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Author Topic: EP377: Real Artists  (Read 3316 times)
eytanz
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« on: January 03, 2013, 06:28:21 PM »

EP377: Real Artists

By Ken Liu

Read by Ann Leckie

---

“You’ve done well,” Creative Director Len Palladon said, looking over Sophia’s résumé.

Sophia squinted in the golden California sun that fell on her through the huge windows of the conference room. She wanted to pinch herself to be sure she wasn’t dreaming. She was here, really here, on the hallowed campus of Semaphore Pictures, in an interview with the legendary Palladon.

She licked her dry lips. “I’ve always wanted to make movies.” She choked back _for Semaphore_. She didn’t want to seem too desperate.

Palladon was in his thirties, dressed in a pair of comfortable shorts and a plain gray t-shirt whose front was covered with the drawing of a man swinging a large hammer over a railroad spike. A pioneer in computer-assisted movie making, he had been instrumental in writing the company’s earliest software and was the director of _The Mesozoic_, Semaphore’s first film.

He nodded and went on, “You won the Zoetrope screenwriting competition, earned excellent grades in both technology and liberal arts, and got great recommendations from your film studies professors. It couldn’t have been easy.”

To Sophia, he seemed a bit pale and tired, as though he had been spending all his time indoors, not out in the golden California sun. She imagined that Palladon and his animators must have been working overtime to meet a deadline: probably to finish the new film scheduled to be released this summer.

“I believe in working hard,” Sophia said. What she really wanted was to tell him that she knew what it meant to stay up all night in front of the editing workstation and wait for the rendering to complete, all for the chance to catch the first glimpse of a vision coming to life on the screen. She was ready.


Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!
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Jingo Unchained
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« Reply #1 on: January 04, 2013, 09:45:13 AM »

First time commenter here.  I've enjoyed Escape Pod for several years now without feeling compelled to comment - the stories have ranged from delightful to inoffensive.  But this one pushed my buttons.

The Big Idea in this story is pretty great.  The trope of creative processes being taken over by machines is a timely one, and it seems highly likely that some such technology is close to reality even now.  I can certainly see why this concept would resonate with, for example, editors of science fiction podcasts.

But the story itself disappointed me.  When significantly more than half of a short story is devoted a highly detailed "big reveal", it makes me wish the storyline was fleshed out more.  The core idea is strong enough that this story could be twice as long - longer, even - and still pay off the reader at the end.  I didn't get to spend enough time with Sophia in any other context besides her driving passion to make movies, which sort of made her seem like an automaton herself.  As a result, what must have been a crushing disappointment to her just didn't carry much weight for me.  And the sudden switch from first person to third for the detailed description of Big Semi's process made it feel like an excerpt from a technical manual.

In short, it felt like this story started with a great Big Idea, but everything else felt like an afterthought.  I kept waiting for the emotional "hook" in this story, and it never came.
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statisticus
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« Reply #2 on: January 04, 2013, 06:39:17 PM »

I'll start the other half of the thread, then, by saying that I liked this story.  The big reveal is pretty ghastly, mind you, but horribly plausible - or at any rate, plausible enough for the story.  The idea that a computer could generate stories at random and develop them to a piece of great art by monitoring reactions and tweaking the results is a nasty one, but it sets up a horrible dilemma for the protagonist.  She knows (or strongly believes) she's not good enough to create great art on her own, but the soulless process that she finds actually making it is soul destroying, however effective it might be.  A bit like the old adage that people who like sausage should never visit a sausage factory.

Of course, sitting & thinking of it the idea put forward seems less plausible.  This sort of method is already used in many areas - what's known as a genetic algorithm, where randomly generated content is tested and artificially evolved towards a better result.  A big drawback in this case is the amount of time needed per generation.  Here, each generation would have to be a full showing of the film - say, two hours - plus analysis & reprocessing.  To evolve a finished film would surely require hundreds or thousands of generations, given the number of possible variations.  Though now I come to think of it, I suppose that isn't may not be such a stretch - if the analysis & reprocessing takes another two hours you could iterate a film through six generations in a day, 180 in a month, a thousand in six months.  Developing a film takes years; maybe this isn't so implausible.

That said, I think Sophia would be wasted as a test viewer.  She's already demonstrated that she can take the output of the computerised process and make it better; Semaphone would be more sensible to use her talents in that way, surely. 



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benjaminjb
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« Reply #3 on: January 05, 2013, 12:55:53 AM »

Can we break this down:

1) Liked the idea; 2) Didn't like the idea
A) Liked the execution; B) Didn't like the execution

So Jingo Unchained falls in the 1B quadrant--liked the idea, but felt the story was lacking. Statisticus seems to fall into the 1A quadrant.

And now that I've said that, you can probably guess I fall somewhere closer to 2A-B. Which is really surprising, because I loved Ken Liu's "Paper Menagerie" and I've enjoyed following him on Twitter. I want more Liu. But this felt more like a think piece than a story in some ways, something like "The Lady or the Tiger?" We get the MC's arc from happy to disturbed (her dream job... isn't what she expected). But that wasn't really enough to set up much of an emotional connection for me.

Put it this way: I feel this situation would have the same impact if it were stripped of the story and just presented as a futurist thought experiment. ("In the future, movies will be assembled by iterative algorithms working on the raw data of people's attention. How do you feel about that?") Is this an effect of the story being in a non-traditional fiction magazine?

As for the idea, I'll be honest: the idea that, gasp, computers might replace people artistically doesn't bother me, especially when the situation presented is a milder form. (As in, there are still people in the construction of this film: instead of acting as cinematographers behind the camera, their role is closer to producers and editors, giving the go-ahead for various elements of the film.) I don't find this situation all that horrifying, especially since films historically are cooperative (or contentious) affairs of many people working together, which still seems to be the case here. Put it this way: if the MC is able to shape the film as one of the audience, how is that different from her shaping the film in the fan-cut she made?

Let's set up the limit-case: take an art-form that is supposed to be one person's expression and replace the person with a computer. So, let's have a story where a computer writes a sonnet. Do you feel threatened by that computer? Not really, not anymore than when another person writes a sonnet. The more sonnets that get written, the better.
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Scumpup
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« Reply #4 on: January 05, 2013, 01:22:03 PM »

The author lost me by seemingly equating art with making something beautiful.  I disagree with that premise, and gave the story no more than a polite listen.  Perhaps if it had been about something other than making movies, which are very much a mass-produced consumer product, I'd have found the main character's shock and angst more personally affecting. 
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Alasdair5000
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« Reply #5 on: January 05, 2013, 03:32:59 PM »

That's a really interesting angle (As is all of this by the way). Your point about movies being a mass-produced consumer product is both good and accurate, but, for me, the cultural dialogue runs in the other direction. The movie itself is inviolate, certain. If I go see The Artist and you go see The Artist we'll both see the same film.

Our reactions though, the emotional responses the movie does or does not elicit, will be completely different.

That idea, that those emotional responses, which are definitively our own, can not only be studied and measured but fed back into the system to create something even more mass produced (And I know screen tests exist but this is a wider issue I think) is what's tragic about the piece for me.
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Alasdair5000
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« Reply #6 on: January 05, 2013, 03:35:06 PM »

But your mileage may vary. Which is, I suspect, the point:)
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DadOfTwins
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« Reply #7 on: January 05, 2013, 04:10:42 PM »

I'd say I liked it but the truth is it scared the hell out of me thinking that this is the direction we are probably heading in.  Besides that, the story was fun and I really think someone should go to PIXEL and this room.
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InfiniteMonkey
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« Reply #8 on: January 05, 2013, 06:25:03 PM »

I liked the sly (if somewhat obvious) references to Spielberg, Lucasfilm, and especially Pixar, which masks somewhat (for me) the existential horror of having people be puppets for a film-making computer.

And I have absolutely no problem that a major studio - hell, every major studio - would do this if it could. Even the ones that had been founded by people claiming to speak for the voice of the creator.

Because, really, Big Semi is not all that different from what the Studio System in Hollywood did in the first half of the 20th Century. The only difference being that the producers still had to use people to make the actual film, and their finger on the pulse of the audience was hardly perfect. But it was pretty good.

The problem of course is that this ends up being an art form with no personal statement, rendering it enjoyable but somewhat sterile. I'm not sure what choice Sophia would make, but I'm pretty sure I would have run.

And Alasdair - always good to hear from you again! I like your exit pieces..... though, strictly speaking (sorry for the nitpicking), it's Sam Neil who first sees the dinosaurs and then turns Laura Dern's head to them. But her expression is pretty priceless as well....
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benjaminjb
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« Reply #9 on: January 05, 2013, 07:22:59 PM »

The problem of course is that this ends up being an art form with no personal statement, rendering it enjoyable but somewhat sterile.

Here's where I differ from people who hold some sort of auteur theory of film (that film can/should be an expression of a single vision.) There are strong personal statements in films, from tiny recurring jokes (Hitchcock showing up in his films) to large themes (Spielberg and the themes of fatherhood, Joss Whedon and themes of community, etc.).

But film historically has been a cooperative affair: where's Hitchcock without his script-writers and actors and the cinematographer and catering, for god's sake. (A film production, like most armies, marches on its belly.) So Hitchcock's films already have many cooks (and sous-chefs and busboys if you want to continue the metaphor), but you wouldn't call his films sterile, would you?

The ironic thing is that the growth of certain technologies in our time make it more possible for people to be creative all by themselves: just you, your computer, a cheap HD video-camera and/or some animation program.

(Of course, that "all by themselves" hides a whole network of interpersonal connections, i.e., the people who invented that technology and that medium, the people who had a hand in shaping your own person. In other words, where's Spielberg's artistic vision of fatherhood without his parents' divorce?)
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Scumpup
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« Reply #10 on: January 05, 2013, 07:32:21 PM »

But your mileage may vary. Which is, I suspect, the point:)

The type of movies that Big Semi produces are, it seems to me from contextual clues, Big Summer Blockbuster type movies.  They are a mass-produced, mass-marketed commodity.  I consider them to be more akin to Coca Cola than to art.  Mind you, I quite enjoy a nice, cold glass of Coca Cola...Big Semi tweaking its movies through multiple iterations seems to me to be exactly the same as Coca Cola tweaking their formula through multiple iterations because they do it for the same reason: to end up with a product that appeals to the broadest possible market.  There is nothing evil or soulless about that.  It's just marketing.  The consumer gets a pleasant tasting drink or a pleasant couple hours entertainment; the producer gets money.
One of my teachers somewhere along the way voiced the opinion that once something starts being produced with the goal of pleasing an audience, rather than fulfilling some need or drive of its creator, it is no longer art.  What do you think?
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Cutter McKay
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« Reply #11 on: January 05, 2013, 07:46:52 PM »

Well, I'm with Jingo in the 1B quadrant. I found the idea of a complex, quasi-AI computer generating all the films interesting, and would be interested in reading a piece that explores this in a more social context, but found the story itself lacking, especially in the absence of a resolute ending.

As has been stated, there is little emotional tie to Sophia. We do feel her excitement as she is getting the job of her dreams, but then the story is overrun by exposition as everything about Big Semi is explained. By the end, we get a glimpse of Sophia's disappointment, then she's out the door, and then it's over. We get no resolution at all. Does she take the job or not? We don't even get a hint about what she might do because the final line is a quote from Palladon.

I think that is what's bothering me the most here. We have no idea what Sophia is going to do. This is the beginning the story in my opinion. Our protagonist is faced with the daunting choice of giving up, giving in, or fighting to prove that she, a mere human, can make a better movie than Big Semi. Obviously the only satisfying solution to us the readers would be for her to take action and be the John Henry of the modern movie industry. That would be an interesting story. We don't get that story, we get the setup.
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Alasdair5000
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« Reply #12 on: January 06, 2013, 10:53:34 AM »

But your mileage may vary. Which is, I suspect, the point:)

The type of movies that Big Semi produces are, it seems to me from contextual clues, Big Summer Blockbuster type movies.  They are a mass-produced, mass-marketed commodity.  I consider them to be more akin to Coca Cola than to art.  Mind you, I quite enjoy a nice, cold glass of Coca Cola...Big Semi tweaking its movies through multiple iterations seems to me to be exactly the same as Coca Cola tweaking their formula through multiple iterations because they do it for the same reason: to end up with a product that appeals to the broadest possible market.  There is nothing evil or soulless about that.  It's just marketing.  The consumer gets a pleasant tasting drink or a pleasant couple hours entertainment; the producer gets money.
One of my teachers somewhere along the way voiced the opinion that once something starts being produced with the goal of pleasing an audience, rather than fulfilling some need or drive of its creator, it is no longer art.  What do you think?

I think your teacher nailed the central problem of every artistic endeavor:) The desire for recognition, one I know a lot of artists have, is by definition one that requires an external force, and it does really odd things to the creative process itself. As you say, producing art FOR an audience instantly compromises your artistic vision because you're bending it to external forces, turning it into a transaction where in return for your compromise they notice you exist and complement, or not, your work. If you choose to refuse that compromise then you have absolute artistic integrity and absolute, pure art. You also have no audience beyond one that you can attract to it, and even then you have to make your peace with the fact the work may be too inaccessible. So on the one hand, you're compromising for recognition and on the other you're risking being overlooked or recognized for all the wrong reasons. As to which is more desirable, that depends on what you want from your art. If it's fame and fortune, compromise. If it's the joy of completion, hold your color.

Of course Kickstarter does something really interesting to this, because if you look at it one way it's the return of the patronage system and therefore instantly compromises any work put through it. On the other hand, you could argue that Kickstarter and other crowdfunding projects are amongst the purest elements of contemporary arts because the vision of the artist is set out beforehand and remains unchanged by the money used to fund it.
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InfiniteMonkey
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« Reply #13 on: January 06, 2013, 12:56:30 PM »


Here's where I differ from people who hold some sort of auteur theory of film (that film can/should be an expression of a single vision.) There are strong personal statements in films, from tiny recurring jokes (Hitchcock showing up in his films) to large themes (Spielberg and the themes of fatherhood, Joss Whedon and themes of community, etc.).


See, I don't think of it as either-or, but points on a continuum from a guy alone with a camera to, well, Big Semi. Of course film is (mostly) a collaborative art form, but even the number of people involved or how influential a person may be isn't quite the point - I think the point is who's leading the creative process, the creator or the consumer? Is it being made only for profit? Are you simply pandering to the audience?

Now, to be fair, Big Semi doesn't seem to be doing that quite so nakedly. But there is certainly room for improvement, which is why Sophia got recognized; her changes were more artistic.

Though I would point out her disappointment at the work environment as a clue to the author's intent.


One of my teachers somewhere along the way voiced the opinion that once something starts being produced with the goal of pleasing an audience, rather than fulfilling some need or drive of its creator, it is no longer art.  What do you think?


Oh, I'd say it's art. It's bad art, it's pandering art, it's the equivalent of paintings of children with big sad eyes or dogs playing poker, but it is art.
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benjaminjb
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« Reply #14 on: January 06, 2013, 02:20:34 PM »

...I think the point is who's leading the creative process, the creator or the consumer? Is it being made only for profit? Are you simply pandering to the audience?

That's a good way to put it--creator- vs. consumer-directed work. I wrote a post about how most art is in the market (whether that market is mass or merely singular, as in patronage models, and keeping space open for rare artists like Henry Darger or Austin Tappan Wright who just write for themselves), but then I realized I was being unfair to your point: there's a difference between being "in the market" and being "market created."

However, I still feel this story is more ambiguous than horrifying: some readers here take the m.c.'s disappointment as indicating that Semaphore's films aren't real art, but committee-designed pablum. But that ignores how great Semaphore's previous films have been to the m.c.; and the distance between some dystopian "market-pandering pablum" and what we actually have here, which is Semaphore's boss assembling a team of people to work on a film. Which is what we have now for many films.

Oh, I'd say it's art. It's bad art, it's pandering art, it's the equivalent of paintings of children with big sad eyes or dogs playing poker, but it is art.

And I also I want to endorse this point you made. "Art" tends to be used as a positive description, as in "my dentist is an artist with his drill"--which clearly means that he's good with his drill, not that he's doing impressionism on my teeth.

I think most categories need definitions that allow failures in. For instance, if you read a bad s.f. novel, it's silly to say "oh, that's not s.f. then." (At the same time, we need to be able to distinguish mismatches in our reading: you wouldn't call MacBeth a bad murder mystery because we know who the killer is.) The flip side is what drives me up the wall, when critics say "oh, that book isn't s.f. because it's good." So insofar as Big Semi creates films, and films are recognized as an art form, yes, those films are art. Are they good art? That's another question.
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Max e^{i pi}
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« Reply #15 on: January 06, 2013, 02:29:54 PM »

Hm...
The Big Reveal wasn't so  big with me, but then I'd experimented with Markov Chains for generating text. That's really all Big Semi is (and I really hope that there is no mathematician in the audience who will dispute that, since it is wrong in every possible sense).
Learning algorithms are nothing new, and the time will come when that will be the "creative process" for many big productions, but probably not indie films.
Also, to those of you who questioned the generation time: Sophia walked past many closed doors. Who's to say that there wasn't a movie theater behind every single one? If Big Semi can try out 20 iterations of a movie every two hours (and it really is every two hours because the computer doesn't need to rest and analyze data, it can happen in parallel) then in a 24 hour period (people can work night shifts too) you get 240 iterations. In a month 7,200 and in a year 87,600. That means that in just over a year you can go through 100,000 generations of process and produce the best movie ever, every summer.
Add to that the fact that she saw one hallway on one floor of one building in what was described as a "campus" and we're probably dealing with hundreds of millions of iterations a year.

The idea doesn't shock me at all, and I'm not frightened by it. There will always be people who will want to make their own personal art, just like the eReader didn't kill (and probably won't) print. It's just another step of our social development.

Probably the thing I liked most about this story is that until the very end, and even now, I don't know what Sophia chose. She's still a bit of a mystery to me, and her internal debate seemed to be pretty well balanced.

And finally, Alastair.
Congratulations on the new job, and extra kudos for stepping up to the challenge. I'll bet you don't have much more spare time than Mur.
This time, I've finally figured out what bothers me about Alastair's readings/endcaps. It's not his accent, I'm fine with that. It's his volume modulation. He speaks at different volumes in the same sentence, and it is very hard for me to track, especially when there is ambient noise (and there always is).
I may invest in some expensive noise-cancelling headphones or just skip the preamble and endcap. Please don't take it personally, Alastair.
« Last Edit: January 07, 2013, 01:40:12 PM by Max e^{i pi} » Logged

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« Reply #16 on: January 07, 2013, 08:54:53 AM »

Can we break this down:

1) Liked the idea; 2) Didn't like the idea
A) Liked the execution; B) Didn't like the execution

To me this story was 1B for two reasons:

1. It seemed to take way too long to get where we were going.
2. The reveal was given in 3P omniscient, while the rest of the story was told in 3P limited. The information we got in the reveal -- which I'm guessing Palladon told Sophia while they were in the booth -- should have been delivered to the reader by Palladon, in my opinion.

I also enjoyed all the references to big movie houses.

The reveal was sickening, in a way, because this story is disturbingly prescient (Max did say he'd experimented with something similar). If Hollywood can figure out how to do what Big Semi does, they will. It'll save them money in production and make them more in theaters. Once the uncanny valley is truly bridged, it'll only be a matter of time. I've worked in the media all my life (radio, TV, online), and I know the struggles media creators go through to get their stuff out there. But by the same token, once we get to a point where we have computers like Big Semi, it'll eventually become possible for home users like me to purchase rendering software and create our own films of our fiction. I for one would LOVE to see a teleplay or screenplay of "113 Feet"...

From there it's just a short jump to "write and render your own porn", naturally, but that's another story for another time.
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« Reply #17 on: January 07, 2013, 09:07:00 AM »

The scariest aspect of all of this is short term memory modification.  Let's mess with your mind's hard drive every two hours and see where you sit after a month's time.  I don't think a non disclosure agreement is all that necessary when all of your employee's brains are turning into gray colored tapioca.

That being said, the question isn't what is art?  I'm the only one who knows the answer to that.  The problem is one of feeling played. 

Obviously this is Pixar being referenced.  If you found out tomorrow that all of their movies were products of a complex algorithm, would you be taking your copy of Wall-E back to Best Buy?  Probably not, because they don't have a return policy on previously watched media.  But besides that, it's still just a plain good movie.

You might question what it means to feel.  To be human.  Or you might have feelings of inadequacy.  I'm sure Ken Jennings' therapist got a call the day after Watson kicked his ass on Jeopardy. 

We humans all have a superiority complex.  Computers might be able to run trillions of operations per second, but they lack the ability to touch our soul.  What happens when they do?  What happens when you find a thing of beauty and find it later reduced to lines of code?
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Max e^{i pi}
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« Reply #18 on: January 07, 2013, 09:13:53 AM »

The reveal was sickening, in a way, because this story is disturbingly prescient (Max did say he'd experimented with something similar).
Just to clarify: Markov Chains are a mathematical construct with some interesting and useful uses. In my case, I fed it a truckload of chat logs, and it spit out slightly coherent sentences some of the time.
The main difference is that there is no memory in a Markov Chain. If it comes up with a good sentence (grammatically correct, makes sense in context, etc') it doesn't know and promptly forgets that sentence and moves on to the next. (It does that with bad sentences too) This is how chatbots work.
The leap here would be to take something like the code behind a chatbot, and add learning algorithms so that it can remember the conversation, and make it better for the next one. So far nobody's been able to do that, mostly since it's very hard to define what a good sentence is.
It's even harder when it comes to something as complex as a movie.
The technology describe here is still far off on the horizon (maybe even below it), but it will probably happen. Some day.
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Max e^{i pi}
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« Reply #19 on: January 07, 2013, 09:16:59 AM »

We humans all have a superiority complex.  Computers might be able to run trillions of operations per second, but they lack the ability to touch our soul.  What happens when they do?  What happens when you find a thing of beauty and find it later reduced to lines of code?
You mean, like this?
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