UCLA scientist consults with filmmakers to help create movie magic

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Paul Weiss

Professor Paul Weiss was interviewed by digital news magazine Mashable about his early contributions to the newly released movie Terminator Genisys.

The film is the fifth installment in the Terminator franchise. It follows a soldier in the war against an artificial general intelligence seeking to destroy the human race.

The collaboration with Paramount Pictures was set up by the Science Entertainment Exchange, a center of the National Academy of Sciences and the Directors’ Guild of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, which has its home at the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) at UCLA. The Science Entertainment Exchange links entertainment professionals with top scientists & engineers to bring cutting-edge science to creative storylines for movies, TV shows, and games. 

Prof. Weiss, an expert on nanoscience, nanotechnology, and motion at the atomic scale, has also consulted on several other projects. When consulting, scientists and engineers talk with filmmakers broadly about current and future technologies to help generate ideas and to discuss what exists or could exist that could eventually be used as a basis, touchstone, or simply launching-off point for one or more of the conceits of the story.

Excerpt from Mashable (by Josh Dickey):

To further push our understanding of how a malevolent technology might manifest, the Genisys filmmakers recruited leading-edge scientists via the UCLA Science and Entertainment Exchange, which connects consultants with filmmakers across all disciplines.

They included neuroscientist Ricardo Gil da Costa, whose specialty is brain/machine interfacing; and nanotechnology wizard Paul Weiss, a foremost expert on mechanics at an atomic scale.

What they came up with was the new John Connor: A human/machine hybrid who can control his form on a molecular level. He retains the memories, decision-making acumen and emotional vocabulary of his human form, yet gains the fully-wired omniscience and ability to assemble and dis-assemble on the smallest possible scale.

Terminator Thm

Malevolent robot in Terminator Genisys (Paramount Pictures)

These are things that, for better or worse, Gil da Costa and Weiss are actually working on — and succeeding in creating — right now. And they swear they’re not trying to take over the world.

“Development is sort of agnostic to being good or bad,” Gil da Costa told Mashable. “We’re looking at possibilities.”

Movies treat technology as a force of darkness, he says, because that makes dramatic narratives — what goes wrong is much more interesting than what goes right. But as new technologies emerge, so do levels of understanding about how to keep them working for us.

“The way it is in the movies is always going to look pretty bad,” he said. “This field is somewhat of a new field, called neuroethics, which is ethics as it relates to neuroscience. It has its pitfalls just like genetic engineering. I wouldn’t be as pessimistic, as say, Elon Musk, because we are raising those concerns.”

Weiss’ field is looking at controlling what he calls “the smallest switches and motors in the world” — at the molecular and atomic level. That field includes creating synthetic molecules “where we know where every atom is.” It’s not particularly new; that level of nano-control is taking place in whatever screen you happen to be looking at right now, just for starters.

Weiss’ involvement began with a wide-ranging discussion at Paramount about “self-assembly,” the way that tiny pieces assemble themselves to form structures. “Biology does that now,” he told Mashable. “Coding through our DNA programs the production of proteins, which are further modified by machinery we have in us.”

Weiss and Gil da Costa’s work has a wide range of applications, from cochlear implants that restore hearing to brain stimulation in paralysis victims and the ability to move robot arms with brain waves. Those applications just happen to include creating more sinister things … but only for the movies.

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