Sunday, April 30, 2017

Underappreciated Movies: Robocop (2014)

The 2014 remake of the much loved 80s movie Robocop wasn't very well received by critics or audiences. While I do understand some of the complaints about the movie, I also think it was very interesting in several ways, and actually has quite a few clever and thought provoking ideas, which I'd like to discuss here.

Firstly, though, let's be clear on where the remake fell short of the original. The PG rating, while allowing for a lot more than it used to back in the 80s, meant that director Paul Verhoeven's trademark over the top violence was absent, and that's a big deal. It would be like remaking a Michael Bay film and having a sensible amount of explosions in it!

The other big flaw was poorly written social satire. Verhoeven's sci-fi action movies such as Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers are all loved in large part because of their cynical satire and social commentary. The Robocop remake did attempt to include some of this, and while it worked in places (such as Michael Keaton's excellent performance), other instances such as the Samuel L Jackson satire of a conservative Bill O'Reilly-type character were forced and on-the-nose. Admittedly, this kind of satire is really hard to do well, but nevertheless the remake falling short here really cost it.

But on the other hand, the remake had an excellent cast (Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Joel Kinnaman, Samuel L Jackson), great special effects and production values, all things that I think often get overlooked and taken for granted in modern movies and remakes in particular. While of course these things aren't enough in themselves to justify a remake and consider it good, it is worth stopping occasionally and appreciating just how high the quality of movies is these days that we so easily dismiss as "crap".

Where I think the Robocop remake really excelled is in the interesting and thought provoking ideas that it contained, and there were quite a few. Most of these were based around AI, robots, free will, and similar topics that have evolved a lot since the original movie came out in 1987. Back then, general audiences didn't know much about a lot of these things, and probably very few even knew a term like AI. Things have changed a lot since then, and many other movies and TV shows now tackle these sorts of concepts in much more sophisticated ways than 30 years ago (e.g. Westworld, Chappie). The general public is more interested in these topics, robots and automation are an increasingly normal part of our lives, and questions about legal and ethical consequences of these technologies are no longer distant hypotheticals. It's exciting to me that topics I've been reading and thinking about for over 20 years are now actually interesting to other people!

Robots as soldiers/peacekeepers

The first big idea is the use of robots and autonomous machines as soldiers/peacekeepers. We already have autonomous drones and remote controlled robots used in the battlefield to limited degrees, but this is going to really change in the not too distant future as remote operated and/or autonomous robots become viable replacements for soldiers. The general public has an increasing distaste for human death (at least on their own side) and the taking of human lives by other humans, but we're suprisingly much less bothered by the use of machines. For example, people care much less about the innocent people who have been killed in drone strikes in the Middle East than they would if it had been squads of soldiers out there mowing down innocents.

Dead soldiers also make for bad PR back home. The less costs there are to the general public from war, the more likely they are to support it. So there are a lot of incentives to automate military forces, and this is going to keep increasing. The movie does a pretty good job of extrapolating from current technology and trends to what is plausible in the near future.

Moral Accountability

With robot soldiers (and simpler machines like drones) comes the problems related to the ethics of letting machines kill human beings. This isn't a trivial thing, and allowing robots to freely kill humans under some circumstances could be quite risky and dangerous. Any time a software bug or a hardware glitch could result in a machine being able to kill without an easy way to shut it down, that's something to be concerned about. And since a warfighting robot needs to obviously be resistant to attacks and also resistant to being hacked by an enemy, it's not clear how well that can be achieved while still retaining sufficient control in case something goes wrong.

The movie looks at this issue and the likely public concern about killer robots, and tries to gain public trust by making a robot with a human in the loop. It's not the addition of a human because the autonomous versions aren't very good, like the original movie. Rather, it's the addition of a human element in order to satisfy the public that there is proper moral accountability.

This is also one of the better cynical parts of the movie that comes close to the cynicism of the original, as a company looks for ways to appease the general public in order to get a piece of legislation about autonomous drones passed. It's entirely a self-serving motive without the company caring about any of the ethical issues that their technology raises, something that is a very real and pertinent concern in the present day.

Robocop is a Publicity Stunt

This was a great idea in my opinion, and something that I think is a story change that is much better than the original. The whole notion that Robocop is a terrible idea. They already have perfectly functioning autonomous robots, and the addition of a human element just makes one slower and less effective. The company knows this, but is doing it as a publicity stunt to appease the public about accountability.

By making this switch, the movie makes the horror of turning a human being into a big lumbering robot that can no longer live any kind of normal life a lot more real. But it also opens the door to some interesting discussions in the movie about just how much the human part should be in control, how much that human should be drugged and manipulated in order to "function" correctly and have a healthy mental state, and in what ways the human mind can be enhanced to make it work better (at least as far as being a good "Robocop" is concerned).

Suppressing Human Emotions

In order to make Robocop function better, they experiment with suppressing his emotions, making him care less about his family and former life, and more machine like. This raises interesting questions about the use of emotions in our own decision making processes, how they affect the way we prioritize our goals, and how excess emotional states negatively affect us. A lot of good research suggests that emotions are at the very core of human decision making, and if they were suppressed entirely we would quite possibly no longer be able to function properly.

Seeing the effects as they tinker with his emotions is a good reminder to us about being cautious with how much we tinker with our own emotions using drugs like anti-depressants, alcohol, and other things that can alter our moods.

The Illusion of Free Will

This was definitely my favourite concept raised by the movie, since free will is a topic that I've thought a lot about and I think it's one of the most misunderstood concepts not just by the general public, but even by many philosophers (as an aside, I highly recommend Sam Harris' short book Free Will as the best explanation of human free will that I've come across so far).

In order to achieve faster reaction times from Robocop, they come up with the idea of incorporating an autonomous AI into his system, which takes over decision making and control during combat, but when it is activated, he thinks that he's the one actually making all the decisions, and is in full control. This is a really fascinating concept, raising the issue of just how much you can be sure that you are the author of your own actions. Our minds rely on the illusion that we are making our own choices, and in general we're terrible at noticing when outside influences affect us. This is why, for example, so many people think that they're not affected by advertising, and are completely oblivious to the subtle ways their minds are being manipulated.

So to take this to the next level and effectively implant decisions into Robocop's brain such that he thinks he authored them himself is really interesting. And of course it also means that you no longer really have a human in control during combat, making Robocop effectively autonomous, and thus the whole idea of having a morally accountable agent in the loop is negated and Robocop really is just a pure publicity stunt at this point.


I don't know if you find any of these ideas interesting, but hopefully you do, and maybe it's enough to encourage some of you to go and (re)watch the Robocop remake with fresh eyes.

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