Bad Science: The Fiction and the Reality of The Matrix

Seeker’s Bad Science podcast discusses how the 1999 film predicted today’s debates about AI, neurokinetics, and epistemology.

What if your life wasn’t really your life?

What if everything you knew was just a computer simulation?

Would you want to know? And what would you do if you did?

Welcome to the mind-bending world of The Matrix, where humans are subjugated by a computer that uses them as a power source — and creates a dreamworld that keeps them from noticing. The 1999 film brought a dystopian vision of cyberspace to the silver screen as hotshot hacker Neo (Keanu Reeves) is given a choice by rebel humans battling the machine: continue with his computer-generated life, or awaken from the dream and join the resistance.

In this week’s episode of Seeker’s Bad Science podcast, host Ethan Edberg and his guests delve into the story and the science behind the movie. Ethan is joined by Saturday Night Live writers Steven Castillo and Julio Torres, as well as computer scientist and philosopher Cristoph Salge, a visiting fellow at the Game Innovation Lab at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering.

“I saw The Matrix when I was still studying, and I was wondering when I would get to the point where my life was like that,” Salge said. “And it never really happened.”

The move touches on a wide array of concepts that are advancing rapidly today: artificial intelligence, neurokinetics — loosely defined as how well your mental coordination translates to a video game — and epistemology, the 2,000-year-old discipline that asks how we know what we know.

“It’s hard to put that into a movie and also have gunfights,” Salge said.

Salge recently oversaw a competition for developers to test the creative potential of computers by programing them to build their own settlements in the popular video came Minecraft. The process, known as procedural content generation, has also been used to program environments in different games or design imaginary spacecraft, he said.

But could artificial intelligence become an evil force, like the computers in The Matrix, the Terminator movies or the paranoid HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey? That may have more to do with the humans who put it to work. AI is already influencing the human world in a range of ways, from mundane processes like sorting out who gets a credit card to guiding armed drones in the sky.

“We like to talk about how do we make robots ethically responsible or AIs ethically responsible, but people are usually the problem here,” Salge said.

Bad Science: Gettin’ Pruney With The Abyss

The Matrix is one of Ethan’s favorites. “When I saw it in 1999, I thought it was the greatest movie of all time,” he said. But nearly a generation later, after helping launch a revolution in special effects, “It’s not going to punch you in the face the way it punched us,” he tells his audience — yes! This episode of Bad Science is, for the first time, recorded live.

Who really came up with the “bullet time” effect? Which A-list actors turned down the roles of Neo and Morpheus, clearing the way for iconic performances by the eventual stars? And what can happen when you cheat on your wife in “The Sims?” Take the red pill and find out in this episode of Bad Science.