Thursday, July 18, 2013

World War R

Zombie movies have been a minor genre for more than 7 decades, but in the most recent decade they’ve been all the rage, sometimes as standard horror fare (e.g. Flight of the Living Dead), sometimes as comedy (Warm Bodies, Zombieland), and sometimes as adventure (World War Z, presently doing big box office). Budgets range from 0 to astronomical. They don’t do much for me, by and large, so I miss most of them. I never quite “got” them – even though the likable Kelli Maroney (Night of the Comet [1984]) was kind enough to sign a photo for me. Perhaps the issue for me is that – while plagues, in a general way, always are real and present dangers – a plague that turns humans into single-minded ravenous murderous cannibals doesn’t seem a very high risk. Never mind one that reanimates the dead.

On the other hand, I have seen and enjoyed killer robot movies, including the classic Westworld and the Terminator franchise. Arguably the genre is similar to the zombie films. Both scenarios might seem equally unlikely. Yet, strangely enough, the screenwriters are on firmer ground with the machines. The US Army wants a third of its ground combat vehicles to be unmanned within this decade. Northrop and BAE produce autonomous drones that, with little modification, could make their own decisions to fire munitions – though for the moment a human operator always makes that decision. Robot sentries guard the border of the two Koreas, and have an “automatic” option (though a human has to decide to turn it on) which allows them to identify and fire on targets on their own. Anti-missile Gatlings on warships have a similar option, because no human is fast enough to do the job. Enough people find this unsettling that a Campaign to Stop Killer Robots has attracted serious support. UN investigator Christof Heyns warns, “War without reflection is mechanical slaughter... a decision to allow machines to be deployed to kill human beings deserves a collective pause worldwide."

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Some roboticists have a different view. An Economist article on machine intelligence and robotic warfare a few years ago noted the views of one: "Dr. Arkin believes there is another reason for putting robots into battle, which is that they have the potential to act more humanely than people. Stress does not affect a robot's judgment in the way it affects a soldier's." Yes, more humanely. Oddly enough, this is credible.

The robots still need a lot of work, of course, to be truly autonomous. For one thing (and foremost), AI, while getting better, still falls far short of even a convincing simulation of consciousness. Second, machines need to be able to construct copies of themselves, as anticipated in the 1960s Berserker sci-fi stories by Fred Saberhagen. Finally, they need to be able to recharge without help – to live off the land.

Fortunately, this last problem was solved more than a decade ago. The robot Chew Chew (yes, really – look it up) has a microbial fuel cell (MFC) that breaks down biological material and converts the chemical energy into electricity. The robot was fed sugar, but the inventor, Stuart Wilkinson, notes that the ideal food for energy gain is meat. "Vegetation is not nearly as nutritious," he says.

So, there we have it. If we bring these three elements together, we can have intelligent, self-replicating, carnivorous killer robots. What could go wrong? Now there is a kind of zombie I find exciting.

[Book notes: I’m currently reading Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross, a newly released sequel to Saturn’s Children (2008). Both are set in a future in which robots have supplanted people. Humanity faded away, not because the robots ate them, but because humans didn’t see the point of biological reproduction anymore. Worth a read. I don't do many robot stories of my own, but I do have one, Going through the Motions, at .]


  1. Well with the creation of Chew Chew, we are getting closer and closer to the future depicted in "The Matrix", where humans are bred as living batteries. Thanks for the nightmare fuel Richard. :)

    I'm with you on the endless zombie movies. They don't do much for me as a horror concept. I much prefer them in a more humorous take like "Zombieland" and "Shawn of the Dead".

    Did see a Spanish film called ".REC" that had a pretty good plague/zombie twist to it. But I have to say it was the style of the film that really made the whole thing work. One of the more effective uses of first person camera work in a horror film. Almost as good as "The Blair Witch Project".

    1. A change took place in the 60s (starting with The Last Man on Earth) in zombies. The ones in classic films, e.g. White Zombie (1932), are the creation and minions of power-hungry scientists or voodoo priests -- a theme perhaps suited to an era of totalitarian strongmen. Since the 60s the zombies have rejected authority. They kill everybody democratically. For the mad scientists among us, it rather takes the fun out of making them.