Hostile machine vision

One of our goals in MACHINE VISION is to analyse how machine vision is represented in art, stories, games and popular culture. A really common trope is showing machine vision as hostile and as dangerous to humans. Machine vision is used as an effective visual metaphor for something alien that threatens us.

My eight-year-old and I watched Ralph Breaks the Internet last weekend. I found it surprisingly satisfying – I had been expecting something inane like that emoji movie, but the story was quite engaging, with an excellent exploration of the bad effects of neediness in friendships. But my research brain switched on in the computer virus scene , towards the end of the movie, because we see “through the eyes of the virus”. Here is a shot of the virus, depicted as a dark swooshing creature with a single red eye:


And here you see the camera switch to what the virus sees. It is an “insecurity virus”, that scans for “insecurities” (such as Vanellope’s anxious glitching and Ralph’s fear of losing Vanellope) and replicates them.

And of course it uses easily-recognisable visual cues that signify “machine vision” – a computer is seeing here.

I noticed an almost-identical use of this visual metaphor at another visit to the cinema with the kids, though this time in an ad from the Australian Cancer Council. Here, the sun is presented as seeing human skin like an alien.

The way humans see skin is not the same way the sun sees skin. And each time the sun sees your skin, when the UV is 3 or above, it’s doing damage beneath the surface. It builds up, until one day, it causes a mutation in your DNA, which can turn to skin cancer. Don’t let the sun see your DNA. Defend yourself.

The visuals are different. While Ralph Breaks the Internet uses an overlay of data, the ad shifts from a “human” camera angle to zooming in, black and white, fading around the sides of the image, a shaky camera, and then appears to penetrate the skin to show what we assume is the DNA mutating. The sound effects also suggest something dangerous, perhaps mechanic.

Certainly machine vision isn’t always represented as hostile. It’s often presented as useful, or protective, or simply as a tool. This year we are going to be tracking different representations and simulations of machine vision in order to sort through the different ways our culture sees machine vision. Hostile is definitely one of those ways.

If you have suggestions for other examples we should look at, please leave a comment and tell us about them!

11. February 2019 by Jill
Categories: Machine Vision | 2 comments

Comments (2)

  1. Back in the early 2000s when I was writing about the Terminator films, it was always when of the odd quirks that the POV of the Terminator always showed similar scenes and readouts inside the washed red tint of the Terminator’s vision. There was no logical reason for a machine to visualise inside itself, but it’s a persistent plot device to explain their threatening perspective.

    The odd thing, was that in the mid-2000s, there were a bunch of nature documentaries that used the same technique. I remember a really odd image of a polar bear’s “sight” showing miltary stype vision POV, just like a Terminator. I’m glad nature docos seemed to stop doing that after a year or two!

    • Oh yes, I’d forgotten how nature documentaries do that. Hm, maybe it’s more about using a camera to express different ways of seeing than being a reflection upon machine vision itself.

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