Man v. Machine: The Artificial Evil

We’ve been talking extensively about robots so far, so let’s switch gears today and take a look at computers. I was originally going to cover a bevy of espionage films today to build my ideas around, but why bother? Why bother when a shining example has been provided by one of the greatest films, espionage, sci-fi, period, of all time: Jean Luc Godard’s Alphaville.

Alphaville Poster, Art by Armstrong Sabian

Brief recap: In the futuristic titular city, journalist / secret agent Lemmy Caution arrives on a secret mission from the outlands — to capture Professor Von Braun, the creator of super computer Alpha 60, and to use his knowledge to take down the dictatorial machine. In Alphaville, Caution encounters automaton after automaton, people ruled by the cold logic of a computer that has outlawed love and poetry. In Alphaville, logic is order, and those who act illogically pay the price with their lives. Caution falls in love with Natasha, Von Braun’s daughter, and his ability to have emotions, to act illogically, serves as a monkeywrench in the orderly machine that is Alphaville.

If you haven’t seen it, stop reading now, and do yourself a favor. It’s one of a number of full-length movies recently uploaded to Google Video, so go watch it.

There exists a myriad films about amoral computers driving out the experience of humanity with logical function — within the genre of espionage, I’d also thought of discussing The Billion Dollar Brain and The Prisoner episode The General. Perhaps the most well known of these computers-gone-bad is HAL 9000 from the Kubrick/Clarke film 2001: A Space Odyssey, and his oft-quoted line, “I’m afraid I can’t let you do that, Dave.”

But as with our previous discussions on robots, I question whether the actual evil might lie with the creators of HAL.

Luciano Floridi and J.W. Sanders addressed the idea of computers perpetrating evil deeds in their 2001 essay, “Artificial Evil and the Foundation of Computer Ethics” by creating a new nomenclature for … well, evil. They start by defining the nebulous term with the help of Kekes — evil is an action that “causes serious and morally unjustified harm” — and identify two traditionally acknowledged forms of evil: Moral Evil (ME), that which results from human autonomy and responsibility, and Natural Evil (NE), which comes from the natural world (i.e. earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters). These terms, they offer, are not enough to describe modern occurrences of evil:

More and more often, especially in advanced societies, people are confronted by visible and salient evils that are neither simply natural nor immediately moral: an innocent dies because the ambulance was delayed by the traffic; a computer-based monitor ‘reboots’ in the middle of surgery because its software is not fully compatible with other programs also in use, with the result that the patient is at increased risk during the reboot period. The examples could easily be multiplied. What kind of evils are these? ‘Bad luck’ and ‘technical incident’ are simply admissions of ignorance.

To this end, Floridi and Sanders offer a new term: Artificial Evil (AE). They address the question above as well — are not the evil actions of the man-made system the fault of the men who made them?:

…This leads precisely to the main objection against the presence of AE, namely that any AE is really just ME under a different name. Human creators are morally accountable for whatever evil may be caused by their artificial agents, as mere means or intermediaries of human activities (indirect responsibility)….In the same way as a divine creator can be blamed for NE, so a human creator can be blamed for AE.

Some technologies, they argue, exist as artificial and autonomous agents: (remember this was written in 2001) webbots, expert systems, software viruses, robots. These agents are nomologically independent from their human creators, and therefore their ability to initiate evil actions is also independent from their human creators.

Today’s questions:

1. Do you think there is truth to Floridi and Sanders’ claims?
2. If so, what can be done?
3. Do we see these autonomous agents, capable of enacting artificial evil, in current society, even if not on the scale of a city-running, dictatorial super-computer?

This post first appeared on the Mister 8 website, 20 June 2009

Man v. Machine: The Artificial Evil

Your Turn Darling (1963)

Country: France / Italy
Director: Bernard Boderie
Starring: Eddie Constantine, Christiane Minazzoli, Elga Andersen, Philippe Lemaire, Gaia Germani, Noel Roquevert, Colin Drake, Guy Delorme
Music: Paul Misraki

Your Turn Darling sure is one boozy adventure for Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine). As we meet Caution, he is disgruntled because he was called away from a bar at four in the morning where he had been judging a Miss Whiskey competition. Then when searching the crime scene, he doesn’t look for clues, but hidden whiskey bottles — he finds one in the underwear draw. Later, after being knocked out by a black jack, a doctor prescribes a bottle of whiskey for his headache. Then when searching a suspects home, he starts at the liquor cabinet. In case I haven’t laboured the point enough, even when Caution is receiving a mission briefing from the head of the Paris branch he keeps downing slugs of whiskey from his hip flask claiming that it is cough medicine. Spies are often portrayed as hard-living, hard drinking individuals, but this is off the Richter scale.

Just to put things in perspective, this film was made two years before Constantine and Goddard’s seminal spy flick Alphaville, which also features the character Lemmy Caution. Alphaville and Your Turn Darling are truly at opposite ends of the spectrum. Alphaville is mind-blowing art, and Your Turn Darling is low-brow comedy. Don’t get me wrong in thinking that Your Turn Darling is a bad film. It is fast paced and funny (in places), but it is a very different beast to Alphaville and those expecting a film of a similar style and calibre will be sadly disappointed.

As the film starts Olivia Brandt, an agent of the CIA enters the laboratory of scientist Elmer Whitaker. Whitaker has been retained by the US government to work on a solid rocket fuel formula. Inside, Olivia immediately rings her superior Colonel Willis, but before she can relay any important information the lights flicker on and she is shot. Offscreen he can hear the remonstrations of Whitaker as he is kidnapped by the evil-doers. And I’m sorry if this counts as a spoiler, but really a 2nd grader could work it out — the fact that Whitaker’s kidnapping happens off screen and can only be heard by Colonel Willis indicates all is not kosher with the kidnapping.

Later Willis is on the scene and the laboratory has been trashed. As far as he is concerned Whitaker has been kidnapped and must be found, and there is only one man to do the job — it is the CIA’s best man, Lemmy Caution. After some wisecracking and boozing, Lemmy gets down to business. The only real clue they find is a photograph of Whitaker’s fiancee, Geraldine Monteveccio (Gaia Germani). She just happens to be a super model, which means that Lemmy has to investigate her as soon as possible.

Lemmy tracks Geraldine to he Rainbow apartments where she had been staying, but it appears that she paid her bill and checked out with a gentleman only hours before. Lemmy asks more about the gentleman concerened — like if he mentioned his name. The lady behind the reception desk said that he did — he called himself ‘Lemmy Caution’ and said he was taking Miss Monteveccio to Paris to be with her fiance.

Lemmy is on the next plane to Paris, and before the jet has even landed he is trying to score. During the flight he ingraiates himself on Valerie Pontiac, who is a beautiful blonde also heading to Paris. But Lemmy has ulterior motives for chatting up this girl — apart from his fondness for attractive women. You see, despite the fact that she has had plastic surgery, Lemmy recognises her as Carletta Strasser (Christiane Minazzoli). Lemmy knows it is all a trap and a setup, but he is happy to keep playing the game.

The game has quite a few twists too. The first is his contact in Paris, Charles Grant (Philippe Lemaire). It appears that Grant isn’t who he says he is either. He is in fact Henri Frenzetti the mastermind of the insidious kidnapping plot. Although Frenzetti is the alleged mastermind, as the story goes on his actions become more buffoonish, and his character moves from super villain to comic relief.

Then we have the beautiful Gaia Germani as Geraldine Monteveccio. Because Geraldine was fooled by an impostor, she refuses to believe that Lemmy is in fact the real ‘Lemmy Caution’, which means that during her scenes with him, she is ‘feisty’ to the point of ridiculousness.

The film ends with a bizarre fight at a dairy where each of the characters gets covered in fermenting cheese and milk. It doesn’t quite sink down to the level of a cream pie fight but it is getting close. Your Turn Darling is a passable time killer, not much more, but Eddie Constantine does have a distinct screen presence, and it is his presence alone that keeps this film moving along nicely.

Your Turn Darling (1963)

Alphaville (1965)

Country: France /Italy
Jean-Luc Goddard
Starring: Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina, Akim Tamiroff, Howard Vernon
Music: Paul Misraki

A Strange Case Of Lemmy Caution

“You wouldn’ know me, wouldya? You never heard of me, didya? My name’s Caution – Lemmy Caution – an’ you never heard a G-man with that moniker, didya? You cheap, lousy, double-crossin’, two-timin’ heel. I suppose you got out of New York because of that McConnigle bump-off, hey? An’ who sent you? Who gave you the dough to break outa there with? Come on, spill it, before I sorta get annoyed, an’ bust you in the pan.” 


I sit down an’ light a cigarette. I look at the punk through the flame of the lighter. The boy has got his nerve back. He is rememberin’ that this is England.  

“Hey…hey…” he says. “Well, now, if it ain’t the little fly-cop, Lemmy Caution.”

He takes off his fedora an’ makes a big bow. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he says, “allow me to present to you the big ace G-man, Mr. Lemmy Caution, the guy with the big Federal badge an’ a face like the rear end of a milk delivery truck…” 

From the novel ‘G-MAN AT THE YARD’ by Peter Cheyney

I copied the above passage to introduce you to the character of Lemmy Caution. Actor Eddie Constantine almost made a career out of playing Caution or characters that were so similar that they could be Caution by everything but name. Now having said all that, and given you a passage from one of Cheyney’s Caution novels, I am going to ask you to throw that all out the window. Jean-Luc Goddard’s Alphaville is no ordinary Lemmy Caution adventure. In fact, there is nothing ‘ordinary’ about Alphaville at all. It is one of the most unusual films you will come across.

I can tell you why Alphaville is a spy film – it’s simple – Lemmy Caution is Secret Agent 003 and he’s on a mission to liquidate Professor Vonbraum, who has built a sentient computer called Alpha 60. As simple as that sounds, Alphaville doesn’t play out in the usual way. It is possibly one of the least conventional films of all time.

Despite the espionage trappings, the story is twisted into a dystopian science fiction story – albeit with no special effects. And even though it is science fiction, if you stripped away the dialogue, you could be watching an American detective thriller from the 1940s. There are other nods to the past too – with characters called Dick Tracy, Heckel & Jeckel, and Nosferatu. So the film is a spy film, with a hint of science fiction, wrapped up in a style that is a love letter to the pulp stories of the past. But this is only the tip of the iceberg; but first let’s look at a bit of the plot, so I can put some of the other themes into context.

The film starts off in a fairly straight forward manner. Lemmy Caution arrives in the city of Alphaville in his battered Ford Galaxy automobile. Now Alphaville is a police state ruled over by a supercomputer called Alpha 60. Alpha 60’s law is logic. The inhabitants of Alphaville must live in a logical fashion – for example, later in the film a man is sentenced to death because he cried when his wife died. Crying is not logical, so he is sentenced to die. Alpha 60 has also outlawed love and poetry. So the people of Alphaville are a rather cold lot. They lack emotion.

Caution makes his way to a hotel and checks in. As he unpacks, he goes over two photographs of the parties involved in his current assignment. The first is Professor Vonbraun (Howard Vernon), a renegade scientist who created Alpha 60. Caution’s instructions are to acquire or liquidate Vonbraun. He also has to destroy Alpha 60, which will in turn free the people of Alphaville. The other photo is of Henri Dickson (Akim Tamiroff). He was Caution’s predecessor. Also an agent, he was sent to Alphaville to kill Vonbraum, but has been unsuccessful in his attempts.

Posing as a newspaper reporter for Figaro-Pravda (not a real newspaper but a conjunction of the French Figaro and Russia Pravda newspapers), Caution seeks an interview with Vonbraun, and to assist with the process, he is given a guide to show him around the city, and take him to Vonbraum. The guide is Natasha Vonbraun (Anna Karina), the Professor’s estranged daughter. Now I don’t know is estranged is the right word, because at one point she claims she has never met her father, yet it seems like she works with him every day. As Caution and Natasha work together they slowly fall in love – or rather, Caution falls in love with her – but because love has been outlawed in Alphaville, she does not reciprocate the emotion.

Of the many themes contained in Alphaville, the one that seems most prescient today, are the prophetic allusions to the New World Order. In Alphaville, the citizens are numerically coded and their thoughts and emotions are dictated by Alpha 60. Of course, Goddard was mostly making comparisons with Nazi Germany and the tattooing of identity numbers onto concentration camp prisoners. But it applies equally today, where we see the world be carved up into trading blocks and (justified by terrorism) our movements are being heavily monitored. As a global community, we are moving towards life in a fascist society. Extremists believe that it won’t be long before we are all barcoded and microchipped. Data is being recorded and centralized, and the technology exists for mood control. So how far away are we from being controlled by a computer that is similar to Alpha 60?

It doesn’t matter how many words I use, I will never be able to accurately describe Alphaville because it is such a visual experience. Don’t get me wrong – this film does not feature any futuristic grand sets or sweeping stylish camerawork. In fact most of the camerawork is rather nailed down. Often scenes are simply front on shots of the characters heads. The visual impact comes from the little embellishments throughout the film. As an example, as Caution talks to Dickson in a stairway, he pushes the hanging lightglobe so it swings like a pendulum – or a hypnotists watch. Then there is the constant intercutting of traffic lights and direction signs, symbolizing the structured police state that Alphaville has become. You have no choice; you must follow the directions as presented to you! Towards the end of the film, as the violence increases, the film is displayed in random fragments of negative image (that is: black is white and white is black). It may seem like an error, but it reflects Alpha 60’s imminent loss of control.

Alphaville is an amazing film, but in all honesty, it is not the type of film that will appeal to everybody. The structure and the narrative are confusing at times. In places the film veers off into spoken word surrealist poetry that cripples the story’s pacing and although it provides a framework for one of the films other major themes – ‘All you need is love’, – which, until the end, when it all makes sense, seems like an awful, jumbled plot contrivance.

For the jaded spy film fan Alphaville may just be the tonic that you need. It’s something very different but still presents it’s story within the boundaries of an espionage film But if you don’t like it, well don’t blame me!

Alphaville (1965)