From the director’s notes:
More About “System Error”: Every day, George works his job at a dingy convenience store, desperately hoping for a friend – but George is also an immobile robotic service unit, and immobile robotic service units do not have friends. When human customer Sid tries to tell George a joke, the simple robot is baffled. So, he sets about editing his code to learn how to laugh…
Review: It’s 54 years after an alien invasion and the world is dominated by advanced robotic technology. Everything seems run by robots, including a local convenience store in Australia where everything is under the control of a “warden.” Nothing appeals to the human eye.
The “service unit” robot appears to know — in response to chaffing from a customer — quite a bit about itself and so decides to edit its own program.
The edit scenes, involving code, are both authentic and a lot of fun. What’s not so fun for robot “George” is that the ability to tell a joke is part of a human culture that it does not belong to. Cue shocked faces… and perhaps the inevitable ending.
An agreeable story, well told. But it belongs in the “magic as science fiction” category. We are not told at first how the robot knows anything about “itself.” That’s called “metacognition” (= observing what you know instead of just acting on what you know). It is one part of the mystery or, if you like, the The Hard Problem of consciousness.
A dog, for example, has consciousness but probably not much metacognition. He chases cars because he likes it. A human — who can have plenty of metacognition — might stop and ask, “But why am I chasing cars anyway? Why don’t I get a licence, buy a car, and drive it?” There is no evidence that robots, on their own, can have either consciousness or metacognition.
We can certainly endow a robot with metacognition as an exercise of the storyteller’s power and will, perhaps by making the robot an avatar of a human (which is implied in this story). That works but then a whole lot is going on in there that isn’t robotics.
Never mind, the dull, dystopian atmosphere of an Australia dominated by robots is well done and worth the watch. (Language warning)
Other reviews from the “We are but DUST” files:
Sci-fi Saturday: Can an alternative universe save a lonely girl?A girl finds fighting space aliens easier than fighting a brain haemorrhage and a sense of guilt. CARONTE ends as it must — not happily but inevitably, and with at least some sense of redemption.
Sci-fi Saturday: “This planet is not in our co-ordinates.” A space courier crew gets a surprise when delivering a mysterious machine to a strange planet. One could almost see something like “McPherson’s Toys” happening, as an office gag, but 500 years from now.
Sci-fi Saturday: A future where dreams have been privatized Unfortunately, the dream Carlos wants in “I Dream” is to see his missing family again and that’s illegal … More dystopia than science fiction but the post-5G surveillance environment amid mass poverty and oppression is well imagined.
Sci-fi Saturday: What if sweet sleep were a distant memory? In a world going mad in “Don’t Forget To Remember” and dying from insomnia, a young woman may have a cure. The big challenge in writing about insomnia is not to be a cure for it. From the harrowing opening scene on, this film certainly clears that bar.
Sci-Fi Saturday: When virtual friends are a real addiction Animated short “Best Friends” begins with the thirtieth birthday party of a rather glum young man. As is the way with addicts, our hero cannot use his futurist fix for loneliness responsibly and ends up doing desperate things.
Sci-Fi Saturday: Watch what you wish for. There IS a tomorrow! Carl, a lonely guy, is determined to proceed through the warning and try the Luvsik procedure, to make him fall in love at first sight. The short film features strong performances by Momo Dione and Samantha Lester, and the surprise ending avoids cliché.
Sci-Fi Saturday: We have met the aliens and they are… comb jellies. The alien life form, when it appears in “Seedling,” is very well imagined. Definitely watch it for the sense of isolation when our technology bubble evaporates and for the “comb jelly” space alien.
Sci-fi Saturday: The disabled robot vet in “A Robot Is a Robot” gets a job grooming cats. Definitely worth your five minutes, in part in order to see what cartoonists can do in sci-fi with animated stills. In a research paper, Max Planck scientists concluded that it is not possible to hobble the danger from intelligent AI. This film offers a good illustration.
Sci-fi Saturday: A girl with kinetic powers faces a choice. Should she help relatives with activities she knows to be wrong? “Kinetic” is well executed but it breaks a fundamental rule of science fiction: There must be a clear science basis for the story premise.
Sci-fi Saturday: An asteroid lingers near Earth and devours time Or, at any rate, it devours our perception of time, as one man discovers in “Flyby.” As the asteroid Chrono-7 hazes Earth, a man wakes up in the morning to find that he is living in his future, one he had never imagined.
Sci-fi Saturday: In “This Time Away,” a robot helps an old fellow rediscover life The robot is very well done and how he gets a name is charming. Lots of people abandon their elderly relatives, of course, so finding a helpful robot in the back yard is a pleasant fantasy.
Sci-fi Saturday: What if an old man could see his mother again? “Bygone” is a hard film to watch if you lost a loved one, but worthwhile. The old man is paying to use his own memories, retrieved via neuroscience imaging.
Sci Fi Saturday: A fight for the winning ticket In “Here comes Frieda,” in a 2040 superstorm, engulfing the planet, a young woman gets hold of a ticket out. But does the way out really exist? Or is she just hanging on and clinging to a fragile hope?
Sci Fi Saturday: Terrified by a Scrap Monster Well, if you have never been terrified by a Scrap Monster, as in “Pinki.” you are clearly missing out. It’s fun watching a middle class South Korean business executive try to cope with the Scrap Monster. Perhaps an allegory of our big environment issues.
Sci Fi Saturday: What if there were serious wars over clouds? In a world that still has technology but is desperately short of water, such wars could happen. The short sci-fi film “Oceanmaker” features pirates who steal precious water from the clouds and a pilot who challenges them
Sci Fi Saturday: Can video games save a lone survivor? “High Score” features fine animations of apocalyptic scenes of post-civilization. The “game” that turns out to be an existential struggle usually benefits from a longer treatment but the animation is well imagined.
Sci Fi Saturday: Can a Robot Find a Better Planet Than Earth? The trouble is, the robot in “Avarya” is governed by Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics. After 55 habitable planets, the—by then very old—fellow is beginning to suspect something about the robot’s judgment…
Sci Fi Saturday: “Kiko”: A great short but key questions unanswered A lonely retail service robot longs for a world beyond her store. An agreeable short but it never addresses the question of how Charlie acquired a robot that would “want” something different from its programming.
Sci-fi Saturday: What if next-stage evolution children appear? “Vikaari,” a sci-fi short from Sri Lanka looks at the possibilities. The story is very well done as a parable of the social risks of continuous internal warfare.
Sci-Fi Saturday: Can parents get back a dead child as an android? In “Article 19-42,” they aren’t even united in their grief; they just think they must “do something” to get back a facsimile of what they remember. They have no philosophical or spiritual resources to fall back on in order to avoid this dead end.
Sci-Fi Saturday film: The robot tries to learn about grief In “Rewind,” an elderly woman buys a robot to help her when she finds herself all alone, due to tragedy. Investigating the woman’s unhappiness, the robot discovers more than it was, perhaps, intended to know.
Sci-Fi Saturday film: “Speed of Time” at DUST: A computer nerd writing a pizza delivery program discovers that his work is way more important than he, or anyone, thought. Imagine what happens when an accomplished ground warrior busts in from another time on a quiet family at the breakfast table…
Sci-Fi Saturday film: “Alone” at DUST. Space engineer Kaya Torres, the only survivor of a black hole, contacts an “interstellar penpal” to keep her company until she dies. She manages a desperate escape but then experiences one of the astonishing implications of time travel.
Sci-Fi Saturday film: “The Beacon” at DUST. Refreshingly realistic, especially the harrowing Arctic encounter where the grieving husband finds out what really happened. Not to be missed is Mark’s encounter with the bureaucrat from hell.
Sci-fi Saturday film: Rescuing lost people. Animated, in French, with English subtitles, but don’t let that deter you. The professional relationships in “Protocole Sandwich” sound pretty real and make it worth the watch. The animation is very good.