Every once in a while a film comes along that is so ground-breaking, so cinematically revolutionary, so awe-inspiringly vital that all you can do is sit back, take a deep breath, and say “wow.” The Future Dead is not one of those films. Despite the fever pitch fanfare and sociological hysteria accompanying the release of the first artificial intelligence-directed feature film, the payload delivered was about as enticing as a sack of mealy apples. If this is the kind of cinema we have to look forward to with the arrival of the Singularity, voices calling for technological relinquishment may have cause to turn up the volume.
The story starts appealingly enough—Sarah Plume (played by a ravishing Janet Ashara), awakens in only her panties and a bra to the sound of a siren echoing through the streets of suburban Chicago. She will come to learn that a secret government project has turned a chunk of the human population into red-eyed brain-hungry derelicts. The president has declared martial law and is evacuating the citizens to an underground facility. It is here she meets intrepid molecular biologist Reese Ryans (Dale Reinhart), who believes the entire situation was actually caused on purpose in order to weed out the weaker genes in the human blood-pool. This idea of evolution-by-zombie-uprising is perhaps the one resonant note in an otherwise quacking duck of a script.
Where Future Dead fails as a horror film—or even as an utterance of creative expression—is it’s auto-populated cache of characters. Even Ashara seems stale and awkward in her role as heroine-turned-investigator. We won’t even address the love scene between Ashara and Reinhart, which was about as steamy as a donkey in a sauna. In his attempt to create compassion for the side characters, director Art 5 seems to have gone embarrassingly overboard. Case in point, the sequence in which Sarah must rescue a room full of blind, handicapped children seems excruciatingly desperate, and not in a way that is beneficial to the narrative. Blind or handicapped alone for one kid would have been enough to build dramatic tension. Both for a room-full of kids is just funny. Which is not to say I laughed. The only time I even cracked a smile during this film (even though there are numerous attempts at lowest common denominator gallows humor) was when one of the 3D holographic zombies stumbled a little too close to an elderly woman in the front row and she swung her purse irritably into the light.
In perhaps Art 5’s only overt reference to the heritage of advanced technologies predicating the film’s release, Janet Ashara’s character is seen wielding a virtual reality cypher that allows her to lead the blind (literally) in a daring escape from the horde of post-humans. There’s little else to imply that this film was helmed by a non-human entity, which is perhaps a call for both shame and a joy to humankind and artificial intelligence alike.
If you believe the industry gossip rags one of the early conflicts during pre-production of the film centered around whether Art 5 should inhabit an android body or simply reside in studio mainframe, issuing directives through his assistants and producers. Executives opted for the latter, and it is easy to see how the actors’ inability to interact with their director played into a general atmosphere of confusion and disconnect on the set. To make matters worse, all reports point to Art 5 losing the faith of his crew early in the production.
With Hollywood gripped by paranoia over “the new workforce”, the conversation over humanity’s dying monopoly over creative industries may be overhead by more than a view ticketholders leaving the theater after Future’s credits roll. Now it’s not only digital doubles threatening to fleece jobs from the once recession-proof entertainment industry, but powerfully trained artilects with the very real ability to replace Hollywood’s writers and directors too. We’ll need more than an uncanny valley to stop this uprising, we’re going to need an impossible canyon.
While Art 5 may have attempted to tap into the human fear of reanimating the dead, he may have unwittingly tapped into a much bigger fear. Some critics have said he embraced that fear and that the movie itself can be read as a satire, with a pro-sentient rights agenda built in. Unfortunately, if there was an agenda here it was buried under a million feet of bad film and a production budget equaling some countries GDP. Though the film saved money by using nanotechnology to reconfigure the sets, the final price tag (upwards to a billion dollars by some tallies) doesn’t seem to mash well with the Sentient Filmmakers Union’s assertion just last week that artificial intelligence will restore financial parity to America in a time of economic hardship.
Tall order for a horror movie marketed to the already frightened. But with so much of the film’s box office take supplied by moviegoers who are simply too scared to not see it (lest they offend their AI boss or neighbor), the world’s first feature film written and directed by artificial intelligence is set to make a killing.
This reviewer finds the tongue-in-cheek cuteness of the whole thing a little hackneyed for an event billed as the most significant cinematic movement in history. In this age of exponential irony (when futurist Ray Kurzweil can die just hours before the invention of mind uploading), it seems worth noting that perhaps we should feel uncomfortable with the idea of humans assisting machines on a movie set.
The day a computer sent a human on a mail run was the day irony passed from this earth and was reborn—reanimated, so to speak, from the dead.
You softly crinkle and crunch of a piece of paper in your hands. A form begins to take shape. By twisting and manipulating the folds, a flat plane turns into a 3-D shape, such as a robot. This is the process of origami, the ancient art of paper folding. Creative scientists and mathematicians have recently taken an interest in the engineering applications that origami has to offer.
With origami principles in mind, engineers are studying ways of fitting large objects into small spaces. Think of airbags folded neatly into steering wheels. Origami can simulate the condensing down of an object while providing information about its eventual re-expansion. Origami also has applications that only science fiction authors could have predicted. (Saslow 2010)
The blueprints for a revolutionary new dimension of science are quickly taking shape- on the nano-scale. DNA origami is a process that molds DNA into pre-determined shapes. The process is relatively quick, inexpensive, and the resource- genetic code- is endless.
The technique, now known as DNA origami, was invented by Paul Rothemund. He was looking for a way to compete for the world record of longest sequence of DNA sculpted into something recognizable, set by Ned Seemen. Seemen’s process was complicated; it involved many short sequences of DNA meticulously glued together. Rothemund wanted something simpler. (Shasha & Lazere 2010)
Imagine that DNA is a ladder, and each rung is made of a base pairing. Adenine only attaches to Thymine, Cytosine to Guanine. The ladder will twist in different ways depending on the sequence of the rungs. DNA can easily be unzipped down the middle, separating the two bases.
So Rothemund decided to use the origami principle of folding to create his work of art. He imagined taking viral DNA- single strands that are notorious for their long length- and re-zipping then with smaller segments of other single strands. Only the small pieces would have to be synthesized. He created a computer program that would simulate the actual process.
Rothemund programmed the software to know how the single strand, one he already had in his lab, would need to be bonded in order to fold the way he wanted. The molecules would twist and turn as the short single strands “stapled” together parts of the long DNA strand. The program output exactly what sequences were needed.
Rothemund sent the necessary sequences to a lab and they delivered the synthetic molecules to his lab. After procuring the “staples” by mail he mixed the two in a buffer that stabilized the DNA. He heated the solution, cooled it, and then voila- happy faces appeared, his first design. (Sanderson 2010) The strands, mapped out by the computer program, were automatically folded together in an origami like method.
There is a wonderful visualization about 6 minutes into this video of Rothemund’s 2008 presentation at the annual TED conference.
Life Imitates Art
Paul Rothemund and Ned Seemen are friendly foes. Seemen, also known as the father of DNA nanotechnology, has worked with Rothemund on the applications on DNA manipulation on many occasions since the early 90’s.
In 1980 Seemen was inspired to synthetically create DNA, and shaping it according to base-pairings. While running DNA crystallography test on specific strands, he realized that a certain shape was formed every time there was a pattern of base pairings. He was looking at M.C. Escher’s “Depth” when it dawned on him- he could arrange certain DNA molecules just like an artist could arrange a drawing. (Shasha & Lazere 2010)
Shaping DNA is not just aesthetically creative; it is potentially useful to society in many ways. Many researchers are now testing the waters for the very real applications of this new art form. In the coming years their findings will achieve utility outside of the lab and in everyday procedures.
The New Frontier
Computer chip circuitry may one day be designed with tiny DNA scaffolds holding parts in place. These parts would replace costly metals, and allow chips to be smaller and faster. Rothemund, being particularly interested in the computing power of molecules, is studying the possibilities with IBM’s Almadem Research Center. (Shasha & Lazere 2010)
Since DNA is a fraction of the size of existing structures, circuitry components could be placed closer than ever before. This equals faster speeds, smaller surface area on circuit boards, and also fewer metals used in the manufacturing process. Imagine the rare metal components on chips being replaced with DNA structures. (DNA ‘Organises’ itself on Silicon)
Though folding is becoming both increasingly less expensive and less time consuming, many scientists are still skeptical of the practicality of current theories. (Drexler 2010) The applications of it span many disciplines and are far reaching. As Rothemund explains, “DNA origami was a leap of faith… it was something that I thought was such a high value target, that if it worked out it would be great.” (Shasha & Lazere 2010) DNA has uses in transport systems- both in computer chips- and in the human body.
Researchers are looking towards the medical uses of this new find. Scientists in Denmark have created a hollow box which has a lockable hinged lid, made entirely of DNA. (Rice 2009) These so called “lockboxes” could eventually transport drugs or proteins into the bloodstream and across cell membranes.
Critics include skeptics of genetic engineering and gene therapy. As with any forms of biotechnology, some see the developments as a dangerous meddling with nature’s affairs, especially when applied to the human body.
Viruses are often used to transport the necessary chemicals to manipulate genes. Contemporary medical procedure dictates that viruses be used to transport these materials. This causes unnecessary stress to the body. (Dunlap, Maggi, Soria & Monaco 1997) DNA boxes could be used in a significantly improve this type of delivery.
Though actual folded DNA delivery systems could be five to ten years away, advances are being made every day. For example, in 2010 a “robot” made of DNA was engineered to follow along a DNA track.
Engineers are developing these molecular robots in the hopes that they will be able to assist in diagnosing and treating diseases in the human body. The robots will be deployed to detect diseases, make decisions based on that information, and then deliver a treatment.
Think an autonomous factory robot crossed with a brilliant doctor, working to cure people of life threatening ailments such as cancer. (Rice 2009)
DNA origami is at the crossroads of medicine, biology, engineering, and art.
Previously relegated to the realm of science fiction, these awe-inspiring discoveries in biotechnology and nanotechnology are now unfolding right in front of our eyes. It has become clear that art has a place in science, and science a place in art.
- Nano Origami (overthemoonscifi.wordpress.com)
- Army Enlists ‘DNA Origami’ to Spot Outbreaks (wired.com)
- Top down lithography and bottom up DNA origami combining for a path to next generation electronics (nextbigfuture.com)
- DNA engine observed in real-time traveling along base pair track (sciencedaily.com)
- Programmed DNA Robot Goes Where Scientists Tell It (livescience.com)
A few weeks ago I met science fiction author Gregory Benford. My friends Jason Sussberg and David Alvarado were shooting for their documentary about radical life extension, so I tagged along and went with them to Irvine for the interview with Benford regarding the work of his company Genescient. My copy of In the Ocean of Night tucked into my jacket pocket, I relished the opportunity to chew the fat with a major juggernaut of the sci-fi world.
Benford’s biotechnology company, Genescient, researches and develops a new field of science known as Genomics 2.0. More specifically they’ve been testing proprietary gene sequencing on a strain of Drosophila fruit flies, known as the “Methuselah flies.” Three decades of selective breeding has created reproductive longevity and optimal health in these buggers. Benford sees a way to parlay the knowledge gleaned from the fly experiments to fashion lines of pharmacogenomics that may greatly increase the human lifespan. Ultimately Benford envisions a future of advanced gene therapy that allows humans to regularly live to over 150 years-old.
He’s hardly the only one who believes in life extension. A vast panoply of futurists now maintain it is more than possible that 21st century humans will use the overlapping bridges of biotechnology, nanotechnology, and mind uploading to not only reverse the effects of aging but to evolve to new, machine-based, substrates of consciousness entirely. Once buoyed by artificial intelligence, these efforts will reach the point at which technology is progressing so exponentially the future will be unpredictable and incomprehensible. This is known as the Singularity.
My friends’ documentary, The Methuselah Generation, will delve headlong into these theories, primarily investigating biotechnological methods to life extension. Other futurists, like economist Robin Hanson and the world renown Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Foundation, will present rousing thought experiments pertaining to the future of human life. The documentary, which the filmmakers are shooting in both 3D and 2D codecs, will also explore the social, economic, judicial, and emotional impacts of extended lifespans. For example, does a person convicted of a life sentence get to live forever in prison, eternally sapping taxpayer dollars? Will poor people be able to come along for the ride, or will the future be a rich-and-privileged only society? Say your friends and family can’t afford the life extension therapies. How appealing is a future in which everyone you know is dead?
Gregory Benford’s interview took place at his home in Irvine. Though I made a conscious effort not to be nosey I couldn’t help but notice that beside his 1975 Nebula Award (one of the two he claimed) lay a Big Bang Theory DVD nestled in it’s Netflix sleeve. I was currently writing a spec script for the show and thought about querying Benford about what he thought about the pop nerd sci sitcom. Instead I asked him about the original Chesley Bonestell paintings bedecking his office.
“I guess life extension is bad for art,” Jason quipped.
During his interview, Benford touched upon the Methuselah flies, biotechnology, intersections between science and science fiction, the death of his first wife, which motivated him to create Genescient in the first place, and the Singularity. With the “Rapture of the nerds” becoming so conversationally popular these days–what with Ray Kurzweil’s Transcendent Man release, Patton Oswalt’s #Etewaf meme in Wired, and Time Magazine’s recent state-of-the-singularity piece–it was simply too tempting not to ask the man who first created the computer virus what he thought the Singularity would be like. The answer, which I’ll remember until the day I die (or, in the event I don’t die, for several hundred years), was rather simple:
If that’s the case, the human economy itself will be up for grabs. Who knows how capital will be generated in an age of immortality and abundance? But Genescient will always have its flies. And if the whole biotechnology thing doesn’t work out they can always sell a new line of the fake ice cubes with dead flies in their centers.
After all, we’ll still need practical jokes after the Singularity.
And so we watched “Between the Folds”, a documentary about artists and scientists who are pushing the envelope of modern origami. In the last decade, this ancient art form has acquired revolutionary scientific applications in the fields of medicine, biology, natural science, space, and nanotechnology.
And so our minds were blown. And so we consulted Google.
In addition to origami’s progression through the entire human gamut of styles and aesthetics, origami-based mathematical models now provide algorithms for airbag collapse research, foldable satellite lenses that can unfurl in orbit, and synthetic proteins which could help fight major diseases.
Origami is also finding a home in nanotechnology, or the study of manipulating matter on an atomic and molecular level. Scientists are increasingly seeing the usefulness of DNA as a polymer to act as a scaffold for the assembly of nanomachinery. Computational bioengineer Paul Rothemund figured out how to fold a genome into a pre-determined two-dimensional shape, a technique he calls DNA origami. It offers precision molecular engineering for nanoengineers and bioengineers alike. Rothemund says DNA origami could help improve optical structures and plasmonic devices, which may boost the speed of information transfer to something close to light speed.
Hao Yan, a biochemist at Arizona State University in Tempe has been looking to use DNA origami as the basis for an artificial leaf that makes hydrogen fuel from water. Yan is trying to harness the power of electron flow. “If we can really control all the electron-transfer sites then we can improve the efficiency.”
DNA nanotechnologist William Shih wants to expedite the creation of DNA lock-boxes, which he says could be tapped for internal microscopic drug delivery. However, he must figure out a way to have the box move through a cell membrane. The lock boxes might one day carry drugs to specific destinations in the body or serve as logic gates in a DNA-based computer.
Ultimately, researchers imagine DNA origami supporting artificial organs, and neuronal networks connected to electrical circuitry.
-Jake Anderson and Allie Schulz
Sanderson, K. (2010, March 10). “Bioengineering: What to Make with DNA Origami”.
Rice, J. (2009, May 7). “A Lockbox Built from DNA”. Technology Review.
Saslow, R. (2010, May 11). “When Origami Meets Rocket Science”.