Can 'the Matrix' movies help 'future-proof' how engineers think?

Updated: Dec 16, 2021

Elon Musk made a bold claim recently that robots are “semi-sentient” yet reassured us that we can, at least, still “out-run” them

The creation of autonomous vehicles that are fit-for-purpose relies heavily on Cognitive Science. Perhaps this field can also teach us how to stay ahead of artificially intelligent systems in reminding us how uniquely adaptive we are. The future doesn’t need to be apocalyptic, but some dystopian movies highlight quite well our 3 main cognitive advantages:

Human clones rule O.K.

“The Island” stars Scarlett Johansson & Ewan McGregor as clones on the run. While their ‘originals’ believe their ‘spare parts’ are kept in a vegetative state, the truth emerges when the two ‘products’ escape the ‘factory’. Sean Bean, as the ‘mad scientist’ despairs at this example of poor post-market surveillance and desperately attempts a ‘ product recall’. He also makes a highly sentient observation that the one trait that undermines predictability is curiosity. He is partly correct. His own egotism blinded him to the fact that the clones had been demonstrating this uniquely human capability for some time in being sceptical; ironically the foundation of science itself. He, however, in making the conclusions first i.e. that clones were non-human before asking questions, was outmanoeuvred. We too need to remind ourselves regularly of the power of inquiry and to interrogate -1. our purpose, 2. whether context is stable & 3. if our ‘truth’ is congruent with reality.

We persuade, therefore we think

Traditionally, action movies are ‘script-poor’ but in ‘the Matrix’ an economy of words emphasises some powerful themes e.g. that even A.I. systems hold the keys of their own destruction. While ‘Neo’, (Keanu Reeves) isn’t exactly talkative, he does display a fine ‘Beginners Mind’ in asking questions that can even change Morpheus’s, the rebel leaders, opinions. In engaging in simple yet forthright dialogue through-out, ‘Neo’ reveals just why the Ancient Greeks esteemed rhetoric so highly as a cognitive tool. In conversation with two programmes, one fittingly called the ‘Oracle’, ‘Neo’ displays the power of dialectics to reveal sometimes counterintuitive and paradoxical truths e.g. that to save all mankind, he must freely choose to save one person even at the risk of forsaking all others.

Somewhat prophetically, the ‘Oracle’ and the ‘Architect’ also engage in an illuminating dialogue, although this is still a human U.S.P.. Yet recently in Silicon Valley, Facebook A.I. bots named ‘Bob’ and ‘Alice’ developed their own machine language during a chat. Their architects responded decisively to quickly hit the ‘Off’ button - obviously such was the perceived risk. While tech. firms work hard to improve the parameters of bot-conversations (& some manufacturers never choose the ‘On’ button for their intelligent systems), only human dialogue can unbalance one’s perceived understanding to find ‘Neo-type’ questions. When facing complexity and problems henceforth unforeseen, we need this ‘killer app’ more than ever.

“Know Thyself” - or die anyway trying to Save Thyself

The movie ‘Elysium’ represents a futuristic world derived from the concept of heaven in Greek mythology. Matt Damon plays a reformed criminal who endures his life as a drone worker in a highly segregated society. It seems that in the future there will plenty of labour required to build A.I. police forces but very little ‘human factor engineering’ on the production lines. ‘Max’ is terminally poisoned by radiation at work and makes a resourceful bid to save his own skin but is transformed when he realises he was a higher purpose i.e. to save his fellow human drones.

As humans, we can uniquely reflect upon ourselves just as the original Oracle (at Delphi) recommended i.e. “Know Thyself”.

Self-reflection increases our cognitive control over creativity, even in the face of volatile change. Under pressure, ‘Max’ acquires great tech. - a lot of weapons and a cool exo-skeleton. However, his heroism lies in the brave realisation, through self-introspection, that he must sacrifice himself to restore the equality & health of all.

Little wonder then that to gain certification, engineers are encouraged to ask better questions, improve their communication skills and invest time in self-development. A daily ritual of writing down contradictions and coincidences doesn’t just control the ego but also reveals opportunities for innovation. In auditing our thinking and decision processes regularly (called ‘metacognition’), we avoid jumping to conclusions simply to be seen to have the ‘right’ answer. Both now, and in the future, the right questions revealed by effective dialogue are often what’s most needed.

Final Credits

All the above-mentioned movies are featured on Netflix currently. If you view one, you’re likely to be encouraged to watch another. The algorithm responsible may also hold the future of Hollywood stars in its grip. I haven’t watched ‘Black Widow’ but I’m following Johannsons ‘defiant’ lawsuit against Disney with interest. Like her, our heroes’ quest is to ensure that we aren’t out-moded, out-smarted or simply just overly-distracted to either notice or care.

Why not sign up our Courses in Critical Thinking & Metacognition - the next one

runs from Sept 15th through IBEC Engineering Skillnet


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