Co.Design

How I Mashed "2001" And "Tron" Into A Tragic Love Story About Human-Machine Interaction

The video created by our own John Pavlus for Jascha’s "Limited" asks: What if an artificial intelligence like HAL wasn’t evil, but just misunderstood?

The last time I wrote about science-journalist/songwriter Jascha Hoffman, it was about his music video remixing old Little Nemo comics into a new story. His new music video for the song "Limited," uses a similar collage technique—remixing scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Robocop, TRON, Moon, and WarGames to tell an unrequited sci-fi love story—and I should know, since I made it. Did you ever think you could empathize with an "unfeeling" machine?

I’ve been curious for a while about whether I could re-edit images, shots, and scenes from well-known movies to tell different stories from the ones I borrowed them from. It also seemed like an intriguing challenge to take images that have acquired so much “baggage” over the years—like HAL’s glowering cyclops eye, which has become visual shorthand for “evil machine”—and try to attach completely opposite emotional associations to them. The music video for “Limited” seemed like a great opportunity to experiment with this approach, since the song instantly suggested to me a science-fiction short story—and what better way to conjure up sci-fi production value than by borrowing it from some of the most iconic films of the past 45 years?

Jascha describes the song as "something of a Pinocchio story, about a machine that wants to be a real human being." I saw a story about interfaces and how they’re, well, limited. The stories of 2001, WarGames, and TRON—and to a subtler extent, Moon and Robocop—are all about this problem: misunderstandings between meat and machine, and the hurt it causes us humans. It’s a classic sci-fi trope. But what if the shoe was on the other foot—what if it was the machine who really got hurt in the end?

After all, if we really could create an artificial intelligence, who’s to say that we’d be able to effectively communicate with it—or, more importantly, it with us—with the coarse, lo-fi channels and interfaces we build? Heck, we can barely communicate with our pets without chewed furniture and pooped-in shoes being part of the give-and-take. What if a being like HAL in 2001—alien and alone—wasn’t actually murderous, but just misunderstood: like a dog who plays too roughly with its owner and ends up being put down for its mistake? That’s the kind of tragedy-in-miniature that I tried to tell, using pieces of these classic interface-dystopia films.

As I was finishing the edit, I was reminded of BERG's blog post about man/machine interfaces and "consumer-grade artificial intelligence" called "Be as Smart as a Puppy." The idea is that instead of trying (and failing) to design machines to be as smart as we are—to be our equals—we should settle for making them only as "smart" as is necessary to forge simple, positive, useful emotional connections with us, like pets. (Think Roomba versus Asimo—or this Wall-E-esque robot from MIT Media Lab.) Interfaces are limited; things get lost in translation. Why fight it? That way, nobody gets hurt.

At least, no humans do.

[Download "Limited" for free at Jascha Hoffman’s site]

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