The Matrix

Posted by Rezwan Razani on Oct 30, 2011 at 12:01 PM
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Author: Andy and Lana Wachowski

“The Matrix” movies have an odd take on energy conservation.  Apparently, humans “shut off the sun” by darkening the skies with permanent ink.  So permanent that even after hundreds of years the sun can’t penetrate it.

As Morpheus says:

We don’t know who struck first, us or them. But we do know it was us that scorched the sky. At the time, they were dependent on solar power. It was believed they would be unable to survive without an energy source as abundant as the sun.

Photosynthesis Rules

What we gather from the plot of the Matrix is that there was a war, humans against machines.  This war apparently destroyed all energy infrastructure. So far, so good. I can see this putting machines at a disadvantage and making life inconvenient for people - sending them back to the pre-machine ages.  The next step, in which HUMANS get rid of the SUNLIGHT to weaken the machines is totally absurd.  Any scenario in which machines are more dependent on solar power than people is absurd. 

Getting rid of sunlight eliminates anything that uses photosynthesis, or has photosynthesis in the food chain.  This is pretty much most life on earth.  With people dead from massive starvation and freezing temperatures, the machines could still run quite handily first by burning the dead biomass as a fuel source to run power plants, and then rapidly getting fossil fuel and nuclear infrastructure back up and running.  The machines from the Matrix seem capable of advanced feats of technology.  They can farm human beings and place them in pods.  Why not go for the simpler energy infrastructure reboot.  They wouldn’t have the same environmental concerns of burning fossil fuels or fears of nuclear radiation.  It would be a piece of cake for them to jumpstart their infrastructure. 

If, for some reason, fossil or nuclear fuel is not available (an unimaginable scenario, gas and oil reserves keep being discovered and fission technology is still quite young) and fusion isn’t discovered, the machines still have an advantage when you knock out the sun on earth.  They can relocate to space and soak up some sun out there.  They don’t need the sun to hit the earth to survive.

The only entities completely screwed in this scenario are biological.  Never mind energy, without sunlight on earth, we have no life. 

This whole premise is beyond ridiculous.  (”That’s what they want you to think”.).  I felt sure they would modify it in the next few movies, but they only re-iterated it. 


Let’s play along with the Matrix.  Say there is no fossil or nuclear fuel left, and the machines lack the creativity to harvest solar energy from space.  Instead, they come up with a much more complicated scheme of designing “The Matrix” to stimulate human thought for the purpose of producing electricity to feed the machines.  This energy backstory is, indeed, the operating contrivance that gives the machine antagonists in the story no choice but to recycle human beings and use their brains as batteries. 

The question is, what is the energy return on energy invested (ERoEI) of a “human thought battery” driven power plant?

Less than zero, I suspect.  Talk about an energy supply in need of massive subsidy and baseload backup capacity.  This plant would operate with a rapid downward spiral in output. Just as attempting to grow food indoors on an industrial scale is fundamentally impractical (some would say delusional) farming people as a source of energy - with no other source of energy - is likewise pointless.

And these people in the pods are being fed other people in a black goo.  Aside from energy loss, cannibalism leads to brain disease and early death.  Cows being fed ground up cow get mad cow disease, people eating human brains get something similar called kuri kuri. We would expect that after a steady diet of black intravenous human goo, these pod people would eventually all go mad, have hallucinations and drop dead.  Dead people don’t think, and it was their thinking that supplied the energy - per the script - so there, again, goes that plot device. 

Film special effects bonus: as the Matrix citizens die of kuri kuri mad cow disease, many have the frightening hallucinations that come with the disease, giving the Matrix a visually fascinating finale. 

Fuzzy Logic

“OK,” You say, “The energy angle is absurd.  But there wouldn’t be a movie without the people being in those pods, so we’ll just have to suffer the premise and not ask too many questions.” 

Don’t be lazy.  There are plenty of plot-worthy reasons why advanced machines would be motivated to harvest human beings in pods and contrive a fake world for them to interact in.  Energy is the worst of these reasons.  Computational enhancement or experimentation is a more likely reason.  They could be seeking extra lateral and metaphoric computational capacity.  This could be an AI issue.  A merger of biological and artificial brains.  The “energy” angle is not only laughable, it’s completely unnecessary.  The AI angle has more to explore.

Pass the Popcorn

The moral of the story is that if you’re looking to Hollywood for breathtaking visions of human possibility to guide us into the future and to help us solve problems, you’re looking in the wrong place. The function of movies is to tell a good story and generate drama. So filmmakers are more likely to come up with contrivances that create problems rather than explore practical solutions.

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