Do You Trust This Computer? documentary review: artificial intelligence is already here

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Do You Trust This Computer? yellow light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

This slick gloss on the state of AI is frustratingly scattershot and won’t surprise anyone who has been paying attention. But its warnings about how we’ve dealt with huge and rapid scientific leaps before are worthy ones.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m fascinated by futurist issues
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

Documentarian Chris Paine, who once asked Who Killed the Electric Car?, is back with another question of genuinely societal-shaking importance: Do You Trust This Computer? This slick gloss on all the ways in which artificial intelligence is already impacting our world won’t surprise anyone who has been paying attention… but as with so many other situations of incredible importance playing out right now, not everyone is.

“We have five years,” warns Elon Musk here, before we reach the moment that futurist geeks already know as the Singularity (oddly, that word is not mentioned in the film), when our computers exceed our capabilities, perhaps even reach a form of consciousness, and AI escapes our control. This does not seem implausible, not with how quickly we’ve gotten here, with AIs operating now that are already better than us in some limited ways, as Trust runs down. AI-driven robots are doing lots of routine surgeries; Google’s AI Deep Mind is the best Go player and best poker player on the planet, and it has admin-level access to Google’s servers (Google’s search engine itself is a kind of AI), though which it learns about everything. Google, the film implies, could achieve sentience, and soon, and we should be worried.

Google is a kind of AI, one that, the film implies, could achieve sentience, and soon.

Sure, there are many positive aspects to AI — driverless cars could almost eliminate traffic fatalities, for instance — but after cursory mentions of them, Trust goes very doom-and-gloom: What happens when AI-operated Ubers arrive (it’s inevitable) and all those drivers are out of work? All sort of jobs — not just manual work but also technical, white-collar, professional careers — are going to go away, handed over to AIs, and they won’t be coming back. What do we all do then? How will we interact with AI-brained robots who can interpret and respond to our emotions (as the robot in the image at the top of this review is learning to do)? In fact, there are many people already thinking about these things, and we have options, but those ideas are not represented here. Nor is the fact that Google honcho Eric Schmidt thinks Musk is wrong with his fearmongering (though he would said that, wouldn’t he?).

Do you trust your phone, the computer you carry around with you all day, every day? It knows you better than your mother does...
Do you trust your phone, the computer you carry around with you all day, every day? It knows you better than your mother does…

Trust is frustratingly scattershot, seemingly conflating two separate issues: that of AI that surpasses us and has about as much concern for us as we have for the ants we thoughtlessly trod on; and the unimaginably vast amounts of data about everything we collect everyday, the abuse of which, such as by Cambridge Analytica, can literally change the course of entire nations (see: the electoral triumphs of Trump and Brexit). There are connections — AI learns by ingesting raw data, and will learn how to manipulate us even better than humans holding that data can — but that never quite gels here. Perhaps the film’s very brief running time — under 80 minutes — wasn’t the best choice: these are matters that could keep a documentary TV series busy for many weeks.

There is value here. In the reminder that many scientific advances — such as, say, nuclear fission — once deemed to be impossible or off in the distant future have come to pass very soon after such predictions are made. In the warning that we very quickly get used to and utterly blasé about technology that initially seems horrifying. (There’s a brief history of humanity’s reaction to the submarine that is illustrative and enlightening.) But the rise of artificial intelligence is such a momentous matter that it seems almost irresponsible to give it such short shrift.

Do You Trust This Computer? is now playing, though August 23rd, at Cinema Village in New York City.

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