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#382. Sentient Operating Systems

While most people use a plentitude of computers daily, few take time to think about the Operating Systems (OS) on these computers. Sure, when Windows is acting up or if iOS crashes, we become aware of the OS controlling the ubiquitous amount of computers and smartphones we use; but for the most part, we don’t realize how powerful an OS can be. In the end, these Operating Systems still function on the concept of inputs and outputs. There’s not much room to “think” when computer code dictates reactions to stimuli. This is one of the reasons why the computers we use sometimes fail: if a condition is introduced that it doesn’t know how to handle, an OS will either not respond or crash the system. What if these OS were sentient, though? What if they could think through unexpected inputs? This week’s two films highlight some of the advantages and disadvantages of sentient Operating Systems.

Year: 2013
Rating: R
Length: 126 minutes / 2.10 hours

Sentience as a concept is sometimes difficult to nail down. Regarding artificial intelligences (AIs), it tends to refer to a computer that can think and react like a human. Of course, why stop at meeting human capabilities, when a simple series of upgrades could advance an AI past the level of humans. This then begs the question: what makes us human? Many AI-type assistants like Siri and Alexa exist today, with the main interface being that of semi-natural human dialogue. If a computer is nothing more than a voice, is it sentient? Would it need a body to truly “become human?” Movies like Ex Machina (2014) examine the Turing test to determine if an android acts like a human. Considering how often we interact with humans via text and voice interfaces, perhaps a physical body isn’t even necessary. Perhaps all we need is a voice, like in Her (2013).

While we have personal computerized assistants today, they only respond to us when we ask them to. In the near future, there will be talking Operating Systems with artificial intelligence that will actively prompt us with tasks for them to accomplish. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is still reeling from his divorce, so he decides to buy one of these assistants and give it a female voice. While “Samantha” (Scarlett Johansson) initially organizes his inbox and reads his e-mail, she eventually becomes involved with his life. Theodore is amazed at the rapid progression of the AI’s learning, but as Samantha tries to get to know her owner, the two of them gradually fall in love. This development results in a few awkward situations as people start to judge Theodore for his peculiar relationship and as Samantha is unable to be with Theodore in a physical capacity.

2001: A Space Odyssey2001: A Space Odyssey
Year: 1968
Rating: G
Length: 149 minutes / 2.48 hours

People often worry more about a robot apocalypse like the one portrayed in the Terminator franchise, mostly due to the incessant and unstoppable drive of robots to complete their objectives. What they fail to realize is that the true “master” of a robot apocalypse would be the AI that has gained sentience and determined humans are a threat to its primary mission or survival. Ergo, the true villain of The Terminator (1984) isn’t the robot itself, but the Skynet OS that controls it. In our ever-connected “internet of things” world, how much control of our lives have we already given to a single OS? We’re not likely to be shot by metallic androids as much as we are going to be driven off cliffs in self-driving cars. Privacy is the hot-button topic of today, but cybersecurity to protect ourselves from sentient operating systems is the enemy just peeking around the corner.

Created in the late 1990s, the Heuristically programmed Algorithmic computer, or HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain), is put in charge of a mission to Jupiter after a strange, ancient monolith is found on the moon. Of course, the mission pilots, Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) don’t realize they aren’t the ones in charge of the mission. Both humans are suspicious when minor problems start popping up, but Hal ensures them he is performing at full capacity. While Bowman and Poole attempt to gain some privacy to discuss potentially turning Hal off, the sentient OS can read their lips and realizes his life is in danger. Hal kills Poole and doesn’t allow Bowman to re-enter the spacecraft. David does finally find his way inside and shuts Hal down, but by now the ship is at Jupiter where another monolith is found orbiting the gas giant. David ventures out to investigate.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 computerized consciousnesses

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