The curious, contentious relationship between entertainment and IT

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Tech writer Nathan Kimpel blows common entertainment tropes that misconstrue the realities of information technology.A while back, I wrote about my favorite movies that *don’t* completely screw up their depictions of information technology (IT). You can read that piece over at GoCertify. Today I’m thinking about the far more common side of that coin: the stuff in movies (and on TV) that look like IT, and quacks like IT, but actually couldn’t be further from the reality of IT.

One of my favorite beefs is about movies of any genre that present any android or robot character that is indistinguishable from humans — its appearance, speech, and movements are 100 percent lifelike. This is, of course, not remotely within the grasp of current technology, and there are many who believe it will never be possible.

Ex Machina is a 2015 psychological thriller follows a young programmer who is selected to be the human component in a Turing test to determine the capabilities and consciousness of a new artificial intelligence robot. AI isn’t a new concept in cinema, but this recent Oscar-nominated movie has solidified itself as one of the best.

It essentially warns of a not-too-distant day when robots become indistinguishable from us and the ethical implications that arise from that. If you had a human without form in a box, would it be OK to torture it? Is it OK to make AI into slaves? Who are you going to say made your AI when it asks you who God is?

Ex Machina questions how far innovation should be pursued and the morality of playing God. As corporations rush to develop better AI in real life, these are all issues that need to be given thought before the tech is unleashed on our world.

I love this movie and others like it — don’t get me wrong — but the “I can’t tell by looking at you that you are a robot” aspect is so far out of reach that it is sometimes off-putting when movies treat it like a next step that is almost here already. Everyone who is reading these words right now will not be alive when a robot looks and acts enough like a human being to fool an actual human being.

Next up is the notion of predictive analytics that is all over the movies, as with the Numb3rs TV show or one of my Top 5 movies: Minority Report. Quantum computing may speed up the evolution of predictive analytics, but current cinematic examples always sticks in my mind like a splinter (Matrix reference for those paying attention), forcing me to think, rather than just enjoy the movie that I’m watching.

While futuristic Steven Spielberg’s futuristic thriller may be forgettable as a whole, its premise of cops using people with precognitive abilities to stop crimes before they happen is definitely not. We’re a few years away from that actually happening, but there’s not a doubt in my mind that there are programmers working on algorithms to make it a reality in a more digital sense.

Some law enforcement officials even see Minority Report as a blueprint of the future of preventing crime, not as a cautionary tale. The ethical implications are wide-ranging, and the legality of arresting someone who hasn’t actually committed a crime is a rabbit hole our society is surely headed down.

The movie explores how tech can help keep us safer, but also how it can spectacularly backfire if not used properly. We probably won’t have to worry about such backfiring, however, for many years. After all, we can’t predict offshore oil spills or traffic slowdowns to the point where we can prevent them — and the movies are already working on crime and criminal intent and smart bombs.

Movie people love sexy content — it sells tickets. What if such content could be sold, however, to the point of actually convincing your brain to form a romantic attachment? Ever see the movie Her? It touches upon this question and a few others.

Tech writer Nathan Kimpel blows common entertainment tropes that misconstrue the realities of information technology.You don’t often see a romantic comedy based on technological advances, but Her blends the two seamlessly. This Oscar-winning film follows a lonely man who develops a relationship with an advanced AI virtual assistant that’s personified through a female voice. Their bond escalates to a sexual level as the AI evolves, but the man is later crushed when he finds out that his “girl” has progressed beyond reserving “her” affections for a single individual.

Released when virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa were just getting started, Her does an incredible job of exploring the consequences of an AI’s becoming more intelligent and life-like. It delves into futuristic interfaces and the emotional trauma caused by substituting something artificial for something that is real.

What it gets wrong is that AI, by its very nature, doesn’t have the biological imperatives needed to pine after sex, let alone its precursors. Good movie, but way off on the tech underpinning to not be noticed. Anything that blends AI love and human emotion doesn’t land.

Next up, I’ll put a cover over two flames that burn bright for me — two of my favorite movies. Tron: Legacy and The Matrix. Let’s tackle Tron: Legacy first. This sci-fi thriller sequel isn’t exactly an Oscar winner, but the 1982 original cult classic Tron was one of the first films to envision the world inside a computer network or video game.

Its influence can still be seen in new movies like Ready Player One and Ralph Breaks the Internet. Tron: Legacy follows the son of a virtual world designer who goes looking for his father and ends up trapped inside the digital reality he created.

The film explores the universal theme of finding a human connection in a digital world. It doesn’t do this especially well, but the original also touched on the plight of real-life programmers or startup founders who have their work stolen by big names or corporations.

New programmers getting crushed by the real-world corporations is a much more realistic scenario than someone living inside a simulation. And then we have The Matrix.

I have to say here that The Matrix is my all-time favorite movie. This story of a dystopian future is cutting it close to the arbitrary timeframe I’ve set for me list, but no discussion of movies and technology wouldn’t be complete without it.

The Matrix has had a significant impact on pop culture and influenced countless other movies, shows, video games, and novels since its release. It suggests our world is [SPOILER ALERT] an illusion, a computer simulation meant to keep humanity docile while sentient machines farm our bio-electric energy to survive. [END SPOILER]

A human hacker discovers the reality and embarks on a quest to find out, as the movie puts it, “how deep the rabbit hole goes.” The sequels continue the battle of machines vs. humans, and they will leave you questioning just about everything in your life. It seems crazy, but maybe we’re living in a simulation right now. Whoa.

Both of these movies are fun to watch but considering the matrix code and the Tron display are just a few megabytes on the screen, you can’t underpin a solid technology framework after that. They are just meant to be fun, not make you think through the technology. I think the thing they truly get wrong is that they both, and all the movies like them, put the viewer in a starting point that can’t ever exist.

Tech writer Nathan Kimpel blows common entertainment tropes that misconstrue the realities of information technology.Last up on the list is the “accidental hack.” Like in WarGames, or similar movies where the protagonist or the anit-hero stumbles on a facility that houses crazy secrets such as the launch codes for nukes — sorry, but there are no such “stumble on” situations in real life.

Another thing that always happens in movies is the “untraceable” aspect. We even have whole movies named for this. To think that anything you do is not trackable is a fallacy. You are being traced and watched and everything about you is recorded. We are living in a world where making a phone call lights up your whereabouts.

Any movie or TV show where they are streaming live video of someone being kidnapped or shown — sorry not really a reality now. I read an article recently where authors are having a hard time killing off cell phones or Google as solutions to problems in their narrative.

Last up on my “pick on” list is Mr. Robot. Amazing TV program on the USA network that I am currently watching, and that I currently love. It’s not part of this article because it’s spot on. Hats off to Elliot.

I guess my point is that entertainment is … entertainment. It doesn’t matter whether the technology is incorrect on your favorite TV show or movie as long as you enjoy it. Have fun watching!

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Nathan Kimpel

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nathan Kimpel is a seasoned information technology and operations executive with a diverse background in all areas of company functionality, and a keen focus on all aspects of IT operations and security. Over his 20 years in the industry, he has held every job in IT and currently serves as a Project Manager in the St. Louis (Missouri) area, overseeing 50-plus projects. He has years of success driving multi-million dollar improvements in technology, products and teams. His wide range of skills include finance, ERP and CRM systems. Certifications include PMP, CISSP, CEH, ITIL and Microsoft.

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