As I sit here writing this review, I can look out the window of my Sydney terrace house and see a sky that resembles a post-apocalyptic wasteland. In what is still the early days of December, the city has been overtaken by a haze of ash and polluted air from the countless bushfires raging across the entire state. The haze has been going since the beginning of the week and will continue at least until next Thursday. It’s barely a week into the summer and already 2.1 million hectares of land have been burnt, which is three times as much as the disastrous at the time 1994 bushfires. None of this is normal, yet the political establishment acts as though it is. All of it is a sign that the future may be of humanity’s making, but it’s well beyond our understanding.
Having watched the premiere of Machine, a documentary about the emergence of Artificial Intelligence in the 21st century, one can’t help but have the same feeling. Just as the Industrial Revolution changed permanently everything about we live our lives and move around the world, the approaching Computer Revolution threatens to upend our society no less dramatically. Machine takes on an impossibly broad task, to summarize all the fields in which AI technologies have already been developed, those where they are likely to emerge soon, and explore the ethical ramifications of such technologies. Due to the scale of the topic, this documentary can not be seen as a definitive explanation of the issue, and neither does it try to be. In fact, a person already well versed in AI developments and debates is unlikely to learn anything new from this film. Rather, it’s the perfect primer for someone who has rarely considered these issues outside of their favourite science fiction movie.
The first sections of the movie explore the ways in which AI can attempt to supplement human connection. It’s a relevant issue with our growing epidemic of loneliness, and many technologies already exist that are designed to provide people with a sense of connection and support they are unable, for whatever reason, to receive from humans. One of the first technologies featured, an app called Replika, echoes directly an episode of Black Mirror in which a grieving spouse/friend/family is able to communicate via text with an digital clone of their recently deceased partner,
compiled through their text messages. Others use the app not to reconnect with any person in particular, but to feel as though they have a supportive friend to unload their problems onto.
And of course, there’s no overview of this subject that doesn’t include a trip to the‘sex robot’ factory. But despite the obvious transgressive appeal that makes this topic a favourite of party conversations and Vice News articles, there are a number of serious ethical questions that the film ponders without definitive answer. Will these robots exacerbate human loneliness or provide relief to those who never had a chance of intimacy? Will it encourage objectifying attitudes about women, and men to a lesser degree, or will it allow us to distinguish between sexual objects and people in a clearer way than ever? And what’s more dangerous to the principle of consent, a robot who can say ‘no’ or one that can’t say ‘no’? Despite the robots that already exist, these questions will remain hypothetical for most people in the near future, due to the cost, the social stigma and most importantly the fact that theserobots still occupy the ‘uncanny valley’ of creepiness. Future developments in the field may however make all of these questions more relevant to the mainstream incoming decades.
In contrast to the impression given by some of the promotional material, and the chilling introduction in which a human is defeated by a super computer at Go for the first time, the documentary makers and the interviewed experts are at pains to point out many of the ways in which AI is not close to reproducing a human level of flexible understanding. For instance, while Level 2 driverless cars have been developed to function competently in long highways, no technology has come even close to developing the complicated set of skills and intuition that a human driver must use in the inner city. Therefore, the section on driverless cars focuses more on the philosophical implications of who technologies should be built to protect and serve in a life or death situation. The section on AI warfare is concerned with similar quandaries, though on a much larger scale. In both cases the film gives screen time
to both the proponents and the critics of such technologies, as well as acknowledging their probable inevitability.
However, the section of the film that terrified me the most dealt not with the science fiction developments of robot killers or super intelligence, but the data revolution already happening in our daily lives, in which social media tech companies profit off our clicks, time and attention.
And even more concerningly, such data has been hijacked by bad faith actors to misinform us with fake, misleading or biased news. As the algorithms learn more about us through our freely given data, they know more accurately how to manipulate us, and our monkey brains are generally unable to deal with the onslaught. Add onto this the fast developing technology of ‘deep fakes’ in which video and audio fabrications will be indistinguishable from real footage, and the boundaries of truth and falsehood will become indistinguishable for the ordinary citizen. This perhaps more than anything else in the film left me genuinely unsettled, though it is a problem I had been well aware of before. If the truth becomes even more indistinguishable from lies than it already is for many people, the forces of authoritarianism will have little difficulty in constructing and enforcing the reality that augments their power. And for those of us who have been raised to believe in freedom, truth and reason; deep fakes should be scarier than the largest Terminator.
Behind climate change, AI is the most significant and potentially destructive force of the 21 st century. If you are new to this topic, Machine will do an excellent job of bringing you up to speed, but it can only be a summary of the issue in the same way my review can only be a summary of the film itself. It can be the beginning, but by no means the end of a public conversation.
Machine is released nationally in select cinemas from today.
Directed by Grammy nominated filmmaker Justin Krook (I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead), Machine was produced by FINCH and was shot on location at the UN Headquarters Geneva, MIT, Oxford, and in Tokyo, Munich, Sydney, San Francisco and Dublin by Australian cinematographer Anna Howard ACS (South Solitary). The film was produced by FINCH’s Michael Hilliard (Chef’s Table), Luke Mazzaferro (Red Hill), and executive produced by FINCH’s Rob Galluzzo (Red Hill) in association with Supper Club’s David Gelb (Jiro Dreams Of Sushi, Chef’s Table), Brian McGinn (Amanda Knox, Chef’s Table, Street Food) and Jason Sterman (13TH, Winter On Fire).