Sunday, 16 March 2014

Ender's Game and the STEM Crisis

Ender's Game feels like a super-cut of itself - relentlessly focused on completion. I'm presuming that pace is meant to mirror the story's sleep deprived timeline. However, it may well leave the viewer unconvinced of various (particularly social) leaps in the protagonist's (arrow straight) story arc.
Harry Potter in space? I was quickly reminded far more of The Methods of Rationality. No coincidence - Orson Scott Card's novel must certainly have had huge influence on the later and my enjoyment of the zero-g training matches was largely borrowed fire from scenes in Eliezer Yudkowsky's fan-fic subversion.
Screen Grab from Ender's Game (2013)
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) was another story about a perfectly Machiavellian intellect (Cumberbatch's type-cast). Well, 'competence porn' has long had strong audience appeal: witness the popularity of detective and forensic TV drama series. But, more interestingly, this theme mirrors a very real issue in contemporary society: as our technologies advance in complexity they demand ever greater levels of abstraction.

The Social Network (2010) would be a third movie example, while The real Mark Zuckerberg can certainly feel the pinch of contemporary cognitive workplace requirements, whittling down the pool of potential employees. Hence lobbying for immigration of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates.


Technical degrees have long been falling out of fashion with aspiring students in the most economically advanced nations. But the trendy tech giants could still easily fill their rosters with home grown youngsters a hundred times over. The real shortage is in highest end, elite talent (for the right price?). Standing on the shoulders of giants got us this far, but increasingly you need actual giants too; a stack of moderately stout minds can eventually reach loftier heights together, but such assemblages are too clumsy for the rapidity of contemporary change.

I'm skeptical of great man theory, seeing civilisation's overall progress mostly described by inevitable memetic evolution. Or Kurzweil's S-curve paradigms and smooth exponential plots. But it does seem inevitable that an ever smaller population percentage will be responsible for our most essential strides into the future. Like an inside out big bang, we may be moving, from a normality where individual's haphazard behaviour is smoothed out to virtual homogeneity (by weight of numbers), into a wildly turbulent landscape: a single whim (or quantum fluctuation) will be writ large across our future (like the largest scale features of CMB).

Also, Ender and Kahn are fictional examples of genius intrinsic to an individual: apparently embedded in their (augmented) genetics, etc. But even the fastest learner must construct their mental concepts from trial, error and example. E-sports (like League of Legends events) are dominated by youngsters with quick reactions, still at university (sometimes school). But they also have years of relevant gaming experience behind them too, and thousands of hours of practise (often with their teams). They are playing each move from a mental look-up table of past situations and successful actions. Inventing brand new tactics via inductive logic is not for the heat of battle.
Screen Grab from Ender's Game (2013) - too much for one child?
To further criticise this aspect of plot plausibility: reality is very commonly anti-intuitive (hence the need for scientific experimentation); logical reasoning might actually be a skill developed primarily to persuade others and win arguments. But even with a true, fundamental grasp of a system's idiosyncrcies, the accuracy of any predictions is also limited by the white noise of chaos:
'Sma' the ship said finally, with a hint of what might have been frustration in its voice, 'I'm the smartest thing for a hundred light years radius, and by a factor of about a million… but even I can't predict where a snooker ball's going to end up after more than six collisions.'
-Iain M Banks, State of the Art (1991).

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