Want to feel old? Consider that The Wachowskis‘ groundbreaking science fiction action film turns 15 years old this year. That’s old enough to start shaving and testing for a learner’s permit.
Forget what you think about the polarizing sequels, The Matrix helped bridge the sometimes cheesy science fiction films of the 80s and 90s with the more modern, computer-dominated films of the 21st century. It wasn’t necessarily a new idea, but it was rather stunning how the Wachowskis presented it.
It’s a staple of cyberpunk plots: man against machine. Still, as often as this device is used, watching the movie 15 years later got me thinking: Was the Matrix system even necessary?
The Answer: Not really, but it would have made for one boring movie if it weren’t there.
Let’s forget about the awesomess of bullet-time for a minute. Let’s forget about the kick-ass fight choreography of Yuen Woo-ping. Let’s forget about the brilliant production design and slick cinematography. Let’s look at The Matrix’s MacGuffin: the Matrix itself.
According to Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne):
“This is the world that you know: the world as it was at the end of the 20th century. It exists now only as a part of a neural-interactive simulation that we call the Matrix…
We have only bits and pieces of information, but what we know for certain is that at some point in the early 21st century, all of mankind was united in celebration. We marveled at our own magnificence as we gave birth to AI: a singular consciousness that spawned an entire race of machines. We don’t know who struck first, us or them, but we know that it was us that scorched the sky. At the time, they were dependent on solar power, and it was believed that they would be unable to survive without an energy source as abundant as the sun. Throughout human history, we have been dependent on machines to survive. Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.
The human body generates more bioelectricity than a 120-volt battery and over 25,000 BTUs of body heat. Combined with a form of fusion, the machines had found all the energy they would ever need. There are fields, Neo, endless fields where human beings are no longer born. We are grown. For the longest time, I wouldn’t believe it, and then I saw the fields with my own eyes. Watched them liquefy the dead so they could be fed intravenously to the living. And standing there, facing the pure, horrifying precision, I came to realize the obviousness of the truth.
What is the Matrix? Control. The Matrix is a computer-generated dream world built to keep us under control in order to change a human being into this.”
In short, the human race has been kept asleep for centuries in order to harness its personal bioelectrical power and body heat so the machines can run their vast empire of machineness.
But how much energy was this?
The 120-volt battery Morpheus is referring to is your basic car battery, which does give off a lot of power compared to the puny C-sized Duracell he holds up at the end of his explanation. A car battery has enough power to start up a car consistently and even run the entire electrical system for about an hour on its own. However, it’s not something that can run heavy machinery very long. It can’t even run a car. You need gasoline for that to happen (or at least one of those new-fangled electric cars with a far more complex battery system than just a standard Sears car battery).
The bioelectrical power output from a human being isn’t huge, even though Morpheus makes it sound that way. However, he does talk about “endless fields” of human being in stasis chambers. Multiply that by billions, and you’ve got quite a source of electrical energy.
In regards to BTUs, it’s a little less clear. A BTU, or British thermal unit, measures energy. It can also be used to describe power, which is energy over time, making a BTU of power really mean how many BTUs per hour.
Morpheus says that the human body generates 25,000 BTUs, which as a unit of power is approximately 10 horsepower or about 7.3 kilowatts. In reality, the human body produces between 250 and 400 BTUs of power, depending on its state of consciousness. In other words, when the body is asleep, it produces less. To put it in real-world terms, this is about enough power to keep a 75-watt light bulb burning (or four of the energy-efficient pigtail light bulbs).
Over the course of a day, a single human body generates between 6000 and 10,000 BTUs, which doesn’t even come close to Morpheus’s 25,000 BTU number. (Even if a single body could produce this much heat over the course of a day, it would still take three or four people-batteries to heat an average-sized home.)
Who says machines are efficient?
According to the second law of thermodynamics, also known as the law of entropy, nothing operates at 100% efficiency. In fact, when it comes to generating electricity, nothing even approaches 100%. Some electrical generators can operate at 60% to 80% efficiency, but those are purely mechanical devices. The human body operates at only about 25% efficiency, when energy output is measured against energy input.
In other words, to get that 25,000 BTU out of a human being, the machines would have to pump in 100,000 BTUs worth of fuel. With a sky scorched and no photosynthesis available, where does the food for these bodies come from? Sure, the machines liquefies the dead to feed back to the living, but with a loss of 75% or more of potential energy, the food supply would burn itself out at an exponential rate. And that doesn’t even begin to consider how much energy is expended for the surely astronomical computer power of the Matrix itself.
Of course, the Wachowskis patched this plot hole with the line “Combined with a form of fusion, the machines had found all the energy they would ever need.”
Still, that raises the question as to why they machines didn’t simply use this “form of fusion”to power themselves in the first place.
The answer to that is simple: without the Matrix, The Matrix would never exist. Just take the blue pill and forget about it.