13 Apr 2015

Back to the future with Blade Runner

It’s a great time to re-release Blade Runner (screenings listed here). It’s a film with a warning, but not the one most people think it contains.

Author Philip K Dick’s vision of a future in which better-than-human androids run amok hits the screens again just as everyone from Stephen Hawking to Bill Gates warns that artificial intelligence may end up jeopardising humanity.

It’s hard to watch Rutger Hauer’s performance as the “replicant” android Roy (pictured below), facing mortality with heart-rending innocence, and not wonder what will happen if robots gain emotions.

Steps are already underway to create empathetic machines, especially in countries like Japan with its ageing, lonely population (that’s a problem already hitting the UK, as Victoria Macdonald’s recent report showed – a tear-jerker that puts even Hauer’s soliloquy to shame).

Blade Runner

As I’ve blogged in the past, before we get anxious about the impact of artificial intelligence we need much more clarity about what exactly the phrase means.

I doubt AI will actually end up giving us machines like Blade Runner’s replicants: a costly attempt to replicate our bipedal life form which has blithered to its current state through a time-consuming process of evolutionary demolition derby. It’s the ultimate vanity to believe that if machines could start from scratch they’d emulate us.

And besides, there’s a better, much deeper warning hidden inside director Ridley Scott’s film: it’s a warning about the hazards of future-gazing, and it’s summed up in one scene.

Android-hunting detective Deckard is analysing a photo on his computer which is, naturally, voice controlled. He effortlessly barks commands at the machine which understands his every utterance. But for all its high-end voice recognition tech, the computer screen he’s peering into looks like the kind of thing you see in vintage arcade game museums.

Blade Runner’s futurologists imagined a tech world in which voice recognition is flawless, and computer displays look like Pac-Man. In fact, the opposite is true: modern monitors can display every champagne bubble on Kim Kardashian’s behind, but we’re stuck yelling “X-Box, stop!!!” as our children walk in during the naughty scenes of Game Of Thrones.

The faster technology moves, the more hazardous becomes the game of future-gazing, and the wiser it is to leave it to Hollywood.

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