Whenever I flash back, I flash waaaaaay back! Ever watched M.A.S.K. and Centurions: Power Xtreme back in the late 1980's? Well, almost 30 years later, I just realized that while the characters' objects and machines defy natural physical laws, the concepts behind these animated cartoons are more science than fiction. They actually make a lot of sense in applied computer science.
|Remember them? M.A.S.K. is back...in YouTube at least.|
|The main man, Matt Trakker, as a an action figure with his primary mission vehicle Thunderhawk He is also the main driver of two other vehicles.|
M.A.S.K. was simultaneously launched on Fox Kids with a toy line by Kenner. It was executive produced by Jean Chalopin, and musically directed by Haim Saban and Shuki Levy (of the U.S. Power Rangers fame). The acronym stands for Mobile Armor Strike Kommand and the story of the main characters revolve around fighting organized crime using civilian vehicles that transform into battle platforms and masks (helmets) with special functions. The villain organization V.E.N.OM.--Vicious Evil Network Of Mayhem--also has vehicles and masks that rival the capabilities of the heroes. So what's so special about that?
|The first M.A.S.K. toys launched by Kenner in 1985 features the Boulder Hill M.A.S.K. headquarters, four M.A.S.K. and three V.E.N.O.M. vehicles. Trakker drives both Thunderhawk (a Chevrolet Camaro) and Rhino (a Peterbilt truck).|
There are the usual good-vs.-evil conflict and the campy moral-at-end-of-story endings (just like He-Man). No plot progresses, however, without the main man Matt Trakker using a computer AI (artificial intelligence) that recommends the "M.A.S.K. agents best suited for this mission." All told, that's a total of 65 missions in Season 1; Season 2's plots were changed to even campier Japanese-style "my Karate is better than yours" conflicts (that doesn't use the computer).
M.A.S.K. stories usually begin with something fishy going on in some part of the world. Matt Trakker, the chairman of the Trakker Foundation, in some weird coincidence, is almost always close by the scenes of crimes committed by arch-nemesis Miles Mayhem. These incidents will prompt him to feed data to his computer (a mainframe, a laptop or a vehicle dashboard). Then he asks the same computer to scan the "personnel files" for agents with knowledge, skills and equipment that match mission requirements.
|While the computer AI does the dirty work of selecting personnel "best suited to this mission", and with good precision at that, Trakker does have human confidants. Token Japanese Bruce Sato is outright the most useful of them all.|
The science in science fiction
Of course, as a kid, I cared little about the science in cartoons. I do like science (and I need not gloat about my elementary school grades), but between it and lasers and explosions, I'll go for lasers and explosions--and bad guys getting their asses kicked.
|Main bad guy Miles Mayhem using his mask (duh, helmet) to spit highly corrosive acid against the good guys.|
Back in those days, it is really hard for anyone to make science sense out of conversational computers, transforming vehicles and helmets that fire projectiles and don't seem to run out of ammunition or energy. Well, even into the teen years of the 21st Century, it's still inconceivable for a gull-wing-door Chevrolet Camaro (Trakker's car) to fly like a US Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II: it's just not aerodynamic and there's not enough space to cram a V8 engine, two jet engines, weapons and a maximum of five persons. So, we won't look into that. Let's check the computer AI instead.
Before the computer starts its situation analysis and eventual human resource optimizations, Matt Trakker does his own manual detective and forensic work. Once he was able to gather considerable, if not sufficient, data such as location, means of the crime and estimate of the possible impacts to the world, he then feeds those to the computer AI. Sometimes, Trakker also enters pre-selected personnel and the AI takes it into account. If he is on location, he uses his car's dashboard computer to connect to the main one at headquarters via satellite. If he is away from his vehicles, such as a hotel room, he uses a laptop that can also link via satellite. Once the computer AI has finished making calculated "recommendations" (which we know today as business intelligence), in the end, it is always Trakker who approves the personnel selection. Then and now, it is always the human manager who is accountable for the outcomes of decisions, not computers.
In the 1980's, we knew that there are such things as computer networks. There is satellite telecommunications. In universities and think-tank foundations, there is operations research and the birth of new algorithms with increasing precision. It would take a decade before the birth of job search sites like JobsDB and Jobstreet, 25 years before LinkedIn. The Global Positioning System (GPS) doesn't even exist yet, or so we may have been led to believe.
Today, while talking and listening computer AI are still evolving, we do have computer applications that are as ubiquitous as the clouds (cloud-computing applications) and not limited by wires (mobile devices and 4G communications). Our job search sites have user-defined search criteria and automatic job-vs.-skill matching, and various human resource tools resulting from year after year of HR research and conferences. Some of these tools have software equivalents with the networking capabilities of social media--downloadable from the iStore and Google Play. If you're an Android user, such apps can be used on any device, anywhere you are in the world, providing additional useful data wherever you are in the world (via Google Location service).
|Archvillain Miles Mayhem's Switchblade that changes from helicopter to fixed-wing fighter. We have a 21st-Century answer to that in the form of...|
|...the Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft currently being used by all branches of the US armed forces (except the US Army; photo from Wikipedia).|
Today, anybody can be his own Matt Trakker. While we still don't have flying Camaros, villain Miles Mayhem may find a helicopter-turned-fixed-wing aircraft in today's Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey. There are noble foundations, but there are also terror networks like ISIS. How we will win wars against crime and terror, and peacetime threats like poverty and Climate Change, is pretty much up to our information literacy and information ethics, as well as our mastery of technology hardware.
So, what does the next 10 years have in store for us geeks? That's anybody's guess. For now, try analyzing this episode just for some wholesome 1986 kind of fun.
(As much as possible, the author traces the upload and cites sources. In the event that individual upload sources cannot be traced, credit goes to the original television broadcasting network and toy manufacturer with gratitude to fellow geeks who uploaded the content.)