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Podcast script 24

 

mySF Project podcast, number 24

 

Download at http://media.libsyn.com/media/pataphysics/mysf_024_2009_06_21.mp3

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Podcast 24: Wall-E and machines of loving grace

 

Index:

Introduction
All watched over by machines of loving grace
Wall-E, Sisyphus and Butades
Wall-E, sentience and artificial intelligence
Wall-E and machines in the SF imagination
One way of looking at computer intelligence - the Ghost in the Shell arc
Wall-E is not an easy fit - has there been anything like it?
A cautionary note about Wall-E and eating disorders
Some parallels for Wall-E from SciFi suitable for secondary students
Building a new world in sound - the Ben Burtt extra on the Wall-E DVD
Resource list

 

Introduction

Podcast 24 looks at the Pixar animation distributed by Walt Disney Studios, Wall-E, directed by Andrew Stanton (2008). The film is discussed in the context of robotics and artificial intelligence as found in many Science Fiction texts, with a special focus on the unusual positioning of the characters as distracted guardians of humanity, if not the planet. This delightful film is recommended for students in Year 7, of about 12-13 years of age, and it fits into an unique niche in the ‘Ghost in the Shell’ theme area of the mySF Project.

Following recommendations in Podcast 23 to have students create their own SF podcasts, the final section looks at one of the ‘extras’ on the DVD version of Wall-E, the sharing of techniques for sound production by Sound Designer Ben Burtt.

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All watched over by machines of loving grace

Let me start with a stanza from Richard Brautigan’s 1968 poem ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’,

I like to think

(it has to be!)

of a cybernetic ecology

where we are free of our labours

and joined back to nature,

returned to our mammal

brothers and sisters,

and all watched over

by machines of loving grace.

(Brautigan, 1968)

Brautigan depicts a pastoral idyll of verdant fields. Humans stroll through soft grass down to a clear mountain stream. As they pass, kangaroos look up and ruminate, wombats pause briefly in their excavations of dark soil before returning to their quiet work. This is the great romantic dream of a return to nature where species are ‘brothers and sisters’ but most particularly, the whole vision is made possible by benevolent technologies standing sentinel on hilltops, blessing and protecting the innocent mammals.  

At the start of the film, Wall-E is very definitely a robot, a “machine created by human beings to perform some specific task or function”, as defined by Mann (2001) in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Wall-E has an obvious function, "some form of manual labour or monotonous assembly-line work in a factory". Wall-E’s function is to grasp loose rubbish and compress it into a tight cube. Wall-E has been doing this for seven hundred years, building ziggurats that show, like the rings of a tree, the spiral paths of his futile work.

Mann notes that "society’s technophobia can be measured by looking at how the opinions of robots have changed in SF over the years" (Mann, 2001) but that is too simple a notion. Certainly in Western SciFi robots are often threatening, Frankenstein-monster creatures that turn on their creator, but in Japanese SciFi culture the robot has been a friend, even a cute and playful pet.

Wall-E is clearly not an object to be feared. Instead, he is quirky, with goldfish eyes and tortoise reflexes. And of course in a description of the robot Wall-E I must slip into giving him a gender, and ascribe his interest in ancient musical comedies to human wistfulness, loneliness or even to romantic yearnings. This cannot be avoided, it is very definitely an ambition for the film. Younger secondary students will know this immediately.

Roberts, in Science Fiction: the new critical idiom (2000), speaks at some length of robots and machines but Wall-E the film, is not a case where the SF text dramatises and characterises our understanding of the alterity of machines (Roberts, 2000). Wall-E the robot is not ‘other’, he is much more like an eccentric friend from childhood.

The creators of Wall-E went to some trouble to make sure the robot lead character was not humanoid. As Baudrillard notes in his 'The Automation of the robot', found in McCaffery’s Storming the Reality Studio (1991), this robot’s truth is in its mechanical efficacy. Wall-E looks like a mobile machine for making rubbish cubes.

Wall-E is the last surviving clean-up robot and like many Apocalyptic narratives, his world is a vast, deserted Megapolis but this time it is towers of rubbish, not steel and glass that dominate the scape. An earlier podcast that looked at Last Man narratives covers this sub-genre of disaster in more depth and in Wall-E it is not as central. There is no valid correlative between Will Smith and his German Shepherd of I am Legend (Lawrence, 2007) and Wall-E with his cockroach in this film.

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Wall-E, Sisyphus and Butades

There are other correlatives of more value: Wall-E’s work building trash ziggurats links to the story of Sisyphus and this may be of interest to younger secondary students. While the activity may be unending and repetitive for Wall-E, it is not Sisyphean exactly because the rubbish structures do not tumble down – they stay intact, even if they are pointless.

Others have seen a likeness between Wall-E’s creation of the trash sculpture to honour Eva, and the legend of the first sculptor, Butades. The film Wall-E echoes the Greek legend, reminding us of the urge to create in response to beauty, if rather pointedly in this narrative the sculpture in question is household trash and the sculptor a sentient trash compacting device.  

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Wall-E, sentience and artificial intelligence

Wall-E the robot’s sentience is not examined in any great depth in the movie. For some reason, over the seven hundred years since the filthy Earth was abandoned by humanity, the robot Wall-E increased his capabilities and develops much more than was needed for simple mechanical efficacy.

Many SF texts focus on the nature of artificial intelligence and how it might arise and several of these are covered in the text pages of support in the Ghost in the Shell theme area of the mySF Project. For Wall-E I turn to the author of The Philosopher at the End of the Universe: philosophy explained through science fiction film. Rowlands (2003) tackles the thorny area of AI by noting that intelligence involves much more than the mere acquisition of information. “It involves being able to use that information in an appropriate way. What does ‘appropriate’ mean here? Roughly, it means ‘used in such a way as to further your own goals and plans’” (Rowlands, 2003).

The philosophic generic terms for goals and plans are beliefs and desires. The goal is a desire of some sort, Rowland (2003) says, that a certain situation comes about and a plan is a kind of belief that, “if you do such and such, certain things will happen” (Rowlands, 2003). Wall-E desires the egg-shaped or iPod-like robot Eva in some fashion hard to describe and believes that she can reciprocate his feelings. He acts according to a desire for Eva and a belief in a future attachment, though ‘attachment’ is a difficult term for two machines. Curiously, it is the very real attachment of Eva and Wall-Es hands that demonstrates their unique relationship throughout the film. The joining of hands and two single sparks of energy between the two robots are as close as the film Wall-E comes to manifesting the love between the robots.

Rowlands proves that machines can not have minds and therefore can not possess intelligence. Wall-E is a “purely physical thing” and minds are non-physical. He says, “there is some part of us that is quite different from our physical bodies and the rest of the physical world. This part is our mind, and whatever else it is, it is not physical” (Rowlands, 2003). He reminds us that the mind has no mass, “is not made up of recognised physical particles such as atoms and molecules, and does not obey laws of nature such as … the law of energy conservation.” Wall-E and Eva are “just machines, and while they might do what we program them to do, true intelligence is beyond them.” (Rowlands, 2003)

It is the suspension of our disbelief that allows us to imagine Wall-E and Eva having minds, sharing goals and beliefs and even forming romantic relationships, but these are crucial, as seen by fanfiction stories such as Irene Molloy’s ‘The Garden’ at the collaborative www.walleforum.com. Young viewers have continued the romance right up to the plighting of eternal love with mechanoid sighs of ‘Walleeee!’

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Wall-E and machines in the SF imagination

In their Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Nicholls and Clute (1995) note that SciFi can be considered a genre in which machines are more important than people. They state that “various kinds of machine have exerted a powerful fascination upon the SF imagination, and the social impact of technology has been a continual concern in SF” (Nicholls & Clute, 1995).

Eva, the amazing and svelte robot who has a Laserblaster in one arm, might engender concern but Wall-E is surely too timid and nice to raise apprehension, you might think, but Dave Allen (2009) in a post on Pampelmoose sees the film Wall-E as a parable for human extinction. Allen quotes from Gray’s Straw Dogs: thoughts on humans and other animals (2002) with an astonishing predication,

Those who fear conscious machines do so because they think that consciousness is the most valuable feature of humans - and because they fear anything they cannot subject to their will. They fear the evolution of conscious machines for the same reason they seek to become masters of the Earth… As machines slip from human control they will do more than become conscious. They will become spiritual beings, whose inner life is no more limited by conscious thought than ours. Not only will they think and have emotions. They will develop the errors and illusions that go with self-awareness (Gray in Allen, 2009).

Rowlands, who told the reader that mind was an ineffable quality impossible for machines nevertheless issued similar warnings in 2003,

It may be that as the universe evolves towards greater and greater intelligence, and so greater and greater understanding of itself, these mechanoid intelligences, these silicon-based life forms, will leave us behind. The next step in evolution may be upon us, and we may be its progenitors but not its participants. And, then, who knows, a bad end may be in store for us all. (Rowlands, 2003)

This fear of machine evolution is not new. The ‘Ghost in the Shell’ section of the mySF Project points to just a few of the myriad short stories and visual texts from the earliest popular SciFi onwards.

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One way of looking at computer intelligence - the Ghost in the Shell arc

I think it’s worth pausing for a moment to look at how a study of computer intelligence might be examined with secondary students, as it relates directly to Wall-E the film.

The ‘Ghost in the Shell’ theme area is designed as an arc. On the bottom left of this arc are the stories where a computer (often a vast machine with glowing dials and fed by a tape) seems to either become sentient, either by accident or by its own learning. An example here involving a computer’s love for a woman is Kurt Vonnegut Junior’s ‘Epicac’.

Moving up and to the right we arrive at a position where these machines are more divorced from people. They can even be machines from another planet. These machines have some distinctly human characteristics, often involving hostility to humanity or at least a challenge to human domination by a competing will or intelligence. These narratives are plentiful, with films like Colossus: the Forbin Project (1970), Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey (1968) and a plethora of stories, such as Simak’s ‘Skirmish’.

Further along the arc are the robots with their complex needs, sometimes competing with humans, sometimes slaves, pets or companions, and often questioning the reader about the nature of humanity itself, as seen, of course, in the wonderful Asimov narratives such as ‘Robbie’ (1940) and ‘Robot Dreams’ (1986).

Pacing down the arc are found the narratives where people and machines are starting to mix. It might be that the machine has a human mind, or the human has parts or the whole of a machine carapace, but now the secondary reader and viewer is confronted by a ‘merging’, seen readily and with wonderful help from Donna Haraway’s ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ (1991) in the early Borg stories from the Star Trek: Next Generation series, such as ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ (Bole, 1990).

There is help again with the movement into and beyond the machine with the simple but effective ‘Warhead’ episode from Star Trek: Voyager (Kretchmer, 1999) and Data from Star Trek: NG, in ‘Measure of a Man’ (Scheerer, 1989). These sentient machines, one a tactical warhead and the other a ‘fully functioning’ android show the best attributes of humanity without being human at all and in their own way rebuke and correct us.

Further down the arc are the many texts that grew upon Sterling and Gibson’s Cyberpunk sub-genre and here the short story ‘Burning Chrome’ (Gibson, 1982) is used with older secondary students. Through a cable fitted below the left ear or through a silicon chip implanted directly into the brain, humans can access, then become part of the ‘consensual hallucination’ of the Matrix, a more virtualised internet. And what do the hackers and jockeys meet in the Matrix? They meet artificial intelligences floating free, following their own agendas, sometimes trying to assist humanity in the ugly neon world of the near future.

The end of the arc is a complete separation from the body, a mind online or a mind in a completely artificial body. Some of these narratives show a craving, a longing for the purity of mind alone with information, as seen in Greg Egan’s digital yet human intelligence who strands himself in deep space to work out, from first principles, the laws of mathematics.

Others pursue a more traditional course, wondering what it is to be human and exactly where the boundaries of machine and mind lie. For this end of the arc the first Ghost in the Shell (Oshii, 1995) movie is used with older secondary students, with good results.

It seems churlish to bring in Anime only with Ghost in the Shell (Oshii, 1995) right at the arc’s terminus. There are so many other anime texts directly focused on the area of this study that two dozen could be inserted along points as the arc descends to a complete liberation from the physical body. To redress this, Podcast 28 looks in detail at one critic’s view of the anime Patlabor 2 focusing on the way modern life can be mediated by technology, a subject close to the hearts of many students in middle and upper secondary years.

So, now that the ‘Ghost in the Shell’ arc is traced, where does Wall-E the film fall. It would be easy to reply that it is a film about robots and people, so there it is near the top. It is also about artificial intelligence and the ability for a machine to love and again these themes relate directly to well-known examples.

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Wall-E is not an easy fit - has there been anything like it?

It is important to note that Wall-E does not fit easily into the arc structure, even next to allied ideas seen in films like A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Spielberg, 2001) or Bicentennial Man (Columbus, 1999).

Wall-E must be placed outside the arc that traces humankind’s interactions with computers. Why? Because Wall-E is about two robots in a traditional love story who meet, share little in common, then through travail, find each other. Humans are not incidental to the movie, but they are not essential apart from the narrative device of the mission to return humanity to Earth to start life again.

At no stage do these robots want to destroy humankind, or conquer the world. They have programmed directives and they have love and these are the two fundamental forces in their lives.

Not one of the many robots in Wall-E wants to harm humans. Even the Autopilot of the vast ship where some of the remnants of humanity lounge about is following programming given by its human creator. No machine has any malice for a human.

In Wall-E it is also clear that humans have destroyed the Earth with pollution. The machines are built to clean it up and to care for the humans in exile. It is not machine intelligence evolution that is the cause for fear in Wall-E, it is the evolution of humans into blubbery consumers living virtual lives that is should give concern.

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A cautionary note about Wall-E and eating disorders

As a cautionary note for some teachers, schools in the USA have complained about the depiction of humans wallowing around on hovering beds like vapid jellies. Teachers engaged in campaigns fighting obesity have complained that plump children were picked on after the movie and some children could not watch for fear of seeing themselves in these boneless, bean-bag bodies. Parents were alarmed by the movie for their children with eating disorders.

Other critics drew attention to the essentially horrifying message of a post-apocalyptic Earth, feeling the film was a child’s version of Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (Guggenheim, 2006). Others pointed to the director of Wall-E, Andrew Stanton, with his Christian beliefs, retelling the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark.

For their part, NASA used the various launches of Wall-E to display ‘walkers’, landing equipment and space flight movies, then worked with Pixar and Disney to create simulations and games, based on Wall-E’s journey into space following Eva.

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Some parallels for Wall-E from SciFi suitable for secondary students

Leaving aside political, Biblical or dietary readings, the most obvious parallels within the SciFi genre for Wall-E point back to the clever little robots who maintain Earth’s last gardens in the movie Silent Running (Trumbull, 1972) and certainly to the rather annoying defence robot that becomes sentient, Johnny 5 in Short Circuit (Badham, 1986). Johnny 5 has a strong romantic streak and incorporates a laser blaster but most of all he is a pain in the neck, more of a comic side-kick than a character in his own right. His role is to expedite the love affair between two humans, rather than to explore his own sentience.

Wall-E deserves to be studied in its own right. It stands quite apart from so many of the other intelligent machines, robots or discorporate minds of SciFi narratives, yet is an excellent point for comparison for any study of humanity’s complex relationships with the machine. It stands on its own also because it ends with simple animations over the credits showing Eva and Wall-E helping rebuild and revegetate the Earth. These two robots are a loving, yet asexual couple who have new prime directives, to assist humans to rediscover the physicality of their selves and their home planet. It is a truly unique idea in a short, charming and beautiful narrative.

Eva and Wall-E are the ‘machines of loving grace’ (Brautigan, 1968) watching over us, freeing us from our labours, as we rediscover our planet and our selves.

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Building a new world in sound - the Ben Burtt extra on the Wall-E DVD

As a final bonus for teachers the Wall-E (2008) DVD version includes a short film called ‘Animation Sound Design: Building Worlds from the Sound Up’. In Podcast 23 the X Minus One radio series was discussed and one of the ideas was for students to create their own SciFi podcast. This short film as a bonus of ten minutes on the Wall-E DVD will certainly help with that project.

Sound Designer Ben Burtt from the Disney Studios worked on Wall-E from an early stage. With the director of the movie and other commentators, Ben Burtt discusses the creation of the remarkable sound track by catching or creating real sounds and in some cases adding digital effects to these. This short film shows some of the early Disney films with their sound effects and how they were made, cutting back and forth to Wall-E. It is an excellent short film that would be most useful to a Media class and will assist students creating their own SciFi narrative podcasts, challenging them to turn away from downloadable sounds from websites or CD disks of effects and instead use the school’s found objects with a portable digital recorder to bend and transmute their own creations into a sound environment that brings authenticity to their created worlds.

Wall-E on DVD is strongly recommended for use with younger secondary students studying Science Fiction. Its genesis is in hundreds of texts related to thinking machines in this genre but it also stands apart.

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Resource list

Allen, D.                                     (2009). ‘Wall-E: a parable for our eventual extinction’, in www.pampelmoose.com. Retrieved 14 May, 2009 from http://www.pampelmoose.com/2008/07/wall-e-a-parable-for-our-eventual-extinction

Asimov, I.                                    (1940). ‘Robbie’. Also known as ‘Strange Playfellows’. Super Science Stories. September issue.

Asimov, I.                                    (1986). ‘Robot Dreams’. In Robot Dreams. Ace Books.

Badham, J. (Director).                  (1986). Short Circuit. Written by Willson, S. and Maddock, B. TriStar Pictures.

Bole, C. (Director)                        (1990). ’The Best of Both Worlds’. Episode 35 of the Third Season of Star Trek: Next Generation. Written by Michael Piller. 

Brautigan, R.                               (1968). ‘All watched over by machines of loving grace’. The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster. San Francisco: Seymore Lawrence/Delacorte Press.

Columbus, C. (Director).              (1999). Bicentennial Man. Based on the short story by Isaac Asimov. Columbia Pictures.

Gibson, W.                                 (1982). ‘Burning Chrome’. Omni Magazine. July Edition.

Gray, J.                                      (2002) Straw Dogs: thoughts on human and other animals. Great Britain: Granta Books.

Guggenheim, D. (Director).         (2006). An Inconvenient Truth. Written by Al Gore. Paramount Classics.

Haraway, D.                                 (1991). "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature.  New York; Routledge, pp.149-181.

Kretchmer, J. (Director)                (1999). ‘Warhead’. Episode 25, Fifth Season of Star Trek: Voyager. Written by Taylor, M., Biller, K. and Braga, B.

Kubrick, S. (Director)                    (1968). 2001: a Space Odyssey. Written by Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. Warner Home Video.

Lawrence, F. (Director)                (2007). I am Legend. Written by Goldsman, A. and Protosevich, M., from the novel by Richard Matheson. Warner Brothers.

Mann, G. (Editor)                         (2001). The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers.

Molloy, I.                                     (2008). ‘The Garden’. Walleforum.com. Retrieved 12 May, 2009 from http://walleforum.com/index.php?topic=535.0

McCaffery (Editor)                        (1991). Storming the Reality Studio: a casebook of cyberpunk and postmodern fiction. USA: Duke University Press.

Nichols, P. & Clute, J.                  (1994). Grolier Science Fiction: the multimedia encyclopedia of science fiction. Danbury, Conneticut: Grolier Electronic Publishing.

Oshii, M. (Director)                        (1993). Patlabor 2. Written by Kazunori Ito. Sydney: Madman DVD version.

Oshii, M. (Director).                       (1995). Ghost in the Shell. Also known as Ghost in the Shell/Mobile Armoured Riot Police. Adapted from the Manga by Masamune Shirow. Sydney: Madman DVD version.

Roberts, A.                                   (2000). Science Fiction: the new critical idiom. London: Routledge.

Rowlands, M.                               (2003). The Philosopher at the End of the Universe: philosophy explained through science fiction films.  London: Ebury Press.

Sargent, J. (Director).                   (1970). Colossus: the Forbin Project. Written by Bridges, J and Jones, DF. Universal Pictures.

Scheerer, R. (Director).                (1989) ‘Measure of a Man’. Episode 35 of Second Season, Star Trek: the Next Generation. Written by Snodgrass, M.

Simak, C.                                   (1950). ‘Skirmish’. Also known as ‘Bathe your bearings in blood’. Amazing Stories.

Spielberg, S. (Director).               (2001). A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Based on the short story by Brian Aldiss. Warner Brothers.

Stanton, A. (Director).                  (2008). Wall-E. Written by Docter, P, Reardon, A. and Stanton, A. Pixar Animation Studios. Distributed by Disney Studios.

Trumball, D. (Director).                 (1972). Silent Running. Written by Washburn, D., Cimino, M. and Bocho, S. Universal Pictures.

Vonnegut, K. (Jnr.)                       (1974). ‘Epicac’. In Science Fiction, Science Fact. Edited by Farrell, E., Gage, T., Pfordresher, J. and Rodrigues, R. Glenview Illinois: Scott Foresman and Company.

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ends

Michael Sisley

 

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