Escaping the Cycle: Battlestar Galactica vs. Mass Effect

I’ve talked in the past about my love-hate relationship with SyFy’s Battlestar Galactica. I decided to give it another change and did a full re-watch through the four seasons. The overall verdict is that I liked the series even more, including the last season, than I did the first time, with the exception of the last episode. The last episode, I hated even more than I did before. Common complaints with the ending had to do with the whole “I see angels” and deciding for the viewer how God was supposed to be seen in the show. This time around, however, my complaints take a different angle.

This got me to thinking about another epic sci-fi story with a controversial ending: Mass Effect. Both stories are essentially the same: a repeating cycle of machines rising up against the organic life that created them. Across the galaxy, civilization after civilization rises up and falls to the same fate: the machines destroy their creators. In both stories, a key theme is: how do we break the cycle? It’s a sci-fi version of the wheel of karma, the cycle of rebirth and death. In other words, how do we achieve moksha, a future where organic life can survive past technological singularity?

People complained about both endings. For Mass Effect, folks complained that the choices didn’t matter in the end. I disagree with this interpretation of the Mass Effect ending, and I’m going to contrast it with Battlestar Galactica (BSG) to make an argument that Mass Effect’s (ME) ending was, in fact, quite good. And the final choice in the game has substantially different implications.

(SPOILERS to follow)

At the end of BSG, the last episode does pose the question: how do we break the cycle? They find a new planet (our Earth) on which to colonize and survive, and they make the decision to blend in with the natives, scatter themselves over the planet, and eschew their technology by launching their fleet into the sun. The choose to start over with a stone age existence.

The end of ME also has a loss of technology: the network of jump gates get destroyed, presumably making interstellar travel either impossible, or much more difficult. In the case of ME, this loss of advanced civilization is a side effect, not deliberately chosen. Also, each solar system still has space age technology. Two of the three choices made at the end of ME carries the lessons learned into the future and truly breaks the cycle. One choice is ambiguous. More on this in a minute.

Coming back to BSG, the only thing they accomplish is to accept humans and cylons living together and procreating together, and the implication that they’ll interbreed with the indigenous human population. But they also make a deliberate choice to “start over” and “wipe the slate clean”. There’s one problem with that: the entire series has established “all of this has happened before and all of this will happen again.” If they don’t carry any lessons learned forward, why would they expect different results.

To add insult to injury, in the final scene of the series has the Baltar and Six angels talking together in modern-day Earth. Baltar-angel asks Six-angel if the cycle will repeat, and she’s optimistic this time. Why? No fracking good reason whatsoever. She says, “law of averages. If we do this enough, we’ll eventually be surprised.” Well, why didn’t that apply before? This sounds insane: “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” My biggest gripe is this: I felt BSG was, in the end, an utter tragedy. No lessons were carried forward, and my takeaway is that they’re doomed to repeat the cycle. To amplify my point, the fact that they chose to link their story to present-day Earth was self defeating. If they wanted to make the argument that lessons were remembered and carried forward, even at a genetic level, they would have had to show how humans were fundamentally different… but they didn’t. One of the strengths of the show was how human and relatable their characters were. Caprica before the fall is very much like modern day Earth. So, the cycle repeats itself.

The second big gripe I have that adds to the tragic feel of the show. They talk about how love (with familial love being as or more important than romantic love) was key to their breaking the cycle (because apparently procreation was key somehow… that’s never explained), but then they scatter. The hardest part for me was Lee’s father going off to be alone, and Lee seemingly alone at the end. All those talks about family, and bonds… it’s like they all abandoned their hearths with each other (excepting some characters like Helo and Athena, and Caprica and Baltar). I guess the solitude of the Adamas was hard to swallow, and frankly I found it somewhat unbelievable after the way the series built their characters.

The failure of the final episode, I believe, is in the writing. The entire series was brilliant, and my impression is that the writers weren’t consciously trying to make it a tragedy. All in all, the BSG finale just seems like a tragic accident.

Turning to ME, the player is given three choices at the end, when presented a somewhat similar problem: how to break the cycle. Any choice he makes will have the side effect of destroying the jump gates. To not choose is to allow the machines to continue the cycle and harvest/destroy all advanced organic life. People complained that the three choices were superficial, involving a “blue-green-red” palette swap for the end scenes. This, however, isn’t true. The choices are fundamentally different (and this was more apparent in the revised endings). The choices presented are:

  1. Blue (control): Become one with the reapers (the machines in question). Your consciousness gets uploaded into the reapers and you become a reaper yourself, transforming their consciousness with yours. You then have the power to choose to stop the cycle, because you control the other reapers. You become, in essence, a god, and watch over the galaxy to prevent the cycle from happening again.
  2. Green (synthesis): You have the choice to blend synthetic and organic life… and through the reaction during the jump gates destruction, this effect is carried to all aspects of the galaxy. You die, but every other living being becomes a synthetic-organic hybrid, removing the distinction between synthetic and organic life.
  3. Red (destruction): You die, but you destroy all synthetic life and artificial intelligence throughout the galaxy. The cycle may or may not repeat itself, but organic life continues past the point of singularity, knowing and remembering what happened. This is the most uncertain of all fates, but it’s not a “start again and hope for different results.”

In order to not repeat the past, the starting conditions have to be different. The biggest thing is: what’s changed, what’s different from the last time we started this cycle? In ME, each choice offers a different set of starting conditions. BSG did not.

The BSG writers effectively made no choice… they wanted their cake and ate it too, essentially mapping their ending on the “no choice” ME ending (which was also available: if you choose to not choose, the final AI kills you and the cycle continues… the reapers harvest and wipe out humanity and all the other space faring races).

If the blue/green/red choices were mapped on to BSG, this is how it could have happened:

  1. Blue (control): Kara Thrace (or other suitable character, but I pick Starbuck in an effort to undo the stupid “she’s an angel” thread) becomes a cylon and merges consciousness with the base ship. She transcends consciousness and guides the base ships away, watching humanity’s development from afar. Some cylons live with humans and interbreed, and human civilization continues, with technological and philosophical lessons learned. Maybe it becomes possible for human consciousness to be uploaded into synthetic brains, transcending mortality and blurring the lines between synthetic and organic. There’s a fundamental recognition that machines are just as conscious as organics.
  2. Green (synthesis): I’m… gonna go with Kara again. But maybe Hera could have worked as well. One of them accomplishes something that causes all synthetics to share organic properties (although one could already argue they do) and that all humans get cylon bio tech as part of them (just like they did with the ship itself towards the end). Or a simpler way to achieve this would have been to have them settle in peace and intermarry, with they implication that in time, all their descendants were hybrids. They almost achieved this in the series, excepting that they decided to forget everything.
  3. Red (destruction): This was the ending I was hoping for, because I thought it would have been bold. The humans come to the conclusion that software is just software in the end, convincing simulations of personality but not actually sentient. They find a way to destroy all cylons, and there is no continuation of the hybrid line. The humans settle on the new world. They remember the sins of the past. In some ways, they’d already learned this lesson in the colonies by abandoning AI, and networked computer technology. That solves the problem of singularity. Only this time, they don’t have the threat of the cylons coming home to destroy them, because they’re all dead. In other words, it’s a purely simple military victory.

So, after the second watch through (which had the benefit of having played the full ME trilogy by that point), I feel like the writers of BSG and ME were trying to address the same problem: how to solve the cycle of technological singularity and escape the doom of machines rising up to destroy the organics. It feels like the BSG writers ran out of time to parse through the options, present them distinctly to the viewers, and have their characters choose one. ME did a better job of this.

Until next week,


What OS is running YOU?

In one of my earlier posts, I posited that it’s difficult to test whether a simulated intelligence is self-aware or not (do we grant an AI rights and personhood).  I concluded by asserting that choosing to believe in an AI’s self awareness is tantamount to choosing to believe in an invisible deity.  This led to a series of conversations, some in the comments and more on Facebook, that got me to back away from this hard assertion.

Somewhat related to this, we now see discussions on whether we ourselves live in a simulated universe.  Just last week in the Skeptics Guide to the Universe Episode 379 (starting around the 12:15 mark) they discussed that scientists have performed the small simulation of reality.  The SGU then moved on to discuss a recently claim that we almost mathematically certainly exist in a simulated universe right now.  (A description of this argument can be found here, although this is not necessarily the article to which the SGU was referring).

This got me to thinking.

Aside from the science-fiction story potential, the possibility that we are, ourselves, simulated beings is quite interesting.  There are many implications to this if it turns out to be true.  First, in considering this, I’m going to put aside any question about the soul, or faith.  If you believe in a soul and your understanding is defined by religious teaching, this speculation is just silly, and there’s no point in engaging.  However, if you contend that we don’t truly understand consciousness, and don’t automatically look to spiritual answers to explain it away, then this possibility bears thought.

First of all, if we live in a simulated universe, and we are also simulated intelligences experiencing self-awareness, this shoots to hell my earlier assertion on simulated intelligences being not self aware.  If the math is correct that we almost certainly are simulated (or living in a simulated world), and given that I take my own self-awareness as axiomatic, then it is almost certain that I am simulated, and we, in turn, will create self-aware intelligences.

As I think through this, I realize I’m conflating two things.  Living in a simulated world (like in the Matrix) is not the same as being a simulated being yourself, although the Matrix makes a case for the computer programs in the story also being sentient.  So, let’s back away from ourselves being simulated for a bit and consider whether we live in a virtual reality (VR) or not.  More specifically, let’s consider that we do live in such a world–what then would it mean?  (Remember, sci-fi is speculative fiction… so as sci fi lovers, consumers, and writers, we should speculate on such things).

Folks who postulate along such lines also try to come up with ways on how we might test for such a thing.  They’ve stated that a simulated world should have glitches, or discrete points of resolution (like pixels of reality).  However, the SGU notes that we already now what the pixel of reality is–a planck length–and the pixel of time–a chronon— so why would someone capable of building such a perfect simulation not therefore model the world physics off of real world physics.  In fact, this is exactly what is proposed… a simulation of the fundamental forces of the world should, over time, produce simulated life.  In such a case, we have an untestable hypothesis.

This is what I refer to the “all-powerful deceiver hypothesis”.  This is the idea that we live in a perfect simulation indistinguishable from reality.  This also refers to the idea I’ve heard where young-Earth creationists told me that the Devil (or God) placed dinosaur bones and old geological evidence pointing to a long-earth history in order to test our belief in the Bible, in the idea that those who hold to faith (superstition in this case) even when presented with demonstrable facts get rewarded somehow.  I find such ideas largely without merit… it’s not practical to treat this world as imaginary.

There is also the thought that if something it not provable or unprovable, then the burden of proof is on the one making the positive assertion.  This is a claim made my atheists against the theist position–if you can neither prove or disprove God’s existence, then the burden of proof lies with the person making the extraordinary claim that there exists an all-powerful creator.  Extraordinary claims require commensurate levels of extraordinary proof, and so the rational position becomes one of skepticism towards any god’s existence.

How is this different from the simulated world (SW) possibility?  At least for the present, the claim is that probabilistic math backs up the SW hypothesis.  Now, as I said, it’s not practical for me to go around informing my decisions over such a belief.  In the absence of proof, I actively believe we live in a SW.  But for the purposes of speculation…

…if we live in a SW, there is a creator, by definition.  Not a god, but a person, people, or civilization that constructed the SW.  Glitches could explain why people have non-repeatable experiences they interpret as miraculous.  Maybe the gods are programs of some sort, but I would argue that such wouldn’t be necessary (if the SW is modeled off of the laws of physics).

…if we live in a SW, that implies there is a real world.  There are still real physics, and non-simulated beings of intelligence and self-awareness.

…if we live in a SW, we don’t know how nested we are.  It’s possible that we do experience an afterlife, at a higher SW level.  If there is a RW at the end, there is still a finite point at which existence ends (without looking to transcendent or religious explanations).

But the idea that’s really neat to me… what if us figuring out we’re in a simulation is “the point”… it’s the test that proves to our creators (programmers?) that we (or the system, meaning our universe) is self-aware.


Ok, on that note, see y’all next week.  And give the SGU a listen… really good discussion on this.