ENGINEERING NEWS

Malcolm MacIver Works as Script Consultant for New Show 'Caprica'

In the reimagined TV series Battlestar Galactica, a group of robotic Cylons destroyed human civilization and chased the remaining survivors in their search for a mythical place called Earth.

Now, a new television series called Caprica is bringing viewers back in time 58 years before the attack to tell the story of how humans first created the Cylons.

And who better to help them than robotics expert Malcolm MacIver?

MacIver, assistant professor of biomedical and mechanical engineering, is a technical script consultant for the show, which premieres Friday, Jan. 22 on the Syfy channel.

MacIver first tested his Hollywood chops last year when he helped consult on a script for Tron Legacy — a sequel to the 1980s cult classic Tron, in which computer programmers are transported inside a computer to battle a dictator-like Master Control program.

MacIver got involved with the movie through a program called the Science and Entertainment Exchange, which aims to connect top scientists and engineers with writers, producers and directors in the entertainment industry to "help bring the reality of cutting-edge science to creative and engaging storylines." The producers of Caprica found MacIver through the exchange.

"They were looking for somebody who could be a good tech consultant in areas like artificial intelligence, robotics, and neuroscience," MacIver says — which is right up his alley. MacIver's research is in the analysis of animal intelligence using three approaches: mechanics and robotics for understanding the ways in which the body contributes to adaptive behavior; neuroscience for understanding the body's control system; and computational modeling for constructing neuromechanical simulations.

So since July, the show has sent MacIver each episode's script. His input has spanned from brainstorming with writers to tweaking dialogue — if a character was taking apart a robot, he gave them the technical terms for robot parts. He also helped with accuracy: in one instance, he gave the writers a more up-to-date algorithm for characters to use and reference. The show also jumps between reality and virtual reality, and MacIver suggested conceptual ideas to help frame those jumps.

MacIver has dealt with what is called the "white draft" — the initial production draft — so he doesn't get to see if his suggestions are implemented (though he knows at least some are, as they are reflected in later scripts.)

"It's been really exciting," he says. "These are excellent, top-notch writers that I'm dealing with, and they really have great ideas." For MacIver, the gig offers another way to bring scientific concepts and ideas to the public.

"This has the potential to improve science literacy in an indirect but powerful way," he says. "A lot of people shut down when they see a scientist lecturing. Rather than fight that, we want to improve the quality of science in movies and TV, and I'm really excited to have a hand in that."

While consulting for one script, MacIver explained the concept of generative algorithms to the show's writers. Generative algorithms are inspired by nature--- in particular, the concept of genes (and their rules of expression)--- and are used to design complex structures that have more organic realism than traditional algorithms for constructing objects.

"It ended up being a few lines in couple of episodes," he says, "But a viewer might go look it up and try to learn more."

MacIver himself is eager to see how the show turns out and how the scripts are translated on the small screen.

"The fans of Battlestar Galactica are going to find a show that is exciting dramatically, just as BSG was, and they are going to see a show that also has interesting concepts and thought-provoking ideas," he says. "I think it's going to be good."

- Emily Ayshford