In amongst the majesty of the landscape and the soundtrack, there’s a really geeky plot point in Blade Runner 2049.
Avoiding too many spoilers, throughout the first half of the film I was wondering why the hero wasn’t given away by his home AI. He has a pretty intimate relationship with the AI’s female avatar, sharing with her secrets that the AI’s maker desperately wants.
“Surely this AI runs in the cloud?”, I thought. A cloud owned and operated by the villain, from which he could easily extract the information he wanted. Then the moment comes where it’s clear that this AI has been running entirely locally on the ‘console’ — the computer — in the hero’s flat.
Alexa plus plus plus
This was a surprise. The AI in question is a direct extrapolation from the current Amazon Alexa/Google Assistant experience. Maybe it wasn’t originally, but there are some humorous non-sequiturs in her speech that will be familiar to the owners of such systems.
Alexa and Assistant are great products, but they are run as much for the benefit of their makers as for their owners. They collate huge amounts of data about the activities in your home, which is used to shape their understanding of your future shopping preferences and target you with products or advertising.
This is no more invasive in some ways than the data they gather from your web browsing activity. But the nature of the interface means that it is more accessible to more people in the home, with less control.
A conscious bargain
There’s nothing wrong with bringing Amazon or Google into your home. I certainly don’t consider these companies to be ‘evil’ in any way. But as I’ve argued before, homes are places for many people. Not all of them will — or can — consent to the digital footprint they are building up through interaction with such devices.
There’s also the point about independence of thought. Amazon — naturally and rightly — will prefer to sell you Amazon products, or preferred third parties from which it makes the most profit. I want my personal assistant to have the clearest loyalties and work exclusively on my behalf. If I have to pay more for that, so be it.
It was both surprising and pleasing, to see a fictional future technology presented as working along these lines.
The motivation for this probably had nothing to do with the point of principle involved, and everything to do with the fact that it would have been a very short film otherwise. ‘Villain wants information, villain gets information from database’ is not a very compelling plot.
We know from history that film makers are also often more interested in story than accuracy — not necessarily a criticism, but nonetheless something that occasionally frustrates science geeks like me. Given the incredible possibilities presented by what we know about science and technology, it sometimes seems perverse to operate outside that broad scope.
However deliberate, for me this presentation of technology offered a tiny flicker of optimism against a dystopian backdrop. Let’s hope that in reality, we can do slightly better.