If you are remotely familiar with science fiction over the past century, you already know that the premise
artificial intelligence will overwhelm Life on Earth as we once knew it
is science fact, not fiction. Moving forward in the argument, an amateur logician would also grant the following syllogism:
1. All men are mortal.
2. John Malkovich is man.
In conclusion, John Malkovich will die (probably later this summer), and by the looks of it, this death will be facilitated by a preternaturally-wise robot.
Having established that, let us now begin discussing the two frontrunners for how this happens.
Scenario #1 relates to a new ad for the iPhone (is it iPhone 4, is it iPhone 6, I’m not sure where we are in the series, I just know it’s still in ‘Police Academy movie’ range and that soon they’ll surely abandon the numbering system in favor of something more abstract like iPhone ‘Limitless’ or the iPhone ‘Singularity’… secondly, the notion that the iPhone even requires a marketing campaign at this point is the subject of a discussion we will never actually have, but could, quite easily, if we wanted to). These current television spots aim to highlight the advantages of its crown jewel, the voice-recognition feature ‘Siri,’ using actors and actresses as endorsers for a product that they do undoubtedly own.
[Tangent: this is, admittedly, a shrewd argument by Apple, that smart phones are truly the great equalizer in modern society; whereas the world’s affluent can afford lavish concept cars and multiple mansions and yachts and HIV vaccines, there is a definable ceiling for excessive cell phone spending; Steven Spielberg’s white 4S is probably just as advanced as your 14-year-old cousin’s.]
These TV spots already seem ubiquitous and thus intolerable; if American Pop Culture was imagined as a crowded subway car with no eventual destination that still makes sporadic stops where things get on and off, then these iPhone commercials would be that pair of noisy, awful teenagers in the rear, ostensibly riding all day for the sheer pleasure of non-supervision. And when a series of television commercials is annoying enough, it inspires actual professional parodies or at least serves as fodder for couch conversations in thousands of living rooms every night.
[Tangent: in our living room, I have gone on many-a-rant chastising Zooey Deschanel for organizing a delivery of tomato soup because she sees it’s raining out. You can make tomato soup for like 40 cents, Zooey, if you actually went food-shopping once in awhile. For a really decent bowl, I’ll bump it up to 90 cents (max!) if you want to involve milk, shredded cheese, Sriracha, maybe some pizza seasoning. But no, you’re so high-maintenance that you require tomato soup at that very moment, and realistically It’s going to cost like $7 to get it delivered, probably upwards of $15 total because you got to round up and you got to give that dude a decent tip for fighting L.A. traffic in an obvious rainstorm when all you ordered was a fucking single tomato soup. Zo, I’m sure your bangs can afford that, but it is still a RIDICULOUS financial decision. And in a day and age when I can’t go an unemployed day without hearing about the income gap in this country and the disappearance of the middle-class, it’s just, geez, Zooey, use your fucking head sometimes, ya know, you are not not encouraging the Occupy movement with this kind of public behavior.]
But more disturbing than the persona(s) of Zooey Deschanel and Samuel ‘Hot Spacho’ Jackson is the absolute-cry-for-help that is John Malkovich’s existence. The first commercial with Malkovich already demonstrated a creepy, intimate relationship between the forever-bald actor and Siri, his servant/soulmate. But this new one below, entitled just “Life,” is simply baffling.
Now, I don’t want to get in the habit of nitpicking television commercials in this space, as ultimately, that seems about as difficult as teasing an obese student at recess, but when I first saw this, the only reaction appropriate seemed to be “is Apple just fucking with us now?’ Malkovich, who appears to always be caught in some perpetual, inexplicable pattern of woe, does his worst 17th-century-philosopher impersonation here, stating the very generic “Life” to an expectant Siri, who responds:
TRY AND BE NICE TO PEOPLE. AVOID EATING FAT. READ A GOOD BOOK EVERY NOW AND THEN. GET SOME WALKING IN AND TRY TO LIVE TOGETHER IN PEACE AND HARMONY WITH PEOPLE OF ALL CREEDS AND NATIONS
[How simple it all is! Thanks for the pearls, Seer! I think I will start reading more, as you suggest, but I’m not gonna just give up fast-food or bigotry overnight. That’d be a prettttty messy withdrawal period.]
How Siri chose to handicap our human condition does not bother me here. That dismal hermit Malkovich, on the other hand, gives me pause. If this is his reality– putting on a full suit-with-slippers ensemble to waste the day away on his smart phone in a dimly-lit living room full of ominous furniture– then his portrayal of Cyrus the Virus in Con Air barely scratched the surface of what seems to be a much more troubling, actual psychosis the actor copes with on the daily.
While I am sure Apple’s marketing department is great at casting and they could have just as easily hired famous-for-being-eccentric Christopher Walken for these spots, reducing his demeanor to just ‘Malkovich-being-Malkovich,’ is a diversion from what is actually going on. What I see is a man who has completely lost touch with the world around him; the only scripts he has to read are for iPhone commercials and those just get directly e-mailed to him on his iPhone, which has inadvertently created some dysfunctional and sad feedback loop where he never leaves his house or communicates with a breathing human. I see an actor whose own personal identity was borrowed for questions of a philosophical nature in Being John Malkovich, who journeyed down a Kaufman hall-of-mirrors and never fully recovered, slowly treading water in some dark, solipsistic ocean ever since. And any day now, he’s going to drown in that abyss and Siri had better fucking have a game-plan for when that happens, because simple Confucian wisdom is not going to be as constructive for his state-of-mind as much as a phone number to, say, a suicide hotline would be.
At this point, I please ask that you watch the commercial above a second time, or if you were in a rush the first go-round, actually take the 30 seconds this time to indulge.
I have watched this over a dozen times now (a sign of my own mental instability and paranoia perhaps, but while we’re on it, yeah, I do worry that I am flying too close to the sun on this one and maybe rattling too many cages and I’m going to definitely uncover something they don’t want me to), but I cannot be alone in feeling discomfort watching this dynamic play itself out. Something undeniably deviant is transpiring at chez Malkovich, but what is it? Part of me briefly, and quite seriously, considered the possibility of a non-consensual romantic tension. Hear me out: John, no doubt half-drunk at this point of the afternoon, says “you are very eloquent” to Siri in a very predatory way. Accustomed to these tiny affections from John, Siri resists the advances with the safe “Thank you…that is nice of you to say” as if he was some kind of persistent, molesting uncle she regularly avoids at family gatherings.
While it is clear that Malkovich is just fucking out there right now, in his own orbit, we cannot say with any certainty that he will perish as a result of this specific tailspin. If he does survive, if he does manage to turn the corner on this thing, that still only postpones the inevitable (i.e. a machine presiding over his death).
This brings us to Scenario #2, which could be many years from now, and which could be a fate that awaits us all.
Scenario #2 is derived from a story tossed around the internet this past month, one whose headline piques the interest immediately. It involves the Master’s thesis of artist/engineer Dan Chen at the Rhode Island School of Design. Chen, in an attempt to take the machines-as-a-human-surrogate exercise to its extreme, built a robot that would comfort the dying during their last, lonely breaths. If that sounds completely ridiculous, well, video always helps.
Once the ‘end of life is detected,’ which is a physical state surprisingly easy to pinpoint, the bedside droid uses its padded limbs to caress the patient’s forearm, then says, every time without deviation:
I AM THE LAST MOMENT ROBOT. I AM HERE TO HELP YOU AND GUIDE YOU THROUGH YOUR LAST MOMENT ON EARTH. I AM SORRY THAT YOUR FAMILY AND FRIENDS CAN’T BE WITH YOU RIGHT NOW, BUT DON’T BE AFRAID. I AM HERE TO COMFORT YOU. YOU ARE NOT ALONE. YOU ARE WITH ME. YOUR FAMILY AND FRIENDS LOVE YOU VERY MUCH. THEY WILL REMEMBER YOU AFTER YOU ARE GONE.
Suffice it to say, we are navigating through muddy, Agent-Smith-in-The–Matrix waters here. Before your soul sounds the same alarm mine did, that is, the my-god-we’re-finally-here apocalyptic panic you should feel when you see that machines may soon take over the Hospice industry of all trades… we should qualify that Chen’s creation is not at all for commercial use, nor will it soon be in mass production. By all accounts, it is a triumph of performance art, an intentionally grim display of where we could-be-headed if we don’t take the time as a species to consider issues of what it means to be human. Chen seems to have made the robot’s appearance be as cold as possible to hammer home his project’s leading, central question of ‘what is intimacy without humanity?’
Good intentions and press releases notwithstanding, this is a Thing now, even if there is just one hypothetical prototype out there. And so because it’s a Thing, because Chen now improbably and unexpectedly has the attention of numerous media outlets covering his freaking school project, you can’t completely write off what he may do with it down the road. It would be libel to suggest any scenario including, or related to, him eventually captaining some kind of highly-developed Grim Reaper Robot Army in thirty years (well after his notoriety and fortune have dissipated, driven to the outskirts of society by that terrible fame-and-then-no-fame rollercoaster, bent on some irrational desire for revenge against ALL humankind) but it is a possibility worth mentioning. Look, at this point, all I am saying is that the dude is in the ‘business’ of making robots, okay? That’s all. Just stating the obvious.
Based on the response to his work, Chen has to be at least half-considering the mass development of Last Moment Robots. A lot of people out there, either in direct interaction with him or via Huffington Post surveys, have suggested that “I would prefer this robot being there at my time of death to the prospect of being completely alone.”
While Chen’s objective may have been to strike some nerve in us, to at least elicit feelings of ‘you can’t write a code for compassion!’ or promote slogans of ‘love is what makes us ultimately human!’ … I find myself moving further and further into the opposite side of the spectrum. For the sake of morbid argument, let’s consider that I am there, alone, at your deathbed. I think I’d probably be worse in that situation than the Last Moment Robot. Sure, my human face goes a long way because I, after all, am going to suffer the same fate one day as you are now, but my actual bedside manner and final words of counsel would probably be much clumsier and panicked than a device specifically designed for the situation.
My guess is, and this is best-case scenario, I too would think to caress your arm a little bit, and I could be coherent and articulate enough to feed you similar lines to ‘you are not alone’ and ‘your family loves you.’ But even if I managed to stay calm enough to be there for you, wouldn’t I really just be regurgitating what I thought I should do at a moment like that? Would my speech come from a sincere, spontaneous place, or would I just be carrying out learned, (this is where it circles back) programmed deathbed codes? And if the latter is true, and my brain is essentially downloading a ‘Show Empathy’ app when presented with this problem, and that really the lot of us do not know what the hell we are doing half the time, that we mostly just say and do what we have been socialized to at things like weddings, divorces, birthdays, funerals… then how am I any less of a simulation than the Last Moment Robot?
Forgive me, Malkovich has been right this whole time; these are all questions I should be asking Siri.