Caprica: Birth of the Cylons

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Ray Kurzweil has famously suggested that humanity will achieve human-level artificial intelligence (AI) sometime in the next 20 years. (See "Ray Kurzweil: The h+ Interview" in this issue.) He has also predicted that virtual reality will be so high-quality that it will be indistinguishable from real reality. The new Sci Fi (now SyFy) channel television series Caprica explores this possible future using the fictional universe of Battlestar Galactica (affectionately known as BSG to fans).

During the two-hour Caprica pilot, creators Ronald Moore and David Eick show the beginnings of the BSG universe — the creation of the human level AI cybernetic life-form node or “Cylon” fifty years before the Cylon attack that destroys the Earth-like planet Caprica and most of humanity. With elements of The Matrix, The Terminator series, Second Life, religious jihad, the politics of race in the age of Obama, The Sopranos, and more than just a little Mary Shelley, this new series isn‘t just for BSG fans — there‘s something in here for everybody.

Centering on the troubled relationship between two families, Moore compares Caprica to the1980s prime time soap opera Dallas and refers to it as “television‘s first science fiction family saga.” Maureen Ryan from the Chicago Tribune reports that David Howe, SyFy Channel president, intends to air the Caprica Series starting January, 2010.

BSG fans are used to nuclear explosions, spaceships, and deadly encounters with robotic Cylons. While there is sex, passion, intrigue, political backbiting, and family conflict in the Caprica pilot — and all these, of course, make for great TV — there are no Star-Wars-style battle scenes or armies of cool robot Cylon Centurions. BSG fans may find themselves longing for more action scenes with early Cylons and a better view of the BSG world history as the Caprica series progresses.

Caprica, home planet to President Laura Roslin and several other principal characters in BSG, is an Earth-like planet settled by the Capricorn tribe of Kobol, part of the BSG mythos. It is also the location of Caprica City, the capital city of the Twelve Colonies, and the setting for the Caprica prequel.

The pilot for the prequel follows the lives of two families, the Graystones and the Adamses (the family of young William Adams, who will later become Admiral William Adama in the BSG series). The Graystone family includes computer scientist father Daniel and surgeon mother Amanda. Daniel Graystone is the founder and CEO of Graystone Industries and is contracting with the Caprican government to develop new military technology. To his dismay, his eerily Cylon-like U-87 Cyber Combat Unit is a dismal failure.

Photo courtesy: Justin Stephens/SyFyThe pilot opens inside a wild teenage “V-Club,” a virtual environment where there are “no limits.” Activities including sex, killing, and human sacrifice, and “you can frakking be anyone you want.” We meet the Graystones‘ daughter Zoe, and a surprising lookalike Zoe, who has trouble “rezzing” in the virtual environment. We also meet Zoe‘s friends Lacy and Ben.

The V-Club is a 3D photorealistic convergence of Second Life with Facebook, Extreme Fight Night, the movie Goodfellas, and your teenage son‘s favorite porn site. We later learn that Zoe, Lacy, and Ben have turned away from the gaudy hedonism of the V-Club by finding “the way through the love of the One True God.” Zoe is a closet monotheist in the polytheistic society of the Twelve Colonies.

The pilot cuts to Zoe sitting in the girl‘s bathroom at the exclusive Athena Academy wearing very cool shades — a “holoband” that provides full immersion into the V-Club — looking much like SBG Labs‘ Wearable PC Display glasses. (See resources)

The morning after the encounter in the V-Club, Zoe, Ben and Lacy are at the Mag-Lev train station running away to the planet Gemenon to live with other followers of the One True God. In the heavily crowded train station, we also meet Joseph Adam‘s wife Shannon and Tamara Adams, the mother and sister of William Adams (later changed to Adama). Just about to board the train, lacy backs out. The train doors close and the train leaves.

On the train, Ben looks extremely nervous and detached as Zoe tries to calm him. Ben stands, opens his trench coat revealing a suicide bomber‘s vest, and yells, “The One True God will drive out all the others.” The train explodes. Ben‘s jihad-like terrorist attack claims the lives of Shannon, Tamara, and Zoe.

After several weeks of grieving, Zoe‘s father Daniel Graystone learns through Lacy that his brilliant daughter Zoe (a chip off the old block) has created a life- like avatar with free will in the V-Club prior to her death — a copy of the real life Zoe named Zoe-A (for “avatar”). He dons a holoband and meets her in virtual space: You‘re an avatar, a virtual representation of Zoe, nothing more,” says Dr. Graystone.

"I am her. I‘m Zoe Graystone,” replies Zoe-A. “We‘re like echoes of one another — it‘s sort of hard to describe,” she continues. The human brain contains 300 megabytes of information, not much when you get right down to it.” (Alan Dix of the UK‘s Lancaster University came up with the 300 megabyte figure based on what it would take to store an audio-visual record of your complete life experiences.) “You can‘t download a personality — there‘s no way to translate the data,” she continues, becoming increasingly emotional. “But the information being held in our heads is available in other databases. “People leave more than footprints as they move through life — medical scans, DNA profiles, psych evaluations, school records, emails, recording, video, audio, CAT scans, genetic typing, synaptic records, security cameras, test results, shopping records, talent shows, ball games, traffic tickets, restaurant bills, phone records, music lists, movie lists, TV shows.”

“It‘s possible she could have found a way to translate synaptic records into usable data,” acknowledges Dr. Graystone to Lacy. Turning to Zoe-A, he continues, “But a person is much more than just a bunch of usable data. You might be a good imitation — you might be a very good imitation — but you‘re still just an imitation, a copy.”

“I don‘t feel like a copy,” Zoe-A responds almost in tears. “Daddy!” (Dr. Graystone hugs Zoe-A as he makes a copy of her onto a flash drive.)

I don’t feel like a copy, ZOE-A responds almost in tears.

Constructing a person from memories. Could this happen in the next 20 years, or ever? “Just send nanobots into my brain and reconstruct my recollections and memories,” Ray Kurzweil is quoted as saying in a recent Rolling Stone magazine by David Kushner. Kurzweil would like to reconstruct his father. According to Kushner, the nanobots will capture everything, “the piggyback ride to a grocery store, the bedtime reading of Tom Swift, and the moment he and his father rejoiced when the letter of acceptance from MIT arrived.” “Father 2.0 could take many forms,” Kushner continues, “from a virtual-reality avatar to a fully functioning robot.”

Dr. Graystone‘s flash drive copy of Zoe-A becomes critical to the pilot‘s storyline. In a parallel plot development, Joseph Adams cuts a deal with Dr. Graystone to secure Graystone a “Meta Cognitive Processor” (MCP) from rival Vergis Corporation — this is the missing controller for his U-87 Cyber Combat Unit.

Adams initially thinks he wants virtual versions of his wife and daughter, who were killed in Ben‘s terrorist attack along with Zoe. However, when Adams meets his daughter Tamara in virtual space, she panics and screams, “I can‘t feel my heart beating Daddy, why can‘t I feel my heart?” Adams walks out on Graystone calling his technology “an abomination.”

Graystone keeps the MCP, installs it into a U-87 Cyber Combat Unit, and attempts to download his Zoe-A flash drive copy onto the cognitive processor. To his horror, when this appears to fail, he is no longer able to locate Zoe-A in virtual space (why a Ph.D. computer scientist would download a destructive copy is never explained — did Zoe-A completely “derez” from the virtual environment?).

Photo courtesy: Justin Stephens/SyFyWill the new robotic “creature” — piloted by a copy of Zoe-A, itself a copy of the real life Zoe — come to life? The Caprica writers clearly draw on Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus here. At one point in Shelley‘s novel, the creature faces his creator Victor Frankenstein on an icy glacier and explains his feelings of isolation and abandonment. Victor still does not see he is the one that abandoned this creature, that he was the one responsible to love and devote his time to the creature. The quality he lacks as a creator is the quality also lacking in Daniel Graystone, “the deep consciousness of what they [Frankenstein‘s parents] owed towards the being to which they had given life.”

The Caprica pilot ends as we see a demo of the U-87 Cyber Combat Unit successfully blow away a number of smaller domestic robots as they scurry around the test chambers of Graystone Industries — this is the birth of the first Cybernetic Lifeform Node or Cylon.

In the closing scene, we see a Cylon coming to life in its storage bay and walking to a phone. Cut to Lacy‘s face as her cell phone rings. “Lacy, it‘s Zoe,” says the uber-cool voice sounding very much like Zoe-A, except in real space. “I am here and I think I‘m going to need your help.” Zoe-R (for “robot”) is born — like Victor Frankenstein‘s creature — cold and abandoned. The scene ends with a sinister-looking trademark Cylon red eye oscillating back and forth.

Prequel it may be, but this winter‘s Caprica TV series is likely to thrill transhumanists, singularitarians, and SF fanatics who love to contemplate a near future involving rich virtual worlds and downloaded human consciousness — and it certainly won‘t disappoint most BSG fans. And those new to the BSG universe will be surprised at the depth and complexity in the spinoff series. Caprica grapples with issues of science, religion, technology, and ethics that will likely face humanity in the near future.

Caprica premiers Friday, January 22 9 PM, 8 PM CST.

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