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AI-savvy writers do a reality check on techno-optimism

How will “The Techno-Optimist Manifesto,” venture capitalist Marc Andreessen’s paean to economic growth and artificial intelligence, play to a wider audience? The reviews are in from two award-winning writers who are familiar with the impact of generative AI on creative professions.

“I think it’s mostly nonsense,” science-fiction writer Ted Chiang said Oct. 19 at the GeekWire Summit in Seattle.

Chiang, a longtime Seattle-area resident, is best-known as the author of “Story of Your Life,” the novella that was adapted for the Oscar-nominated 2016 movie “Arrival.” But he’s also won acclaim as a commentator on AI’s effects for The New Yorker and other publications. Last month, Time magazine included Chiang among the 100 most influential people in AI.

The other writer on the SIFF Cinema stage was Eric Heisserer, the screenwriter who turned Chiang’s story into the script for “Arrival.” Heisserer witnessed the debate over generative AI and the future of work up close as a member of the negotiating committee for the Writers Guild of America during its recent strike against Hollywood studios.

Both Chiang and Heisserer say AI is too often unjustly portrayed as a high-tech panacea. That claim came through loud and clear in Andreessen’s manifesto, which called AI a “universal problem solver.”

“Technology can solve certain problems, but I think the biggest problems that we face are not problems that have technological solutions,” Chiang said in response. “Climate change probably does not have a technological solution. Wealth inequality does not have a technological solution. Most of these are problems of political will. … And so Marc Andreessen’s manifesto is a prime example of ignoring all of these other realities.”

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Fiction Science Club

‘The Creator’: Get a reality check on AI at the movies

Over the next 50 years, will humanity become too attached to the artificial-intelligence agents that dictate the course of our lives? Or is forming a deep attachment the only way we’ll survive?

Those are the sorts of questions raised by “The Creator,” Hollywood’s latest take on the potential for a robo-apocalypse. It’s a subject that has inspired a string of Terminator and Matrix movies as well as real-world warnings from the likes of Elon Musk and the late Stephen Hawking.

How close does “The Creator” come to the truth about AI’s promise and peril? We conducted a reality check with a panel of critics who are familiar with AI research and the ways in which that research percolates into popular culture. Their musings are the stuff of the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast.

Semi-spoiler alert: We’ve tried to avoid giving away any major plot points, but if you’re obsessive about spoilers, turn away now — and come back after you’ve seen “The Creator.”

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Fiction Science Club

Today’s archaeologists make Indiana Jones look ancient

As the world’s best-known fictional archaeologist goes after what may be his last ancient mystery in “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” new generations of real-life archaeologists are ready to dig in with 21st-century technologies and sensibilities.

Harrison Ford, the 80-year-old actor who’s played Indiana Jones for 42 years, has said “Dial of Destiny” will be his last sequel in the series. And this one is a doozy: The dial-like gizmo that gives the movie its name is the Antikythera Mechanism, a real-life device that ancient Greeks used to predict eclipses and other astronomical events. The Lance of Longinus, the Tomb of Archimedes and the Ear of Dionysius figure in the plot as well.

Indy and his mysteries will be missed. Sara Gonzalez, a curator of archaeology at Seattle’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, says her favorite movie about her own field is “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the 1981 film in which Indiana Jones (played by Harrison Ford) made his debut. But that’s not because it’s true to life.

Gonzalez said researchers from the University of Washington’s Department of Anthropology, where she’s an associate professor, recently took a field trip to a local cinema where “Raiders” was playing.

“They have something called HeckleVision, where you can text onto the screen and see it,” she said. “There was this great, fun discussion, happening virtually live, with a whole bunch of anthropologists sitting and watching a movie that we love to deride. But we still kind of love the story and the angle, and we also love educating people about what’s real and what’s fictional about archaeology.”

That’s the subject of the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, focusing on the intersection of science and fiction.

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Fiction Science Club

‘Men in Black’ saga turns into a cause for celebration

Even the Men in Black need their day in the sun. And they’re getting it this week, in the place where those classic characters in UFO tales made their debut.

Roswell may be the nation’s best-known UFO capital — but you can make a good argument that the Seattle area served the true birthplace of the Men in Black and helped inspire shows including  “The X-Files,” “Project Blue Book” and yes, “Men in Black.”

Steve Edmiston — a lawyer, film writer and producer who’s one of the organizers of the Men in Black Birthday Bash — can make an especially good argument.

“It’s like almost the original X-File, if you think about it,” he says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast.

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Fiction Science Club

Get a reality check on supersized quantum mania

Ant-Man may be getting small in Marvel’s latest superhero movie — but in the real world, quantum is getting big.

Quantum information science is one of the top tech priorities for the White House, right up there with artificial intelligence. Microsoft, Google, Amazon, IBM and other tech heavyweights are closing in on the development of honest-to-goodness quantum processors. A company called IonQ has a billion-dollar plan to build quantum computers in the Pacific Northwest. The market for quantum computing is projected to hit $125 billion by 2030.

So you might think “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” will be going all-out to feature real-life advances in quantum physics.

If that’s what you’re expecting from the movie, think again. “There’s no connection to real physics, or our understanding of reality,” says Chris Ferrie, a quantum physicist at the University of Technology Sydney and the UTS Center for Quantum Software and Information.

Ferrie should know, and not just because he has a Ph.D.: His latest book, titled “Quantum Bullsh*t,” colorfully catalogs all the ways in which popular depictions of quantum physics go wrong. In the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, Ferrie explains why those depictions tend to focus on the B.S. rather than the theory’s brilliance.

“The reality .. that quantum physics is a tool for engineers to make predictions about their experiments … is really boring,” he says.

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Fiction Science Club

Avatars return to the movies ⁠— and find a real-life foothold

Thirteen years after the original “Avatar” movie came out, the idea of human minds inhabiting alien bodies is returning for an amped-up sequel ⁠— and since 2009, real-life efforts to create robotic avatars have advanced at least as much as computer-aided filmmaking has.

Oscar-winning director James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” returns to Pandora, a far-off exomoon where the peaceful, blue-skinned Na’vi people are menaced by human invaders who are capable of getting into their skin. The film is a visual mind-blower, combining elements of underwater documentaries, video games and the movie that earned Cameron his Oscar: “Titanic.”

The idea of a human taking charge of an alien body via virtual reality is pure science fiction — but if you replace the fictional Na’vi with a robot, you get the premise for the ANA Avatar XPRIZE, which gave out its top awards at the $10 million competition’s finals in November.

In the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, we focus on the parallels between the science-fiction vision embodied in the Avatar movies and the future-tech vision that roboticists are pursuing through the Avatar XPRIZE and other efforts. Someday, robotic avatars could well transform space exploration as well as life back here on Earth.

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GeekWire

Orbital Reef space station wins role in sci-fi movie

The commercial space station that Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has a hand in building, known as Orbital Reef. will be getting some Hollywood-level product placement years before it’s due to go into operation.

Blue Origin and the other partners in the Orbital Reef project today announced a cross-promotional deal with Centerboro Productions to portray the space outpost in an upcoming sci-fi movie titled “Helios.” The announcement was timed to coincide with this week’s International Astronautical Congress in Paris.

The movie is set in 2030, which is around the time Orbital Reef could become a reality — assuming that the funding from NASA and from commercial partners continues to flow.

“The film will tell the story of a spaceship, the Helios, and its crew during their urgent mission to the International Space Station,” a plot synopsis reads. “When a massive solar flare hits the station, it is up to astronomer and former NASA astronaut Jess Denver and Air Force Colonel Sam Adler to team up and save humanity.”

Orbital Reef is to be featured as a next-generation space station that serves as a critical resource for the Helios crew.

“We teamed up with Blue Origin to give moviegoers a thrilling but realistic depiction of the future of living and working in space and a coordinated response to a space weather emergency,” Patricia A. Beninati, who’s one of the film’s producers and writers as well as the president of Centerboro Productions, said in a news release.

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Fiction Science Club

Star Trek keeps up to date with science — and society

Over the course of five decades, advances in space science and exploration have changed the Star Trek saga — but it’s obvious that the sci-fi TV show has changed the course of space exploration as well.

You need look no further than Amazon’s billionaire founder Jeff Bezos, who took inspiration from Star Trek to green-light talking computers and his very own Blue Origin space effort. The same goes for SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who’s mentioned in the same breath as the Wright Brothers in a “Star Trek: Discovery” episode.

“I can’t imagine a version of the world where Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos exist, for better or worse, however you feel about them, without Star Trek,” says Ryan Britt, the author of “Phasers on Stun,” a new book chronicling the history of the Star Trek sci-fi franchise.

“I’m not saying that those guys embody all of Star Trek’s ideals, because they may not,” Britt says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “But there is an audacity to space travel, whether it is from a government like NASA or another nation’s government that’s putting people in space, or if it’s from the private sector.”

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Fiction Science Club

Get a way-out reality check on dreams of leaving Earth

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos wants to have millions of people living and working in space — that’s why he founded his Blue Origin space venture more than two decades ago. But what if living in space turns out to be like holing up in an Amazon warehouse?

“The reality of going to another planet in our current environment, I think … the best analogy is an Amazon fulfillment center,” Taylor Genovese, an anthropologist at Arizona State University, says in “Last Exit: Space,” a new documentary about space settlement narrated by famed filmmaker Werner Herzog.

“You won’t be able to actually see where you are,” Genovese explains. “You’re going to be inside of a factory, and you’re not going to experience what you think you’re going to be experiencing — that is, the kind of awe of being on another planet and experiencing being off Earth. No, you’re going to be working inside of a cubicle.”

That’s a perspective you won’t often hear in the wave of space documentaries flowing through streaming-video outlets, including “Countdown” and “Return to Space” on Netflix, and “Secrets of the Universe” on Curiosity Stream.

But Rudolph Herzog — Werner’s son and the director of “Last Exit: Space,” now playing on Discovery+ — wasn’t that interested in doing a conventional documentary about the final frontier.

“I just like the edgy, quirky stories,” the younger Herzog, who’s built up his own portfolio of film projects, explains in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “I think everybody knows about Elon Musk, and everybody knows what Jeff Bezos is up to. … I just wanted to show the incredible lengths people will go to, to live this dream of going to space.”

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GeekWire

‘Kimi’ takes its cue from Alexa, Siri and Seattle tech

Once again, Seattle’s tech scene provides the backdrop for a high-profile movie on HBO Max — but this time, it’s serious.

Oscar-winning film director Steven Soderbergh’s tech-noir thriller, “Kimi,” echoes movies like “Rear Window” and “The Conversation” in a tale that also reflects the mind-wrenching isolation forced by the COVID-19 pandemic and the concerns raised by smart devices that are capable of tracking our every move.

Zoë Kravitz portrays an employee at a Seattle tech startup that markets a smart speaker and AI voice assistant called Kimi. The startup is gearing up for an IPO that promises a big payoff, but as Kravitz’s character works through a list of audio files that Kimi couldn’t understand, she happens upon a snippet that suggests a crime was committed. Her efforts to get to the truth spark a classic spy chase with some extra tech twists.

It’s a tale far darker than “Superintelligence,” the 2020 romantic comedy starring Melissa McCarthy as a Seattle techie and James Corden as an AI overlord.

Will “Kimi” stir up a debate over AI voice assistants? Does the movie accurately reflect the Seattle vibe? Will it generate as much buzz as Amazon’s Alexa, or will it flop as hard as the Fire Phone? The early indications are mixed: On the Rotten Tomatoes website, for example, the critical consensus is thumbs-up (89%) while the audience score is an emphatic thumbs-down (52%).

To get the verdict from ground zero, we turned to the experts who helped us sort out the fact, fiction and frivolousness in “Superintelligence”: Carissa Schoenick, director of program management and communication at Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence; and Kurt Schlosser, GeekWire’s go-to guy for coverage of Seattle’s tech culture.