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The new science fiction series from Cowboy Bebop’s director isn’t that far off from reality

The new science fiction series from Cowboy Bebop’s director isn’t that far off from reality


Netflix’s series Carole & Tuesday makes Mars sleek, shiny, and so close to familiar

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The first episode of Carole & Tuesday — the new anime series from Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo director Shinichirō Watanabe — hits Netflix on August 30th. The series is set on Mars, 50 years after humans started living there, in a New York City-like metropolis called Alba City. It’s a futuristic world, but a familiar one as well. Watanabe pulls off an impressive trick here by presenting a world that’s just a little off familiar tech levels, just far enough to seem impressive, without reaching too far into science fiction.

The series follows the titular Tuesday, the daughter of a rich, powerful political family, as she runs away from home and heads to the big city to pursue her dream of being a musician. She’s taken in by Carole, also a young aspiring musician, who makes a living jumping from one short stint at a part-time job to another. The two instantly hit it off and start writing songs together, which is a uniquely strange thing on this futuristic Mars, as no one makes music without at least some help from artificial intelligence.

While the show’s Mars setting allows it to imagine some amazing fictional technology, a lot of what’s on display actually exists in some form today. Here’s a look at how close some of Carole & Tuesday’s science-fiction tech is to reality.

Music-making AI

Verge reporter Dani Deahl explored the field of using artificial intelligence to create music in the second episode of her Future of Music series. The idea dates back to at least the 1990s, when David Bowie helped develop a piece of software that reordered lyrics into new combinations to help with writing. More recently, AIs are being designed to generate the instrumental tracks of songs based on data from existing music. As Dani describes it: 

Most of these systems work by using deep learning networks, a type of AI that’s reliant on analyzing large amounts of data. Basically, you feed the software tons of source material, from dance hits to disco classics, which it then analyzes to find patterns. It picks up on things like chords, tempo, length, and how notes relate to one another, learning from all the input so it can write its own melodies. There are differences between platforms: some deliver MIDI while others deliver audio. Some learn purely by examining data, while others rely on hard-coded rules based on musical theory to guide their output.

In Carole & Tuesday, the music-making AIs generally seem to be working in tandem with an artist or producer to create a song — except in the case of Tao and Angela, whose story in the show runs parallel to Carole and Tuesday’s. Tao is a wildly successful music producer who builds incredibly advanced AIs to create every aspect of a song, including vocal performances. Tao hires Angela to be the first human he actually makes songs for. The first part of the series reveals that Tao’s programs make songs for her not just based on her vocal range, but on the words she uses and how she behaves. That’s certainly far more advanced than any AI that exists today, but then, it seems pretty advanced for the series’ technology, too.

Smart luggage

One of the first pieces of future gadgetry we see (and covet) in the series is Tuesday’s smart luggage. It’s self-propelled, driving itself around to follow her wherever she goes, and is even equipped with little robotic legs to use when it encounters stairs. When it’s stolen, it manages to not get broken into, then finds its way back to Tuesday on its own, indicating that it has some sort of sophisticated tracking system.

A few years ago, smart luggage seemed to be having a moment, with lots of little companies springing up with their own takes on similar gadgets. They ranged from luggage with built-in batteries for recharging your phone to ones a bit more like Tuesday’s that could move themselves to follow their owner around. Some could be tracked if lost through the use of a sophisticated theoretical mesh network of other smart luggage.

But then a number of airlines began banning any smart luggage that didn’t have removable batteries, and sometimes preventing smart luggage that complied with the new rule from being loaded on to planes. Which in turn led to a number of those startup companies closing. Surprisingly, though, the only really futuristic thing about Tuesday’s luggage is the legs.

One-wheeled electric skateboard

Carole’s favorite mode of transport around Alba City is an electric one-wheeled skateboard. While there have been a number of attempts at making uniwheeled electric personal transportation devices over the last few years, Carole’s seems closest in design to Onewheel’s Pint. Unlike the Pint, though, the fictional version has a hubless motor design for its wheel, and folds up for easy transport when not in use. It is also seems incredibly light, given how Carole is able to carry it one-handed and get pretty significant air clearance off the ground with it.  

Robotic pets

AI seems to be a blanket term in the series, encompassing all sorts of intelligent robots and software that vary greatly in levels of functionality and sentience. Carole has a personable robotic owl AI pet whose main function is as an alarm clock, but it seems to possess some deductive reasoning and problem-solving abilities. There’s also an AI music producer in a robotic dog, which serves as a judge on an America’s Got Talent / X Factor type music-competition show. The dog also has a distinct personality, and makes jokes like a human judge on a reality competition show. It’s difficult to tell, though, how much of this behavior is sentience, and how much is fakery though programming.

Current actual robotic pets are far less sophisticated than their anime counterparts, at least in terms of range of movement and functionality. Many are less animal-like than Carole’s owl, like the odd-looking toddler robot Lovot, or the more abstract Jibo. Neither is as close to the show’s example as Sony’s Aibo, though, and that seems to be the design inspiration for the reality show judge’s robotic body.

Aibo is a $1,800 robot dog covered in sensors, which allow it to respond to voice commands and petting. It can use a camera in its nose to recognize people, and send security updates on what’s going on at home. But even with all that, it’s more like a slow-moving, stumbly puppy than something that could pass a Turning test.

Holographic concert effects

The first few large-scale professional concerts in the first part of Carole & Tuesday actually seem pretty conventional by real-world standards, with giant screens acting as musical visualizers, along with laser and pyrotechnics displays, depending on the style of the band playing. That is until Crystal — apparently a sort of future anime Mars version of Beyoncé — performs while accompanied by a crowd-enveloping flock of holographic birds.

Most modern holographic illusions at concerts use an old illusionist’s technique called Pepper’s Ghost, which essentially bounces light off a film or glass to produce a transparent ghostly image, like with Tupac’s “appearance” at Coachella in 2012, or the real-world concerts for Splatoon 2’s Pearl and Marina. For last year’s League of Legends world championships, augmented reality tech was used to incorporate virtual characters into a live performance, but this effect wasn’t visible to the naked eye for people attending in person.

The closest real-world equivalent to the effect Crystal has is the Holosphere, which was featured in the season 2 premiere of the Future of Music series. The two-story-tall sphere is wrapped in strips of LED lights, which effectively turns it into a sort of semi-transparent spherical display. It allows performers inside it to appear as if they’re standing in the center of a giant eyeball, ball of lightning, or whatever designs they configure to map to the sphere. While not technically a hologram, the sphere seems as though it could produce a similar illusory effect as Crystal’s birds, although not to the same audience and stage-circling scope.

Touch-screen tables and robotic food prep

A number of restaurants and bars in Alba City are equipped with touch-screen tables and bar tops, allowing tables to become both menus for customers to peruse, and waitstaff for taking orders. The one shown in a pizza restaurant is particularly neat, since it blends back into the restaurant’s aesthetic when not in use, by displaying a wood-panel surface. But it’s more intriguing to see what these screens reveal about labor in Carole & Tuesday. While a lot of the series’ food and drink ordering and preparation is automated, waitstaff and bartenders can still be called on for a more human experience.

In terms of automated food preparation, last year The Verge’s Nick Statt wrote about San Francisco’s automated burger restaurant Creator:

Creator, formerly known as Momentum Machines, is one of a rising new type of automated restaurant, mixing the best of the tech industry’s software, robotics, and artificial intelligence skills with top-tier culinary expertise. The goal is not to automate away humans entirely, but to automate the portion of the restaurant experience that can be done better, faster, and be more cost efficient with machines. Creator joins companies like San Francisco-based quinoa bowl chain Eatsa, pizza-delivery company Zume in Mountain View, CaliBurger parent company and Miso Robotics investor Cali Group, and a smattering of up-and-coming locations around the country like Boston’s Spyce and Seattle’s Junkichi.

Surprisingly, the screen technology on display in the show seems like it might be more fictional than the robotic food prep. For a while, Microsoft tinkered with making a large table display called the Surface, but later repurposed the name for its line of tablets and laptops. Then in 2016, a French company created a $5,600 coffee table with a waterproof 42-inch touchscreen display, which seems as though it could be an ancestor of the ones in the show. The fictional version still looks a bit more like a giant TV laid flat than a table, though, even when it’s off.

Sony showed off a different approach in 2017 at SXSW, with an overhead projector that could effectively turn any flat surface into a touchscreen display. While that couldn’t have been used at the bar in the anime, conceivably an overhead projector-style device could have created the menu on the table at the pizza restaurant, while also allowing for it to be just a normal wooden table.

After watching the first 12 episodes of this 24-episode show — all 12 of which are now on Netflix  —  it occurred to me that the series’ future technology was directly extrapolated from current trends and devices. That helps speak to one of the show’s major themes — criticizing the idea of removing humans from music creation. To explore that idea, Watanabe needed to create a world where humans didn’t make music, AI did. But he also had to make that world feel relatable to the audience.

And that helps explain the show’s aesthetic. It’s why even though Alba City is about 50 years old and on Mars, it looks like a modern Earth metropolis, with some buildings that look like they date back to the early 1900s. It’s why the characters’ cellphones look like modern cellphones, and have Instagram on them.

Watanabe did a similar thing with his retro designs on Cowboy Bebop. That show is also set in Earth’s far future, with humans rapidly traveling from planet to planet via astral gates. But the details of the world look familiar from contemporary 1980s and 1990s film and TV. They’re modified and retrofitted to evoke a much more futuristic world, but they aren’t jarring or alienating. Carole & Tuesday does the same thing. So little of the world is explained outright, but it doesn’t need justifications and setup, because it looks so close to familiar. It’s easy to look into this world and imagine yourself there — and more, when looking at its clean designs and just-forward-of-present devices, actively wanting to be there.