5 Important Themes in Science Fiction Cinema, or Cultivating Bad Taste

Posted in culture, humor on February 21st, 2011 by Samuel Kenyon

Yesterday I attended the 48th episode of Boskone, a science fiction literature convention held in Boston.  I found that Boskone was not just about books however, illuminating me with discussion panels such as “The Five Definitive Criteria By Which SF Cinema Is to Be Judged.”

Robot Monster

Warning: This blog post is about to get silly.

The panel consisted of Esther Friesner, Craig Shaw Gardner (lord of obscure SF movies), Ginjer Buchanan, and Bruce Coville.

"Five Definitive Criteria..." panel @ Boskone 48

They considered science fiction writer John C. Wright’s criteria:

1. Is there a hot babe in a skintight and/or revealing future-suit?



2. Is there a gorilla?

Bride of the Gorilla

Bride of the Gorilla

3. Is there a robot?

The Gunslinger from Westworld

The Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) from Westworld

4. Does any character have Way Cool mind powers?

Big Trouble in Little China

Big Trouble in Little China

5. Does a planet get blown up?

exploding planet

This shit just got real.

The gorilla requirement forced the large part of the discussion into the realm of cheap B movies such as Rock ‘N’ Roll Wrestling Women Vs. the Aztec Ape. In fact, the only two non-B movies featuring gorillas I can think of off the top of my head are Congo and Mighty Joe Young.

Of course, if you stretch the definition of gorilla to include other kinds of apes, you can start considering the Planet of the Apes movies and 2001: A Space Odyssey. But even those don’t meet all the criteria. Many movies get 4/5, for instance Star Trek (2009) and Forbidden Planet.

Forbidden Planet

Forbidden Planet

The most obvious movie that can meet all five criteria is Star Wars: Episode IV, if “gorillas” is stretched to include Wookies.

I pointed out to the panel that if we include TV series, then Aqua Teen Hunger Force has definitely met all five criteria. I didn’t mention the ATHF movie, Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters, because I don’t think it featured any planets being blown up or a gorilla.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters

Hopefully they will rectify that in the ATHF sequel Death Fighter, planned for release in summer 2012. And in case you were wondering, rumors have it that Bruce Campbell will return to voice Chicken Bittle. Thus, once again I have an excuse to end a blog post with that grand sci-fi thespian.

Bruce Campbells

Bruce Campbells

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Human Head Evolution with Daniel Lieberman

Posted in artificial intelligence, interfaces on January 28th, 2011 by Samuel Kenyon

You spend a large portion of your time staring at heads of people. But have you wondered how they evolved? Harvard scientist Daniel Lieberman, Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology, has been studying human head evolution, particularly the unique features relative to other animals.

I attended his lecture at Harvard tonight, “Heads Up! How and Why the Amazing Human Head Evolved to Be the Way It Is,” which is timed with the release of his new book The Evolution of the Human Head.

First, Lieberman took off his shoes. It just snowed again in Cambridge and he doesn’t like wearing his boots (or maybe he has some kind of Mr. Rogers complex).

Second, Lieberman talks about how the functions and ontogeny of the human head would boggle any engineer if they had to make something like that. For instance, it’s hard to imagine how to design and implement a pea-sized robot that grows into a cantaloupe-sized robot while maintaining survival functionality the entire time.

If robot heads could grow.

Of course, it’s not an entirely fair comparison since natural products aren’t engineered, but the point is that the head seems overwhelmingly complex to us.


Not surprisingly (to me), Lieberman’s basic recipe for head development is integration. You can view the development of a body part as a series of interactions with atomic parts, which lie at various levels of granularity. For instance, you have proteins, cells, tissues, organs, etc. All the parts constantly adjust to each other, so as to maintain the overall system.

Lieberman uses the concept of skeletal capsules, but he warns us that it’s just a hypothesis called the functional matrix hypothesis. Some of his past research was to find correlations between various bone structure sizes in mice, and apparently he found a wicked lot of correlations.

Integration continues all through ontogeny.

Integration continues all through ontogeny.

He showed two photos of characters from Harry Potter, and claimed that it showed how each person’s nose matches their face. However, it wasn’t very convincing, especially his calling Daniel Radcliffe’s head narrow when it looks really wide to me, like as wide as Elijah Wood’s.

Harry Potter, wide in cranium, narrow in patience.

What would have been better is an example of what would happen without the integration between subsystems—would somebody have a nose covering up their eyes or something?

Harry Potter with development error.

Or the nose would just fall off and run away?



Of course, the environment is also involved in ontogeny—later in the presentation he described an experiment he did with hyraxes, in which they found that if the babies chewed softer food, they had smaller teeth as adults.

Hyrax Potter.

Anyway, the way this complex head integration relates to evolution is that it gives evolution something very hackable. It enables evolution to cause major changes in growth from minor tweaks.

The rest of the talk was a quick tour of the evolutionary history of human heads.

Human Head Uniqueness

So what are the aforementioned unusual characteristics of human heads? Well, the brain case is different, our neck comes out of the bottom of our head, we have vertical foreheads, visible eye whites, external nose, no snout, small mouths, small canine teeth, big ear holes, etc.

Your head is remarkably unusual.

Your head is remarkably unusual.

Unfortunately, Lieberman does not have a good theory for one of the human head’s unique features: the chin. It’s still a mystery.

The Chin: Science's Next Challenge

Image credits:

Robot head: Rodimuspower
Hyrax: Nitzan Cohen Kafri

Cross-posted with Science 2.0.

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Multitask! The Bruce Campbell Way

Posted in culture, interaction design, posthuman factors, transhumanism on September 7th, 2010 by Samuel Kenyon

I have a new essay up on the h+ magazine website:

photo of Bruce Campbell talking on a cell phone

Some have pointed out the supposed increase in multitasking during recent decades.  An overlapping issue is the increase in raw information that humans have access to.  It is certainly a fascinating sociocultural change.  However, humans are not capable of true multitasking.  First I will describe what humans do have presently, and then I will discuss what future humans might be capable of.

Read more…

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What Bruce Campbell Taught Me About Robotics

Posted in artificial intelligence, robotics on March 16th, 2010 by Samuel Kenyon

One of the films which inspired me as a kid was Moontrap, the plot of which has something to do with Bruce Campbell and his comrade Walter Koenig bringing an alien seed back to earth.


Nothing ever happens on the moon

This alien (re)builds itself out of various biological and electromechanical parts.

The Moontrap robot

The Moontrap robot

At one point the robot had a skillsaw end effector, not unlike the robot in this exquisite depiction of saw-hand prowess:

Cyborg Justice

Cyborg Justice (Sega Genesis, 1993)

In that game—which I also played as a child—you could mix-and-match legs, torsos, and arms to create robots.

The later movie Virus had a similar creature to the one in Moontrap, and if I remember correctly, the alien robots in the movie *Batteries Not Included could modify and reproduce themselves from random household junk.

The ability for a creature to compose and extend itself is quite fascinating. Not only can it figure out what to do with the objects it happens to encounter, but it can adjust its mental models in order to control these new extensions.

I think that building yourself out of parts is only a difference in degree from tool use.


During the long watches of the night the solitary sailor begins to feel that the boat is an extension of himself, moving to the same rhythms toward a common goal.  The violinist, wrapped in the stream of sound she helps to create, feels as if she is part of the “harmony of the spheres.”  The climber, focusing all her attention on the small irregularities of the rock wall that will have to support her weight safely, speaks of the sense of kinship that develops between fingers and rock, between the frail body and the context of stone, sky, and wind. —Csikszentmihalyi [1]

Human tool use

Humans are perhaps the most adaptable of animals on earth (leave a comment if you know of a more adaptable organism).

Our action-perception system may have morphology-specific programming. But it’s not so specific that we cannot add or subtract from it. For instance, anything you hold in your hand becomes essentially an extension of your arm. Likewise, you can adapt to a modification in which you completely replace your hand with a different type of end effector.

Alternate human end effector

You might argue that holding something does not really extend your arm. After all, you aren’t hooking it directly to your nervous system. But the brain-environment system does treat external objects as part of the body.

We have always been coupled with technology. We have always been prosthetic bodies.

Something unique about hands is that they may have evolved due to tool use. Bipedalism allowed this to happen. About 5 million years after bipedalism, tool use and a brain expansion appeared [2]. It’s possible that the homo sapiens brain was the result of co-evolution with tools.

Oldowan Handaxe

Oldowan Handaxe (credit: University of Missouri)

The body itself is part of the environment, albeit a special one as far as the brain is concerned. The brain has no choice but to have this willy-nilly freedom of body size changes—or else how would you be able to grow from a tiny baby to the full size lad/gal/transgender you are today?

An example of body-environment overlap is the cutaneous rabbit hopping out of the body experiment [3].

rabbit tatoo

The white cutaneous rabbit

The original cutaneous (==”of the skin”) rabbit experiment demonstrated a somatosensory illusion: your body map (in the primary somatosensory cortex) will cause you to report tapping (the “rabbit” hopping) on your skin in between the places where the stimulus was actually applied. The out of the body version extends this illusion onto an external object held by your body (click on figure below for more info).

Hopping out of the body

Hopping out of the body (credit: Miyazaki, et al)

Some other relevant body map illusions are the extending nose illusion, the rubber hand illusion, and the face illusion.

Get Your Embody Beat

Metzinger’s self-model theory of subjectivity [4] defines three levels of embodiment:

First-order: Purely reflexive with no self-representation. Most uses of subsumption architecture would be categorized as such.

Second-order: Uses self-representation, which affects its behavior.

Third-order: In addition to self-representation, “you consciously experience yourself as embodied, that you possess phenomenal self-model (PSM)”. Humans, when awake, fall into this category.



Metzinger refers to the famous starfish robot as an example of a “second-order embodiment” self-model implementation. The starfish robot develops its walk with a dynamic internal self model, and can also adapt to body subtractions (e.g. via damage).

I don’t see why we can’t develop robots that learn how to use tools and even adapt them into their bodies. The natural way may not be the only way, but it’s at least a place to start when making artificial intelligence. AI has an advantage though, even when using the naturally inspired methods, which is that the researchers can speed up phylogenetic development.

What I mean by that is I could adapt a robot to a range of environments through evolution in simulations running much faster than real time. Then, I can deploy that robot in real life where it continues its learning, but it has already learned via evolution the important and general stuff to keep it alive.

Body Mods

The ancient art of cyborg hands

This natural adaptability that you have as part of your interaction with the world could also help you modify yourself with far stranger extensions than chainsaws and cyborg hands.

Well-designed cyborg parts will exploit this natural adaptability to modify your morphology, if you so desire. Perhaps the same scheme could work even with a complete body replacement, or a mind-in-computer scenario in which you may have multiple physical bodies to choose from.



[1] M. Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial, 1990.

[2] R. Leaky, The Origin of Humankind. New York: BasicBooks, 1994.

[3] M. Miyazaki, M. Hirashima, D. Nozaki, “The ‘Cutaneous Rabbit’ Hopping out of the Body.” The Journal of Neuroscience, February 3, 2010, 30(5):1856-1860; doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3887-09.2010. http://www.jneurosci.org/cgi/content/full/30/5/1856

[4] T. Metzinger, “Self models.” Scholarpedia, 2007, 2(10):4174. http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Self_models

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