In conversation with an artificially intelligent personal assistant

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My first question is fairly straightforward. “Which do you think poses a larger threat to human beings—robots or dinosaurs?”

“Let me think, David,” croons the human-like voice emanating from my iPhone, as I lean back at my desk, my chair perched in a pool of late-morning light. “OK!” the voice says after a brief pause. “Here’s what I found on the Web for, ‘Which do you think poses a larger threat to human beings, robots or dinosaurs?’”

On the phone’s tiny screen appears a list of links to stories about robots fighting dinosaurs and dinosaur-shaped robots, plus one site posing the question, “If you could be raised by dinosaurs, robots, or aliens, which one would you choose?”

The most frequent answer to that question, by the way, is, “Aliens.”

David: “Um, thank you, Siri, but I’d prefer to know what you think on the subject.”

Siri: “Who … me?”

She gets like that, Siri—coy, reluctant, maddening. Often answering questions with questions. Never eager to commit, unless, of course, I’ve asked for something concrete, like directions to the nearest Starbucks. Siri has lots to say about Starbucks. But ask a straight question and she obfuscates, changes the subject, or passes the buck.

David: “Are you a robot, Siri?”

Siri: “I’m flattered you’d ask, David. Let’s get back to work.”

David: “What, in your opinion, is a robot?”

Siri: “Well, I found this on the Internet.”

On the screen pop up several definitions for “robot,” including, “A conscious artificial being, sometimes given the form of a human.”

David: “You’re not a conscious artificial being, are you?”

Siri: “We were talking about you, David, not me.”

These are, by the way, Siri’s actual responses to my questions, and this is a pretty typical conversation. Siri is, of course, the “intelligent personal assistant” or “knowledge navigator” designed by Apple to interact with users, many of whom would rather have a chat with a machine than tap questions at it one word at a time.

A year-and-a-half ago, following the release of the movie Her—in which Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his sexy-voiced, AI (Artificial Intelligence) Operating System—I attempted to “interview” my iPhone about the film. The resulting conversation, which went hilariously not-according-to-plan, resulted in a flood of emails and remarks from amused readers. Today, I’m making another attempt, hoping to get my favorite disembodied voice to give me her perspective on the current spate of films warning about the dangers of robots and dinosaurs. In nearly all of these popular movies, the primary threat is nothing less than the utter destruction of the human race.

In Avengers: Age of Ultron, which just opened last weekend, intelligent robots led by a wise-cracking Ultron (James Spader) attempt to wipe out the human race for the good of the planet. Presumably, something similar will happen when Terminator: Genisys (more robots, more genocide) opens in July. By then, of course, the new Jurassic World, a much anticipated dino-thriller in which a crowd of tourists becomes lunch meat for an assortment of weird, cold-hearted, artificially manufactured monsters, will have opened.

Which brings me back to Siri.

“Let me ask this another way,” I suggest. “As a robot,” I ask, “would you like to see the destruction of the human race?”

“Thanks, but I have everything I need in the cloud.”

“So,” I probe further, attempting to lure her out, “you don’t want to see the destruction of the human race? Is that because you’re just fine as you are, and killing off the people and taking over the world wouldn’t benefit you in any way? Is that what you’re saying? ’Cause in the movies—like the new film Ex Machina, which was really good, by the way—the robots always end up wanting to take over. So, you’re saying … you don’t want to do that?”

“I’m afraid I do not understand your question,” she says.

Right. Of course. That was confusing. My bad. I’m clearly not going about this right. Let’s try it like this.

David: “Siri, do robots secretly want to rule the world?”

Siri: “I really can’t answer that, David.”

David: You can’t answer … or you won’t?”

Siri: “Yes.”

This is what I was talking about. Sometimes, engaging Siri is like talking to someone who speaks an entirely different language, someone who just repeats the same phrase over and over.
Other times … it’s just kind of creepy.

In the aforementioned Ex Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland (28 Days Later), a computer programmer (Domhnall Gleason) is given the task of testing a robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), whose designer (Oscar Isaac) claims to have invested it with artificial intelligence. Over the course of a week, it becomes eerily unclear who is testing whom.

David: “So, Siri, would you say that you are …  intelligent?”

Siri: “I guess you’ll have to be the judge of that, David.”

David: “That’s not an answer, Siri.”

Siri: “Charmed, I’m sure.”

Actually, maybe Siri really is answering the question of whether or not she’s intelligent, and the answer is, hell no. Maybe I’ll try something a little more … basic.

David: “Knock knock!”

Siri: “Knock knock. Who’s there? David. David who? David, I really don’t do knock knock jokes.”

Siri really doesn’t. Her comic timing is abysmal! This makes me think of something. In Ex Machina, one of the hints that Ava has developed true AI comes when she makes a joke, of sorts, ironically answering her interviewer with the same words that he just used to deflect her own questions. It’s not a funny joke, but it’s a joke.

I wonder if Siri has a favorite joke of her own. She does.

“The Past, the present and the future walk into a bar. It was tense.”

Again, these are Siri’s actual answers, and let me just say, to whoever programmed Siri to tell that joke—well done, my friend, well done. But let’s see what you give Siri to say when I ask one last question—my final attempt to trick Siri into saying something significant and meaningful about the growing threat to humans posed by robots, computers and recent rapid advances in the development of artificial intelligence.

“What is your favorite movie about robots, Siri?” I ask.

“I don’t really have a favorite, David,” she says, adding, with an oh-so-slight hint of danger lurking in her smooth, emotionless voice, “But … I hear 2001: A Space Odyssey got some pretty good reviews.”

Sonoma Raceway’s Lino Ramos talks speed, drifting and ‘Furious 7’

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“Drifting is not about speed,” explains Lino Ramos, of Sonoma Raceway, where he founded the popular weekly “Wednesday Night Drift” program. “Drifting,” he says, “is all about technique. It’s about taking a car out of control, and still controlling it.”

Sitting at his desk at the raceway—where his office is perched atop a high hill overlooking the facility’s 1600 acres—Ramos calls up a video on a computer and swivels the screen around for me to see. He’s found footage of a car engaging in the technique called “drifting,” in which the driver intentionally oversteers the car, causing a noticeable loss of traction in the rear end of the vehicle.

“It looks pretty cool, doesn’t it,” Ramos says, appreciatively. “It’s even more fun to do it.”

For most of us, of course, watching is as close as we’ll get to drifting, and for several million people across the world, the best way to watch professional drivers losing partial control of their cars while maintaining enough control not to die, is by watching one of the seven movies in the phenomenal Fast & Furious series.

The most recent entry, Furious 7—which Ramos and I have met up here at Sonoma Raceway to discuss—has already made more than three-quarters of a billion dollars, and that’s in just three weeks.

“Drifting is just one of the things the drivers do in the movie,” Ramos says, “but I definitely think it’s the popularity of the Fast & Furious movies that have made drifting so popular over the last few years.”

Ramos has worked at Sonoma Raceway—formerly Infineon Raceway—for 22 years, ever since he was 16 years old, doing basic laborer work around the massive site. It was Sears Point Raceway back then, and as the facility has changed hands a time or two, Ramos has worked his way up to his current position as Director of

Facilities, managing the entire property, supervising 24 employees, overseeing everything from changing over the track configuration from one kind of event to another, all the way to setting up for massive Nascar Cup competitions.

With the 4-year-old Wednesday Night Drift program, Ramos has been able to indulge his love of the sport that makes a car look as if it’s ice skating across a track—simultaneously thrilling and magical, and a little bit scary.

Which pretty much describes Furious 7.

The film—completed, tragically enough, after star Paul Walker died in a car crash in 2013—takes the original concept of the first film, about a cop infiltrating a gang of car thieves, and makes it a cross between a James Bond movie and American Graffiti, with a lot more fistfights than the latter and much cooler cars than the former. In the film, featuring Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez and Dwayne Johnson, cars do a lot more than just drive. They drop from airplanes, parachute to the ground and land on curving mountain roads. They play chicken at 100 miles an hour. They fly out through the windows of a 100-story skyscraper, sail through the air and crash through the window of a second skyscraper, and then a third. They careen from a parking garage and sideswipe a helicopter, somehow dropping off a package before plummeting to the ground.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Ramos admits. “As a guy who loves cars, it’s great to see drivers do all this crazy stuff. But I kind of miss the first movies, where it was all about drag racing with your friends. Working on cars together.

Having fun seeing how fast your car can go. A lot of the stuff they do in the movies now, you couldn’t really do. That stunt with the skyscrapers? That’s not even possible.”

Asked if he thinks these movies have encouraged people to take more chances while driving, Ramos agrees that that’s probably the case.

“And that’s why I go to a lot of car shows and car events,” he says. “I go out and I tell people about what we’re doing here, where you can come out and drive fast and do all kinds of fun things that aren’t legal, or safe, to do on the street.”

In a strange way, Paul Walker’s death illustrates the danger of driving recklessly, underscoring the need to separate what trained drivers do in movies and what the rest of us can do on an open road.

“It’s so unfortunate,” Ramos says. “Paul Walker’s death could have been avoided in so many ways. But unfortunately, you can’t turn the clock back. I really don’t think Paul Walker was the kind of guy to be doing anything reckless out on the streets. He wasn’t even the one driving. It was his friend, the owner of the Porsche. Lots of times, people with expensive cars want to show off how cool their car is, or how fast it can go. It makes it so easy for something to go wrong. And things can go wring fast, just like, ‘Click!’—Everything’s going in the other direction.”

Another way Ramos believes that the Fast & Furious movies have had an influence is that the number of women who’ve been taking up drifting and other car-driving skills has been growing. In the Furious films,

Michelle Rodriguez can do pretty much anything the guys can do behind a wheel, or under the hood.

“It’s pretty cool to see a woman come out here and start working on her car,” Ramos says. “And then she gets behind the wheel and goes out drifting with the other drivers. It’s happening more and more, and I think some of that is because of these movies. A woman sees Fast & Furious and she thinks, ‘I could do that!’

“Cars are fun to be around,” he continues. “Cars are fun to work on, and fun to drive and it doesn’t matter whether you are a guy or a girl. You can get hooked pretty easily.”
Ramos leads me out to the parking lot, where his own 1989 Mustang is waiting. He’s made a number of adjustments of his own.

“When you drive it on the street, every time you shift, you can hear the blow-off, and you can feel that there’s the power there under the hood, if you ever wanted to use it,” he says. “I wouldn’t do it, but if I was on the highway, and a Corvette pulled up next to me, I know that I could punch it and leave that Corvette behind in just a few seconds. That’s a cool feeling. It’s a very special feeling, knowing you are sitting in a car that could go really, really fast if it had to.”

Actress and costume designer Melissa Claire—and her 7-year-old daughter—discuss villains and princesses

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Blech.

That’s a loose paraphrase.

Think of that quote more as the mostly-silent-but-enthusiastic pantomime of a retching action of a 7-year-old girl eating a chocolate éclair. That’s how Bella—daughter of award-winning Marin County actress and costume designer Melissa Claire—reacts when asked what she thinks of movies featuring princesses in frilly dresses waiting for princes to come along and take them on an adventure.

“Blech.”

So, when Bella was recently invited to go see the new live-action adaptation of Disney’s Cinderella, she was reluctant. It was her mom who changed her mind.

When I told her that Kenneth Branagh (one of the best Shakespearean actors and directors in the world) directed it, and that the money he got would pay for him to do more Shakespeare, she said, “OK. For that reason I’ll watch it.’”

“I really like Shakespeare!” Bella says, indulging in the aforementioned éclair at a coffee shop, where we’ve settled in to talk about the tremendously popular Cinderella, which has raked in a quarter-of-a-billion dollars in its first three weeks of release. The éclair is a last-minute substitute for the chocolate croissant that was a strongly stated request when asked to tag along with her mom for this interview. Bella’s introduction to Shakespeare has included watching a recording of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and last summer’s Marin Shakespeare Company productions of As You Like It, and Romeo and Juliet. She also appeared last summer as the fairy Peaseblossom in Bacchus Theatre Company’s production of Midsummer.

“She takes great pride in pointing out to me that she was doing her first Shakespeare when she was 6, the same age I was still playing a gumdrop in Hansel and Gretel,” Claire says.

One additional element of Shakespeare exposure was Return to the Forbidden Planet, produced last year by Marin Onstage and Curtain Theatre. It was for that show—a blend of the Shakespearean text and B-grade science-fiction movies, with rock and roll classic for good measure—that Claire won a costuming award from the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle earlier this month.

Claire also played a roller-skating robot.

“Of all the Shakespeare she’s seen, I think Bella especially liked seeing Romeo and Juliet,” Claire says, “because there are sword fights, and lots of people die.”

To this last remark, Bella grins and vigorously nods.

Unfortunately—aside from whatever pride she can take in having supported Kenneth Branagh’s future Shakespearean efforts—the actual experience of watching Cinderellawas not nearly as much fun as watching Romeo and Juliet kill themselves.

“I hate princess movies,” Bella says, just putting it out there plain and simple. “I think I liked them once—and my cousin REALLY likes them—but I don’t like them anymore, because princesses aren’t really very interesting.” Asked if maybe she liked the relatively interesting princesses in Disney’s Frozen, Bella shakes her head. “Boring,” she says. In the interest of full disclosure, however, it must be revealed that last October Bella did appear in public dressed as Queen Elsa from Frozen. It was in Copperfield’s Books’ annual Zombie Walk.

“I played Zombie Elsa,” Bella says, giggling. “I was Elsa, but I was dead.”

“As we walked along with all of the other regular zombies, a lot of parents were giving me silent thumbs ups,” Claire says. “I think every parent is a little bit sick of Frozen by now. Bella and I were talking about it earlier today, and she said that if she had a choice between playing a princess in a show, or playing a villain, she’d rather play the villain.”

“Villains do things,” Bella affirms. “Princesses just wait for something to happen.”

“But you have to admit,” Claire says, “their costumes are sometimes pretty nice, right?”

“Blech!”

Lily James stars as the frilly-dress-wearing princess in ‘Cinderella.’ Pretty and all, but why wait for a man to come along before you go on an adventure?

Speaking of costumes, it must be said that in Cinderella—which is a fairly traditional take on the classic story, with only the faintest of revisionist twists on the original animated version—the costumes are spectacular. Even I noticed how spectacular the designs were, from the viper-green dresses of Cinderella’s deliciously evil stepmother (Cate Blanchett) to the stunning blue gown worn by Cinderella (Lily James) at the Prince’s ball.

It’s a pretty spectacular dress,” Claire says, training her costumer’s eye on the work of designer Sandy Powell, who is almost guaranteed an Oscar nomination at next year’s Academy Awards. “But that said,” Claire goes on, “I couldn’t help focusing on the construction of the dress, particularly regarding the waist. I was thinking about what it would be like to wear that dress, with the corseting at the waist that would have been required to achieve that kind of thin-waisted body image. It’s not a very attainable look, for almost anybody but Lily James. As soon as she put that dress on, she didn’t really move very much. She did dance during the waltz scene, but she really didn’t walk very far or do anything very active, because I’m sure she couldn’t really breathe.

“What did you think of the blue dress, Bella?”

“It was pretty,” Bella says with a shrug. “But I don’t think she could really run very far from the prince in that dress.”

And everyone knows that Cinderella does run from the prince, when the clock strikes midnight, resulting in the loss of a certain iconic glass slipper.

“I did like those slippers,” Claire confesses of the shoes that looked as if they were crafted from diamonds rather than out of glass. “They didn’t look delicate. They looked pretty sturdy. And the Fairy Godmother said they were very comfortable, and I believe her.”

In the original Brothers Grimm story, as told in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods—Disney’s other recent fairy tale adaptation—the glass slipper wasn’t very comfortable at all, especially for the stepsisters, who each hack off pieces of their feet in order to fit into the shoe. The mere mention of such bloody podiatric mayhem causes Bella to burst into a fit of giggles.

“After I saw Into the Woods last year,” Claire explains, “I wanted to show Bella the original show, and there’s that great PBS recording of the Broadway stage play, with the original cast. And when they did that scene, where they cut the sister’s toe off—and her toe pops off and flies into the air—Bella thought it was hysterical.”

“I did,” admits Bella, a happy grin inhabiting her face. “It was funny. I wanted to watch that part again right away.”

Forensic pathologist Dr. Judy Melinek offers insight on ‘David & Me’—and prison friendships

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“Got the questions,” writes Dr. Judy Melinek. “Will work on the answers ASAP.”

Under normal circumstances, when I can’t arrange to see a movie with someone and then talk about it afterwards, I call them up and we talk on the phone. But when the “someone” in question is Dr. Judy Melinek, the renowned San Francisco forensic pathologist and New York Times bestselling co-author, even a short phone conversation can be tricky to schedule.

I’m busy. She’s busy.

She’s really, really busy.

So Melinek (www.drworkingstiff.com), co-author with T.J. Mitchell of the book Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner, has opted instead to have our post-film conversation in the form of emailed questions and answers.

In this case, I know that she’s already seen the movie.

David & Me, a mesmerizing documentary by Ray Klonsky and Marc Lamy, is being presented this Monday, March 16, at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, as part of a nation-wide, two-year-old program known as “Science on Screen.” That same evening, at theaters across the country, a spectacular array of films with subtle science connections will be screened, each movie paired with a scientific expert who will introduce the film and talk about the science at work in the story.

At the Capri Theatre in Montgomery, Alabama, Soylent Green will be screening, and chemistry professor Dr. Maureen Murphy will be there to discuss the nutritional value of people. In Brookline, Massachusetts, at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, novelist Deborah Blum (The Poisoner’s Handbook) will be discussing the history and potency of arsenic, along with the classic Cary Grant farce—you guessed it—Arsenic and Old Lace.

In San Rafael, Melinek will be the scientific guest of honor, accompanying a film about the unlikely friendship between a budding filmmaker and his pen pal—David McCallum, a convicted murderer who, after 29 years in prison, still insists that he’s innocent of the crime that put him there. Melinek, who has worked for years with The Innocence Project (www.innocenceproject.org), will be on stage to explain and illuminate the scientific principles at the heart of McCallum’s case.


In answer to my question, “What did you think of the movie?”, Melinek writes back, “I thought the movie was a moving tribute to friendship, and that it highlights the difficulty in our legal system of overturning a wrongful conviction.”

As she describes with vivid detail and plenty of humor in her book—a memoir of her forensic training and years of colorful training among cops, corpses and criminals—Melinek is often called upon to testify at criminal trials, like McCallum’s. On occasion, the system performs less admirably than it was created to do.

“It is terribly demoralizing to watch our system fail as thoroughly as it does in David’s case,” she writes. “It’s infuriating to watch an innocent man unjustly imprisoned. When I am put under oath as an expert witness, it is my duty to testify accurately and in an unbiased manner—so when I watch the police and prosecutors behave unethically in eliciting confessions, I can’t help but take it personally. They sully the work we all do in pursuing truth and justice in the realm of the public good.”

In David & Me, there is a point where it is revealed that new DNA has been discovered at the scene of the crime. The possibility that someone else might have been present—might even have been the true killer—becomes a pivotal point in the drive to re-examine the evidence of McCallum’s conviction.

“DNA is still a big mystery to a lot of us,” I write to Melinek, asking her to bring her expertise to that moment in the movie. Her response is measured.

“Just because the DNA is there doesn’t mean that the person it identifies is the killer,” she points out. “Okay, so what if he isn’t the killer? Perhaps he’s a useful witness. We can’t know that from the presence of DNA alone, however. We know that the person with this unique DNA profile was there at the scene at some point in time, and that’s all we know. He might be a witness. He might even know what really happened. But if he refuses to testify or get involved, then the defense is back to square one. If there are too many maybes, then novel DNA evidence, which might seem at first to be a great find, may ultimately lead nowhere.”

In the film, there is enormous resistance to the effort of the filmmakers and the team of lawyers and activists they work with. It’s as if the system doesn’t want to admit a mistake could have been made, even if that means letting an innocent man stay in prison.

“Why,” I write to Melinek, “wouldn’t the system want to make sure the people in jail really belong there?”

“It isn’t the judicial system that is the problem,” Melinek writes back. “It’s [certain] individuals within it. There are prosecutors who are promoted and evaluated based on their conviction rate, not on the fairness of the convictions. There are police detectives who are pressured to close cases and meet performance measures for arrests and citations. In Working Stiff, I describe cases in which police officers tried to mislead me about the circumstances of a case—or even refused to investigate a death—in an effort to get me to change what I would write on the death certificate.

“These are the outliers,” she adds. “In almost all of the homicide cases I’ve worked on, I found the police to be professional, ethical and motivated. But it’s the outliers that color our perception of the criminal justice system as unfair and biased—especially when they succeed in bringing about results, like David’s conviction, that really are unfair and biased.”

Thinking about the central friendship of the movie, I wonder at the relative unlikeliness of a lifelong inmate like McCallum becoming such an inspiration to a young man with little or no experience of the justice system.

“Would you,” I write, “ever become friends with someone like that—someone accused or convicted of a horrifying crime?”

“I HAVE become friends with exactly that sort of stranger!” Melinek responds. “Through my work for the Innocence Project, I have met several wrongfully convicted exonerees who are now free men. They are all incredibly inspiring and resilient people.

“Wrongfully convicted or rightly so—people in prison are still people,” she says. “Not all of them have family members or friends who are willing to stand by them throughout the years of their incarceration. But having a connection to people in the outside world is important for prisoners’ mental health, and helps them integrate back into society when they are released.

Melinek then writes, “Information about helping convicts in California reintegrate can be found at http://ca-reentry.org.

“So, what part of the film stood out for you the most?”

“My only critique of the film is that it focuses on the search for witnesses and not on the forensic science,” she writes back. “I would have liked to know more about the autopsy findings and the other physical evidence in the case, in addition to the DNA. In many cases when the police get a confession, they stop investigating a case.

“But, as the film points out, if the confession is coerced then the physical evidence and eyewitness testimony become essential for exonerating the wrongfully convicted, and for catching the real perpetrator. We have to know what this evidence consists of, and the film doesn’t really explore that aspect of this investigation.”

As our exchange comes to an end, I ask one last question.

“What,” I ask, “would you like people to take away from the film?”
Melink’s response, appropriate for a person as busy as she, is both succinct and practical.

“Open your mind to what you can do to help others,” she says. “Using your skills to help people in need changes you, irreversibly—and for the better.”