to unwarranted surveillance, the corresponding increases in surveillance technology have brought about major questions about security and counter-terrorism. Our Constitutional rights include the right to privacy in addition to search and seizure laws regarding what can and cannot be submitted to court. With new technology comes the question of what is and what is not permissible. What information gathered by technology can be used against you in court? What would come of our society if drones could warrantlessly survey you, or worse take action against suspected terrorists with possible collateral damage? What happens if technology got the wrong guy?

My next script that I have begun to outline deals directly with drone surveillance in a 24-style plot. Of course since my ideas are not copyrightable, I won’t elaborate. But this is another area where science fiction writers can have an absolute Orwellian field day. What are the consequences of technological surveillance? What will our future look like? What are the advantages? What are the disadvantages? There are SO MANY avenues and conflicts you could address with this in mind. I hope to start seeing more politically savvy science fiction, its my absolute favorite!

CONCLUSION:

Keeping in mind the points I made in my original post on science fiction, all these questions have to be answered with the following rules in mind: 1. Make us care about character involved. 2. Make sure the idea you have to answer your questions isn’t just a “good idea.” Make sure it can translate well into film. 3. Make sure your way of approaching these questions is done with science of science fiction in mind. Don’t reuse the same templates for previous ideas. Say something new. The future depends on it.

I hope that these questions will be answered before the conflicts arise. The best way to get a culture considering the consequences/philosophy of an action is to make the action common knowledge before it happens. Film is a great way to make an issue known. I remain an optimist on the future. I embrace the future for everything wonderful it holds. But like anything in life, it will not be without conflict. All great films are centered around great conflict and a great conflicted character navigating it. As a writer just starting out, I will make it a goal to make answering these questions the center of my writing career. I hope other writers will be inspired to do the same. Its time to make science fiction great again – and that’s by predicting the future through film.