The things Hollywood doesn’t think computers can actually do

Computers are far more capable than Hollywood gives them credit for. And here's the evidence...

A few weeks ago, we put together a piece, in conjunction with our chums at Expert Reviews, that outlined the things that Hollywood thinks computers are capable of.

In true Hollywood style then, here’s the inevitable sequel, as this time, we look at what computers are perfectly able to do, even if the movies and TV shows seem blind to the fact…

Keep working after the monitor’s been shot

You know the scene: someone’s working hard on a computer trying to recover secret files or kick-start Armageddon, when the hero or villain breaks in and shoots the monitor. Sparks fly, smoke pours out and perhaps a little fire starts. The key point is that the computer’s ruined. Well, only in this case it’s only the screen that’s gone.

In real life computers don’t explode because the monitor’s been destroyed. Plugging in a new one would immediately solve the problem of being able to see what’s going on, while the task running would carry on doing so. But that looks less dramatic.

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Mind you, if a loose-firing henchman shot an iMac, that’d be buggered in no time.

Can make backups

How many times have we seen some vital files stolen by a hacker, with panic ensuing because they’re the only copies? How likely is this, really? The one thing that computers are good at is making perfect copies of files, as they’re all digital.

In fact, the more important the file, the more backups of it there are likely to be. So, the theft of a top secret file may be bad, but the simple matter is that a backup could easily be restored and the problem would be over.

Plus: cloud computing! What about the movie’s protagonist just having something like a Dropbox account? That’d work.

Deleted files don’t disappear from a screen

While we’re on the matter of files, why does Hollywood think that someone deleting a file remotely causes it to vanish from the computer’s screen? If a file’s open and someone tries to delete it, one of two things happens: the file is deleted, but remains open, or an error message says the file’s in use and it remains open. If you’re using Windows, you get one of those bloody annoying conflict dialog boxes too.

In either case, the clear thing here is that the file remains open. Should the original copy have been deleted, the open file could be saved again, restored from a backup (as above) or just printed.

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Autorecover

This is just too inconvenient for a screenwriter needing to throw a copious amount of manure at a cooling device in the corner of the office. On a real computer, when a major application crashes, it also, more often than not, has some degree of autorecovery. Mind you, a scene of a movie star realising everything has gone and their valuable work is lost is a bit more dramatic than trawling through a Word document to see what paragraph wasn’t saved before the program went tits up.

They tell you when things are going wrong

Picture the scene. The computer on screen is working perfectly well, chugging along with its no-doubt pivotal plot business, without a care in the world. And then it goes horribly wrong in seconds. What could possibly have happened?

Well, in real life, the chances are you’d get some kind of clue. Regular browsers of Den Of Geek will no doubt have been welcomed from time to time by a window telling you that Flash plug-in has conked out, for instance. It’s our little quirk, that, er, we like to share with you from time to time.

Error messages, which are a lot better written than they used to be, have a habit of pre-warning that a problem is on the way. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the problem can be stopped, but at least you tend to see it coming.

Can be unplugged from the internet

One of the things that Hollywood loves to show is a graphical representation of a hacker getting into a secret government network and causing all kinds of visual mayhem that immediately alerts everyone to their presence. Step in the good guy, who hacks away at a keyboard running super-fast counter exploits to try and keep the hacker out.

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How about, instead of all this, the secret government organisation simply unplugs its computers from the internet, or just pulls the power plug? What’s the stupid remote hacker going to do now? Why is it that in all of these situations the internet seems to be connected not by a fibre-optic cable, or copper cable, but physically and irretrievably connected to an insecure router? It’s enough to drive you mad.

Securely encrypt files

The thing about encryption is that if it’s done properly it’s really hard to break. Even if you manage to exploit a human flaw or a weakness in the algorithm, the odds are that breaking the encryption is going to take a lot of time, a lot of computing power or a lot of both. Hugh Jackman couldn’t crack an encrypted file in under a minute, no matter whether he was ‘multi-tasking’ or not.

What’s certain is that you can’t just hammer away at your keyboard making windows pop-up and text scroll down the screen until you’ve successfully decrypted the files. Does. Not. Work.

Biometric readers are smart

It’s typical for Hollywood to have a scene where the bad guy chops someone’s finger off, pops out their eye, or even carries around their entire head. The purpose of this is to fool some kind of biometric reader, so that they can enter a top-secret company or military base (or escape from prison, as seen in Demolition Man above).

Well, this would work if biometric readers were a little less smart. While the original devices were fairly stupid, the modern ones are designed to tell if it’s a real, live body part, or something that’s been crudely lopped off by an idiot.

Have invisible sensors that can’t be redirected

This one’s too annoying for words. Criminal breaks into building, pulls out an aerosol and sprays the air to reveal the laser beams that would set off the alarms if broken. Fortunately, there are massive human-sized gaps in them then an agile thief can prance through.

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If they’re not that nimble, then the old mirror on a stick can be employed to redirect the laser beams, because no sensor’s obviously clever enough to tell that: a. the beam has just been broken and b. the return path is now longer.

Why can nobody in films have a security system that consists of passive sensors? There’s no flouncing your way past one of these. It would have made the film Entrapment a bit shorter, too, which wouldn’t have done it any harm.

Implement multiple security systems

The lazy writer’s view is that all governments have a single network with a single firewall where all systems are located. These included the systems that can be used to control drones and launch missiles, and where all banks are told to keep their security files.

Add to this that there’s always a secret device that can be built, plugged in and used to control all of the above systems. To add insult to injury, the secret device is always impossible to deactivate or deny access to.

This is stupid for several reasons. First, there are lots of independent networks in any government; there’s no magic gateway to get access to them, nor could there be; banks and other private companies don’t have to keep their records on some easily-hacked military system; and, as pointed out above, networks can be unplugged. Sigh.

Prevent hackers from getting full remote control

When computers are built and sold today, they do not come with remote control software installed or a simple backdoor that would letter a hacker exploit this. Yet, watch a film and often all a hacker has to do is get a command prompt up and type, “connect president’s computer” or some such crap and they get full unfettered access.

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This includes a real-time view of the desktop and all of the open applications, running at full speed with no need for colour reduction or compression. This does not happen and can’t happen like this. For starters, you can’t just connect to someone’s computer – if they’re behind a wireless router a little technology called Network Address Translation (NAT) means they’re not even internet visible.

Yes, drive-by hacking on websites can install remote software and create botnets, but even these don’t give full desktop control. Besides, if you’re a super hacker and want to get on the president’s computer, hacking loads of websites and sticking your remote control malware on there and hoping the president will visit it and get infected is quite a long shot. Particularly if he’s got AV software installed.

Crash

No matter what the film, or the system in use, computers in films never ever crash. There’s never a point where someone is desperately guiding someone through a minefield of security systems, using the handy blueprints that are always available online, and they suddenly get an ‘unexpected error’.

There should be. We’d love to see Tom Cruise accidentally trigger a remote sentry gun and get blown to smithereens because his spy mate has just got a “Windows has detected an unknown error in unknown” error message. An idea for Mission: Impossible 5 there, perhaps?