What is the film Tron: Legacy about?
It is about us. We.
The ISOs are soon to be real.
It goes back to an idea called 'genetic algorithms', which is mentioned in the film.
Essentially, you make a virtual computer universe. You set it running. Then, just as in our 'meatspace' universe, life will eventually evolve within the digital world. All that your byte based universe has to do is set up an 'environment' for the life to exist, and various 'laws of nature' (gravity, for example) for the objects in the universe to follow.
They need not even be the same laws that we live by in meatspace. As an insight, consider the book Flatland: it is a drama that takes place in a 2-dimensional world - no height. There are computer simulations of worlds that occur in 2 dimensional space. There is also the field of 'non-euclidean geomtery', where the basic 'obvious facts' (or 'axioms') of our world do not exist. Together, these imaginings show us that our world is definitely not the only possible world. Gravity, the electromagnetic force, etc, are not necessarily the only ways to organize a universe.
So, we can build many, many types of universes inside computers. And we can give our own laws of nature to these universes. Then what?
The traditional use of genetic algorithms (often abbreviated as GAs) was to quickly find 'very good' solutions for difficult problems in computer science. IE, if you have to visit 1000 cities, which route will save you the most gasoline? It turns out that by just randomly choosing pieces of programming code, putting them in a program, and then running the resulting program, and doing this over and over again thousands of times, will eventually result in a program that 'solves' the problem. It might not be the best solution, it might not be the fastest, but it will come pretty darn close in a very short amount of time. Nobody has to hire any PHDs or discover new theorems of graph theory. You don't even need to understand how the program works. All you do is tell the 'environment' how to choose which of the millions of randomly generated programs should 'survive', to be reproduced, and which should die off. You have to decide what makes a program 'fitter' than another; programs that solve the problem better are the ones that get chosen. They are then slightly modified, randomly, thousands of times, and the whole process starts over. Some systems even use 'sexual recombination' of the programs, mixing two successfull programs together to make a new one.
Turns out, funnily enough, that the best solutions come from keeping your idea of 'fittest' program somewhat broad. If you make it too harsh, then your organisms might evolve down one narrow evolutionary path, and not have followed other paths that might have ended up with better solutions to the problem. IE it would be like if God, in the primordial days of Earth, had decided to bring down brimstone that would kill all the fish that had feet-like appendages, because they cause drag in the water, and don't swim fast. If God had done this then evolution on land would never have happened. But God was more tolerant of diversity. Of course from an atheist perspective, imagine that there was some law of nature that prevented feet from developing - perhaps imagine another non-Earth planet where the oceans were warm but the land mass was for some reason entirely made of ice.
The funny thing is, that in the artificial world of the digital universe, there really, truly, is a creator, and the little digital organisms that didn't believe in a God, would be the mistaken ones. Of course, if there is a 'programmer god' above our 'meatspace', this God has a great deal to answer for.
When you take Genetic Algorithms to their logical conclusion, as has been done extremely well in numerous science fiction works, from Bradbury to Aasimov to Star Trek TNG, what you get are digital life forms with some kind of intelligence. They, however, unlike us, will possess incredible abilities that we can only dream of. Instead of their body being made of blood and bone, it will be made of subroutines and loop structures. Sequences of numbers. Their relationship with the digital world will be like our relationship with the physical world... we are influenced by our upbringing, our environment, our needs for food, our emotions, and etc. They will be limited by... a great deal less. They might not even really 'die' as we think of it.
I hope this description tingles the faintest hint of what an ISO is, or could be. They are the 'next step' in the history of evolution. But they will be on an accelerated program. Our own species has made over the face of the Earth in a cosmic blink of an eye. 10,000 years ago we cowered in fear of mammoths and tigers, today we sip lattes on high speed trains built on old paths made by those elephants and tigers. The ISOs may very well do the same. Consider what machines have done for the work of man, in agriculture and transportation, but also in computations. They have speeded up by millions, billions of times, and made what was impossible only 20 years ago, possible today. Now consider what machines could do for the realm of the creation of new ideas, in and of itself.
Imagine, the effect on the world of a man like Einstein, and his cohorts who met and discussed physics for so many sessions, while he neglected his wife and abandoned baby. Now imagine 10,000 Einsteins, chatting each other up... none of whom have wives or babies to ignore, none of whom need sleep or food per se. That is what the ISOs would mean. Obviously these new digital intelligences will require some form of pause, perhaps that we cannot even understand, but even so their limits are to ours what their limits on multiplication are to ours. Vast and horrifying.
10,000 artificial Einsteins and Bohrs and Schrodingers and Rutherfords and Curies, could unlock as much about the physical structure of the universe in 5 years as it took the eminent scientists of the 1900s several decades.
The same could apply to any portion of learning, whether medicine or chemistry or physics or.. computers themselves.
This is 'bio digital jazz'. This is the promise of the ISOs.
This is also the problem with the ISOs.
Imagine, if we had known about Uranium-235 fission in, say, 1890. Imagine if we, the species, homo sapiens sapiens, had developed piles proving chain reactions possible, in the 00s. Imagine if we had perfected the bomb in 1910. It is just in time for the First World War. Paris may have been obliterated, or Berlin. Or better yet, imagine if we had nuclear weapons in the 1500s. The The further back you go in time, the more accurate and informative your analogy will be. Imagine Chimpanzees, not with the club of 2001, but with simplified loaded machine guns, missiles, or bombs. All they have to do is point and shoot.
The ISOs would be treated like the PreCognitives in Minority Report, of Philip K Dick. They would be used for the purposes of the powerful, their natural abilities corrupted by others. Or, they would wind up like Einstein. Unraveling the mysteries of the universe, only to watch the world descend into chaos and mass violence and murder, using his theories to come up with new and creative ways to kill more people, faster. Imagine how he felt, a pacifist, to see this happen. Or the Wright Brothers, whose invention would not free mankind, but instead be used within 15 years to slaughter on the battlefield.
If the ISOs bring us new insight and ideas into how physics works, then soon after will follow new weapons. These may outstrip nuclear weapons just as nuclear weapons outstripped ordinary bombs. The most powerful forces known in the universe, such as Gamma Ray Bursts and Starquakes, may involve quark deconfinement . Just as our understanding of nuclear physics, and the discovery of the nucleus and the electron, led to nuclear weapons, an understanding of quark physics will lead immediately to quark weapons.
In fact, there has never been a technological leap made by mankind that hasn't been soon used for the purposes of warfare and destruction. Our understandings of virus and disease have been used to create weapons, from the Mongols throwing diseased cows into cities to our present day horrors of World War II programs in Japan and Germany, to the contaminated research facilities in the former Soviet Union to the US. Chemistry enabled the creation of poison gas, and the horrors of Ypres in the First World War, and many other horrors in other conflicts. Nuclear research, of course, brought us the bomb. It was only through lucky accidents that, during the cold war between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the United States of America, that a nuclear catastrophe did not occur. There were incidents like the Cuban missile crisis, and the near meltdown of a Soviet submarine off the coast of the United States (stopped by Sergei Preminin at the cost of his own life), and many others. And now, our new global terror war, which introduces state spying and vast wealth spent on military and police functions, is a direct result, not of terrorism, for terrorism has always existed, but the possibility of nuclear terrorism. This was the idea that drove Dick Cheney to invade Iraq, for he believed that only a state power could provide a terrorist cell with the materials needed for a nuclear weapon, and he wished for all states to understand what would happen to them if they did so. IE, nuclear weapons cost is still prohibitive.
But imagine if nuclear weapons, or something as powerful as them, could be created for five dollars. In essence, aren't nuclear weapons simply the cost reduction of an explosive device? Instead of dropping 50 million tons of TNT on a city, you drop one bomb. Could you drop 50 million tons of actual TNT if you wanted too? Sure, just get 50,000 airplanes, each carrying 10 tons of bombs, and send them on 100 sorties over the city. Nukes are just a cheaper way. And what will the ISOs new understanding of quarks and quantum dynamics do for this process, the cost lowering of weapons, that has been going on since the ancient days?
Perhaps rather than transforming the world, the ISOs of Tron would provide the tools by which mankind would destroy itself and the world along with it.
There is another form of intellect besides the understandings of the material natural world. That is the intellect of the human being, the emotional intelligence, the 'spiritual'. Alongside the giants of science, come the giants of religion or philosophy, such as Buddha or Jesus. They, too, introduce ideas that change how people live. Many would argue they change it for the worse and thousands of years of religious murder make good evidence. Or one might argue they moderate the violence of the human animal, descended from some ape-like precursor, sharing our natural instincts for genocide, murder, and bloodlust with our hairy cousins. That somehow, thousands of years of religion and ethical philosophy have brought us to the point where we can create nuclear weapons, and have survived an entire generation without destroying the planet with them.
This debate is unfinished. Every year brings another argument. Every decade brings an opportunity for a new disaster, on the scale of the holocaust or holodomor or slavery. Will the human race use it's powers of organization, psychology, philosophy, and technology to wipe itself out or to improve it's own existence?
Would the ISOs, and their insights and discoveries, their wisdom and teaching, be exploited by a species too stupid, to blinded by it's own petty cares, to appreciate them? A species that simply was not ready, not intelligent enough, not advanced enough, to deal with the artifacts the ISOs minds would create?
All we would need is another Great Depression, another episode of mass poverty, another upheaval of the social order, another world war, for the norms of the philosophers to be abandoned in a generation, for the nihilists of revolution, the new Freikorps, to take power, and turn the Earth to dust in a white hot burning rage.
Some of the men of the twentieth century said that the development of nuclear weapons made necessary the 'spiritual revolution' or 'spiritual development' of mankind, so that it would not annihilate itself. Would some ISOs bring this, perhaps, a new insight into the human mind and human condition, somehow convincing people to give up their apelike ways?
How much would you be willing to gamble on the outcome of this question?