The Twonky and AI

 

Hans Conried was a fine comedic actor.  And though somehow I always thought he spoke with a Viennese accent, he was really born in Baltimore, but to a Viennese immigré. So maybe I heard something in his voice, or perhaps he played Viennese men and used his father’s accent.  I don’t know.  But he played the lead in the 1953 light sci-fi comedy The Twonky.  Conried played Kerry West, a philosophy professor at a small college whose wife, Carolyn, has to leave town to care for her sister for a couple of weeks and orders a television set to keep her husband company. “Twonky” was a word that the college’s eccentric football coach, Coach Trout, used to call, as he put it, anything that you don’t know what it is.  And the television was not a TV but a twonky.  It didn’t show any TV shows, didn’t need the roof antenna connected, and didn’t even need to be plugged in, but could project an electric beam from its screen to light your cigarette (but throw your pipe away), smash your coffee cup from your hand before you could sip it, levitate things, do the dishes, comb and shave its master, shine his shoes; and, shaped like a tall end table, toddle on its four legs, speak with voice of E.T., and even drive a car.

It could also zap you in your forehead to pacify you and, as Coach Trout put it, “eliminate that which the twonky doesn’t want you to think, and to put ideas into your head, too.  Those words, ‘I haave nooo complaint,’ that was the twonky talking.”

Conried’s West didn’t like the intrusive oppression of his new robot valet.  But it really is a light-hearted movie that’s entertaining, as well as a pleasant soporific if watched in bed.  There is no death or destruction; though there is a car chase scene with an old British lady who believes that because the US was once a British colony she is allowed to drive on the left side of the road, and otherwise declaring proudly, “It’s my God-given right to be wrong”; and though the beautiful Lady Bill Collector played by Gloria Blondell (who got second billing in the credits) did get her clothes burned off so that she had to run naked into the street, but it was all off-screen.  So SFW.

The reason I write all this is that this seems to be, at least in part, what AI is doing in a small way right now.  Coach Trout realizes the nature of the danger to humanity posed by the twonky in what it is in one of the few serious scenes of the movie, transcribed below.

***

Coach Trout: I understand this twonky now.  I’ve been telephoning my scientific friends; they tell me they already have robots in this world of ours.  The only trouble is a super-atomic brain like that one down there, one that can think, reason, make its own choices, disguise itself, it can wriggle around under its own power – they tell me that the boys of science are centuries away from that.

Kerry West: Then it is from another world.

Coach Trout: No.  From our world, centuries in the future.

Kerry West: What the devil are you talking about?!

Coach Trout: I’m telling you, one of these robots, one of these twiddling twonkies of the future time, has fallen though its own dimensional time into ours.

Kerry West: Fallen through time?!

Coach Trout: Don’t you read science fiction?  Our universe is curved.  Einstein proved that.  Well now if our universe is curved, then so is time. [Pointing to the circular edge of a tea saucer.]  This is the past, the present and the future.  It fell from here to here.

West: But it’s only a television set.

Coach Trout:  The form of a television set.  I mean that.  When it fell out of its dimension in time into ours, it fell into a television production factory line or into that television shop.  With that super intelligence it knew at once where it was and the danger to it, so it immediately changed its form; into a form that we would understand, a form that would be quite safe and acceptable.  Who knows what it looks like.  Strange cars and conveyance.  Horrible plastic flesh, synthetic blood.  Woo.

West: Why me?  Why did it have to pick on me?

Coach Trout: I believe that in a world in the future where this twonky comes from, every house, every family has a twonky of its own to carry out the dictates of the super state.  Yup, yes, the super state.  He’s a secret detective.  But he’s not secret, there’s one placed in every home to serve, to regulate every thought, according to the dictates of the super state.  He’s now carrying out that function with you.

West: We’ve got to get rid of it, smash it to pieces.

AND

Trout: Those words, ‘I haave nooo complaint,’ that was the twonky talking.

West: We talked.  It came out of the loudspeaker.

Trout: What?

West: Yes, it just said something about a robot or something, an experimental model.

Trout: Experimental model.  Then we must eliminate it at once.  If it’s an experimental model perhaps there is only one.  Eliminate it, and we can change the future.

West: I’ll call he police.

Trout: No, no.  Not the authorities.  Do you want the twonky to come up here in the form of a policeman?  Yeah, why not?  He changed his form once, he could do it again.  To Boris Karloff, or Santy Clause, or even Satan himself.  We must neutralize it while it’s in that television form right down in there now.  We must think.  Eh.  What would Knute Rockne do at a time like this?

West: I told Carolyn not to buy anything on the installment plan.

***

Eventually West realizes: Yes, you’re right, it’s your God-given right to be wrong!

Ultimately, this movie was about sterilizing society from the madness of Man, or even sterilizing Man from his own madness.  And it was clear to me that it was the inspiration for Terminators One and Two, right down to mankind’s madness being the problem, and the shape-shifting liquid policeman (sort of).

https://archive.org/details/twonky-1953-colorized

Next week, a review of Harvey as an exploration of the complacency of humanity in its own affluence and ease, while delving into the compartmentalization of theories of mental health and misuse of American psychiatric care, and challenging that popular perception that pookas are fiction.

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There are 11 comments.

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  1. Jim Kearney Member
    Jim Kearney
    @JimKearney

    Globalitarian Lower Order Misa…: Hans Conried was a fine comedic actor.

    Uncle Tonoose!

    • #1
  2. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Fractured Flickers, and The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T

    • #2
  3. Globalitarian Lower Order Misanthropist Coolidge
    Globalitarian Lower Order Misanthropist
    @Flicker

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Fractured Flickers, and The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T

    Yes, I didn’t know 1/10th of what he’d done until I looked him up for this chance movie.  And I never knew that he was ever young, though I should have been able to deduce it.  He seemed to me to have always been grey-haired (and  Viennese).

    • #3
  4. The Scarecrow Thatcher
    The Scarecrow
    @TheScarecrow

    All the time I was reading this I was thinking you were talking about Victor Laszlo! I was amazed that that suave, handsome quintessential European guy was actually just a schlub from Baltimore. 

    • #4
  5. Globalitarian Lower Order Misanthropist Coolidge
    Globalitarian Lower Order Misanthropist
    @Flicker

    The Scarecrow (View Comment):

    All the time I was reading this I was thinking you were talking about Victor Laszlo! I was amazed that that suave, handsome quintessential European guy was actually just a schlub from Baltimore.

    Yes, Hans Conried and Paul Henreid were bothers from others’ mothers.  And Henreid was in fact from Austria, so there are similarities.  And if I recall correctly (and I don’t) Henreid was first choice to play Kerry West but he turned it down because he refused second billing to a robot with no other films to its credit.

    • #5
  6. DrewInWisconsin, Œuf Member
    DrewInWisconsin, Œuf
    @DrewInWisconsin

    CoolMiniOrNot - Twonky - Robo Rally by D.O.Error

    • #6
  7. MikeMcCarthy Coolidge
    MikeMcCarthy
    @MikeMcCarthy

    Harvey

    I look forward to it.

    • #7
  8. Taras Coolidge
    Taras
    @Taras

    The movie is based on a 1942 short story by “Lewis Padgett”, a pseudonym of the highly prolific husband-and-wife team of Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore.  It was published in Astounding Science Fiction, the leading science fiction magazine of the Forties.

    As one might guess from the date, in the story the device disguises itself as a high-end radio instead of a TV.

    At the 2018 World Science Fiction Convention, the story won the 1943 Retro Hugo Award, as Best Short Story of 1942.

    • #8
  9. Globalitarian Lower Order Misanthropist Coolidge
    Globalitarian Lower Order Misanthropist
    @Flicker

    Taras (View Comment):

    The movie is based on a 1942 short story by “Lewis Padgett”, a pseudonym of the highly prolific husband-and-wife team of Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore. It was published in Astounding Science Fiction, the leading science fiction magazine of the Forties.

    As one might guess from the date, in the story the device disguises itself as a high-end radio instead of a TV.

    At the 2018 World Science Fiction Convention, the story won the 1943 Retro Hugo Award, as Best Short Story of 1942.

    Thanks for the background on the story.  Could it have been construed as a comedy in 42?  Or was that just the movie?  In the book, did the Coach equate eating French fries with sex?  In the movie he was quite eccentric, sort of like three characters rolled into one.

    • #9
  10. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    Taras (View Comment):

    The movie is based on a 1942 short story by “Lewis Padgett”, a pseudonym of the highly prolific husband-and-wife team of Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore. It was published in Astounding Science Fiction, the leading science fiction magazine of the Forties.

    As one might guess from the date, in the story the device disguises itself as a high-end radio instead of a TV.

    At the 2018 World Science Fiction Convention, the story won the 1943 Retro Hugo Award, as Best Short Story of 1942.

    Thanks for pointing that out. I constantly forget whether it was “Cuttner” or “Kuttner”, even though I had his short story collection. “Voice of the Lobster” always struck me as a proto-Stainless Steele Rat story and I have often wondered if Harrison drew any inspiration from Kuttner.

    • #10
  11. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    Dominating robots might be a problem though they will be sought after. 

    • #11
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