3 More Documentaries for Engineers

California Typewriter, AlphaGo, and The Farthest

3 min read

Photo of Tom Hanks in California Typewriter
Photo: Gravitas Ventures

Last August, IEEE Spectrum plucked three films from the video deluge that we felt were particularly suited for engineers. Now, we’ve waded back in to bring you three more apropos documentaries that have recently become available to stream or download.

  • California Typewriter

    Tom Hanks explains his love of clacking keys in California Typewriter.Photo: Gravitas Ventures

    We murdered it. There is no one more directly to blame for the demise of the typewriter than EEs. We built the computers and the displays that birthed word processing, and swept a century-old technology from homes and offices. (In one sense, though, we immortalized the typewriter even as we killed it, with QWERTY keyboards still flashing up on our smartphones when it comes time to actually write anything.) So it’s only fitting to honor the typewriter by watching this documentary. California Typewriter follows three threads: a collector on the hunt for a surviving example of the first commercially successful typewriter; an artist who dismantles typewriters and turns the pieces into sculpture; and a struggling typewriter repair shop in Berkeley, Calif. (Of particular interest to me was the enormous variety of designs found in 19th-century typewriters, reminiscent of the variety found during the mini- and microcomputer boom that lasted from 1965 to 1985.) You might come away thinking there’s some life in these mechanical contraptions yet.

  • AlphaGo

    AlphaGo tells the story of the Go contest where humanity went down.Photo: Reel as Dirt/Moxie Pictures

    As extensively covered in Spectrumand elsewhere, the AlphaGo artificial-intelligence program was generally considered to be tilting at windmills when in 2016 it took on Lee Sedol, the world champion of the Go board game. Go is a vastly more challenging game than chess, in which a computer achieved supremacy in 1997. But AlphaGo was designed to teach itself how to play, learning first from a store of games played by humans, and then by playing itself over and over. The result was a program that can play in surprising ways, and it defeated Sedol in three games straight. The documentary AlphaGo is an excellent memoir of this matchup, with behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Sedol and the architects of the program. The result is a fascinating chronicle of the mixed feelings surrounding the day when the greatest human player of the deepest game in the world fell to the machine.

  • The Farthest: Voyager in Space

    The Farthest chronicles the continuing mission of the Voyager probes.Photo: PBS

    In 1977, a mission was launched to take advantage of an opportunity that comes only once in every 175 years: a planetary alignment that would allow us to fly by Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune in a single “Grand Tour.” Composed of twin probes, the Voyager mission piled up discovery after discovery, transforming our understanding of the solar system. The Farthest is a beautiful documentary created for the 40th anniversary of the Voyager, which still continues on its interstellar mission. Unlike many previous documentaries, The Farthest bothers to include many of the engineers involved in the mission rather than just the scientists, covering such events as the 11th-hour raid on a grocery store to purchase aluminum foil to upgrade the probe’s electrical shielding, and the struggle to unstick a jammed camera scanning platform later in the mission. If I have one nit, it’s that a casual viewer might think the Voyager mission was the very first to visit Jupiter and Saturn; that honor goes to the often overlooked Pioneer 10 and 11 missions. But these probes are mentioned only very briefly and in regard to their plaques, predecessors of the golden records that the Voyager probes carry for the benefit of any curious aliens who might discover them. The Farthest spends a lot of time on the golden records, and rightly so. Though their chances of being perused by E.T.s represent the longest of long shots, the records speak to the spark of imagination that drives us to explore in the first place.

This article appears in the February 2018 print issue as “More Documentaries for Engineers.”

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