In the real world, almost every adult has a smart phone in his or her pocket and many also utilize virtual assistants, but more advanced technology from smart thermostats to self-parking cars remain fewer and farther between. The reel world, though, is opting to go beyond reflecting what average citizens have in their lives today, instead telling a sleek but often cautionary tale of the technology of the near future.
“Part of what I think is fun about science fiction is getting a little preview of what life might be like and what certain issues might happen if life develops in this direction,” says Greg Daniels, who created “Upload,” Amazon Prime Video’s new streaming comedy that follows a young app developer (Robbie Amell) whose memories and consciousness gets uploaded into a digital afterlife so he can, theoretically, live forever.
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“Upload” is just one in a recent wave of new series that are out to explore the deceptive ease emerging technology offers for one’s life, while said technology also causes all kinds of new problems. Alex Garland’s FX on Hulu limited series “Devs” is another that specifically looks at the creation of a digital afterlife, raising questions about fate versus free will and whether man should be given so much power at all, while both HBO’s “Westworld” and Fox’s upcoming drama “Next” follow technological creations that evolve well-past their programming.
“If all of our thoughts and memories are information — a staggering amount of information — eventually you should be able to record and capture it all because it’s a finite amount. So I had this idea if we could reconstitute ourselves in some kind of virtual reality then mankind can create its own afterlife, and wouldn’t it have all of the drawbacks of society on Earth? Mankind created it, so it wouldn’t be all that fair and it would be capitalistic,” says Daniels. “What if some people with the means can upload but other people can’t, and what if people stop investing in the Earth because they don’t care, they’re saving it up for later?”
In “Devs,” a grieving father named Forest (Nick Offerman) “stumbles into” the power to use quantum computing to determine a person’s fate and the ability to send consciousness to a digital afterlife where they can be with their loved ones as if they never died.
“The key principle for me with Forest, always, was that he wasn’t a tech genius — he was someone who was there at the right time,” Garland says. “If I have a critique of tech geniuses in this show, it’s that: We confuse lucky entrepreneurs with geniuses. And then the non-genius entrepreneur might believe he is a genius because everyone is telling them so, and that’s where the trouble starts.”
“Devs” mixes themes of religion with themes of technology because Garland considers them “versions of the same thing: They’re devotional, they’re faith-based, they make us feel dizzy, they make us feel small, they make us feel comforted,” he says, citing “the way in which the product launch of a new piece of tech can look like a very excited, feverish church meeting.”
All of these shows depict such devotion — often leading to great destruction — despite even the best of intentions. In “Devs,” Sergei (Karl Glusman) becomes physically ill when he learns what Forest’s code really does, and Forest has him killed. (Admittedly, he does resurrect him in that digital afterlife, making him what Garland calls “damaged” and “complicated,” rather than a “bad guy.”) “Westworld” spent its first two seasons peeling back the layers of both the people who both built and frequented the robot host-filled theme parks that let them play out their wildest childhood dreams, no matter how sadistic they turned out to be, and the hosts themselves as some of them gained awareness of their situation. And in “Next,” a pair of brothers (played by John Slattery and Jason Butler Harner) fall on opposite sides of what to do about an A.I. that develops into a super-intelligence and begins to manipulate the lives of those who are trying to shut it down.
Even though dramatic license is taken for the level to which these technologies evolve in these stories, the majority of the science is rooted in fact, which requires an ongoing research process, especially as the real world of technology changes over time.
“The most science fiction element of the show this season was that people actually reacted to the Incite data leak,” says “Westworld” co-creator and co-showrunner Jonathan Nolan. “We understand in the abstract that people are monitoring and surveilling you, having that dumped back on you should have people freaking out but most likely, if I look at the track record, it probably won’t. You’re totally fine with the idea that if you get a Gmail account that the algorithm reads your email!”
In the third season of the genre-bending drama, former theme park host Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) sets out in the real world to take down mankind. She creates copies of her own coding and uploads them into other host bodies to do her bidding around the world, and she also sends everyone in the world copies of their “files” from Incite, a company that has been monitoring their activity and using an algorithm to predict their future based on past behaviors.
The very real blockchain technology is a foundational element in the third season of “Westworld.” That show features some “radical and cinematic” technology such as flying vehicles and limbic implants that regulate psychological function, Nolan notes, more commonly, elements that follow current technology trend lines so the writers can “talk about is our world right now,” he explains. This includes an app that allows the “gig economy to be applied to crime,” in addition to data monitoring.
Additionally, in “Westworld,” Engerraund Serac (Vincent Cassel) was able to cement his control over society and reorganize the economy by fixing global warming. But, in order to do so, “you would need an A.I.,” Nolan says. “We have created a situation that humans are probably not going to be able to fix; they’re going to need a certain amount of algorithmic help to unf— the planet.”
Manny Coto, who created and runs “Next,” says that the development of an A.I. into a super-intelligence now is still speculative, but “there are computer scientists that say we are only five years away from something like this happening.” For the rest of the technology in the series, he wanted to stay grounded in what “more or less average citizens experience on a daily level,” he shares. “I didn’t want this series to take place in the world of tech, so to speak. I wanted a lot of this to take place in our homes because technology advances, but that technology doesn’t trickle down to the average person for a while.”
This manifests itself in an episode that explores smart lightbulbs that are touted as helping a consumer cut energy costs but can also be used to monitor a person due to the infrared pulses they give off, as well as one that looks into deep fakes, something Coto admits he “rushed” into the first season as they started to become more prominently discussed in the news media.
Similarly, Garland wanted to ensure that any theories discussed in “Devs” were real ones “so if somebody was going to research it, they would find the show did its best to give a fair account; it wasn’t just sexing it up,” he says. And when it came to the look of the quantum computer and where it was kept in the company within the show, he consulted with a friend who actually works in artificial intelligence.
“The quantum computer at the core of the Devs cube is structured on what an actual quantum computer looks like when you strip away its shell, and the floating cube itself is a mathematical conceit that you often see generated on computers; it’s a fractal shape,” he explains. “We had a conversation about, ‘If you had a program or a system that you wanted to keep very, very secret, what are the measures that you would take in order to do that?’ I remember one of the things he talked about was vacuum seals, as well as having systems that had no plug-in ports.”
Whether explicitly through dialogue or simply in the questions the stories raise for the audience, all of these shows invite the discussion of whether or not this technology is enhancing our lives.
For Nolan, the danger comes from assuming the algorithms created to add ease to one’s life are doing so in a fair and just way.
“They’re not,” he says. “They’re subject to the biases of the people who made them. So in ‘Westworld’ the question was [about] trusting an A.I. to reorganize the world economy to avoid destroying the world, what happens after that? Having made that deal in ‘Westworld’ to save us from catastrophic human activity-caused climate change, you put the algorithm in charge, and once you have put the algorithm in charge, can you ever vote it out of office? It’s bad now with Facebook, with Google, with the mass of technologies that are completely unregulated and have already had potentially disastrous consequences for democracy.”
Regardless of “if” we should tinker with technology, the fact is that we already are.
“Some form of super-intelligence will probably happen. The question is when — sooner or later?” says Coto. “And when it does, it’s going to transform everything. And it will be a version of who has the atom bomb: Whichever country has the first one will be the country that wins. So how can we prepare?”
Perhaps by paying extra close attention to what goes wrong in these stories.