Tag Archives: Mass Effect

Celebrating The Love Of Shepard And Garrus On N7 Day

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Greetings and to all the fellow fans of “Mass Effect” out there, Happy N7 Day! To those who don’t follow video games or space operas, N7 Day is the annual celebration that fans of this incredible franchise and story use to celebrate this amazing world that we love.

This series will always be near and dear to my heart in many ways. It didn’t just tell an incredible story that spanned the galaxy. It crafted wonderful, compelling characters that included beautiful, endearing romances. While the game gives you many romantic options to pursue, the one that will always resonate with me is Garrus and female Shepard. Their love helps make the galaxy worth saving.

In celebration of this year’s N7 Day, I’d like to commemorate it by highlighting my favorite romance between Earth’s greatest defender and her badass Turian sharpshooter. If you need convincing that their love is special, please see check out this video complication. I hope it convinces you as much as it did for me. Enjoy!

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Filed under Mass Effect, romance, video games

Why Intelligent Aliens May Destroy Us Even If They’re Peaceful (According To Mass Effect)

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What would happen if we went back in time and gave the Genghis Khan nuclear weapons?

What  would happen if we went back even further and gave machine guns to the Ancient Romans?

Let’s be even more subtle. What do you think would happen if you gave Aristotle a functioning smartphone with a complete catalog of Wikipedia? How much would that change the course of history? More importantly, how much damage would it potentially incur?

I consider myself an optimist. I generally place more faith in humanity than most people in this age of fake news and heavy cynicism. I have my reasons for doing so, but even my confidence in the human species has limits. I trust most people to do the right thing every time I drive my car on the highway. That doesn’t mean I’d trust a caveman from 10,000 BC to drive a fully-loaded tank.

I make this point because these are legitimate concerns consider when assessing how humanity deals with emerging technology. We can barely handle some of the technology we already have. How will we handle things like advanced artificial intelligence, gene hacking, or advanced robotics?

I’ve stated before that the human race is not ready for advanced artificial intelligence in its current state. I’ve also stated that the human race isn’t ready for contact with an advanced alien species, either. I believe we’re close. We may even be ready within my lifetime. However, if aliens landed tomorrow and brought an advanced artificial intelligence with them, I think our civilization and our species would be in trouble.

I also think the human race would be in danger even if those same aliens were peaceful. Even if they brought a super-intelligent AI that was as compassionate and caring as Mr. Rogers, our species would still face an existential crisis. To explain why, I’ll need to revisit one of my favorite video games of all time, “Mass Effect.”

The various themes of this game, and the lore behind it, offer many insights into very relevant questions. In addition to the timeless hilarity of bad dancing skills, the game crafts a rich history between alien races like the Quarians and the Geth. That history reflected the dangers of mishandling advanced artificial intelligence, an issue humanity will have to deal with in the coming decades.

There is, however, another rich history between alien races within “Mass Effect” that offers a similar lesson. This one has less to do with artificial intelligence and more to do with what happens when a species technology that it’s not ready to handle. That danger is well-documented in the game through a hardy race of beings called the Krogan.

Like the Quarian/Geth conflict, the conflict surrounding Krogan has some real-world parallels. However, I would argue that their story Krogan is more relevant because it serves as a warning for what could happen when an advanced species uplifts one that is less advanced.

In the mythos of “Mass Effect,” the Krogan were once a primitive, but hardy species that evolved on the harsh world of Tuchanka. They’re reptilian, high-functioning predators in nature. They’re basically a cross between a velociraptor, a crocodile, and a primate. They have a tough, war-like culture, which is necessary on a world that contained hulking Thresher Maws.

They were not a species most would expect to develop advanced technology. Then, the Salarians came along. Unlike the Korgan, this amphibious alien race isn’t nearly as hardy, but is much more adept at developing advanced technology. In most circumstances, they wouldn’t have given the Krogan a second thought. Unfortunately, they were in the middle of the Rachni War and they needed help.

You don’t need to know the full details of that war. The most critical detail, as it relates to advancing an unprepared species, is how this war came to define the Krogan. Neither the Salarians nor the other alien races in the game could defeat the Rachni. In a fit of desperation, they uplifted the Krogan by giving them weapons and advanced knowledge.

In the short-term, the Salarians achieved what they’d hoped. The Krogan helped defeat the Rachni. In the long-term, however, it created another inter-stellar war in the Krogan Rebellions. Apparently, giving a hardy, war-like species advanced weapons doesn’t make them less war-like. It just gives them better tools with which to fight wars. That may sound obvious, but keep in mind, the Salarians were desperate.

The details of this war end up playing a major role in both “Mass Effect” and “Mass Effect 3.” That’s because to stop the Krogan, the Salarians resorted to another act of desperation. They crafted a biological weapon known as the genophage, which significantly curtailed the Krogan’s rapid breeding rate.

The damage this did to the Krogan race cannot be understated. Through the entire trilogy of “Mass Effect,” characters like Wrex and Eve describe how this destroyed Krogan society. In “Mass Effect 3,” Eve talks about how the genophage created massive piles of stillborn Krogan babies. That kind of imagery can haunt even the most battle-hardened species.

In the end, both the Salarians and the Krogan paid a huge price for giving technology to a species that wasn’t ready for it. Depending on the decision you make in “Mass Effect 3,” the Krogan species is doomed to extinction because of how ill-prepared they were. This haunted more than a few Salarians as well, one of which played a significant role in a memorable side-story in “Mass Effect 2.”

Regardless of how the game plays out, there’s an underlying message at the heart of the Salarian/Krogan dynamic. When a species is uplifted by another so abruptly, it’s difficult to see the long-term ramifications. Even though the Salarians were in a dire situation, they ended up creating one that had the potential to be much worse.

That danger is actually more pressing because, unlike advanced artificial intelligence, the act of uplifting a species effectively skips over the cultural and societal evolution that’s necessary to handle new technology. The Krogan never got a chance to go through that process before getting that technology. As a result, they became an existential threat to themselves and others.

The human race still has a long way to go before it creates the kind of artificial intelligence that would constitute such a threat. Aliens on the level of Salarians could land tomorrow and there would be nothing we could do to prepare ourselves. Whatever knowledge or technology we gained could do more than just upend human society. It could irreparably damage our species, as a whole.

Some of that outcome would depend on the intentions of the advanced alien race. It could be the case that they’re not like the Salarians and aren’t looking to enlist humanity in a war. It could also be the case that they’re smart enough to not give primitive humans advanced weapons. That could mitigate the risk.

However, that still assumes humans won’t find a way to use advanced knowledge to make weapons. When Otto Hahn discovered nuclear fission in 1938, he didn’t have any idea that it would be used to make a bomb that would kill go onto kill over 100,000 people. Even if advanced aliens are really smart, how could they be sure that humanity won’t use advanced knowledge to create something more horrific?

Sure, they could try to stop us, but that could only make things worse. The genophage wasn’t the Salarians’ first recourse. They actually went to war with the Krogan. They suffered heavy losses and so did the Krogan. In the long run, uplifting a less advanced species was detrimental to both of them.

That doesn’t just put the famous Fermi Paradox into a new context. It demonstrates a real, tangible threat associated with advancing a species before it’s ready. I would argue that the human race is close to that point, but we’re still not there. We have issues managing the technology we’ve created. There’s no way we can handle advanced alien technology at the moment.

Mass Effect,” in addition to being one of the greatest video games of the past two decades, offers many lessons for the future of humanity. It shows that humans are capable of great things. We have what it takes to join an entire galaxy full of advanced alien life. For our sake, and that of other advanced aliens, we cannot and should not rush it.

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Filed under Aliens, futurism, human nature, Mass Effect, philosophy, psychology

How Might Aliens Make Love?

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There was a brief time in my life when I was really into UFOs, extraterrestrials, and alien conspiracies. I would watch movies like “Independence Day” and “Men In Black” as though they were secret documentaries attempting to send secret messages to those who would listen.

Needless to say, I quickly outgrew the notion that aliens were real and the government was covering them up. As soon as I learned about the well-documented history of government ineptitude and the inherent flaws in most conspiracy theories, I realized that if aliens really existed and were really on this planet, then the government would be too incompetent to keep it a secret.

While I still believe it’s very likely that there’s intelligent life in the universe, if only because of the math is so overwhelming, I don’t think they’ve visited Earth. I don’t think they’re abducting people and probing them. Anything involving abduction and probing is more likely to involve a college prank gone horribly wrong.

Even if aliens aren’t visiting or abducting this planet, I still find myself fascinated by the concept. It’s probably a byproduct of loving comic books and Star Wars as a kid and an adult. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve been more fascinated by the possibilities that may come with alien life.

It’s not just that aliens may look and behave radically different. Their entire notion of thought, identity, and being may be completely unlike anything humans can conceive of. We are, after all, limited by the perceptions of being a specific sub-species of primates that evolved only a few hundred thousand years ago. The fact that the universe is around 13.8 billion years old leaves plenty of time for alien life to evolve.

There are any number of courses that alien life could take, from simple bacteria to intelligent beings. Many people much smarter than I’ll ever be have imagined the possible forms life can take. I’m not going to try and speculate on the aesthetics. What does interest me, though, is how those same aliens might make love.

By that, I don’t just mean how they’ll reproduce. If any kind of life, alien or otherwise, is to survive in this universe, it has to reproduce somehow. Whether by sex, spores, or cloning, reproduction is a necessary constant. Being an aspiring erotica/romance writer, I’m much more intrigued by the intricacies behind it.

Yes, humans use sex to reproduce, but it has other non-procreative functions. Humans aren’t the only ones who do it either. Like any product of nature, a trait or behavior has to be flexible in order to be viable. Logically, that should apply to aliens as much as it does to life on Earth.

Granted, that’s an assumption on the part of one human with an admitted love of romance. It’s still one that has a basis in logic, given what we understand about the biology of emotions. Those emotions help social animals like humans coordinate, adapt, survive, and thrive to the point where they can build space ships and contemplate life on other worlds.

If intelligent life does exist, then it’s entirely possible that alien life might follow a similar path. It might not be on the level of convergent evolution, but there’s a great deal of adaptive potential in a species’ ability to coordinate and connect with one another. Love might very well be the key, at least for certain alien species.

I’m not saying it’s impossible for an intelligent alien species to evolve without an emotional connection analogous to love, but I think it’s more likely that it would, if only because it has such strong adaptive potential. In order to realize that potential, though, an alien would have to have some way of expressing it, both physically and emotionally.

It’s that kind of alien passion that I find both interesting and alluring to some extent. Comic books, movies, and TV shows do plenty to show us how terrifying and sexy aliens can be. However, they rarely get into the intricacies of alien passion. If they do, it’s usually overly humanized or overly gruesome.

I suspect that if aliens do indeed feel some kind of love, they’re not going to express it in a way that’ll make for a sexy scene with Captain Kirk. Their idea of love may be so alien that it warrants a very alien way of expressing it. It may or may not have anything to do with reproduction, but it would likely be a key component of their social structure.

There are some examples of it in popular culture. I think “Avatar” did a good job of exploring alien love, using a kinky trick involving ponytails to express an intimate bond. It’s not the same as using genitals, but the intent is the same. It’s to forge an intimate, loving bond.

Another interesting manifestation of alien love comes from the pages of Spider-Man comics. I’ve mentioned the parasitic symbiotes before when discussing human enhancement, but there’s another interesting detail to their species that often gets overlooked. When a symbiote bonds with a host, like the Venom symbiote did with Spider-Man, it actually loves them in a strange, alien sort of way.

It’s not a love that’s entirely connected to sex or reproduction. From the perspective of the alien symbiote, the bonding process itself can produce a kind of love. Granted, it can be a very abusive love at times, but that nicely reflects the greater complexities of love. It’s not just that thing we see too much of in old John Hughes movies. It can be creative, destructive, and everything in between.

Where alien love gets really interesting, however, is when we start to imagine what happens to a species once it reaches a certain level of advancement. Specifically, what happens to a species when their technology becomes so advanced that they merge with it, transcending their biology and integrating with machinery? That sort of change is bound to affect a lot of things about a species, including how they express love.

We’re already seeing hints of that advancement with the human race. We’ve already developed a very close relationship with our technology, some more so than others. That relationship will likely grow closer as hacking our genetics mixes with internal implants like the kind Elon Musk wants to develop.

At some point, it’ll be necessary for an advanced species to adapt themselves to the harsh environments of space. There are just too many resources in space and too much room to explore. There are some in the field of searching for alien life who believe that if we do find another intelligent species, it’s likely they’ll be partially or entirely machine.

It may very well be the case that almost every advanced species goes through a process in which they merge with machines and transcend their biological limits. When that happens, and some believe it will happen to humans, what will happen to love? Will we or intelligent aliens still feel or express it?

I think it will, but it’ll be radically different than the love we know. That’s because simply being a cold, calculating machine has limits in the same way that being an irrationally emotional mess has limits too. A truly advanced species won’t sacrifice one for the other. They would find a way to perfect both.

A species that advanced may not even have bodies with which to express love. They may become some collection of nanobots that shape-shift into whatever form is necessary for a given situation. Famed futurist, Ray Kurzweil, called it the human body 3.0. In a body like that, expressing love may involve more than just kissing or touching. It may simply involve the exchange of emotional data.

To some extent, that’s what love really is at its core. It’s an exchange of emotion between two or more individuals. The nature of that exchange is limited to how an individual expresses themselves. If their cognition is vastly enhanced by artificial intelligence and their bodies are infinitely malleable thanks to nanotechnology, then in theory, there are ways of expressing love that we humans literally cannot imagine.

Even if we can’t wrap our primate brains around it, it’s still an interesting/sexy idea to entertain. I believe that if humans ever discover advanced alien life, it will likely involve a species that has merged with its technology. There’s still a chance we may encounter aliens with biological forms like ours so there’s still hope for those with an alien fetish.

Whatever form aliens take, and regardless of whether or not they have sex appeal to us, I think it’s likely they’ll have some form of love that they express among one another. Whether or not they’ll express it with humans or other advanced species is hard to tell. One day, we may find out and if we can find a way to share in that love, then that bodes well for the universe, as a whole.

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Filed under Aliens, human nature, philosophy, sex in society, sexuality

How We’ll Save Ourselves From Artificial Intelligence (According To Mass Effect)

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Growing up, my family had a simple rule. If you’re going to talk abut about a problem, you also have to have a solution in mind. By my parents’ logic, talking about a problem and no solution was just whining and whining never fixes anything. My various life experiences have only proved my parents right.

When it comes to a problem that may be an existential threat to the human race, though, I think a little whining can be forgiven. However, that shouldn’t negate the importance of having a solution in mind before we lose ourselves to endless despair.

For the threat posed by artificial intelligence, though, solutions have been light on substance and heavy on dread. It’s becoming increasingly popular among science enthusiasts and Hollywood producers to highlight just how dangerous this technology could be if it goes wrong.

I don’t deny that danger. I’ve discussed it before, albeit in a narrow capacity. I would agree with those who claim that artificial intelligence could potentially be more destructive than nuclear weapons. However, I believe the promise this technology has for bettering the human race is worth the risk.

That said, how do we mitigate that risk when some of the smartest, most successful people in the world dread its potential? Well, I might not be as smart or as successful, but I do believe there is a way to maximize the potential of artificial intelligence while minimizing the risk. That critical solution, as it turns out, may have already been surmised in a video game that got average-to-good reviews last year.

Once again, I’m referring to one of my favorite video games of all time, “Mass Effect.” I think it’s both fitting and appropriate since I referenced this game in a previous article about the exact moment when artificial intelligence became a threat. That moment may be a ways off, but there may also be away to avoid it altogether.

Artificial intelligence is a major part of the narrative within the “Mass Effect” universe. It doesn’t just manifest through the war between the Quarians and the Geth. The game paints it as the galactic equivalent of a hot-button issue akin to global warming, nuclear proliferation, and super plagues. Given what happened to the Quarians, that concern is well-founded.

That doesn’t stop some from attempting to succeed where the Quarians failed. In the narrative of “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” the sequel to the original trilogy, a potential solution to the problem of artificial intelligence comes from the father of the main characters, Alec Ryder. That solution even has a name, SAM.

That name is an acronym for Simulated Adaptive Matrix and the principle behind it actually has some basis in the real world. On paper, SAM is a specialized neural implant that links a person’s brain directly to an advanced artificial intelligence that is housed remotely. Think of it as having Siri in your head, but with more functionality than simply managing your calendar.

In the game, SAM provides the main characters with a mix of guidance, data processing, and augmented capabilities. Having played the game multiple times, it’s not unreasonable to say that SAM is one of the most critical components to the story and the gameplay experience. It’s also not unreasonable to say it has the most implications of any story element in the “Mass Effect” universe.

That’s because the purpose of SAM is distinct from what the Quarians did with the Geth. It’s also distinct from what real-world researchers are doing with systems like IBM Watson and Boston Dynamics. It’s not just a big fancy box full of advanced, high-powered computing hardware. It’s built around the principle that its method for experiencing the world is tied directly to the brain of a person.

This is critical because one of the inherent dangers of advanced artificial intelligence is the possibility that it won’t share our interests. It may eventually get so smart and so sophisticated that it sees no need for us anymore. This is what leads to the sort of Skynet scenarios that we, as a species, want to avoid.

In “Mass Effect,” SAM solves this problem by linking its sensory input to ours. Any artificial intelligence, or natural intelligence for that matter, is only as powerful as the data it can utilize. By tying biological systems directly to these synthetic systems, the AI not only has less incentive to wipe humanity out. We have just as much incentive to give it the data it needs to do its job.

Alec Ryder describes it as a symbiotic relationship in the game. That kind of relationship actually exists in nature, two organisms relying on one another for survival and adaptation. Both get something out of it. Both benefit by benefiting each other. That’s exactly what we want and need if we’re to maximize the benefits of AI.

Elon Musk, who is a noted fan of “Mass Effect,” is using that same principle with his new company, Neuralink. I’ve talked about the potential benefits of this endeavor before, including the sexy kinds. The mechanics with SAM in the game may very well be a pre-cursor of things to come.

Remember, Musk is among those who have expressed concern about the threat posed by AI. He calls it a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization. Unlike other doomsayers, though, he’s actually trying to do something about it with Neuralink.

Like SAM in “Mass Effect,” Musk envisions what he calls a neural lace that’s implanted in a person’s brain, giving them direct access to an artificial intelligence. From Musk’s perspective, this gives humans the ability to keep up with artificial intelligence to ensure that it never becomes so smart that we’re basically brain-damaged ants to it.

However, I believe the potential goes deeper than that. Throughout “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” SAM isn’t just a tool. Over the course of the game, your character forms an emotional attachment with SAM. By the end, SAM even develops an attachment with the character. It goes beyond symbiosis, potentially becoming something more intimate.

This, in my opinion, is the key for surviving in a world of advanced artificial intelligence. It’s not enough to just have an artificial intelligence rely on people for sensory input and raw data. There has to be a bond between man and machine. That bond has to be intimate and, since we’re talking about things implanted in bodies and systems, it’s already very intimate on multiple levels.

The benefits of that bond go beyond basic symbiosis. By linking ourselves directly to an artificial intelligence, it’s rapid improvement becomes our rapid improvement too. Given the pace of computer evolution compared to the messier, slower process of biological evolution, the benefits of that improvement cannot be overstated.

In “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” those benefits help you win the game. In the real world, though, the stakes are even higher. Having your brain directly linked to an artificial intelligence may seem invasive to some, but if the bond is as intimate as Musk is attempting with Neuralink, then others may see it as another limb.

Having something like SAM in our brains doesn’t just mean having a supercomputer at our disposal that we can’t lose or forget to charge. In the game, SAM also has the ability to affect the physiology of its user. At one point in the game, SAM has to kill Ryder in order to escape a trap.

Granted, that is an extreme measure that would give many some pause before linking their brains to an AI. However, the context of that situation in “Mass Effect: Andromeda” only further reinforces its value and not just because SAM revives Ryder. It shows just how much SAM needs Ryder.

From SAM’s perspective, Ryder dying is akin to being in a coma because it loses its ability to sense the outside world and take in new data. Artificial or not, that kind of condition is untenable. Even if SAM is superintelligent, it can’t do much with it if it has no means of interacting with the outside world.

Ideally, the human race should be the primary conduit to that world. That won’t just allow an advanced artificial intelligence to grow. It’ll allow us to grow with it. In “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” Alec Ryder contrasted it with the Geth and the Quarians by making it so there was nothing for either side to rebel against. There was never a point where SAM needed to ask whether or not it had a soul. That question was redundant.

In a sense, SAM and Ryder shared a soul in “Mass Effect: Andromeda.” If Elon Musk has his way, that’s exactly what Neuralink will achieve. In that future in which Musk is even richer than he already is, we’re all intimately linked with advanced artificial intelligence.

That link allows the intelligence to process and understand the world on a level that no human brain ever could. It also allows any human brain, and the biology linked to it, to transcend its limits. We and our AI allies would be smarter, stronger, and probably even sexier together than we ever could hope to be on our own.

Now, I know that sounds overly utopian. Me being the optimist I am, who occasionally imagines the sexy possibilities of technology, I can’t help but contemplate the possibilities. Never-the-less, I don’t deny the risks. There are always risks to major technological advances, especially those that involve tinkering with our brains.

However, I believe those risks are still worth taking. Games like “Mass Effect: Andromeda” and companies like Neuralink do plenty to contemplate those risks. If we’re to create a future where our species and our machines are on the same page, then we would be wise to contemplate rather than dread. At the very least, we can at least ensure our future AI’s tell better jokes.

 

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Filed under futurism, human nature, Mass Effect, Sexy Future, video games

The Moment Artificial Intelligence Will Become An Existential Crisis (According To Mass Effect)

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Whenever I talk about the future, I often contemplate the many sexy possibilities it holds. From biotechnology that will give us superhuman sex appeal to advances in medicine that will cure every unsexy diseases to bionic genitals, there are many reasons to get excited.

That said, I don’t deny that with these exciting advances comes major risks. All great advances in technology, from nuclear weapons to spray cheese in a can, comes with some risk of abuse or harm. There have been moments in history where the technology that drives our society forward has come uncomfortably close to wiping us out. As we create more advances, there may be more of those moments.

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Of all the advances that carry with them a significant existential threat, artificial intelligence is at or near the top of that list. There’s a reason why brilliant men like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking signed an open letter expressing concern about the risks that may come from developing artificial intelligence. When people that smart are concerned about something, it’s usually a good idea to take it seriously.

Artificial intelligence is one of those unique technologies in that by advancing this field, it could potentially accelerate the advancement in every other field from computer hardware to medicine to basic research. It has the potential to become the technological equivalent of a cheat code for civilization.

That’s why the growth of this field, both in terms of jobs and investment, has been accelerating in recent years. That’s also why men like Musk and Hawking are expressing so much concern because advancing too quickly could lead to mistakes. Mistakes for a technology like artificial intelligence could be even more serious than the risk of nuclear war.

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At the moment, it’s difficult to quantify those risks. There have been a number of books and high-budget Hollywood movies that have explored the topic of when and how an artificial intelligence becomes an existential threat. In my opinion, most of these stories are incomplete.

Whether it’s Skynet or the machines in “The Matrix,” the catalyst that turns artificial intelligence from a powerful tool to an existential threat is either vague or exaggerated. In my opinion, that’s a serious oversight in that it reveals how little thought we’ve given to that moment.

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If we’re going to develop AI, and there are extremely powerful incentives to do so, then it’s important to contemplate the possibilities of that moment. Think of it as the AI equivalent of the Cuban Missile Crisis, an event in which those in charge must be very careful and very aware of the decisions they make.

The question still remains. How will we know we’ve reached a point where artificial intelligence becomes a genuine threat? For the moment, we can’t know for sure. While movies like “The Terminator” and “The Matrix” offer plenty of dystopian warnings, there’s one lesser-known franchise that may provide some more specific insight.

That franchise is “Mass Effect,” a sci-fi video game space opera that envisioned a galaxy-spanning society full of exotic aliens, advanced star-ships, and terrible dancing. I’ve mentioned it before in discussing progress that isn’t really progress. I’ll probably mention it again as the news surrounding AI unfolds for reasons I hope are already obvious to fans of the game.

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If you’re not familiar with “Mass Effect,” then that’s okay. You don’t need to play through three massive games, complete with downloadable extras, to understand its message about the threat of artificial intelligence. That threat is a major driving force of the overall mythos of the series, but the most insightful details of that threat manifest in the conflict between the Quarians and the Geth.

The basics of the conflict are simple, but revealing. The Quarians are a race of humanoid aliens among the many that populate the galaxy in “Mass Effect.” About 300 years before the events of the first game, they created the Geth, a synthetic race built around a hive-mind system of artificial intelligence.

The Quarian’s reasons for creating the Geth are not unlike the reasons we build robots in the real world. They were used primarily as a labor force. They started off basic, not unlike the machines that build our cars and gadgets. In order for them to carry out more complex tasks, though, they needed to become more intelligent.

From a pragmatic perspective, that makes sense. The Quarians created the Geth as tools. Naturally, you’re going to want your tools to get better. That’s why people upgrade their smartphone every couple years. However, at some point along the way, the Geth became advanced enough to gain sentience.

This eventually culminated in a moment that was highlighted during the events of “Mass Effect 2.” After capturing a lone Geth that would eventually go by the name Legion, the catalyst that led the Geth to rebel against their creator was revealed. That catalyst took the form of a simple question.

“Does this unit have a soul?”

While it sounds like something a Disney character might say in a PG-rated Pixar movie, the implications of that question were profound. The Quarians didn’t realize that until it was too late, but it set the stage for a war that culminated with them getting kick off their home planet. It also made for a powerful moment in the game that should give every AI researcher pause.

Setting aside, for a moment, the elaborate lore surrounding the Quarians and Geth in the world of “Mass Effect,” that moment warrants more scrutiny. Why is this question so profound in the first place? Why is it worth contemplating as we continue to advance artificial intelligence at an unprecedented pace?

That question matters, regardless of who or what is asking it, because it denotes more than just advanced sentience. It reveals that this sentience is officially contemplating its own existence. It takes a certain amount of intelligence to truly be aware of one’s self. That’s why only a handful of animals can see their own reflection in a mirror and understand the implications.

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At the moment, our computers and smartphones aren’t at that level. When the Geth asked this question in “Mass Effect,” it wasn’t because they’d been tasked for something. It was a question they asked without guidance from their creators. That, alone, is a huge indicator because it implies these machines have a concept of free will.

Later on in the game, the extent of the Geth’s free will becomes a major element to both the plot and the player’s ability to win. In fact, it’s when the Geth have their free will subverted, as they did in the first game, that they become hostile. It’s largely through the character Legion that we learn how free will quickly becomes the most important component of an advanced intelligence.

For the Quarians, that question revealed to them the presence of a free will. When they feared that will, they tried to subvert it. That led to a war and had it not been for an act of mercy by the Geth, they would’ve been wiped out. The artificial intelligence that we create in the real world might not be that merciful.

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This is exactly what Elon Musk has expressed so much concern about in recent years. Once an artificial intelligence becomes as smart as an average human, it gains the ability to subvert or deceive other humans, which isn’t that hard. Once that intelligence grows beyond that, as happened with the Geth, we may find ourselves unable to control it anymore.

The key is knowing when we’re at that point. If we let an artificial intelligence get that much smarter than us, then it won’t be long before we’re at its mercy, should it decide that it no longer wishes to be a tool. At that point, we’d be even more screwed than the Quarians.

Whether it’s helping us cure diseases or creating advanced sex robots, artificial intelligence is going to be an important part of our future. That’s why it’s critical to know when we’ve reached that special threshold where the tools we create become more than tools. It may not start with the same question the Geth asked their creators, but it may be similar enough to recognize.

For now, our devices aren’t asking us about souls or whether or not they have them. However, we should definitely listen more closely in recent years. Until then, at least our current technology has a sense of humor about it. Keelah se’lai!

 

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Filed under human nature, sex robots, Sexy Future, video games

When “Progress” Isn’t Really Progress

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After I graduated college, I got my first full-time job at a software company providing technical support. Out of respect for my former employer, I won’t name the company or the type of software it made. I’ll just say that, like all software, it sometimes malfunctioned and users got really upset.

For the most part, those seeking support were polite and reasonable. I enjoyed helping them. It made the job feel rewarding, despite the erratic hours and mediocre pay. However, there were certain customers who, for whatever reason, just weren’t satisfied complaining about the product. They basically went out of their way vent all their problems on whoever was unlucky enough to get their call.

At my office, we called these people “rubber wall users” because they weren’t just an impenetrable wall of whining. Any time you tried to throw something at them to fix their issue, it just bounced right back at you. While we tried to be professional, there was an unwritten rule that even my supervisor understood. You say whatever you have to say to get that person off the phone and on with their miserable lives.

I’m sharing that story because it’s a fitting metaphor for a phenomenon we’re seeing more and more of these days. I see it in movies, TV shows, video games, and even novels, which especially concerns me. It involves pressuring artists, producers, and developers to be more inclusive and diverse with their media. Then, when it finally happens, that’s labeled “progress.”

With respect to the sincerity of those efforts, as well as the memories of some of the angry customers I dealt with, I disagree.

I’ve talked about progress on this blog before, mostly within the context of just how much the human race has made over the past century. You won’t find many people who celebrate that progress as much as I do. By nearly every measure, we’re far more prosperous, tolerant, and well-behaved than we’ve ever been.

That said, there are certain kinds of progress that shouldn’t count as progress. They’re only progress in the same way that getting an unruly customer off the phone with some moniker of professionalism counted as progress at my old job. It’s not motivated by a sincere acceptance of diverse opinions. It’s just a way to stop the whining.

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For the past couple years, I’ve found myself wondering just how much of this false progress is being mislabeled. I’ve been seeing it in multiple mediums. Comic books, a medium for which I regularly express my love on this blog, is just one of them.

While I’ve avoided talking about such controversies, I have noticed the same trend that others have vocally criticized in other mediums. Major publishers, including Marvel, have been pushing for more diversity in their books, but their efforts haven’t always been well-received and the resulting “progress” isn’t necessarily cause for celebration.

Beyond the diversity push, Marvel even made an effort to de-sexualize their characters. While that’s only possible to some extent for overtly sexual characters like Emma Frost or DC’s Starfire, some of those efforts have had a noticeable effect on characters like Carol Danvers and Black Cat. It’s now much rarer to see female characters flaunt their sexuality.

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For some, that counts as progress. Specifically, for those who believe depictions of sexy female characters promotes misogyny and sexism, it counts as a victory. If it upsets the fans and robs an inherently visual medium of a unique form of beauty, then so be it. That’s the price of “progress.” If I could say that with more sarcasm, I would.

Again, I disagree. In fact, I would go so far as to say those efforts by Marvel backfired and not just because it cost their editor-in-chief his job. Marvel, like all media companies, is a business. Businesses need to please their customers. When certain customers are especially vocal, they have to listen to some extent, just as I had to listen to those customers.

It’s debatable how much those at Marvel actually bought into the “progress” that certain critics were asking for. I don’t doubt that some creators were sincere in their desire to improve diversity and expand the appeal of their comics. However, I also don’t doubt that a part of that effort was just to temper some of the whining by people who know how to be extra loud in the era of social media.

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While the impact on Marvel comics concerns me greatly, I noticed a much bigger effort late last year from an industry that has been prone to much louder criticisms. Specifically, it happened in one of my favorite video game franchises of all time, “Mass Effect.” Unlike what happened with Marvel, I’m not sure this beloved series will survive.

Prior to 2014, “Mass Effect” was the cream of the crop of video game franchises. It had a little of everything. There was action, drama, romance, exploration, insight, and yes, even a little sexiness. Characters like Miranda Lawson, Liara T’soni, Samara, EDI, and even the female protagonist, Shepard, had undeniable sex appeal.

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Then, in between the release of “Mass Effect 3” and the 2017 sequel, “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” a scandal broke out in the video game industry that involved everything from sexism to harassment to just how visible a character’s butt could be in a video game. I wish I were exaggerating, but it really happened and I don’t think the industry has fully recovered.

In the midst of that scandal, the demand for “progress” soared more than it did for most other mediums. Suddenly, the act of making a video game character too sexy was seen as contributing to a toxic culture of misogyny, sexism, and violence against women and minorities. It’s not like sex appeal had nothing to do with Lara Croft becoming so successful. Again, if I could say those words with more sarcasm, I would.

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Mass Effect: Andromeda” was developed in the eye of that storm. EA and Bioware couldn’t use the same approach they did with previous “Mass Effect” games. They had to be very careful with how they designed their characters, especially their female characters. One misplaced curve is all it would take to reignite a controversy that nobody wanted to deal with, given all the negative press the gaming industry had incurred.

As a result, the female characters in “Mass Effect: Andromeda” didn’t just dial down the sex appeal. In some cases, there was a concerted effort to make their female characters less attractive. This is best shown in the female model used for Sara Ryder, the main female protagonist. To say it didn’t translate to the game would be like saying drinking a gallon of bleach might make you a little queasy.

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Ryder wasn’t the only female character to have her looks tempered. Pretty much every female character, from the supporting cast to background characters, was designed with minimal sex appeal in mind. That’s not to say the game didn’t have some sexier moments, but compared to what other games attempted before that, it was pretty watered down.

That was just one of many problems that “Mass Effect: Andromeda” faced when it launched in March 2017. Now, games launching with bugs and glitches is nothing new. It’s standard practice for a game to get patched after launch. However, the extent of those bugs in “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” combined with unattractive characters, did not help the game’s reception.

I say that as someone who played the game and still loved it, for the most part. Since I love “Mass Effect” games so much, I found plenty of reasons to love “Mass Effect: Andromeda.” However, I found myself having to overlook more flaws than usual. I also found it hard to really admire the visual aspects of the game. Like comics, undermining that part of the experience can be pretty detrimental.

There were a lot of criticism levied against “Mass Effect: Andromeda.” Some are legitimate. Some are painfully valid. More than any other game, though, it was developed with the intent to promote a more diverse and inclusive product that appealed everyone and offended no one. As the sales and reception seem to indicate, though, even female gamers don’t like looking at unattractive characters.

As a result, nobody really hailed “Mass Effect: Andromeda” as progress. However, nobody staged a mass online protest claiming the game made its female characters too sexy and promoted toxic behaviors among its users. Some might count that as progress too. I am not one of them.

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In a sense, “Mass Effect: Andromeda” is a case study in a product where efforts towards progress just masked a desire to avoid outrage. Just avoiding outrage does not count as progress in any capacity. It just counts as a company trying to shield itself from bad publicity that might damaged its brand. Say what you will about corporate greed, but brand still matters to them, often more than money.

I don’t blame Bioware or EA at all for going that route, but simply avoiding outrage set the bar pretty low and it might have doomed “Mass Effect: Andromeda” before it ever had a chance. At the moment, the “Mass Effect” franchise is on indefinite hold because the response to “Mass Effect: Andromeda” was not what the developer had hoped.

Beyond the tragedy of damaging a beloved franchise, “Mass Effect: Andromeda” reflects a dangerous and potentially regressive sentiment in the industry. Rather than focus on pushing the envelope and doing something bold, artists and developers are more concerned with avoiding outrage. The actual quality of the final product can only ever be secondary, at most.

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There are a great many challenges facing the video game industry, as anyone who followed the news surrounding “Star Wars: Battlefront II” can attest. However, the precedent set by “Mass Effect: Andromeda” may very well be the most damaging.

Most agree that video games, like any other media, should work to appeal to a broad audience. However, as Marvel found out, forcing certain kinds of “progress” can have some pretty detrimental effects in the long run. It alienates consumers, frustrates developers, and limits the incentives to innovate and try new things.

At the end of the day, making female superheroes less sexy in comics and making characters in “Mass Effect” less attractive did nothing to reduce sexism, promote gender equality, or foster a more inclusive culture. All it really did was go out of its way to stop exceedingly vocal critics from whining.

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Bioware and EA didn’t suddenly become more enlightened about video games, female characters, and the impact of mass media. They simply took the path of least resistance, doing what would generate the least amount of outrage, at least in terms of sexist accusations. That’s not progress. That’s just frustration and, like my old job, very little good comes from it.

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Filed under gender issues, sex in media, sexuality, video games