by Jay Johansen | Jan 14, 2008
I routinely get a laugh out of the curious and sometimes amazing performance of computers in TV shows and movies. I'm a software geek by profession, so I suppose I have a better idea of what computers can and can't do than most people. But still, lots of people use computers every day now. Don't they see how ridiculous the TV computers are?
In science fiction movies I accept the idea that computers in the future might have capabilities far beyond what we have today. Just as people hundreds of years ago would surely have had a hard time predicting the technology we have today, so I accept that I can't necessarily predict what the technology of hundreds of years from now will be like. Still, most of the silliness is not "that's too advanced", but rather, "that makes no sense".
Like, in Star Trek: The Next Generation there is an android robot named Data. (Which has got to be about the lamest name for a robot, but whatever.) He routinely does amazing feats of calculation and analysis. He can speak in coherent, grammatically-correct English. But he can't master contractions. Like, he always says "can not" instead of "can't". Think about this for a moment. The ability to master all the complex rules of grammar is very difficult. No one has yet succeeded in programming a computer to create original, coherent sentences in any but the most restricted cases. Maybe hundreds of years from now the state of the art will have advanced to the point where this is possible. So once they've done all that, wouldn't handling contractions be trivial? I could easily write a computer program today that would read in sentences and spit them back out re-written to use contractions where applicable. That's an easy problem.
Speaking of Data, computers and robots in science fiction movies routinely think just like people, except that they have no emotions. Like Star Trek's Data or the computers in Colossus and Tron. In real life, computers do not "think" anything like people. They are elaborate calculating and logic machines. They follow rigid programs. People have been trying to program computers to mimic the thinking of people since computers were invented, with pretty minimal success. Maybe someday someone will figure out how to program a computer to truly think. Actually I think that if people ever do invent a true artificial intelligence, it will have little relationship to 21st century computers. But assuming they do, why would it have no emotion? And if it did have no emotion, why would it take any independent action? After all, why would you do anything at all if you had no emotions? If you loved no one, desired nothing, had no ego, etc, you would have no motivation to do anything at all. It's difficult to see why you would even care whether you lived or died.
In the movie Logan's Run, at the end the hero tells the computer some information that contradicts what the computer previously believed. The computer starts making confused statements, and then sparks start to fly, the computer explodes, and pretty soon the entire city is in flames. Umm, why would giving a computer contradictory information cause it to blow up? I routinely enter data into computers that contradicts the information it previously had. This is called "fixing errors". The normal response of the computer is to replace the old information with the new information. Occasionally it will reject the new information. I have never ever seen a computer suffer any physical damage because it was given contradictory information. Even if we accepted that the computer would explode, how does that destroy the entire city? (This particular scene isn't unique to Logan's Run. TV computers are always throwing sparks and exploding because of something people type on the keyboard.)
In the series 24, Jack calls into the office and tells one of the resident computer geniuses that he needs to know "the passwords to all the email addresses associated with this cell phone number". And a few minutes later she tells him. How does she do that? On what computer in the world are email addresses linked to phone numbers? And modern passwords are pretty secure. How does she crack all the passwords in a few minutes?
Speaking of passwords: This isn't a flaw in the computers but in the characters. How come the heros on so many TV shows are able to guess someone's computer password? In War Games, a top military software engineer uses his son's name as the password for a top secret computer system. I just saw a movie today where a master spy uses his email address as a password. I could believe that the average computer user might use such an easily-guessed password, but these are supposed to be people who think about security every day. And they can't think of a hard-to-guess password?
For some reason this one is my absolute favorite. I forget what the program was (if anyone reading this knows, please email me), but it was some spy show. The spies are trying to identify the villian. They discover that he visited a convenience store, so they get the film from the store's security camera. Unfortunately, in the film he never faces the camera. Then one of the agents gets a brilliant idea: He tells the computer guy to zoom in on the view out the store's glass door in hopes of catching the license plate on the villian's car. The car is not visible, but they can see the side mirror of another car, and in the other car's mirror they can see the license plate of the villian's car. They zoom in further, press a few keys to clarify the image, and read off the license number. Now, a TV or computer picture is made up of a bunch of colored dots called pixels. (Look at a TV closely and you can see the individual dots.) American televisions use 480 rows and 330 columns. DVDs and HDTV have higher resolution, but security cameras are notoriously low picture quality, I don't know if they're even as high as regular TV. What portion of the picture can the mirror on a car outside the door be? Suppose the front of the store is 30 feet across and the door is 3 feet wide. Then the door is 10% of the width of the image, or 33 pixels. My car mirror is 4 inches across. So even if it was right against the door, it would fill 10% of the width of the door. In reality it's across the parking lot, so it would look even smaller. Say 20% to be generous. Then the mirror is 6 pixels across. Then we're seeing the license plate in this mirror. Even if the license plate took up fully 33% of the view in the mirror, it would be 2 pixels. 2 colored dots. No amount of analyzing the image on a computer is going to turn 2 colored dots into recognizable numbers. At best you might get a clue what state the license plate was from by the color of the dots.
You see similar wonders of digital image processing in lots of crime shows. TV cops are always taking a computer picture and zooming in far beyond the resolution of the image, so that all they have is a few blurry dots, and then they just press a few keys and the resolution of the image is magically increased.
Well, there are plenty more examples. Maybe I'll start keeping track.
I suppose people in other professions must find TV depictions of their field equally amusing. I once read that the two stars of the series Miami Vice, a cop show set in Miami, killed more people in any given amount of time than the entire Miami police department did in real life. After I read that I noticed that cop shows routinely have the policeman involved in two or three shoot-outs with the criminals in each episode, routinely killing several. How many policeman really shoot three or four criminals per week? And if they really did that, no matter how good this cop is, wouldn't it stand to reason that pretty soon his luck would run out and the criminals would get him?
Maybe doctors and lawyers and chemists find the representation of their professions equally amusing. I'll have to look into that sometime.
© 2008 by Jay Johansen
Sasquatch May 23, 2014
"Maybe doctors and lawyers and chemists find the representation of their professions equally amusing. I'll have to look into that sometime."
As a car guy and a veteran trucker I see tons of things in shows and movies that drive me insane. "The Long Kiss Goodnight" was an enjoyable movie utterly ruined for me by the truck wreck at the end. A stray bullet cuts the air line between the truck and the trailer. Fluid starts pouring out while the heroine is pumping the pedal and shouting, "no! no! no!". Fluid... from an air line. Instead of losing air pressure and locking up the brakes, like in the real world, the truck runs out of control and crashes.