Here's Why This New Documentary On Artificial Intelligence Is Troubling

  • Lauren deLisa Coleman
  • Tech

Director Chris Paine, perhaps best known for his documentaries Who Killed The Electric Car and the follow-up, The Revenge Of The Electric Caris back and now tackling one of society's latest subjects of alarm: Artificial Intelligence.  Featuring tech luminaries from entrepreneur Elon Musk to computer scientist, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, Do You Trust This Computerthough recently released digitally on iTunes and Amazon, is now making the rounds at several upcoming invitation-only screenings in northern California, complete with live director commentary afterward. But the question is, will this offering truly provide the striking narrative needed to boldly move the needle within the AI arena or not?

Do You Trust Your Computer is a 78-minute journey produced by Paper Cut Films that assembles commentary from scientists, professors and other notables such as Hollywood television producer Jonathan Nolan (The Dark Knight, Westworld) to paint a very grim picture of the dangers of development, reliance upon, application of and usage of Artificial Intelligence in our society today.

According to a previously released statement about the film, Paine says, "I hope we inspire people to keep technological tools working on behalf of the greater good and stay aware of what’s happening in the meantime." Yet the tone of the film seems to somewhat override such a noble goal to which the former part of the sentence aspires.

While there is some quick reference to the benefit that AI can provide mankind such as more accurate disease diagnosis and lessening of fatal car crashes via self-driving cars (which one would have the clear hope that the data relating to the number of self-driving car crashes changes fast in order to support such a statement), the majority of the film leans heavily toward doom and gloom with such terms as "Faustian bargain" used through the documentary to describe our interaction with advanced technology.

The view that machines will dominate us because they will become "smarter" or simply teach themselves to pick their own targets and release missiles that will annihilate at will via autonomous weapons is reinforced throughout Do You Trust This ComputerGoogle is alluded to as being the dark, secretive seat of which personal data will be used for harm. And basically, anyone who has a job, no matter what their profession, will become unemployed.

And that's the lighter side.

The issue with this documentary is, not that it gets any of the above completely wrong but that it offers no counter-views nor calls-to-action in an era of empowerment of individual voice, cultural paradigm shifts and growing enthusiastic movements pertaining to social good that could be harnessed to drive a better way in AI.  It seems the filmmakers' objective is paralysis by fear instead.

There are no directives about, for example, the importance of contacting policymakers to encourage proper regulation. There is no probing into why most of the life-like robots injected with AI always seem to take the shape of one's (read: the male creator's) ideal human you can finally get to do what you want. And the film misses a real opportunity for depth by not exploring how bias and subconscious make-up of engineers creating such algorithms impact the applications of them, how that can be combatted and the psycho-social reasons behind our need for and desire to control and replicate intelligence in the first place. That is the foundation for any discussion within artificial intelligence because it is the root cause for all that springs forth in terms the drive for continued expansion and application.

Where such other tech-docs succeed at creating connection is where Do You Trust Your Computer falls a bit short in that it seems to have no more cards to play than that of generalized fear.  In an era of racial tension and identity politics, perhaps tie-ing the concerns around the technology in terms of how it relates specifically to that such particular emotionally-charged area could do more to elicit the concern the film seems so desperate to provoke rather than spreading around overall terror. One cannot reach people today just based on general mayhem because, unfortunately, this is the now the everyday occurrence (see: record-breaking hurricanes, bombs sent to media and much, much more). Such social movements that the film seems to be trying to spark typically need to be tied to a specific cultural narrative in order to take hold, and it does not.

This documentary is more a look at what, primarily, Caucasian males in prime positions (mixed with a sprinkling of a couple of Caucasian females) fear about Artificial Intelligence with no infusion of other minds, values and concerns about the technology from both inside and outside of the United States. Thus, the homogeneity also makes for a pacing that is, at times, monotonous.

While the interview subjects are noteworthy and the direction is solid, somehow this piece comes off as just a bit self-aggrandizing like a cold parent who glumly says, "I told you so" after a misbehaved child touches a stove to really see if it's hot or not even after the parent says not to touch it. There is no real empathy here or deeper explanations around concerns and insights that are needed to help truly create change and understanding within the massively problematic area of AI that is so very much fraught with issues.

As viewers might sit and ponder after viewing such a film, perhaps that greater questions we should all be asking ourselves is not only how to do more than just worry about the potential ending of society by machines but also what to do, simultaneously,  to make society patently better each day so that even makes it worth preserving anyway.


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