Saturday, February 26, 2005

Hotel Rwanda

I just saw the movie Hotel Rwanda. What an amazing, devastating, unrelenting film. All of the acting was phenomenal. I can't even fully process it right now. If you haven't seen it, you should.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Terminator's Grandpappy: Robot Soldiers are Here

The New York Times [free registration required] is running a piece on the SWORDS robot, an armed robot that is set to deploy in Iraq. Now, I'll admit that the images of a gun-wielding, remote-operated robot do light up my imagination. The utopian sci-fi nerd in me can't help but extrapolate to a time when wars are all fought via robot and human life is preservered. Of course, the dystopian sci-fi nerd in me can't think of anything other than the bleak future of the Terminator movies, in which intelligent robots decide they're done taking orders from humans.

Sci-fi visions (utopian or otherwise) aside. The idea of armed robots strikes me as very wrong. Many will argue that robotic soldiers reduce bloodshed and keep flesh-and-blood soldiers out of harm's way. However, the whole idea of an armed robot is to kill. While SWORDS operators teleoperate their mobile weapons platforms from a safe distance, the human beings on the business end of the robot are still bleeding and dying. An armed robot does nothing to halt violence and war.

From a purely tactical perspective, it seems like weaponized infantry robots are highly susceptible to hacking or other interference. No matter how good the encryption is, a signal is still being sent from the operator to the robot and back. A smart enemy could surely interfere with that loop, rendering the robot useless, or worse, turning it on its owners.

On top of all that, the military continues to push for artificial intelligence that will take the control of the robot out of human hands. Is this a good idea? I work closely with robotics projects at Carnegie Mellon University, which is one of the universities working on the millitary's Future Combat Systems project, and I have to say that I have yet to see an autonomous system that I would trust. As AI becomes more and more advanced and more and more embodied, machine revolt seems more and more likely. James Cameron's Terminator becomes less and less of a sci-fi adventure and more of a cautionary tale.

Just in case you're reading this after the NYTimes article has been archived, here are some links to other information:

Monday, February 14, 2005

Law & Order Does Videogames

I watched an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit the other night. The show, always well written and willing to engage issues, centered on a crime allegedly caused by a videogame. Tony at and Andrew at Tales of a Scorched Earth give the episode a pretty good review (from a gaming culture perspective). I agree that it was a remarkably even handed look at videogame violence for something as mainstream as Law & Order.

That said, there were some things that irked me as a proponent of games. The open-mouthed stare of Stabler's kid as he played "Intensity" (the episode's Grand Theft Auto stand-in). The developer portrayed as irresponsible, too cool and a bit overworked. The fact that no other (non-violent) games were really even mentioned. These things reflect poorly on the medium.

Of course, now that I've written that and thought about it some more, I have to admit that in many ways, Law & Order was presenting reality (which is what I love so much about the series). Kids often get that hollow stare while playing games (I'm sure I don't look super smart while I'm playing). Parents often don't monitor what their kids play, leading to surprise and shock when kids are found killing hookers in GTA, just as Stabler was shocked to watch his son play Intensity. Developers often work on multiple projects aimed at multiple age levels, which leads to confusion as parents associate the entire industry with "kids stuff." Some developers maintain an aloof attitude which many people interpret as nonchalance or worse. In fact, the open-ended nature of games could possibly be seen as a failure to take a stand. And let's face it, the developers being too busy and overworked is pretty dead-on.

After thinking about it, I guess what bugged me about the Law & Order episode is that it reflected how many people see this industry. And the industry isn't doing much to help itself. Sure Law & Order takes the occasional potshot at Hollywood, but Hollywood can take it. Games are at a point where more negative press can seriously affect how people perceive gaming as a medium, as a form of expression. I just wish the industry would attempt to spiff up its image, broaden the types of content, treat developers better. Pipe dream?

Friday, February 04, 2005

First Time for Everything

I had an interesting experience on the bus on the way to work this morning. I was riding standing up, reading the latest issue of Wired. In particular, I was reading an article called "The Painful Truth" about regional anesthesia being pioneered in combat medecine (online at Suddenly, I found myself feeling really woozie. My stomache was flipping, and I felt faint. I had to sit down.

I don't get motion sick. I don't consider myself to be particularly sensitive to the sight of blood. However, I'm pretty sure that my reaction was related to the graphic descriptions of battlefield injuries in the article, which was accomanied by one particularly gruesome picture. For example:

His left calf muscle had been blown away, exposing a length of bone and pulped flesh, and blood was leaking through his field dressing. His foot was swollen with edema... At one point, a technician lifted his wounded leg to clean it, and the weakened tibia fractured with a sharp crack that sent shudders through the surgical staff.
There's a picture too.

Normally, I don't react to stuff like this, but for some reason, perhaps the visceral and detailed nature of the description, my body decided it had had enough. Consciously, I wasn't even that repulsed by the content. The article held my attention with its overarching story, but at some subconscious level, my body did not like thinking about massive tissue trauma.

I always get a kick out of this sort of thing (not that I enjoy it while it's happening). It serves as a reminder that our conscious selves are not always (or even ever) in total control.

And the article itself really was pretty interesting. It was a different look at the costs of the Iraq war, even as it detailed some of the technologies that are being developed and deployed in the Middle East.