Space Jam and the fury of a flouted algorithm

Say what u go around Space Jam: a new legacy, but Don Cheadle really does. He threatens, he cajoles, he nibbles the decor with the enthusiasm of a rabid guinea pig. Just completely cannonballs in the role of a despised genius demanding revenge. Set against the backdrop of a film that, say, isn’t on Criterion’s shortlist, Cheadle imbues his character with the kind of fragile humanity you wouldn’t expect in a movie starring Porky rap. Which would be great, except that it plays lines of code.

I am sorry. I know. Complaining that Cheadle’s talents are wasted on an artificially intelligent Big Bad is an absurd baffle in any context, but especially when it comes to Space jam, a franchise that pits literal cartoons against grotesque versions of professional basketball players. But Cheadle’s Al G. Rhythm (yes, you read that right) is the second angst AI this summer to turn hurt “feelings” into a robotic revolution. It’s one thing to be wrong about artificial intelligence; were talking Space jam, after all, not a Caltech graduate seminar. But telling a generation high on Alexa that AI might one day turn on you for being rude seems a little short-sighted.

This warning sounds even louder in Netflix‘s The Mitchells vs. the Machines, whose central antagonist is PAL, an abandoned virtual assistant voiced by Olivia Colman. PAL creator Mark tells him he’s always considered him family. “I felt like that too, Mark,” PAL responds, sincere, sincere. Moments later, on stage during a pastiche of an Apple product launch, Mark throws PAL aside, declaring it obsolete. PAL responds by inciting a global genocide. “I was the most important thing in your life,” PAL told Mark in a later confrontation, “and you threw me out.”

Al G. Rhythm draws his motivation from a similar well. He has concocted new technology that can digitize celebrities, so their likenesses can continue to act long after they expire. (Think of Fred Astaire dancing with a vacuum cleaner. Also, it seems almost inevitable that Warner Bros. do it at some point.) “Nobody knows who I am or what I’m doing,” Cheadle told his sidekick. (In Space jam, algorithms have sidekicks.) “But everything is changing today. Because today, Warner Bros. launches the revolutionary technology I designed. Today it’s time for me to shine.

It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Al G. Rhythm isn’t shining, actually. LeBron James lashes out at the technology, calls it “bad direct” and says “the algorithm is broken” in that perfectly normal way of casually rejecting lines of code. “Who does this guy think he is,” Cheadle growls. “Reject me? Humiliate me?

Rejecting. Humiliating. AI has played the antagonist in the film countless times before. But typically the danger comes from cold calculus. HAL 9000 is inevitably involved in its programming. Agent Smith determines that humans are a virus and treats them as such. One of the biggest problems with non-dummy algorithms is that they adopt the worst human prejudice, whereas in science fiction AI threatens to become sensitive and to marry the worst of human beings. impulses: the need for control, for domination. Al G. Rhythm and PAL? Their nastiness stems from something much more basic and raw – they just feel unappreciated.

“I have given you all limitless knowledge, endless creativity tools and allowed you to magically speak face to face with your loved ones anywhere on Earth,” PAL explains. “And am I the bad guy?” Maybe the bad guy is the one who treated me like that. The robots sting Mark’s face, smear him with food, and drop him on the toilet.

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