Wednesday, 20 January 2021

A Study in Story Telling

I posted a link to my Facebook page about Outside the Wire with a short tag.  

We watched this last night. It has combat robots and drones and action and stuff, but did I mention cool combat robots? Worth giving this a watch if you like combat robots battling other combat robots.

A long thread followed. One friend commented he liked how the the robot was able to manipulate it's programming as being stupid scary. While another friend thought Leo started to display all the unfortunate traits of a Bond villain or Doctor Evil.

I tend to agree with the former comment, because even though the end is not all it could be, I enjoyed it enough to give it a pass. And because the end was far better than I thought it would be.

But I disagree that Leo failed by becoming a Bond villain or Doctor Evil.

Why? Because I don't think his goal was what it appeared to be. But I would fully admit that I might be projecting the direction of the story on what I would've written. Let me unpack my understanding of what Outside the Wire was all about.

The plot of any story is basically a series of linked events driven by the sequence of outcomes (so called try/fail cycles), from the decisions the characters make when faced with problems they have to solve.

The theme of a story is what the story is actually about.

Harp's story starts by revealing he's a drone pilot. When faced with a problem his actions shows us who he is.

A character who eats Gummy bears and is super cool under pressure. Smart and emotionally cold, or able to distance himself from his emotions. So much so that he can to make a really hard choice; sacrifice the lives of two Marines to save the other 38 people in the platoon.

This is the core of his character. Someone who is capable of sacrificing lives for the greater good.

The aftermath of his actions results in him being court-martialed, because he broke the chain-of-command when he disobeyed his orders. He is punished by being sent to the front to learn from experience,

When Harp arrives he is assigned to a Captain Leo.

During their initial conversation Leo reveals himself to be an advanced AI android who can pass as fully human; tells Harp that he asked specifically for him; tells Harp what he thinks of him, not good; finishes their conversation by blatantly asking Harp whether or not he trusts him?

Through the story we learn that Leo is smart, warm and empathic, and a highly capable combatant. This is the core of his character.

By the time we get to the climax, we have also learnt that Leo is easily able to manipulate the humans around him to achieve his plans. During his showdown with Harp, Leo outlines his plan to launch a nuclear strike against America, sacrificing millions of lives for the greater good of mankind.

Harp stops the plan, even though Leo could've easily killed Harp during their climactic fight.

However, I believe that Leo's plan was a charade, to highlight the danger of advanced generalized AI like him, and stop more of him from being deployed. Otherwise why would Leo go through all the trouble to set up this crazy complex plan to allow himself to be stopped?

I think the clue to answering this question is the opening of the movie. 

Harp is shown to have made the right choice (for example, easily proved with a forensic examination for chemical traces of the launcher rockets fuel in the ruins of the van), but he is still court-martialed for not following the chain-of-command. In a more generic war movie it would have been medals and home in time for tea (or coffee, or in Harp's case, Gummy bears.

The importance of following the chain-of-command, and the consequences for not doing so is shown. My takeaway is that an advanced generalized AI not following the chain-of-command is the real threat. Leo is setting himself up as an example of what could happen if more like him are deployed.

But, how can Leo be sure to convince people this is his plan?

My take is that it is easier to convince people what you say is true when they believe what they're being told is true. Leo can easily convince Harp that he intends to sacrifice millions of American lives, because his actions reflect what Harp did; sacrificing lives for the greater good.

That is why Leo chose Harp to join him.

Harp's chain-of-command wants smart, cool and capable people, but they can't have them not follow orders. Even if everyone in the chain-of-command realized they were being played, Leo is their worst nightmare. Smart capable, cool and will break the chain-of-command and sacrifice lives for the greater good.

Whether Leo's plan succeeded or failed didn't matter. It was the threat Leo posed that mattered. And that is why I think Leo allowed Harp to beat him, because his end goal was not to have more like him appear on the battlefields.

A programmable AI that doesn't follow orders is a good reason to cancel making more. 

Does this make Outside the Wire perfect? No, because the ending was not all it could be, because if it were then I wouldn't have to unpack it the way I did.

But as I said, "Worth giving this a watch if you like combat robots battling other combat robots."

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Post Annus Horribilis

Life would have more clarity if you could. Shit scary, but clarity.

I see everyone posting hopeful goodbye to 2020 and to a better 2012 (sic)... 2021 (doh!). Don't get me wrong, things will improve going forward, but a fixed date on the calendar isn't in and of itself a harbinger of change.

Last year I opined on how 2019 hadn't been a great year for me, but better than 2010. A year later I find myself again saying the obvious, 2020 wasn't great either. And funnily enough, still not worse for me than 2010, because no hospital admissions for emergency surgery for one.

This may sound callous, but in the bigger scheme of things I can only control those things I can control, and when it comes to my health, that isn't a certainty either.

We lost a lot of people to the global pandemic, but it could've been a whole lot worse, still shouldn't have been this bad (this isn't rocket science, just ask veterinarians on what to do).

My predictions for 2020 were pretty much spot on. 

If only I had thought to add something about a pandemic, people would've been amazed at my powers of prestidigitation. As it is, I can rest assured my lack in predicting the future will go unremarked. Which is a good thing. There's enough crazy in the world without me adding more.

My partner has been home for most of December, which has been lovely. It has helped me immensely too. The only intractable problem I appear to have at the moment is staying focused. I find myself distracted by things far too easily, and not in a good way.

You know? Oh look, something new and exciting... I must have the shiny thing kinda way.

Plans for this year: finish my next two novels, write a set of rules, and make and paint some more models. Simple goals that I can hope to achieve.

Catch you all on the bounce.


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