Computers as Ethical Machines

It’s amazing how busy life gets sometimes… Here’s the third and final paper. You can find the first here, and the second here. Enjoy!

Throughout recent history, we have grown ever more dependent on computers as they have become an integral part of everyday life. Since their successful use in World War II, computers have been constantly improved, making them capable of a variety of tasks. Computers are used to automate menial and sometimes dangerous tasks, control high tech weaponry such as robots and rockets, and provide entertainment through games and movies. As computer technology improves, computers are even being used to teach moral and ethical lessons. In the hands of the nefarious, computers can be used to cause mischief and destruction. Computers are blamed for the loss of jobs, dehumanization of society, and even negatively influencing children. Computers can be used to help or harm, directed purely by the whim of the user. Despite these shortcomings, this paper will show that computers have had an advantageous affect on society.

When computers came on the scene in the 1940’s, they were mostly limited to scientific and mathematical functions. Early computers were used to help break ciphers during World War II. In the 1950’s, computers found their way into colleges across the United States, destined to be used as research tools. However, students at MIT had other plans. [1] Members of the Tech Model Railroad Club were fascinated by these new devices and aimed to learn all they could about them. Over time, they helped transform computers from simple research tools into general purpose devices that could be used for a myriad of tasks. But despite these breakthroughs, society still held a negative view of computers and computer technology.

Resistance to technological advancement is not a new phenomenon. It is not uncommon for new laws to be crafted specifically to limit the use of new technologies. For instance, after the invention of the car, a law was passed that required “any motorist who sighted a team of horses coming toward them to pull well off the road, cover their car with a blanket or canvas that blended with the countryside, and let the horses pass.” [2] While ridiculous by today’s standards, this law was passed in order to make owning and driving a car difficult. Over time, cars became an accepted and beneficial part of society and laws impeding their use were slowly rescinded.

Computers have faced similar resistance through their history. While computers were initially used as nothing more than fancy calculation devices, visionaries saw a myriad of potential uses. Combining computes with mechanical devices, researchers were able to create automated machinery capable of completing menial tasks. The first such robotic device, designed by the Unimation company and called the Unimate, was installed in 1961. [3] The Unimate was a robotic arm used by automotive manufacturers in a die casting machine. It automated what was generally considered to be a dangerous task, that of moving die castings into position and welding them to the body of a vehicle. Human workers were at risk of inhaling deadly exhaust fumes or losing limbs if there were an accident. But despite being a capable device, adoption was slow due to a general resistance to change within the manufacturing industry.

Perception of automated machinery was different in Japan, however. After the introduction of the Unimate, Japanese interest in robotics blossomed. By 1968, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, a Japanese company, licensed all of Unimation’s technology. Japan’s keen interest in robotics may be one of the reasons that Japanese manufacturing advanced so far ahead of the rest of the world and continues to remain there. One reason for this interest may have to do with the exacting standards that most Japanese businesses subscribe to. In the Japanese culture, failure is frowned upon to such a degree that suicide is often chosen over shame. [4]

Japan’s interest in robotics sparked a general interest throughout the rest of the industrialized world. Robotic machinery began appearing in businesses throughout the United States. With this came outrage that machinery was replacing human workers. Over time, however, resistance to robotics quelled as the potential benefits of robotic workers were realized. Workers were encouraged to learn new skills such as maintaining and operating their robotic replacements. Overall, while some jobs were lost, it was not nearly the catastrophic loss that many predicted.

In the years since the introduction of the Unimate, the robotics industry has blossomed. Robots can be found in many industrial plants handling dangerous or labor intensive jobs. Jobs lost to robotic replacement have morphed into other positions, often with the same company. Robots have helped to both increase output and reduce loss due to mistakes and injuries.

Robots have also found a place in our everyday lives. iRobot, one of the first successful commercial manufacturers of household robots, created the Roomba line of household robots. [5] The Roomba is a small circular robot with two drive wheels and three brushes. The Roomba’s primary purpose is to drive itself around a room and vacuum up dirt and debris. It contains a sophisticated computer system that maps the room as it moves, ensuring that every part of the room is vacuumed. It has a host of sensors used to prevent collisions and even avoid stairways. Currently, iRobot has a complete line of household robots including robots that mop floors, clean gutters, and even clean pools.

After the 9/11 attacks, iRobot, and competitor Foster-Miller, used their robots to search for survivors. Serving as a sort-of test ground, the success of these robots during the 9/11 tragedy provided the military with the incentive they needed to offer both companies military contracts. [6] Since that time, both iRobot and Foster-Miller have provided the military with thousands of robots. These robots serve purposes ranging from disarming IEDs to full-on attack vehicles complete with weaponry.

Robotic weaponry brings with it a number of ethical and moral dilemmas. For starters, ethicists worry that robots can not be trusted to make proper ethical decisions. Robots are notorious for misinterpreting sensory data and making improper decisions based on faulty input. On the other hand, if a robot has the correct data, it has no problem quickly making a decision. Unfortunately, there aren’t always clear-cut right and wrong answers. It remains to be seen whether roboticists will be able to create an autonomous system capable of adapting to any given situation and making ethically supportable decisions.

The manufacturing industry has not been the only realm to benefit from computer innovation and creativity. Computers also found a place within the entertainment industry. Steve Russell, a hacker at the MIT computer lab, created the first video game, Spacewar, in 1962. During the same time period, Ivan Sutherland, another MIT hacker, developed a graphics program called Sketchpad which allowed the user to draw shapes on the computer screen using a light pen. Ivan went on to become a professor of computer graphics at the University of Utah, and is considered to be the creator of computer graphics.

The University of Utah quickly made a name for itself as the premiere school for computer graphics research. Many of the techniques currently used in computer graphics were invented by students studying there. For instance, Ed Catmull discovered texture mapping, a method for applying a graphical image to a 3D object. Texture mapping allowed computer scientists to add a new layer of realism to their creations. Ed Catmull went on to become president of Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Computer graphics capabilities have increased over the years. In the 1970’s, state of the art was computer wireframe images. While the 1973 film Westworld included scenes that were post-processed by computers, it wasn’t until 1976 that 3D wireframe images were used for the first time in a movie, Futureworld. [7] In the coming years, computer aided movie design became more and more common.

Using computer generated images, CGI, in movies allows a filmmaker to take their vision further than they could otherwise. For example, prior to using computers, techniques for superimposing an actor onto an artificial background, a process known as bluescreening, was a painstaking process. Using computers, this process can be done with relative ease. The use of computers saves filmmakers both time and money in addition to being able to create realistic scenes such as people flying, or exploration of alien landscapes.

With the advent of cheaper, faster computers, CGI sequences are becoming more commonplace in both movies and television. CGI sequences can be used in place of elaborate sets and backdrops, often removing the need to travel to exotic locations. Filmmakers can make changes to the sequences, even after filming has been completed, adding or removing minute details that would have otherwise had to remain. This allows filmmakers a large amount of flexibility when bringing their vision to life.

In addition to CGI, computers are also used for post-processing. Post processing allows a filmmaker to add and remove elements of a scene, even non-CGI scenes, and adjust various details. For instance, lighting can be adjusted and special effects such as the glow of a lightsaber can be added. Through the use of computers, almost any image adjustment is possible, even those of a questionable nature. Take, for instance, the following two examples.

In July of 2008, Iran was set to meet with the United Nations about its nuclear program. Prior to the meeting, Iran, in what was considered a show of power, announced that it had successfully launched a number of medium range missiles. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps posted a photo of the launch on their website. At the same time, photos were released to various news organizations around the world. After the photos were released, however, several experts began to have doubts about the authenticity of the photos. In fact, it appeared that the photos were altered, possibly to cover up a malfunction in one of the missile systems. [8]

In November of 2008, North Korea released a photo of their leader, Kim Jong Il, standing with a company of soldiers. There were scattered reports that Kim Jong Il had suffered a stroke in previous months and was not in good health. It was believed that this image was released by the North Korean government as proof of their leaders health. Upon closer inspection, however, experts believe that the image of Kim Jong Il was added into the photo using photo editing software. As with the Iranian incident, this photo was believed to be a political maneuver. [9]

In both of these situations, photo manipulation was used for political purposes. Both Iran and North Korea are countries with a questionable government, often at odds with many of the members of the United Nations. Each heavily censors the media, seeking to control what its population knows. Despite this, technology is often used by the populace to fight against the government.

During the 2009 elections in Iran, Iranians used online services such as Twitter and YouTube to post information about demonstrations and protests being held against the government. In fact, Iranian use of Twitter was considered so important that the US State Department urged Twitter to reschedule a maintenance so Iranians would have access during one of the demonstrations. [10] Iranian Twitter users posted first-hand accounts of protests, thoughts and feelings about the election, and, in some cases, links to videos showing alleged violence by government agents. One video showed a young woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, die on the road after being shot. [11] This video quickly went “viral,” becoming one of the most viewed videos of the moment, despite showing a rather graphic scene.

Technology helped the Iranian people show the world what was happening to their country. Some supporters helped by setting up Internet proxy sites, places where Iranians could gain Internet access outside of their country. Other supporters helped by attacking Iranian governmental websites. Both are examples of cyber-warfare, a relatively new way of fighting against opposing forces. The ethics behind such attacks are often muddied by the circumstances of the situation. In the case of Iran, hackers justified their actions by pointing out the real violence occurring in the country as well as the censorship being used to prevent Iranians from speaking to the outside world. Regardless of such justifications, hacking for the purposes of denying access or defacing property is generally frowned upon and is often illegal.

Hacking was not originally a negative activity. In the early days of computing, and even somewhat before, hacking was viewed as a positive activity by an eclectic group of individuals. To hack something was to modify it in a useful way. Hacking was often seen as a way to learn about a new device or process while simultaneously improving upon it. Early hackers went on to develop technologies such as those that run the Internet today.

As computers became more mainstream and began to appear in homes, a new breed of hacker was born. Computers were seen as both business and entertainment devices and companies had formed to offer software for both categories. Computer game companies quickly grew into large corporations which quickly fell into the routine of offering up the same old game in a shiny new wrapper. Seeking something new, some young hackers began learning how to build their own games.

John Carmack was one of those hackers. John started out hacking on an Apple II computer, creating simple games before moving on to work for a small software publishing company. After releasing a few simple games, he helped form his own company, Id Software. Id Software’s first product was a 3D first-person shooter called Doom. Doom was a breakthrough in computer gaming, offering one of the first 3D experiences ever seen on a personal computer. It was also an extremely violent game, pitting the player against a host of enemies depicted as creatures from hell. [12]

The violent nature of Doom and other games was blamed for the 1999 Columbine high school shootings. Opponents of violent games argue that video games desensitize children. They also argue that games such as Doom train them to use weapons and teach them that killing is OK. While lawsuits against game companies were filed, they were ultimately dismissed. [13] Despite this, debates continue today as to the relative merit of games, especially those with violent content.

Violence in games seems to be taking on a new role, however. Some games are beginning to include deep storylines, including moral choices that the player must make. One simple example of this is a game called Passage. [14] Passage is a very low-tech game using very simple graphics written as an entry in a game programming contest. What sets Passage apart is that while it is simple, it seems to contain a powerful message. The game consists of wandering around in a small world. As you move about the world you’re in, you encounter obstacles which you must maneuver around. If you encounter the female character in the game, you become a larger pair which limits your movement, effectively blocking off some areas of the world. Finally, the game only lasts 5 minutes during which your character ages and eventually dies. According to the developer, Passage was written to be a game about life.

Passage is a very low budget, very simplistic game, however, and not many people get a chance to see or play it. For better or worse, it’s the high-budget, mainstream games that get the most attention. But even here, things are beginning to change. In 2009, leaked footage from a high-profile game, Modern Warfare 2, was released. In the footage, the player’s character moved through a highly detailed airport, complete with hundreds of people going through the motions of coming and going. The player held a fully automatic weapon and was traveling through the airport with a number of other companions, all dressed in military garb. Most shocking of all, the player and his companions were shooting into the crowds, tossing grenades, and wreaking havoc. [15]

This footage caused an immediate uproar from the public. The developers defended their position saying that the scenario made sense within the universe of the game. Within the storyline, the player is an undercover agent who has been placed within a terrorist group. The airport scene is played out as an act of terrorism perpetrated by that group. Players are faced with a moral dilemma, having to decide whether the end mission is worth turning a blind eye, or whether they should break cover and attack the terrorists. In the end, the decision is ultimately with the player. It forces the player to think about the situation, often making them feel uncomfortable.

That a set of colored pixels on a screen can make a player feel uncomfortable about a fictional moral dilemma is truly interesting. Technology is being used to provide an ethical situation for someone to solve. If the player makes a “wrong” decision, the computer can help play out that scenario, providing instant feedback for the player without actually harming anyone. Computers can be used, effectively, to teach a player about ethics.

Computers continue to have a wide ranging effect on daily life. They help to make our lives easier in more ways than the average person realizes. And while there are instances where computers and technology in general can be used in negative ways, computers remain an important part of society. Ultimately, computers have provided us with the convenience and comfort we have grown used to having. They have had an overwhelmingly positive effect on society making them a true asset.

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Visions of the Future

The second of three papers written for a computer science class I took recently. You can find the first here. For this second paper, we were directed to project our chosen technology into the future and explain our predictions. I think I was a bit apprehensive with going too far with this, so this is probably a bit tamer than it could be. Over all, though, I think these predictions are at least reasonable and possibly something I may even see within my lifetime.


Today’s entertainment shows a marked progression towards more immersion and realism. As the technology used to provide and enhance entertainment evolves, the ability to provide accurate depictions of previously unattainable events becomes possible. In the past, books and movies relied on the observer’s imagination to fill in any gaps in the story. Newer technology allows artists the ability to realistically generate these scenes, more fully depicting their overall artistic vision. There are numerous benefits to these evolving technologies for many different aspects of daily life.

In the 1999 hit movie, The Matrix, the protagonist, Neo, eventually realizes his full potential and gains the ability to perform superhuman feats. All throughout the movie, seemingly impossible feats are performed with almost no perceptible break in reality. Characters jump from building to building, dodge bullets, and fight with strength unheard of in normal humans. New technology provided the tools used to merge human actors with virtual constructs in a realistic manner. New techniques were used to provide unique viewing angles and sequences such as the stop-motion bullet sequence.

The bullet-time technique was subsequently used by CBS television in the 2001 Superbowl XXXV game. CBS worked with Takeo Kanade, a computer vision expert from Carnegie Mellon University, to develop the technology. [1] Using this technology, CBS was able to provide the viewer a unique look at the game as the camera’s vantage point could be moved, on the fly, at any point during the game. In fact, this new technique allowed referees to correctly uphold a replay challenge, identifying whether or not a player fumbled the ball after passing over the touchdown line. [2] Bullet-time provides what may be a key technology in moving towards real-time 3D broadcasting. Previously, meticulous work was required to generate realistic 3D sequences in movies, and doing this on live television was unheard of.

3D and holographic television has long been a lofty dream of technology enthusiasts. Visions range from standard television-sized displays, capable of displaying three-dimensional movies and sports events to massive room-sized units capable of completely immersing a person in a new world. But televisions capable of 3D imagery are only just starting to appear on the market. At the 2010 International Consumer Electronics Show, a large number of 3D-capable high-definition televisions were announced. [3] These units require the use of 3D glasses to view the images presented. 3D televisions may well prove to be the next “big thing” for tech-savvy consumers, but there is a distinct lack of 3D content available. Additionally, requiring the user to wear a set of 3D glasses during each viewing is going to wear on the users quickly. Until more immersive and accessible technologies are available, widespread adoption of 3D will likely be slow.

The Cave Automatic Virtual Environment, CAVE, is a tentative step in the general direction of more fully immersive 3D technology. Developed at the University of Illinois, the CAVE is a large cube with several screens surrounding the viewer. The system automatically adjusts the perspective displayed by the screens based on the location of the viewer. [4] Images on each screen are projected in 2D. In order to properly view the 3D imagery, special glasses are required. CAVE systems are still very experimental and are most often used by colleges to help students bring their creations to life. Mainstream CAVE use has been slow, but some industries such as the auto industry use CAVE systems to model new car designs. This technology, while immersive, still suffers from inaccessibility. CAVE systems are large, complex systems designed for very specific tasks.

The true “Holy Grail” of immersive projection technologies is holographic. Holographic projection provides the ability to project and view three-dimensional images in real-time without the need for augmentation devices such as glasses. This dream has been on every nerds wishlist since it was described by authors such as Ray Bradbury. The most common example of a full-sized holographic unit is the Holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The holodeck is a futuristic device capable of creating realistic environments in which a person can interact. It is capable more than mere image projection, however. According to Star Trek lore [5], the holodeck can create holographic matter, taking on the texture and other characteristics of real matter. Users can then interact with this matter as they would a “real” object.

Research into Holodeck-style environments is on-going. A paper from researchers at the University of Colorado details a method for bringing such an environment to life. [6] Instead of using holographic matter, their system uses a deformable environment in which a computer molds the world around in real-time. Still, these systems are big and bulky, not something the average consumer is likely to add to their home entertainment system.

Looking further into the future, it is feasible from current trends that more accessible technologies are on their way. Within ten to twenty years, holographic displays will be commonplace in consumer homes. These displays won’t necessarily be what we expect, either. Based on current technology, it would appear that a holographic display would be a large, walled unit with a myriad of cameras and other gear to project the 3D images. What is more likely, however, is that something as simple as a coffee table will be the surface used to bring 3D to life.

As holography becomes more mainstream, it will begin to pop up in more places. Many sci-fi authors envision holographic advertisements as commonplace in futuristic worlds. Combining holographic projection with other technologies leads to some interesting scenarios.

Using image recognition techniques, computers can identify when a person is looking at a specific location. Using information about the person such as height, weight, relative age, skin color, and more, the computer can compile a user profile, placing them into a category of consumer. Additional information such as facial features and gait detection may lead to positive identification of an individual, helping to tailor the categorization even more. With this information, the computer can then determine what that person will most likely be interested in and identify potential advertisements to transmit to the target. Holographic laser emitters can be used to “beam” an advertisement directly into the viewers eye.

Advertising in this manner can provide the target with a highly personalized advertisement, as well as relative privacy. It also prevents popular thoroughfares from becoming a disorganized mass of disjointed holographic projections. Complete industries will rise up around preventing such advertisements from making it to the target, circumventing those technologies, and so on.

Another use of holographic technology is akin to the personal digital assistant, or PDA. As computers become more powerful, their relative size is diminishing. In the future, a small wearable device will potentially contain the equivalent power of a supercomputer. This power can be used to “augment” reality in various ways. Heads-up displays can be displayed inside of glasses, or even projected directly onto the user’s cornea. Displays can provide navigation information while traveling, both on foot and in a vehicle. Users can interact with real-time data such as stock quotes or news. Movies can be displayed, providing the user their own private movie theatre.

Augmented reality devices can also be used to overlay information on the real world. Future businesses will be able to overlay their real-world stores with dynamic, digital information. Imagine walking up to a store and having digitized versions of famous people personally inviting you in. Perhaps a personal assistant will escort you around, providing reviews, alternatives, and pricing. Walk into a fast-food restaurant and you can access a menu overlay, personally tailored for you. The applications for such technology is almost limitless.

Artists can use these same technologies to provide a unique experience for viewers. Instead of sitting down in a theatre, watching the latest blockbuster movie, artists can bring the movie to the viewer. Holographic overlays can be used outside of theaters, inviting viewers to join in the action. More immersive movies can dynamically change the flow of the movie based on viewer actions. Imagine changing the outcome of a movie, purely based on your personal choices.

The future of entertainment technology is bright and full of potential. Artists will be able to use new and exciting tools to bring their visions to life. Movie viewers will be able to interact with the performance, even changing aspects of the story as they see fit. Using these technologies in the consumer space provides similar enhancements to daily life. Information such as navigation and news can be provided directly to the user. And augmented reality can provide new views of the world. Computers are definitely shaping how we see the future.

[1] (2010, March 20). [Online]. Available:
[2] (2010, March 20). [Online]. Available:
[3] (2010, April 6). [Online]. Available:
[4] . Cruz-Neira, D. J. Sandin, T. A. DeFanti, R. V. Kenyon, and J. C. Hart, “The Cave: Audio Visual Experience Automatic Virtual Environment,” Communications of the ACM, 1992.
[5] (2010, April 6). [Online]. Available:
[6] Krunic, V.; Han, R.; , “Towards Cyber-Physical Holodeck Systems Via Physically Rendered Environments (PRE’s),” Distributed Computing Systems Workshops, 2008. ICDCS ’08. 28th International Conference on , vol., no., pp.507-512, 17-20 June 2008


How Did We Get Here

I’ve been taking some courses in Computer Science lately and had the opportunity to take a more ethics-based class this last semester. As part of that class, I had to write a series of papers delving into where computer technology started and where I see it ending up. Ultimately, we had to have a general theme as computer technology can be rather broad. I chose entertainment for my theme, partially as a bit of a challenge to myself, and partially because it can be an interesting field.

Below is the first of the three papers I wrote.

In the beginning, before formal written languages, man told stories. Stories provided news, knowledge, and entertainment. Storytelling was often a group event, with well-known storytellers providing the entertainment through both spoken word and, often, music accompaniment. As time passed, storytelling became more elaborate. Stories were performed in front of audiences, and eventually written down after a formal writing language was developed.

In the late 1800’s, radio was developed. While initially used as a tool for disseminating important information, radio was quickly adapted to provide entertainment for the masses. Both music and stories were broadcast to mass audiences. By the 1920’s, it was not uncommon for families to gather around their radio to listen to the latest broadcast of their favorite program.

In the early 1930’s, the commercialization of television helped to quickly replace radio as the primary source of home entertainment. As with radio, families gathered around the television to watch their favorite program, immersing themselves in their entertainment. With this new medium, entertainers were determined to push the envelope, seeking the very limits of the technology available.

Alongside the development of both radio and television, scientists and mathematicians were progressing towards development of mechanical and, later, electronic computers. Initially, computers were used primarily for calculation. During World War II, computers such as the Colossus were used to break enemy ciphers.

By the late 1950’s, computers were being used at businesses and colleges across the country, primarily for financial calculations. Colleges made computers available to graduate students who used them for research and course work. In many instances, tinkers and hackers gained access to these computers as well. Their goal was not to use the computers as they were intended, but to push the limits of the system and learn as much as they could in the process. Inevitably, the use of computers turned to entertainment as well as utilitarian functions. In 1959, a professor at MIT, John McCarthy, was working on a program for the IBM 704 that would play chess. Some of the grad students working with him devised a program that used a row of lights on the 704 to play a primitive game of Ping Pong. [1]

As computers advanced and moved from rows of lights on a console to integration with video devices, graphical capabilities increased as well. In the early 1960’s, MIT students created interactive graphical programs on the IBM TX-0. Ivan Sutherland created a program called SketchPad which would allow a user to draw shapes on a computer screen using a light pen. Steve Russell created one of the first video games, Spacewar. These programs marked early attempts at using computers for entertainment purposes. [1]

By 1966, Ralph Baer designed a game console called the Brown Box. Magnavox licensed the system and marketed it to the general public in 1972 as The Odyssey. The Odyssey connected to a user’s television and manipulated points of light on the screen. Plastic overlays were used as backgrounds for the games as advanced graphics manipulation was not yet available. [2]

Around the same time that video games were being invented, other computer scientists were working on generating more advanced graphical capabilities for computers. At Cornell in 1965, Professor Donald Greenberg worked with a number of architecture students to develop a computer animated movie about how Cornell was built. Greenberg went on to start the Program of Computer Graphics at Cornell and work on photorealistic rendering. He is considered to be one of the forerunners in the field. [3]

At the University of Utah, Ivan Sutherland, who previously created Sketchpad, joined the Computer Science department and began teaching computer graphics. One of his student, Ed Catmull, would go on to become a pioneer in computer graphics, developing some of the most common graphical techniques used today.

In the early 1970’s, a number of animation studios were formed. Among these were Information International Inc. (Triple I) and Lucasfilm. One of the primary purposes of these new studios was to use computers along with traditional motion picture film. While most of these new studios quickly went out of business, a few, such as Lucasfilm, were quite successful and continue to be innovative today. [4]

In 1973, the movie Westworld was released. This movie marked the first use of Computer Generated Imagery, CGI, in a major motion picture. Technicians at Triple I used digital processing techniques to pixelate a portion of the movie, providing the movie watcher a unique view of one of the main characters, an android. This movie was to be the first of a wave of movies employing computer generated imagery. [5]

Futureworld, the sequel to Westworld, was released in 1976. A scene in Futureworld used a 3D model of a human hand, a model designed and built by Dr. Edwin Catmull while he was a graduate student at the University of Utah. [6] After graduation, he joined the New York Institute of Technology Computer Graphics Lab. Catmull and other researchers at the CGL helped to develop many of the advanced graphics techniques used in todays movies. In 1979, the group started working on the first feature length computer animated movie, The Works. The group worked for 3 years before releasing the first trailer at SIGGRAPH, the Association for Computing Machinery Special Interest Group in Computer Graphics, in 1982. Unfortunately, due to both technical and financial limitations, work on the movie was halted in 1986 and the film was never finished. [7]

George Lucas, a film director and producer, created a new computer graphics division at Lucasfilm in 1979. Dr. Catmull, along with other researchers from NYIT, were among the initial hires. The computer graphics group concentrated on 3D graphics, eventually developing a computer system for Disney and Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) called the Pixar Image Computer. In 1986, Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Inc., purchased the computer graphics department from Lucasfilm. Pixar used their computer to develop a number of movie shorts to show off the capabilities of the system. Ultimately, however, Pixar stopped selling the computer due to slow sales.

Despite problems selling their Image Computer, Pixar was able to generate revenue by creating animated commercials for various companies. Pixar decided that animation was their strong suit and began pursuing an avenue for producing full-length animated films. Their earlier business dealings with Disney allowed them to sign a deal wherein Pixar would create a full-length film and Disney would market and distribute it. Pixar and Disney released the world’s first full-length computer animated movie, Toy Story, in 1995. [8]

While Pixar was developing technology for cartoon rendering, other companies such as Triple I and ILM were developing technologies that could be used in traditional live-action movies. Perhaps one of the most famous “computer” movies, Tron, was released in 1982. Triple I helped to create approximately 15 minutes of computer animation that was used in the movie. [9] In the same year, ILM used fractals, a mathematical technique, to generate a landscaping sequence for the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. [10]

ILM created the digital effects for Terminator 2 in 1991. Several of the sequences in the movie featured a liquid metal humanoid form transforming into several different characters. ILM had to create new techniques for creating realistic humanoid actions such as walking and running. [11]

At the turn of the century, computer graphics has reached a point where so-called hyper-realism is achievable. In 2001, Square Pictures, the computer-animated film division of the Square entertainment company, released Final Fantasy: The Sprits Within. The film featured a lead character, Aki Ross, who was entirely computer generated. Some of the special effects in the film included realistic modeling and animation of hair and facial features. [12]

Computer generated actors and models have been used in recent years for movies, commercials, and even print ads. These realistic characters are used in place of traditional actors for a variety of reasons. While it can take a tremendous amount of time to create a new “actor,” the benefits can easily outweigh the work. CGI actors are predictable and don’t throw tantrums or have trouble remembering lines. Once the major design work has been completed, using a CGI actor is arguably as easy as posing an action figure. [13]

As technology progresses, it is inevitable that we will be able to create even more realistic characters, completely blurring the lines between real and imaginary. One can argue that we have already hit that point with movies such as Avatar, which feature entirely new species and civilizations created entirely out of pixels. But as brilliant as Avatar is, it still relies on human actors to serve as motion capture targets. Even the facial expressions used in Avatar are based on motion captured data from live actors. [14]

It seems, however, that we are quickly approaching a time when even real actors won’t be necessary to create the latest movies and television shows. A time when technology will edge out high paid actors, replacing them with a hard drive full of bits. Bits that can be molded to any role, instantly, without the need to eat or sleep. It means we will have actors who can do all of their own stunts without fear of getting injured or requiring body doubles. In short, it means we can fulfill roles we have never been able to fill before, with relatively inexpensive labor.

Does this mean we will see a shift in the industry as actors move to fill new roles as voices, or even as writers or directors? Or will we see a battle between the real and the imaginary? As was seen in the automotive industry as robots took over human jobs, fear was everywhere. Will the movie industry see this as a negative move, or will they take a queue from workers who shifted from manual labor to technical jobs, in charge of the very robots that threatened to make them obsolete? Either way, technology is changing the way movies are made.

[1] S. Levy, Hackers : Heroes of the Computer Revolution. London: Penguin, 1994.
[2] (2010, February 24). [Online]. Available:
[3] J. Ringen, “Visions of Light,” Metropolis, June, 2002.
[4] D. Sevo. (2010, February 24) History of Computer Graphics. [Online]. Available:
[5] “Behind the Scenes of Westworld,” American Cinematographer, November, 1973.
[6] C. Machover, “Springing into the Fifth Decade of Computer Graphics – Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going!” Siggraph, 1996.
[7] J. C. Panettieri, “Out of This World,” NYIT Magazine, Winter, 2003/2004.
[8] A. Deutschman, The Second Coming of Steve Jobs. New York: Broadway Books, 2000.
[9] R. Patterson, “The Making of Tron,” American Cinematographer, August, 1982.
[10] J. Veilleux, “Special Effects for ‘Star Trek II’: Warp Speed and Beyond,” American Cinematographer, October, 1982.
[11] L. Hu, “Computer Graphics in Visual Effects,” Compcon, 1992.
[12] H. Sakaguchi, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Columbia Pictures.
[13] R. La Ferla, “Perfect Model: Gorgeous, No Complaints, Made of Pixels,” New York Times, May 6, 2001.
[14] B. Robertson, “CG In Another World,” Computer Graphics World, December, 2009.


I can’t believe it’s over …

So, it’s finally over.. The final show was… absolutely incredible. Of course, I’m talking about Battlestar Galactica. If you haven’t seen the finale yet, then stop reading now, go watch BSG at the UN instead. I’m not here to spoil the ending, but I am going to talk about some of the themes and how they tied up some loose ends.

This review is a tad late, but I didn’t get to see the show until Sunday. Thank the gods for DVRs… I was pleasantly surprised when I noticed that the finale was a full two hours. I was afraid that it would only be an hour long and I had no idea how they would tie everything up in an hour. Even more to my amazement, they tied up most of the major loose ends by the end of the first hour. In fact, I had lost track of time and thought that was the end! Obviously, though, it was not.

I had a few questions throughout the show that they wrapped up quite nicely at the end. Both the original series and this new series had Earth as the mythical destination for the thirteenth colony. Based on this, one would assume that this Earth represents the real Earth today, as it did in the original series. So, it was a bit of a shock when they made it to “Earth” and it was a nuclear wasteland. I had a hard time accepting this and wondered how they would pull the series together after destroying the main goal.

Starbuck leading them to their final destination wasn’t much of a surprised based on the build-up to the finale, but the ultimate question about her remained. If she wasn’t a Cylon, then how could she have died, yet come back? And although there was no definitive answer to this question, I think they cleaned it up quite nicely. What made it more interesting, though, was that she questioned her own existence. She didn’t know what she was, making me think that maybe there were more than 12 models of Cylon. Interestingly enough, that would make her the thirteenth model.. Ah, magic 13.

The final big battle was very exciting. Galactica proved that she could take a serious beating and still complete her mission. Just as impressive was the ability of the crew to plot a jump that landed them directly next to the Cylon colony, keeping them in the same stable orbit around the singularity that the colony was in.

The CGI effects were spectacular. The ship to ship battle lit up the sky with laser and missile fire, explosions, and eventually squadrons of fighters going head to head. Inside, the early model Cylons sped through the corridors, blazing away at each other. They spared nothing putting these sequences together.

One part of the final sequences did bother me, though. In the end, Cyril commits suicide, seemingly for no reason. For someone so determined to live and bring forward a method of survival for his people, he gave up very rapidly. Ronald Moore, one of the producers and writers, explained this as a realization of futility. I’m not sure I buy that, but it doesn’t detract much from the overall story.

I loved the ending, though. Jumping ahead in time, landing right in Times Square with Six and Baltar was incredible. The various videos of robotics breakthroughs all over the screens was a nice touch. It definitely makes one think about the future, what may be possible, and what the consequences of those possibilities may be. I think we have an excellent chance at creating a true AI, and maybe it can all go wrong. In the end, will it be worth it to try?