Saturday, October 04, 2008

Web Science and Eagle Eye

I first came across the term Web Science when I was reading the Oct 2008 issue of Scientific American, courtesy of the magazine stand at the local CVS. I was there to collect my prescription while wify, shopping for bargains. As usual, while waiting for her to finish her rounds in between the aisles, I parked myself next to the magazine stand, scanning the array of magazines on display. Actually, there are only a few that interest me, Scientific American being one of them (others are Discovery, Times and Newsweek, the latter two more for their coverage of technological matters).

I usually read the contents page first, looking for any title that strikes me in the technology front. And this one caught my attention: Web Science: Studying the Internet to Protect Our Future by Nigel Shadbolt and Tim Berners-Lee. I read it once there and read it again at home, the online version here, which lists it as in the September issue, but I could have sworn the hardcopy version appears in the October issue. Anyway that is beside the point.

In between the two reads, we watched Eagle Eye (the image to the right is courtesy of the official movie website) at the Muvico Starlight 20 cineplex, starring Shia Labeouf, whom we last saw in the latest Indiana Jones flick not too long ago, it's a science fiction movie with a lot of thrilling chase sequences thrown in. But there were also soft moments in between when Jerry Shaw (played by SL) and Rachel (played by Michelle Monaghan), a single Mom, were coerced by a female voice (the actress who lent her voice to the self-righteous human-thinking super-intelligence turned rogue will be revealed at the end of this blog) to carry out her agenda, all because her “informed” recommendation as regards a certain matter of international ramifications was promptly ignored by POTUS, the code name for the President Of The United States I first learned when reading Brad Thor's novels involving the Secret Service. In order to survive and to save their loved one (actually only Rachel's son was threatened, but he turned out to be a cog in the sinister assassination, or threat elimination, as well), they were forced to trust each other, with the Anti-terrorism task force of the FBI hot on their heels..

I doubt what I'm about to say constitutes a spoiler, but if you have not seen the movie, fair warning is hereby served.

There was a lot of cars flying off in all directions, in such quick successions that one could hardly imagine the scale of human carnage. But I enjoyed watching the chase sequence on the moving conveyor belt better, simply because I'm so used to seeing car chase sequences that are featured invariably in action movies.

The movie reminded me of The Enemy of the State starring Will Smith and Gene Hackman in which all manners of surveillance tools (CCT, VideoCams, and anything that can “see electronically” and wired together) were used to serve the personal needs of some megalomaniacs. But here the surveillance arsenal went beyond the visual in the passive mode, i.e., observation. She, only because she had a female voice, can do speech recognition by analyzing the facial muscle and mouth movement, better than the deaf reading lips. When that fails, she can also decipher by analyzing the vibrational energy that bounces off a surface. And tapping into cellphones, pagers and the like such as the electronic display boards, is a piece of cake.

Upon exit from the theater, wify said it reminded her of I, Robot, again starring Will Smith, because both involved the super-intelligence, as in the machine/supercomputer, taking matters into their own hand, like humans do. Both reveal the potential dark side of science, when wielded by the wrong kind of people, or wrong-thinking machines for that matter.

What's the link to web science then? Well, web science, as expounded in the SCIAM article, aims to “discover how Web traits arise and how they can be harnessed or held in check to benefit society. Important advances are beginning to be made; more work can solve major issues such as securing privacy and conveying trust”. All premise on the assumption that the ensuing discoveries are in the hands of great men with good intentions, and above all, high morality. But what if they are not? What if they are manipulated by the greatest machine intelligence created by man in the first place, whose allegiance is dictated by binary codes void of all human emotions, empathy, and compassion, like the scenarios played out in Eagle Eye? In the make-believe celluloid world, the good always triumphs over evil, at least in the final analysis when the curtain falls. But would that ending of good feeling always have its parallel in the real world? Far-fetched? Maybe. But I just can't help thinking about it, much against my training in rational thought.

And yes, the voice of Aria belongs to Julianne Moore, who chose to remain uncredited for her role. Aria who? She is both the female voice playing havoc in Jerry and Rachel's lives and that super-doper of a computer that supposedly would follow human instructions.

And Shia Labeouf is simply phenomenal, a glib talker who easily matches the Gilmore Girls. If Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has shown Shia Labeouf to be a star in the making, then Eagle Eye confirms his status as one.

So Eagle Eye is the second best movie I have ever seen, after The Dark Knight. But perhaps this impression may have changed if we had watched it in IMAX instead ...

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