Surrogates vs. avatars

February 18, 2010 by L. Stephen Coles

mannequin“Surrogates” scenario: FBI agents (Bruce Willis and Radha Mitchell) investigate the mysterious murder of a college student linked to the man who helped create a high-tech surrogate phenomenon that allows people to purchase unflawed robotic versions of themselves—fit, good looking remotely controlled machines that ultimately assume their life roles—enabling people to experience life vicariously from the comfort and safety of their own homes. The murder spawns a quest for answers: in a world of masks, who’s real and who can you trust?

Greg Stock, VP of Signum Biosciences of Princeton, NJ appears at the beginning of the film during the opening credit roll to establish credibility for advanced robotic technology, as they segue from the primitive present-day state-of-the-art to the ostensibly-sophisticated Hollywood special-effects-genre of the future.

This includes “surrogates” (a more appropriate term would have been avatar instead of surrogate, but Twentieth Century Fox already took that name for its own movie to be released on December 18, 2009). We already use the term surrogate in infertility treatment in a totally different way. Avatar, BTW, is an alien outerspace Sci-Fi movie by James Cameron. Jake Sully (Worthington) is a paraplegic war veteran who is brought to the planet Pandora to participate in a program designed to help him walk again. The program introduces him to his “avatar,” a creature whose genetics are half human and half Na’vi, a sentient humanoid race who inhabit Pandora. In time, Jake will find himself in the middle of an escalating conflict between the two races.] This is also a misuse of “avatar,” since they should have used the term “chimera.”

The term avatar ought to be reserved for agents whom you control, who may or may not look like you, in social interactions with others in a simulated environment {think Second Life on the Internet where you can spend “Linden Dollars” to buy virtual real estate or be surrounded by beautiful women/handsome men… ). This film’s surrogates are cosmetically-enhanced usually younger versions of a human controller with some additional athletic skills (think $6 Million Man from the old TV series plus The Matrix movie trilogy). The human controllers are required to lie down horizontally for many hours all day long, which would lead to severe muscle atrophy, I presume, but that wasn’t mentioned.

As with all SciFi films, if you grant the premise (the willing suspension of disbelief), you wonder why, if they had such advanced technology as A, B, and C would they use it to carry out such trivial applications as X, Y, and Z? There are lots of other things one could think of doing with that technology than what was portrayed in what they showed. Having all these surrogates running around in the real world strikes me as a very expensive waste of the technology. Also, anyone who understands Internet computer security would never allow their design to be vulnerable to a virus that could impact all surrogates throughout the world from one central server. That doesn’t make sense except that it moves their own plot along, as written by the failed, unimaginative script writers. It reminds me of Prof. Marvin Minsky’s gratuitous remark from 20 years ago about how Star Trek actors always get older, while the science of the future depicted in the TV series/films doesn’t seem to address the problem of aging at all, as though it weren’t a scientific agenda item, let alone try to solve it.

Dr. Coles is a Co-Founder and Director of the Los Angeles Gerontology Research Group and Director of the Supercentenarian Research Foundation.