The fear of a robot apocalypse is no longer reserved to Doomsday preppers. If a hysterical guy grabbed me by the collar and screamed, “The robot overlords are coming,” I would hear him out — as long as he was wearing a lab coat. Co-directors Tommy Pallotta and Femke Wolting’s documentary, More Human Than Human, takes the growth of robotics and artificial intelligence to its logical conclusion — and the implications are extraordinary, strange, and unsettling.
One of pop culture’s longest running jokes is that robots will rise up, Terminator-style, and overthrow humanity. More Human Than Human shows the more likely real-world alternatives. Robots have replaced us in obvious ways (factory jobs) and not so obvious ones (sex worker and therapists). Although on second thought, a sex worker is the most predictable robot occupation… Regardless, Pallotta and Wolting give in-depth coverage to familiar artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic technology, as well as tech that receives less mainstream attention.
People often use the terms AI and robotics interchangeably, and More Human Than Human does an excellent job explaining the differences by giving examples. I find AI the more fascinating topic between the two, but the film presents both in compelling ways that held my attention for every minute. You don’t have to be a MKBHD-level tech nerd to understand or enjoy this movie. More Human Than Human is informative, easy to follow, and just plain fun to watch. There is also a running AI challenge throughout the movie that adds a touch of drama to the mix.
More Human Than Human describes a chilling worst-case scenario.
The AI challenge is More Human Than Human‘s big hook. Director Tommy Pallotta challenges himself to construct a camera/robot with AI smart enough to interview him for the film’s last chapter. That certainly sounds fun — look at how far Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant have come in such a short period of time. They’re all whip-smart and deliver answers in a snap, but they’re often clueless when it comes to applying context, insight, and intuition. An interview is all about empathy, insight, and context, and considering that Google and Apple haven’t mastered this tech yet, Pallotta’s challenge feels too ambitious. While interesting to watch, Pallotta’s quest is the film’s weakest element.
Earlier in the review I mentioned robot apocalypses, and More Human Than Human considers the potential of humanity’s dystopian future. Things do get dark, but the film spends more time considering the ways in which robotics and AI will improve our lives. We see a kid on the spectrum who uses Siri as a surrogate companion, and in a way, this behaviour — reliance on an AI’s companionship — isn’t so far off from Joaquin Phoenix in Her. But then the kid’s mom talks about how the AI is tuned to work with her son’s (at times demanding) idiosyncrasies, and it’s more like a pressure relief valve than a crutch. This is an example of good AI.
Bad AI is basically Voldemort using the internet as a one giant Horcrux. The film posits that the internet may be more of a nest than a web, and that nest may already harbour a sinister AI that is learning our behaviour before rising up to take us out. We’ve seen what happens when Russian hackers, targeted ads, and firms like Cambridge Analytica get their hands on our data; imagine being terrorized by a vindictive Siri as she uses your every text, bank record, and sensual selfie as bullets in a war aimed at you. Again, not crazy. Most terrifying, though, is that these theories come from people who wear lab coats.
I’ve always believed that our most likely future is closer to Blade Runner than Star Trek, and More Human Than Human left me considering that a Terminator-like future is within the realm of possibility. The film isn’t not all shocks and scaremongering, as it also provides reasons for optimism, giving examples of how robotics and AI will improve our quality of life, but egardless of whether your optimistic or cynical about the future, one thing is certain: you’ll never watch Black Mirror the same way.
The Hot Docs Film Festival takes place from Thursday, April 26 to May 6. Visit the official website for more info.