Devs review: Will quantum computing debunk the myth of free will? Alex Garland’s sci-fi series explores

From the two episodes currently available for streaming, it is hard to accurately identify the purpose of the computer at the heart of Devs.

Prahlad Srihari March 11, 2020 14:42:39 IST
Devs review: Will quantum computing debunk the myth of free will? Alex Garland’s sci-fi series explores

A backpacker searches for an idyllic beach in Thailand, which turns out to be anything but. A programmer is invited by a reclusive CEO to judge whether his AI could pass as a human. A crew of astronauts attempt to reignite a burnt out Sun with a thermonuclear payload. A scientific expedition team investigates the hazardous mutating landscape of a tropical forest. 

In the worlds of Alex Garland lies an intriguing paradox as humanity engages in self-destructive behaviours, defying its natural instincts of self-preservation. In the futuristic technologies, he evaluates their intersection with ethics and the issues that may arise on crossing boundaries. Garland's inquiry into these matters continues in the FX-Hulu series Devs. We see his thematic ambitions grow in the transition from cinema to TV as he tackles the big questions about big data and deepfake (How will they affect privacy, security and disinformation?), free will or the absence of it (What if our actions were predetermined by computerised algorithms?), and tech CEOs with God complex (Is there any other kind?).

Devs review Will quantum computing debunk the myth of free will Alex Garlands scifi series explores

Nick Offerman as Forest

Forest (Nick Offerman) heads a quantum computing firm called Amaya (named after his dead daughter), which houses a secretive division of developers (Devs) error correcting and experimenting to make their supercomputer transcend the space-time gulf. He brings in a new addition to the team: Sergei, an employee from another division who devised an algorithm to predict the movements of a roundworm. When Sergei goes missing and seemingly kills himself, his girlfriend Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) refuses to buy the suicide story and seeks answers.

We, as the viewer, know Sergei is smuggling code in his watch Interstellar-style. We witness his murder at the hands of Kenton (Zach Grenier), Amaya's head of security who is acting on Forest's instructions. So, when the surveillance camera footage shows Sergei dousing himself in gasoline and setting himself on fire, we know this is a deepfake video, a manipulated narrative peddled by Kenton, Forest and his right hand Katie (Alison Pill). So, the mystery in Devs is not about the who, but the why and the circumstances surrounding the murder. 

Devs review Will quantum computing debunk the myth of free will Alex Garlands scifi series explores

Sonoya Mizuno as Lily Chan

The thrill begins when Lily begins her own investigation and learns information even the audience isn't privy to. She cracks a mysterious Sudoku app installed on Segei's phone, which confirms he was a Russian spy. Even if Lily may not make an immediate impression with her DIY solo sleuthing like Lisbeth Salander or Veronica Mars, Sonoya Mizuno still gives us a believable, vulnerable protagonist whose trauma spurs her to do what she needs to do so she can move on. Only, Garland doesn't choose the most elegant way to convey some of her backstory. For instance, when Lily seeks out her ex-boyfriend Jamie (Jin Ha) to help her crack Sergei's phone, the viewer gets an ungainly catch-up of how their relationship ended. 

"The universe is deterministic. It's godless and neutral, and defined only by physical laws. The marble rolls because it was pushed; the man eats because he's hungry; an effect is always the result of a prior cause. The life we lead, with all its apparent chaos, is actually a life on tramlines. Prescribed. Undeviating. Deterministic...We fall into an illusion of free will, because the tramlines are invisible, and we feel so certain about our subjective state. Our feelings, our opinions, judgments, decisions." – Forest (Nick Offerman)

Devs review Will quantum computing debunk the myth of free will Alex Garlands scifi series explores

Alison Pill as Katie and Nick Offerman as Forest in Devs

The show doesn’t restrain its characters to binary extremes of 0 and 1, but allows them to have both values simultaneously, like a Qubit. Barring a shared appreciation for the vices of capitalism, Nick Offerman's Forest is the antithesis of his Ron Swanson. If you're a fan of Parks and Recreation, you can't help but giggle when you see Forest stuffing his mouth with a leafy salad. Ron would have chastised Forest for eating the food his food eats. Forest is a bit of an enigma, but you know his motivations are largely personal for building a quantum computer which can possibly predict the past and/or access a parallel reality. In a seemingly perpetual state of grief, he can't move on from his daughter's death. A giant statue of her towers over his company's premises; her watchful eyes give the impression she's overlooking all their work.

Production designer Mark Digby, cinematographer Rob Hardy, and musicians Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow reunite to curate an aesthetic that perfectly reflects how technology sparks both fascination and fear in Garland. Similar to Ex-Machina and Annihilation, Devs boasts the kind of visuals that would have made even Stanley Kubrick blush. The Devs division looks like a grey concrete monolith from the outside, but inside is a floating golden cube which takes you to a Faraday-caged quantum computer. The biophilic design of the Amaya campus features cube-like buildings surrounded by manicured grass and lush trees. Windows and mirrors appear frequently in the framing to symbolise — and even dramatise — a character's vanity, identity or duplicity. 

From the two episodes currently available for streaming, it is hard to accurately identify the purpose of the computer at the heart of Devs. But it does involve some sort of convergence between quantum computing and deterministic theories. Garland may take the "psychohistory" route that Isaac Asimov did in his Foundation trilogy, where a system predicts future events using historical data. Considering Forest's personal loss, the application might also involve the multiverse theory.

The world building and philosophical reflections in the opening episodes of Devs occasionally interrupts its narrative coherence. But expect Garland to tie the whole thing together in the following six episodes in the most clinical fashion. With Ex-Machina and Annihilation, it will surely be one of the most memorable streaks in recent history, establishing Garland — once and for all — as one of the foremost voices in modern sci-fi.

Devs is currently streaming on Hotstar.

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