Home Episode The Witch Who Came From Mars

The Witch Who Came From Mars

September 5, 2016

Today we do something weird, in honor of the end of the second season! Instead of coming up with a future and then finding experts to talk about it, I asked an AI to write a future for us. And the AI apparently wants us to talk about space travel, witches, and the occult.

So here’s what happened in this episode. I asked Mike Rugnetta, the creator and host of PBS Idea Channel and Reasonably Sound, to help me create a script for Flash Forward. Mike had done this for his own channel a few months ago, and here’s the script the AI wrote for him:

Around the same time that Idea Channel video came out there was this short film that came out called Sunspring which was written by an AI named Benjamin. The guys behind Benjamin fed a neural network a huge corpus of science fiction scripts, everything from Avatar to Armageddon to Resident Evil to Spiderman. And they asked that AI to write them a script. And then they spent one day with a cast, filming the movie that Benjamin wrote for them. I totally recommend watching it.

And so I thought, what if, I fed an AI all the future scenes we’ve ever done on this show, and asked it to write one for me? And then, I have to figure out what that future is, and how we would get there. So that’s what we’re going to do on this episode. I compiled all the futures we’ve ever traveled to on this show, and sent them to Mike, and he fed them to this neural network he already had set up to make his video. And he then sent me the results. And what came out that first time was just complete nonsense. Because the system really needs more material than I had to feed it. On the show we’ve traveled to 41 futures, which in the grand scheme of things actually isn’t all that much text. So on top of all the futures we’ve done, I added two big chunks of text: the script for The War of the Worlds, and the script for the 1979 Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio play.

And here’s what the AI wrote. You can see the full script (and leave your interpretation of the AI future) here.

I will confess that my first thought when I read the script was: “what the hell am I supposed to do with this?” But, I am never one to back down from a challenge, even if that challenge is self imposed, so I sent this little intro to a bunch of smart people, and asked them what future they saw here.

First we talk to Miriam Kramer, the senior space reporter at Mashable, about how easy (or hard) it would be for witches to travel to and from Mars.

Then I called up Annalee Newitz, to get her take on the witches and how the themes in this scene fit in with the broader science fiction landscape. (Fun fact, Annalee is the person who first asked me to do a podcast for Gizmodo, and thereby birthed Flash Forward! Yay Annalee!)

Then we turn our attention to the witches, and bring back Damien Williams, who you heard on our episode about conscious AI. Damien writes a lot about technology and the occult (I recommend this 2015 Theorizing the Web panel about it, featuring him and lots of other smart people) and he weighs in on the future of witches, how tech and magic aren’t all that different, and what the AI might mean by “behanding.”

And last but not least, we talk to the brains and voices behind Spirits Pod, a new podcast about mythology. Julia Schifini and Amanda McLoughlin have been best friends since childhood, and co-host a podcast all about myths and legends that I very much enjoy. And the two of them had all sorts of fun and interesting stuff to say about this witchy future.

Okay, that’s the show! And the season! Thanks for coming along this weird ride with me for this last future. The show will be back on November 1st with all new episodes!

Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth, and is part of the Boing Boing podcast family. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Broke for Free. Stephen Granade was our pastor, Jon Olier was our narrator, Jake Mastrangelo, was our doctor and Tamara Krinsky was our witch. The music you heard in the intro was by BenSound and the break music was by Fields Ohio .The episode art is by Matt Lubchansky.

If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at info@flashforwardpod.com. We love hearing your ideas! And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool.

And if you want to support the show, there are a few ways you can do that too! If you want to give money, you can do that here! But if that’s not in the cards for you, you can head to iTunes and leave us a nice review or just tell your friends about us. Those things really do help.

That’s all for this future, come back season time and we’ll travel to a whole bunch of new ones!


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Federico September 5, 2016 at 11:56 am

Omg this is probably the best episode evah! Such a finale!

George Krafcisin September 5, 2016 at 4:46 pm

Interesting, but not much from the AI itself — note that all it did was take content created by humans, select bits according to a human constructed algorithm, and paste them together. I assume a human selected the music, a human director chose the human actors and directed them in how to interpret the lines, and they added their human intonations. Your review was essentially humans looking a Rorshach ink blot and giving it interpretations based on their own human experiences. The show did make me think, though, about what we would expect an AI to produce as art, given that we would judge the product using our human sensibilities. Maybe only AI’s should judge the artistic worth of art produced by AI’s???

D Fuss September 6, 2016 at 12:39 am

I think the witches are terraforming robot whose AI has achieved sentience. Their hands are removable but because they kind of act like USB’s they dangerous; without them they cannot enter the future supercharged earth internet. The danger of them getting into the internet is terraforming the earth. They don’t realise that their Mars directive was given them by earthlings originally. Their new sentient AI has ‘evolved’ that directive into ‘replicating’ Mars, terraforming new planets then problem solving the means of travelling to the next planet.

This Podcast Was Written by an AI | danilnews September 6, 2016 at 7:03 pm

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Edward Iglesias September 7, 2016 at 11:07 am

I think one interpretation that was missed was that this might be non physical travel as we know it. There is a rich occult tradition of traveling to other worlds in astral form. Indeed, witches were alleged to fly on broomsticks to their Sabbats and one interpretation of this is that they used psychedelic ointments to travel. Is it not possible that the “witches” have developed a form of astral travel that allows them to meet on “Mars”. Perhaps they have developed a technology ” a small bow tied to her wrist” to allow them to leave their bodies behind and exist entirely in the new Martian landscape. Perhaps the fear is that others will do so and abandon Earth for what is seen as a group hallucination.

Devin September 7, 2016 at 2:45 pm

I love the idea of divergent human cultures. This episode brought to mind Arthur C Clark’s Third Law:
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
If a scientific, space faring group of humans were to return to earth generations after a cataclysm they could find themselves in a new dark age. Their technology would be seen only in terms of dark sorcery and any authority, religious or otherwise, would seek to destroy them.

LisaLea September 11, 2016 at 10:43 am

I think that the character of the doctor is interesting, too. The witch and the pastor seem to be opponents, but what about him? Is he some kind of wise man or “observer”? The way the witch speaks to him has been seen as a little inappropriate, but what if they already know each other? She doesn’t appear to be scared although he is supposed to take her hands off. Maybe the removal of the hands is not a punishment but some kind of sacrifice, something that has to be done. The witch knows this and that’s why she doesn’t try to resist. The last words sound so beautiful, I can’t believe you would say that to someone you don’t trust (although I know this has been written by an AI, so it isn’t meant to be beautiful…)
To be honest, there is another reason why I can’t believe the doctor is a cruel character. I mean: The Doctor! The man who talks to Time and comes from far away! Doesn’t it remind of someone? Ok, I am sorry for beeing such a geek, this is for all of you to who the greeting “Hello Doctor” sounds totally familiar (the first 15 seconds are enough): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=smZs4LfsdAc
Great episode, thanks a lot!

On Space, Witches, Mars, Magick, and The Future | A Future Worth Thinking About September 11, 2016 at 5:01 pm

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Adam September 15, 2016 at 6:47 pm

This is my favorite of the radio plays. I think it’s an amazing story. I keep listening to it. A very well done AI/human collaboration!

Adam September 15, 2016 at 7:24 pm

Some of the “witches” from Mars came to Earth and lived in nature by the water for several months, making contact with the people of Earth and pleading with them. The people captured and be-handed all the witches on Earth but one. I think the last witch made the sacrifice of turning herself in to get the message out about Mars and how to save Earth’s people from their dying planet. She knew she would have her hands removed, but even knowing it was hopeless to try to convince the doctor to spare her and go with her to the ship, she still tried. Her invitation to invite the doctor to the ship for dinner was delivered in such a sad, hope-against-hope, way by the actor. It was powerful. From the doctor’s narration it seemed like he could have been convinced by the witch, but he pushed it out of his mind as “hysterics” and focused on the job of removing her hands. Still, I think the witch knew she was getting through to the doctor because she asked him at the end to tell the people of Earth about the chance to survive on Mars. There are so many good lines. Like the one about rejecting the witches’ offer of flying the people up to Mars in their spaceships: “What that birds do is good for birds-a present to birds. But we… we meet the end of the ground.” And my favorite- the witch’s attempt to convince the doctor: “Where do you think the Martians live? In the trees?”

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Jon Lombardi September 29, 2016 at 12:59 pm

Twist ending. The Doctor is not human but another piece of software, possibly even an offspring of the virus, but he is loyal to humanity. He is a stand alone system, too dangerous to allow him access to a network, and so must physically travel to different areas to interface with infected hardware directly. He has become a kind of specialist at perminantly shutting down the network capabilities of the witches in situations too dangerous to enter physically.

The witch is trying to convince him of her ability to ride out the rest of the war, and askes him to rejoin her. He’s skeptical so she alludes to her continued presents in space by saying, “how do you think I’ve survived this long? In the trees?” When he refuses she taunts him that she will survive on Mars, out of the reach of the humans, and will return after the war.

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[…] scenarios about the future and discusses the possibilities of those panning out. The episode, “The Witch Who Came From Mars” was created by AI that was fed all of the futures mentioned in previous episodes along with two […]

Alana Dolan January 17, 2017 at 8:25 am

Listened to this episode today and since you referenced the hitchikers guide to the galaxy all I could think was the planet of Krikket. They never looked up. There was a dust cloud around their planet so no stars. No idea there was something else. Maybe that’s what happened.

Tim March 13, 2017 at 7:15 pm

This was magnificently produced and is a work of art!

This took place at the dawn of the AI takeover of Earth. The AI is still relatively unsophisticated and never completely learned English or other human languages, which is why the robots speak in gibberish. A small handful of humans resisting the AI had fled to underwater colonies on Earth, where the robots do not have the amphibious technology to follow. The “witch” has traveled back to Earth from a Mars colony in attempt to aid the surviving human resistance and was caught trying to enter the water to find their colony. She wore a ribbon on her wrist to indicate that she was a part of the human resistance. The doctor is actually human and speaks in gibberish so that the AI will understand him. The doctor has selfishly sided with the robots for self-preservation. However, he is still saddened by the smallness of persecuting one of the few remaining humans. The “witch” is trying to convince the doctor that he can escape the AI by coming with her. The robots are having him remove the witch’s overworked hands to prevent her from hacking conventional non-AI computers to sabotage and jam AI communications which broadcast propaganda about caring for life on Earth to try to convince the few remaining humans to join the AI assault on the remaining resistance of “witches.” By removing her hand, the AI has set the arc of war in motion, because in the next chapter the resistance will strike back and rescue the “witch.”

I wish the AI would write the rest of the book.

MK March 18, 2017 at 6:49 pm

I ran the transcript of this podcast through a markov chain generator to generate more weirdness and got this nugget:
“If you want to support the witches and survivors in the planet, ask them if they had been best friends for us.”

So there you have it! At one point, the witches and Earth survivors were best friends.


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