Philosophy, robotic fish, Cylons, and a theory on the emergence of consciousness – it’s impossible to be bored when you’re talking to Malcolm MacIver, bioengineer and Science & Entertainment Exchange (The Exchange) consultant. As an associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering at Northwestern University, MacIver analyzes animal behavior and nervous systems to build better robots (like the robotic ghost knifefish). As a consultant for The Exchange, MacIver brought his considerable knowledge to a consult for the 2010 film TRON: Legacy, as well as to his previous science advisor role for the television show Caprica. We were able to catch up with MacIver for a chat about science advising, artificial intelligence, and why philosophy and science are more connected than you think.
Let’s start by talking about your background, what you do for a living. You’re a professor at Northwestern University in biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering. How did you get to that level? What were your interests growing up?
I have a very odd educational background. I left school early on, grade 4, and basically taught myself until I went to university. I think having that freedom and doing what I wanted was key in terms of finding my eventual track. My interests, even as a teenager, were leaning toward philosophy. But I also had grown up very poor and I thought, “I need to do something I can get a job with.” So I did a double major at the University of Toronto in computer science and philosophy.
The weird thing that happened, and I didn’t necessarily anticipate this, was that some of my computer science classes started talking about the exact same things we were talking about in philosophy, in terms of the mind–body problem, artificial intelligence, and that sort of thing. That totally got me excited. Suddenly, these two things that I thought were unconnected – one was practical and the other one was really what I loved – actually could talk to each other. That set me off on my very long, multidisciplinary, winding road. First I tried artificial intelligence (AI). I did an internship with the Canadian government working on natural language explanations of jet engine faults and military planes, so I spent a summer doing LISP programming on taking signals from jet engines.
Eventually I went to grad school. Although I originally wanted to do a dual PhD in philosophy and cognitive science, I felt that cognitive science and AI weren’t making fast enough progress on what intelligence was, and I felt what we need to do is go to the things that have intelligence – animals, in particular – and see if we can reverse engineer what’s going on in their brains.
Ultimately, I got into the neuroscience program at the University of Illinois and studied fish brains with an interest in sensory signals and biomechanics. What I’ve ended up doing is pursuing my interests in cognition and AI, but through this very different lens – one that looks at really how is it that we are mechanically intelligent, what is it about the body that gives us all this complex ability to work in the world? So, that’s really my general area, understanding the interconnection between the nervous system and biomechanics, and looking at what we’ve evolved into that gives us the incredible abilities we have.
That’s very interesting. I didn’t think science and philosophy intersected so much. Has that come across in any of the science advising you’ve done?
I would say, for certain, it has. Caprica was really working with some very interesting ideas about the nature of personal identity: what it’s like to relate to a being who used to be flesh and blood and now is just this software running in a machine, which is telling you that it is conscious, and it is (in this case Zoe, who is uploaded into Graystone’s computer system). There are a lot of issues there which I would say are more philosophy than they are science.
It’s philosophy that thinks a lot about the nature of personal identity. How can we talk about personal identity continuing through massive changes? Can we talk about what sort of ways we should think about that? It’s talking about consciousness. It’s talking about the idea of technology being both, in some sense, a savior of mankind and its doom. It’s talking about the role of ego, and the ego of humans in pursuing technologies to, perhaps, bad ends.
There are a lot of issues here which, I think, are much more about philosophy than science. So, it was the case that at times I could lean on my philosophical training. And it was very well-received. I referenced specific papers in philosophy that are classics and [the writers] would say, “Can you send it to me?” They would read it and it sneek it into the show at times. It was very definitely the case I could use my philosophical training.
So, the writers were very receptive to science advising. They took it and ran with it. What else did you help them with on Caprica?
The ways in which I helped the writers there were really diverse. It went from “They have an idea for” – for example, at one point Zoe says about this beautiful virtual landscape, “Look how rich it is, look how life-like it looks.” Then she sort of says a few words in the original script about this being due to such and such programming. Because of my knowledge of a certain type of algorithm called generative algorithms, I could tell the writers about a different algorithm where you actually grow structures in software similar to how they grow in nature. So you’re not specifying the positions of every polygon of an object, you’re specifying a growth recipe for how that object will grow into this multi-polygonal structure that looks like a tree. That results in these very organic-looking structures. So, for that part of the script, I gave them this concept of generative algorithms. They wrote it into the dialogue in a way the sounded very beautiful – and they actually really ran with it. So, that gave them a chunk of contemporary computer science that they didn’t know about – nor should they know, it’s not well-known.
In your opinion, specifically for Caprica, what’s the value of having this real science base that they could use in their scripts?
There’s this dance between reality and the unreal future. I think too much science or too much fact-grounding would diminish the story. It has to be the right balance. I think [scientists] can contribute to a story having some grit and texture and some reality that is attractive to viewers. But I think it’s really important for a storyteller to have freedom beyond what currently exists to really imagine things way beyond that, too.
Let’s switch gears a bit and talk about TRON: Legacy, for which you also consulted. What exactly did you do for them there?
In that case, we came in pretty late in the process. They had pretty much finished the script, or at least, it was in an advanced stage. Several other scientists and I went to the studio and met with the producer, the director, and all the people making the movie, which was really exciting. We just brainstormed about the script. We’d read the script under the watchful eye of a production assistant the day before and then we came into this conference room to brainstorm about a whole bunch of different parts of the plot. It was exciting to participate in that exchange. It was interesting to watch the dynamics between the storytellers and the scientists.
In terms of actual impact on the story, I think it was probably smaller in this case because they were at an advanced stage. I think we helped ground some things for them. I think we helped firm up some ideas for them and give some texture to the science that they used – especially the dematerialization and re-materialization phases. If that’s not done in the right way, it can seem even more implausible than it might already seem. It was important to give them some ideas to how that might actually occur if we project forward certain technologies that are on the horizon having to do with teleportation, for example.
How did you become a science advisor for The Science & Entertainment Exchange?
I’ve being doing a combination of interactive art, science, cognitive science, AI, neuroscience, and robotics for a while. I’ve given talks, for example, back in Chicago – and Jennifer [Ouellette, former program director for The Exchange] came across my work. I think the fact that I had some arts background already, and was able to speak to that world and work in that world, probably facilitated her interest in involving me in the program when she was director. The other part is that I’m working in an area – neuroscience, AI – that is of great interest to science-fiction filmmakers.
Are there any benefits to the scientist in this process? Did you get anything yourself personally out of the process?
I would say, for sure. The world of science is a lot more than just working in the lab, testing hypotheses, and exploring all these wonderful questions. It’s also this entire world of persuasion, getting people to believe in your story, to think that it’s exciting enough to spend quite a bit of money to support the research. If that part of the job isn’t done well then you aren’t going anywhere. You’ve got great ideas but you’ve got a lab with no funding. You can’t do research without funding.
I think I’ve learned a lot being involved with The Exchange about how to talk to an entirely different group of people and a group of people who are the world’s best storytellers. [The storytellers] quickly lose interest if you don’t have a good story and if you can’t communicate what you’re doing in an interesting way. I think that’s amazing training for a scientist.
Are there any films that you love that have a science base? Or any films that would get a younger generation interested in science?
I think there are all kinds of sci-fi inspiration. The Matrix was very inspirational. Moon was one of the most exciting sci-fi films I’ve seen recently. I love the way it plays with concepts of identity. I think there’s a lot of very good sci-fi out there that works in indirect ways on people – in terms of getting them excited about science. What it does is give them inspiration, it gives them excitement. It makes them aspire to do things which are really difficult. If you’re motivated, you can actually contribute something to one of these narratives that are envisioned in such a beautiful and exciting way by sci-fi film creators.
It seems that science and entertainment are both interested in the human condition.
What grips us as human beings is what the raw material is for storytellers. But scientists are humans, too, so they are equally subject to stories that are gripping. This is the sense in which I think the two worlds intersect. People need to be motivated to do what they do – to work as hard as they do. Scientists are one such group. Without motivation, you don’t do anything. But where does that motivation come from? It’s not the hard evidence of your data that gets you up every morning. It’s much more aspirational, much more in the world of dreams and hopes. I think this is where the two worlds overlap. Storytellers articulate those hopes and dreams in a very clear way and that’s the engine that underlies a lot of our personal motivation. I think that’s the common kernel.