Sick on a Sunday

How Generative Grammar Doomed the Twelve Colonies of Kobol!

I’ve been trying very hard to enjoy SyFy’s Battlestar Galactica spin off series Caprica. It has a few moments of genuine brilliance, such as a gorgeous shot of the first Cylon in the twelve worlds hugging a childhood friend. It also possesses two male leads, Eric Stoltz and Esai Morales, who shine in their roles. Unfortunately the main plot threads of the series tend to be bogged down by a handful of sluggish side plots that struggle to approach anything approximating engaging. That all changed while I was watching Episode 7 this week as two extremely nerdy facets of my life collided on screen.

Behold, Jane Espenson!

What do I have in common with this lady? I definitely was not one of the head writers on Battlestar Galactica, and last time I checked I also wasn’t one of the head writers and executive producers of Caprica. Well according to the ever infallible Wikipedia, Jane Espenson, like myself, studied Linguistics in college. Now her focus wasn’t on generative-grammar, but no Linguistics undergrad manages to receive an education in the field without acquiring at least a shallow understanding of generative grammar. In a Cylon goo bath nutshell the theory of generative grammar stipulates that the unlimited variety of sentences which human beings are capable of generating derive themselves from a finite set of rules within our brains. These rules determine what the structure of a sentence can and cannot consist of.

How does that relate back to Caprica? I’m glad you asked! (minor spoilers ahead)

Through a series of events in the pilot episode of the series a virtual reality avatar of Daniel Graystone’s (Eric Stoltz) deceased daughter, Zoey Graystone, is downloaded into the MCP (Meta Cognitive Processor, or brain) of his Cylon prototype. The Cylon performs admirably in a demonstration for the Caprican Defense Ministry, winning Daniel’s corporation a lucrative contract for an army of Cylons. Things don’t go as planned however, as every single copy of the MCP fails to produce a functioning Cylon soldier when placed inside of a Cylon chassis. Graystone finds himself in a real bind, with his company hemorrhaging profits he can ill afford to lose the Caprican military contract.

Here is where my studies run smack dab into the plot of my extremely nerdy choices in television viewing. In episode 7 the digital copy of Zoey finds herself on a virtual reality date with one of Graystone’s robotics engineers. It would take a lot of text to explain, but long story short the engineer does not know that the avatar he is out on a date with in virtual reality land is actually inside of the Cylon he spends all day tooling up. He thinks he is merely out on a date with a super cute computer nerd who lives somewhere out there on Caprica. So I’m watching all of this and feeling less than gripped by virtual Zoey’s lamenting of the lack of aesthetic variety in virtual trees, when suddenly she launches into this little diddy:

“That’s just it, that’s not the way to do it. Living systems use generative algorithms. With a generative model, the system would use a basic generative kernel of a tree and POW an infinite variety of tree like trees!”

Upon hearing this Graystone’s employee realizes that what’s missing from the other Cylons is a similar generative model in the MCPs. What’s needed is a finite set of rules from which an infinite number of unique artificial intelligences can be born.

Watching this, and knowing that the head writer and scriptwriter of Caprica is a student of linguistics herself was a virtual nerd overload. With the terms she used in the scene, and the general idea that was being proposed to solve the problem of the malfunctioning Cylon AI, there was no doubt in my mind that Espenson had to have drawn the inspiration for that scene from her studies in linguistics.

That my friends, is how the theory of generative-grammar doomed the Twelve Colonies of Kobol.

-Eric

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