If you fancy yourself a sci-fi fan, you’re no doubt familiar with the plot of The Matrix (1999), which involves intelligent machines harvesting human bodies as a source of energy.
“The human body generates more bio-electricity than a 120-volt battery and over 25,000 BTU’s of body heat,” the character of Morpheus1 explains in the film. “Combined with a form of fusion, the machines had found all the energy they would ever need.”
Morpheus went on to describe “endless fields” where humans “are no longer born,” but “grown” for the sole purpose of acting as living batteries. He also described the purpose of the Matrix itself, a computer-generated “dream world” designed to keep the enslaved humans distracted and under control.
If that sounds like a pretty convoluted plot, that’s because it is. Of course, that’s not so say The Matrix wasn’t a great film. But one can certainly be forgiven for asking why super-intelligent machines couldn’t come up with a better system, perhaps one that didn’t rely on an elaborate virtual reality world.
According to one Quora user, that same question was posited by his 11-year-old son who asked why the machines didn’t at least use more docile creatures such as cows rather than humans. Even if a virtual-reality world would have been necessary to keep the cows happy, it seems that an endless field of grass is a lot easier to program than an intricate recreation of late 20th century Earth.
Science Fiction author Thaddeus Howze2 responded to the Quora post, and agreed that the idea of using individual humans as batteries was completely inefficient, especially considering the intelligence level of the machines in question.
“It would cost more energy to keep us alive, healthy and effectively physically capable than they could possibly make back on us, even if there were billions of us,” Howze claimed. “Using Humans as a power source only makes sense if you lack a decent understanding of physics, chemistry, and human physiology.”
Howze went on to describe his own hypothesis for why The Matrix machines kept people alive and placated in a virtual state despite the fact that it would have made more sense to simply “grind up humans and burn them for their innate energy output.” Basically, he contends that the machines were trying to save mankind from extinction, and to keep the human race alive until it had evolved to the point where cohabitation without war was possible between biological and artificial intelligence.
While that’s an interesting theory, I’ve come up with another possible explanation as to why the machines chose to use humans as opposed to more docile creatures. During another monologue by Morpheus, the character explained that humanity had somehow managed to block out the sun in order to deprive the machines of solar power.
“We don’t know who struck first, us or them. But we do know it was us that scorched the sky,” Morpheus said. “At the time, they were dependent on solar power. It was believed they would be unable to survive without an energy source as abundant as the sun.”
While the intent of blocking out the sun was to harm the machines, it would have also resulted in the extinction of almost every animal on the planet, cows included. So while humans might not have been the ideal choice, it’s possible we were the only choice.
While it’s fun to ponder theories and counterfactuals about The Matrix, perhaps you’re less interested in the abstract, and more visually inclined. If that’s the case, take a look at the following image from artist Steven Rogers which ponders what a mashup between The Matrix and Blade Runner (1982) might look like: