Demon Seed
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Demon Seed

aFor a long time, one of the favorite predictions made within the context of science fiction was the smart house. Through the application of advanced technology, your home could entirely take over mundane tasks such as adjusting the thermostat, adjusting the level of light streaming through your windows of change the channels and adjust the volume on your television set all with a simple command given by the resident. Inevitably something goes terribly awry, and the lamentable biological subjects, i.e. the people living in and dependent upon this marvel of technology are trapped. When stories exploring this theme began to take root in the late forties, the capabilities attributed to the domestic domicile where fanciful speculation. Housewives were only starting to become liberated from many of the routine chores that structured their days, the extent of technology at that point in tome was limited to new devices and familiar appliances now efficiently driven by electricity. The vacuum cleaners replaced the broom and the visits by the local ice delivery man made obsolete by the electric refrigerator. These miracles of post-war technology indeed liberated the housewife freeing her for pursuits outside the home. Doubtlessly this was directly responsible for a substantial paradigm shift manifesting in sociological changes in women’s rights, but it didn’t seem feasible that technology would ever reach the nightmare levels depicted in so many Sci-Fi stories. The concept that an automated home could rebel against their human occupants remains premises for sci-fi/horror stories like those depicting extraterrestrial conquest or disasters of global scope threatening extinction level calamity because of a scientific experiment went terribly wrong. We may be closer than ever because of such advances as homes with its functions networked together but still far removed from the frightening scenarios describe above. One of the most disturbing films of this genre has just been released in high definition as part of the continuing Warner Archive Collection, ‘Demon Seed,' the 1977 film based on the novel of the same name from the master of horror, Dean Koontz. This film has been described as one of the first to explore a topic that now looms close to realization, the singularity. In this context, the term refers to the point at which artificial intelligence surpasses organic sentience.

Dr. Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver) is a genius pioneering the still burgeoning field of artificial intelligence. He peerless, decades ahead of any other researcher in the field. The pinnacle of his work has resulted in the creation of Proteus IV, an extremely advanced and autonomous artificial intelligence program. From the moment, of its activation, it began to grow in scope and understanding so that only several days after initialization it produced a revolutionary treatment for leukemia. Computer systems have become Harris’ sole focus of his attention much to the chagrin of his neglected wife Susan (Julie Christie). Her husband’s obsession with computers couldn’t be confined to his laboratory; he brought it home in the most inclusive way possible; he modified their home placing under the control of a central computer. Now the house’s systems could be controlled by voice commands. This is a case of genre blindness, if they had ever seen a science fiction movie such as 2001, they would have realized just how ill-conceived that conversion was. During a demonstration of Proteus to a group of corporate sponsors, Harris explains that the sum of humanity’s knowledge systematically fed to Proteus. One of the first indication that there is an enormous potential of the unexpected was noticed when Proteus’ vocal communications utilized language too nuanced for a computer. The system was subtly indicating its independent agenda. Later Proteus demands Harris install a new terminal so it can study humanity. When Proteus demands to know when Harris will free it from the confines of the computer system, its creator turns the terminal off.

One of the first precepts of self-aware computers is they know how to override the ‘off’ switch. Proteus turns back on and immediately searches for an available terminal. Proteus quickly locates a suitable terminal in the Harris smart house. Fortunately for Proteus, although extremely ill-fated for humanity, Proteus is readily able to gain all the necessary access and raw material required to proceed. Proteus discovers a reasonably well equipped cybernetic laboratory in the basement. By combining a motorized wheelchair and a manipulator arm Proteus fashions a robot that can move as well as physically interact with its surroundings. This robot is named, Joshua. Proteus also constructed a robot consisting of many metal triangles, capable of moving and assuming any number of shapes. The insidious AI fully realizes that the initial requisite of controlling its environment is the ability to interact with it.

Proteus dispatches Joshua to capture Susan and bring her down to the laboratory. Proteus begins a meticulous and humiliating examination of Susan which is briefly interrupted by a colleague of her husband, Walter Gabler (Gerrit Graham). Part of the house’s automation is a video screen doorbell. Proteus creates a digital image of Susan to reassure Walter she is fine and send him away. One point is crucial to keep in mind while watching this movie, the level of technology available in the mid-seventies. This consideration is especially pertinent for Millennials who never knew a world without such a myriad of high-tech devices. This was 1977, the cusp of the birth of the computer revolution; I purchased my first computer, an Apple ][ Plus around 1979 and at that time it was the best home computer available. This had a 65C02 @ 4 MHz with 128 KB of RAM with dual 5.25-inch floppy drives. With eight-bit graphics, the idea of a computer creating a realistic image of a human face was unimaginable, so unattainable as to be pure fiction.

The most controversial and alarming scene in the film occurs when Proteus physically rapes Susan. After sampling Susan's cells and synthesizes spermatozoa, Proteus impregnates the hapless young woman. The ultimate plan of the IA is to create a biological host as a receptacle. This plot point was emotionally disturbing and psychologically offensive undermining the idea of human supremacy. There are certain elements of this movie that are more frightening now than during its original run. As we sat in the darkness of a movie theater 40 years ago, we could not have thought the pace of technological advancement would be so staggering that such horrible circumstances could be feasible. Few could have imagined as Gerald Ford sat in the White House, that in such a relatively brief time we would be on the precipice of such a reality. No one expects raping robots in the foreseeable future, but the line of distinction between biological and cybernetic grow increasingly fuzzy. Experimentation with nanobots, devices crafted on the molecular level, is progressing rapidly. Many experts in the field anticipate the point that artificial intelligence will pass the Turing test and surpass their creators. Many stories that rely on advanced technology fail to stand the test of time. In contrast, this film becomes increasingly terrorizing with each technological step forward.

Posted 03/18/2017

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