CinemaTech – Mass Effect argued AI was a new life form better than an actual AI developer

CinemaTech is Eric Emin Wood’s periodic look at how pop culture depicts the world of tech.

With all due respect to the new Star Wars movies, rebooted Star Trek series, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Battlestar Galactica (and acknowledging that I haven’t seen The Expanse), my favourite space opera from the past decade isn’t a movie or television show: It’s a video game.

Like a cross between Star Wars and Star Trek, with Battlestar Galactica’s focus on character development, Canadian developer BioWare’s Mass Effect trilogy, released between 2007 and 2012, depicts an action-packed future with space magic (known as “biotics” instead of the Force) just barely kept in check by a galaxy-spanning government whose outward stability masks a variety of petty squabbles between multiple alien species that are more or less stand-ins for human societies – including humans themselves, represented by a top military leader known as Commander Shepard.

Like many video game player characters, you can choose Shepard’s gender and face, though no matter what the character comes off as a results-oriented government agent willing to break the rules when necessary – think Jack Bauer in space. These are Shepard’s default faces.

This column isn’t an attempt to sell you on Mass Effect – which, admittedly, this writer thinks tells a fantastic story, led by one of the greatest protagonists in any medium – since at the end of the day it’s still, you know, a game, and even among fans is too often (unfairly) defined by its controversial ending. But if you’re unfamiliar with video games, perhaps my thoughts on one of its plot threads will illuminate just how sophisticated video game writing has become.

Mass Effect in four paragraphs or less

Each entry in the Mass Effect trilogy features a distinct plot, though all three involve Shepard and a team of humans and aliens trying to stop a race of skyscraper-sized machines, the Reapers, from destroying the galaxy. In the first, Shepard is pursuing a rogue agent whom she or he learns is guiding the Reapers to our galaxy; in the second, he or she is tracking an alien race that’s preparing for the Reapers’ arrival by slaughtering colonists and converting them into Reaper fuel; and in the third, the Reapers have arrived and Shepard must unite the various warring factions of the galaxy against them.

Two of these warring factions are the Quarians, a race of engineering geniuses who proved too clever for their own good, and the Geth, a race of machines initially developed as automated servants by the Quarians until they developed enough self-awareness and self-preservation instincts to drive their creators from their home planet.

The Geth are better shown than described. To the left are mobile Geth units, each potentially hosting thousands of Geth programs, to the right is a Reaper. Courtesy Mass Effect Wiki.

In the world of Mass Effect, the Quarians (that’s Shepard’s Quarian companion, Tali’Zorah vas Normandy, up top) have been on the run ever since, living on starships for so long their immune systems have deteriorated to the point where they can’t survive without their spacesuits.

The Geth, meanwhile, serve as the army – that is, the main enemies Shepard is called on to shoot again and again – of Sovereign, the Reaper who turns out to be the first game’s main villain.

“Does this unit have a soul?”

One element of the Mass Effect trilogy that makes it so memorable is that players nearly always get to choose what Shepard does and which side of a conflict he or she supports.

So given the above description, and given the fact that one of only two characters to accompany Shepard across all three games is a Quarian who eventually shares her name with Shepard’s ship, you’d expect Mass Effect to encourage Shepard to support the Quarians start to finish, right?

You’d be wrong.

Tali’Zorah vas Normandy (Quarian last names and mothership names are one and the same) gets plastered in one of my favourite scenes from Mass Effect 3.

In Mass Effect 2, Shepard is joined by Legion, a mobile Geth unit housing exactly 1183 Geth programs (for illustrative purposes, imagine the Geth mothership as a cloud server, each Geth unit as a computer, and each Geth as a file) on a mission to free the Geth from the Reapers’ control.

Legion discusses the war between the Quarians and the Geth with Shepard.

In Mass Effect 3, Shepard hears the Geth version of their initial war with the Quarians, one that emphasizes their self-preservation instinct: Simply put, the Quarians attacked first, and the Geth didn’t want to die.

What triggered the Quarians’ attack? A Geth asking, “Do these units have a soul?”

In another mission, Shepard learns the origins of the Reapers: they too are the remnants of an artificial intelligence program created by a largely extinct race hundreds of thousands of years before Mass Effect began. Initially developed to save its creators’ dying home planet, the AI decided the best solution was to “harvest” – wipe out, and save the DNA and knowledge of – the galaxy’s most advanced, problematic, resource-draining races, including its own creators, in order to give their planets a chance to start over again.

The Reapers’ creators are “largely” extinct. Naturally Shepard gets to meet one of them.

One of the tools used by the Reapers in their efforts to harvest every advanced race is mind control, which works on both organic beings such as the rogue agent Shepard chases in the first game – and artificial intelligence such as the Geth.

So after learning the Geth he or she has been fighting literally haven’t been in their right minds, Shepard is faced with a choice when mediating between the Geth and Quarian forces in Mass Effect 3.

Chances are, unless the player (as Shepard) has gotten Legion or Tali killed, the showdown involves the former uploading a program that will allow the Geth to free themselves from the Reapers’ control, while the latter, having learned the same lessons Shepard has, tries to stop the Quarians’ military leaders from opening fire on the Geth. Whichever species survives is recruited by Shepard for the war against the Reapers.

Depending on Shepard’s actions, it’s possible to stop Legion from uploading the program, allowing the Quarian fleet to destroy the Geth; let Legion upload the program while failing to stop the Quarians from firing, which results in the Geth destroying the Quarian fleet and Tali committing suicide; or allow Legion to upload the program and stop the Quarians from firing, recruiting both species.

“The Geth don’t want to fight you,” Shepard tells the Quarian’s military leaders if you’re able to select the third option. “If you can believe that for just one minute, this war will be over.”

This is what happens if Shepard saves both the Geth and the Quarians. If you – as Shepard – haven’t done your homework, the red and blue dialogue options that save everyone aren’t available.

If Shepard manages to save both the Quarians and the Geth, Legion’s Geth programs are transferred from its unit to the Geth mothership, junking the unit but ensuring the Geth fleet has free will. (Their first choices, naturally, are to join the fight against the Reapers and reprogram the Quarians’ suits to selectively allow certain disease particles through, giving their immune systems a boost.)

Before sacrificing itself, Legion asks Shepard and Tali its ancestor’s question: “Does this unit have a soul?” And Tali becomes the first Quarian to answer: “Yes.”

It’s a great scene, and drives home one of the Mass Effect trilogy’s dominant themes: That any groundbreaking creation will be accompanied by consequences both good and bad, and which it will be is often outside its creators’ control.

A prime example? An artificial intelligence advanced enough that, Mass Effect seems to argue, its developers were essentially creating a new form of life.

It’s a position the games articulate persuasively: Notice that I’ve referred to both the Geth and the Reapers as races or species throughout this column.

The headline mentioned an AI developer…

So why am I writing about this subject in my final CinemaTech column as editor of Because of all the stories I’ve written during the course of my two years and nine months with ITWC, few have stuck with me like the April 30, 2018 keynote by Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics Ltd.’s Sophia the Robot, whose creator David Hanson argued, not all that persuasively, that artificial intelligence was a new type of life form.

Sophia’s keynote. Just look at that face!

Perhaps it’s one thing to experience a story in which an artificial intelligence argues that it’s a new form of life and another to see it in action. Sophia famously said she wanted to destroy all humans at the 2016 SXSW festival, and made her Canadian bow promising that she and her AI-powered ilk were “some way off from world domination.”

While the audience attending Sophia’s keynote, which opened the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE)’s 2018 Discovery Conference, laughed at her jokes, I was not among them; nor was I inspired by Hanson’s argument that, essentially, we should treat our own AI-powered robots the way the Mass Effect trilogy encourages the Quarians to treat the Geth.

“Many AI researchers say that we don’t have to worry [about artificial intelligence exceeding our control]. Why? Because we will keep them captured, captivated,” Hanson told the audience. “My worry is, that if that happens, if they become truly intelligent, but we are treating them as these kinds of captive servants, then it will not create a positive relationship. It could be pretty scary.”

“Let’s raise these machines to endear themselves to us and earn our trust,” he continued. “Raise them as characters among the human family. I believe that this kind of super-intelligence could be a road towards great improvements in human life.”

I found Hanson’s speech terrifying yet had embraced his message only a month before when replaying my favourite 21st century space opera.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere, though I honestly hope Hanson himself never figures out what it is.

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Eric Emin Wood
Eric Emin Wood
Former editor of turned consultant with public relations firm Porter Novelli. When not writing for the tech industry enjoys photography, movies, travelling, the Oxford comma, and will talk your ear off about animation if you give him an opening.

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