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THIS DOCUMENTARY FOCUSES ON THE WRONG BITS OF AI

Date: 2018-04-13



The challenges of Artificial Intelligence are huge, but they deserve better analysis than this.

The question, however, is, Do You Trust This Computer?

The documentary from filmmaker Chris Paine is dedicated to the dangers of artificial intelligence, although it did not make its way to theatres, Elon Musk was enthusiastically promoting the film on Twitter and paid for it to be streamed for free in early April (Musk also appears in the documentary as a talking head). It starts by asking viewers with quotations and glitchy graphics of phones and brains. "We have a networked intelligence that watches us, knows everything about us," says one. "The change is coming and nobody can stop it," says another. It feels more like a trailer for a bad sci-fi movie than a documentary on AI.

This documentary focuses on the wrong bits of AI 2

The field of artificial intelligence is one that desperately needs public discussion, but instead, Do You Trust This Computer? takes viewers on a whistle-stop tour of various AI-related topics, which includes job automation, autonomous weapons, and self-driving cars, all illustrated with CGI robots and quotations from respected researchers.

Paine, who is well known for directing the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, is trying to give an ambitious overview of the threats that AI might have in store, yet he does it in such a subtle way, almost the same as satellite imagery gives a "good overview" of where you left your car keys.

The film's discussion of superintelligence and the theory that animates many apocalyptic AI scenarios. The idea is that once these computers – that are smarter than humans – are built, its intelligence will grow exponentially, and it will become a grave threat to humanity. There artificial "life forms" (if you must) needs to be programmed with proper morals, says the theory, otherwise it will eventually wipe us out through carelessness, or plain indifference. Musk, who is one of the film's leading voice on superintelligence, warns that such an AI system would become "an immortal dictator from which we could never escape."

It might sound like some bad sci-fi movie waiting to happen, but the current information is incomplete and misleading of what the AI community believes about this topic. Many experts acknowledge the possible threat of superintelligence, but they are quick to add that the technology we have right now is not able to create conscious machines and that AI could create many more pressing dangers to society, like algorithmic policing and automated surveillance.

Musk argued that the threat of superintelligence still deserves more attention because it is existential – basically, it has the potential to wipe out humanity. This sort of calculation is useful primarily in an academic environment, where research into superintelligence has spurred plenty of useful work on AI safety. In the media, the attention on AI is scarce and fleeting, scare tactics distort the debate and flatten the many nuances in the discussion of superintelligence.

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Do You Trust This Computer? suggest the solution is augmenting humans with AI so we do not get "left behind". The documentary does spend time on important issues. It talks about the possibility that job automation will lead to greater inequality, and alludes to the great abundance of data being collected about us by companies such as Google and Facebook. There is also a particularly interesting section on autonomous weaponry, which makes the point that, despite our unease about machines making decisions on the battlefield, the expediencies of war will likely override ethical objections.

In the documentary, P.W. Signer, who is a political scientist, notes that unrestricted submarine warfare targeting freighters and tankers was though unconscionable at the beginning of the 20th century, but became normalised after World War II. Civilisation is in the middle of a similar transition over the ethics of drone combat and autonomous weapons may follow the same path.

An incredible amount of important work is being done in AI, by exploring ethical implications of integrating machine learning systems into society. Topics such as how biased data sets affect the decision-making algorithms used for criminal sentencing and job hiring. Though they are complex, these topics are not difficult to communicate. It is also notable that much of this work is being done by women – people like Kate Crawford of the AI Now institute and Joy Buolamwini of the Algorithmic Justice League – the cast of talking heads in Do You Trust This Computer? is overwhelmingly male.

The film does nothing to dispel the impression it is only interested in 'important Men' talking about 'important ideas' with its persistent use of female members of the public to illustrate general naiveté about computers. Do You Trust This Computer? is defensible in some ways though. It is engaging, imaginative and easy to watch, it also brings attention to a subject that is going to have real and important effects on all our lives.

Paine's dramatic opening sequence features a clip from Terminator 2, with robots stepping on a human skull. Then, Westworld co-creator, Jonathan Nolan, says the media and Hollywood have "fu*ked up" by "crying wolf enough times" to "safeguard" the public against a fear of AI. It is different this time, Nolan assures the fear is real and present.

Do You Trust This Computer? is a documentary that will probably teach you nothing about AI. You will be taken to a handful of research labs – but only features a bit of information a few minutes at a time – enough so to introduce you to the artificial intelligence robot, but not seriously explore its implications with the researchers developing it.

The documentary ends with a black screen that displays a message "The pursuit of artificial intelligence is a multibillion-dollar industry with almost no regulations." Yet, one has to wonder why Paine did not ask these "AI leaders" of the industry how effective AI regulation would be accomplished and what their own businesses are doing to prevent the artificial intelligence from growing exponentially and becoming a grave threat to humanity.

You can watch the trailer for Do You Trust This Computer? in the video below.


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