Devs — A hauntingly beautiful Sci-Fi series

Devs (A Hulu webseries)

My interest was piqued when I read about the new Hulu series 𝘋𝘦𝘷𝘴 and how it was the best sci-fi show of 2020 according to multiple sources. When I looked it up on Wikipedia, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was created by one of my favorite directors, Alex Garland. I was hooked. Once I started the 1st episode, I couldn’t stop binge-ing until I finished all eight episodes. It is not just a stunning series but underneath all the scientific (some pseudoscience and some real) mumbo-jumbo, it asks some serious questions that we all need to examine ourselves for answers. Before I try to explain what the series is about (don’t worry I won’t spoil it for you too much), we need to understand some simple scientific concepts, you know, like quantum mechanics :)

I confess that I am a neophyte when it comes to Quantum mechanics and my only introduction to the topic was Scott Aaronson’s excellent book 𝗤𝘂𝗮𝗻𝘁𝘂𝗺 𝗖𝗼𝗺𝗽𝘂𝘁𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗦𝗶𝗻𝗰𝗲 𝗗𝗲𝗺𝗼𝗰𝗿𝗶𝘁𝘂𝘀 (Fair warning: it is a tough tome to digest). Quantum mechanics is a fundamental theory in physics that provides a description of the physical properties of nature at the scale of atoms and subatomic particles. The behavior of subatomic particles seems so far removed from our lives, but if we add up all those particles, the macro worlds they make up, are our world, the reality we live in. Quantum mechanics has many interpretations and the scientific community is still up in arms about their pet theories but the advent of quantum mechanics specifically quantum computing cannot be ignored. The recent news that was bandied about in all the tech press was that Google’s self-proclaimed ‘quantum supremacy’ (the point where quantum computers could do things un-achievable by classical computers) fired up the interest and debate about quantum computing anew. (For the record, unlike classical computers that run on binary “bits”, quantum computers run on “qubits” and IBM is promising a 1000-qubit computer by 2023.) Although companies like IBM, Google, Amazon are racing to build practical quantum computing platforms that can be applied to all sorts of problems including scientific, banking, insurance, aerospace, etc. The practical applications of quantum computing are still a few years down the road. But successful experiments in quantum entanglement (Chinese scientists have transmitted the quantum version of computer memory between two entangled clouds of atoms over 50 kilometers.) are not only opening up exciting possibilities but make us painfully aware that our understanding of how the universe works, how even the so-called “arrow of time” works (scientists in Germany have shown that even time can be reversed at a particle level) is not complete. So, what does quantum mechanics have to do with the story? There’s a popular joke in Hollywood if you want to solve a scientific problem in a story, throw in quantum mechanics and patch it up.

I love the director Alex Garland’s previous films. Despite all the high-tech trappings in his works, Garland always resorts to ponder fundamental questions. Alex Garland’s previous works like 𝘌𝘹-𝘔𝘢𝘤𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘢, 𝘈𝘯𝘯𝘪𝘩𝘪𝘭𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯 dealt with themes of AI, alien invasion in a relatable way, and in 𝘋𝘦𝘷𝘴, he goes even deeper. With 𝘋𝘦𝘷𝘴 he uses quantum mechanics as a story device to get to the heart of a question that has plagued humans for generations. What makes the universe tick? Is it determinism or free will? In other words, every choice we make in our daily lives, choosing the colleges we go to, the careers we choose, the people we enter into relationships with, all happen because of choices we made. What if we have made different choices? How will our life be? Or what about those little choices? Choosing a drink in Starbucks or picking a movie to watch, or even what shirt to wear when we are heading out? There are literally thousands of choices in everyone’s life, and if we aggregate everyone’s choices, does that make the universe we live in? If that’s true, what if one of those choices is different? Does that make a new universe? Quantum mechanics gives us a way to answer this question.

Determinism posits that every event that we ever experience is caused by previous events, so what’s happening now or what will happen has no other way of unfolding because the universe is deterministic. In the world of determinism, there are no random events or acts because even a seemingly random event such as the outcome of a coin flip is determined by the weight of the coin, the speed of flip, the weight of air molecules, the temperature, surface tension, and so many variables… If we are able to map out all these millions of variables in detail (say using a quantum computer), the outcome of a coin flip can be predicted every time without fail. The same thing applies to our individual choices, every choice we make is either caused by our previous experiences or our knowledge, etc. French scholar and scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace once wrote about an omniscient intellect (dubbed the Laplace Demon) that can not only understand all the forces that animate the universe but predict what will happen to the end of time because the universe is deterministic. If someone were to build this demon can the course of the entire universe be predicted? According to this school of thought, the future isn’t what has to happen, it’s simply what will happen. If we somehow got a glimpse of our futures from the present, it might appear as if our paths were fixed, and we seemingly have no choice.

Determinism is usually contrasted with free will because if we believe in determinism, the world would be a boring and predictable place and as humans, we like to think we have a semblance of free will, because without which we might even go crazy. There’s a popular theory in quantum mechanics called the “many-worlds interpretation” (the famous Schrodinger’s cat experiment) that implies that all possible outcomes of any event are occurring and occurred in some “world” or “reality” and all of them exist at the same time. If this is true, why don’t we realize all the other worlds? Our mind has a way of shielding us from this madness by blocking the other parallel realities thus protecting our frailty so we can continue with our lives. Whatever interpretation we chose to subscribe to, there’s a fundamental split between determinism and free will. We all know the story of Adam & Eve, and how God had a script, and how Eve foiled his “plan” by partaking in the poisonous apple, in other words, she made a choice. Some might bristle at my suggestion, but my theory is that the “original sin” she committed is that she made a choice giving rise to the many-worlds of this universe :)

𝘋𝘦𝘷𝘴 is set in the near future where a highly successful company called Amaya (prodigious we are told though not enough is conveyed except some terms like a leader in AI etc), led by its enigmatic tech genius founder Forest (eminently played by Nick Offerman). 𝘋𝘦𝘷𝘴 is the name of the ultra-secret group within this secretive company that is tasked with building a quantum computer so powerful it can simulate the entire universe from big-bang to the present day and even further. Of course, in the real world, the current efficacy of quantum computers are at a 50 Qubit level so the series doesn’t even talk about how many qubits does it take to run this monster, to quote Forest, it would be a number that would be absurd to even discuss. Although the multiple interpretations of quantum mechanics and its application is thrown around at random intervals in this slow-burning thriller, the central question remains “Why”? What is this secretive company trying to achieve by building this computer? The company is named after Forest’s dead daughter Amaya, her resemblance adorns the company’s logo, and as if that’s not enough, a huge statue of the little girl towers over the idyllic campus reminding Forest and us what this is about. The statue, the gisant, if you will, is not lying but standing up. The imagery is a bit evocative as it becomes clear to us what Forest is trying to achieve with his secretive company and its ultra-secretive division 𝘋𝘦𝘷𝘴 within the company. Forest we learn gradually is trying to simulate the entire universe with the help of his powerful quantum computer so he can recreate (re-animate) his daughter, is it even possible? That is the stuff of sci-fi but what’s interesting is his firm belief in how he wants to achieve it, specifically using the determinism principle of quantum mechanics.

Forest it turns out is a demanding and impertinent boss and at times even cruel, but hides it under a veneer of aloofness, if it reminds you of any silicon valley CEOs, I won’t blame you. We are also introduced to the protagonists Lily Chan (played by Garland’s frequent collaborator Sonoya Mizuno) and Sergei who work for Amaya and how they get wrapped up in Forest’s twisted plans. Is Forest successful in his mission and what lengths would he go to achieve his ends form the rest of the story. Even if you replace the enigmatic quantum computer that takes the center stage (quite literally: the beautifully designed quantum computer occupies the center of the office set in a floating cube) in the series with, say, an Oracle at the temple of Delphi, the question remains the same. Does the universe function based on determinism or free will? While watching the series, I was reminded of a serious debate that I had with my brother twenty years ago about free-will vs determinism, and my brother being a fervent supporter of determinism, said that I am deluding myself if I think if I had any say in how my life turns out to be because every choice and decision that I make is premeditated, and I answered him, if that so-called delusion gives me an illusion of control, I would rather live in that world and that gives me a reason to wake up in the morning. Learning about various quantum mechanics interpretations hasn’t changed my mind in the subsequent years.

𝘋𝘦𝘷𝘴, as I said, is set in near-future San Francisco but the Amaya offices you see are not gleaming, and opulent silicon valley campuses, rather it employs an ethos of ‘slight-future’ where technology is blended into everyday objects in an unobtrusive way. The protagonist’s envy-inducing loft, the 𝘋𝘦𝘷𝘴 offices, even the aforementioned quantum computer monolith (it does kindle faint memories of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey) are all designed so beautifully, they all embody characters of their own. The 𝘋𝘦𝘷𝘴 campus boasts copious amounts of greenery that camouflages cleverly designed cameras and other sensors. The production design team led by Mark Digby deserves a special mention for its use of nature blending, futuristic technology that evokes a sense of eerie stillness while pleasing the eyes. Apart from the environment, each of the personalities and its themes also holds a sense of mystery and apathy that slowly unfolds in bits and pieces to reveal the big picture. The cast of characters includes the aforementioned tech geniuses, boy wonders, burned-out tech stars, mirthless brainiacs, eager beavers, and as a bonus we even get some ex-CIA black ops operatives, Russian spies that complete the ensemble. If I have one complaint about 𝘋𝘦𝘷𝘴 is its ambiguity of theme, at times, it feels like a spy thriller, and at times, a sci-fi adventure, and at times even a horror movie. This conflagration of themes and genre-bending does recall Garland’s previous works like 𝘈𝘯𝘯𝘪𝘩𝘪𝘭𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯 but 𝘋𝘦𝘷𝘴 stands apart because of its format, namely a mini-series that has around 8 hours of runtime. This does give him enough time to explore the various themes. For example, in one scene that is set in Lily’s apartment, we see various versions of Lily interacting with her current and former boyfriends in a seamless way clueing us in on the nature of many-worlds nature of quantum mechanics. Touches like these lend credibility to the series though the motivations (or machinations) of some characters leave us baffled just like some of the loose threads that the story leaves hanging. So is 𝘋𝘦𝘷𝘴 a sci-fi polemic that scares us from pursuing quantum computing? Or is it a warning against the hubris of silicon valley plutocrats who anointed themselves the masters of the universe? At its heart, it’s an aesthetically pleasing human story that pits a father’s anguish and guilt against the world. So, when his unrelenting quest collides with a curious do-gooder who wouldn’t let go, a maelstrom of possibilities (remember this is quantum mechanics we are talking about) are unleashed, in other words, inevitable bedlam ensues.

The set pieces, the unsettling yet relentless soundtrack, and most importantly the central premise are all packaged in an appealing series peppered with great actors and a story that unfolds in an unhurried fashion. It’s reticence to get to the point did irritate me a bit but once I gave in to the story, I hardly noticed the time. Once I finished watching it, I understood why Garland chose the mini-series format as opposed to a two and half hour feature film format because the story it tries to tell takes time to sink in. 𝘋𝘦𝘷𝘴 with its long format tries to achieve a detente between the science (fiction) and the deeper philosophies it explores. Could they have cut out the dramatics to speed up the process? Probably. Also, nearly every character gets their moment on the soapbox to deliver a “professorial” oration on quantum mechanics, and its implications that could’ve been avoided, but as I said before, quantum mechanics is only a plot device, it’s not the story, just like in 𝘌𝘹-𝘔𝘢𝘤𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘢, the Turing Test is only a plot device, not the story or the theme. Alex Garland does enough research and name-checks all the major theories out there to make it all sound plausible though the ‘in the future’ conceit can solve any problems in a sci-fi story, heck it can even pull people out of black holes (looking at you Interstellar). 𝘋𝘦𝘷𝘴 does leave us with another question not just about determinism/free will and quantum mechanics, rather a thought experiment proposed in 1974 by philosopher Robert Nozick called “experience machine”. If we figure out a way to simulate and supplant any experience in a person’s brain would we prefer that or real life?

𝘋𝘦𝘷𝘴 is a great watch for anyone who is interested in a good sci-fi saga, and if you like Nick Offerman and Alex Garland’s work, it’s a must-watch.

A minor spoiler alert: the ‘v’ in 𝘋𝘦𝘷𝘴 is actually a Roman v, i.e. its a u, so it’s not 𝘋𝘦𝘷𝘴, its Deus.

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Bhaskar Gandavabi

Bhaskar Gandavabi

I love to build software and write.

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