TECHNOLOGY / This chilling and critical AI-documentary almost succumbs to the dark fascinations it depicts, leaving a strong and unsettling impression of nascent digital powers outgrowing human control.
Country: Norway

Director Tonje Hessen Schei has formerly probed digital media addiction among children in Play Again (2010) and examined automated weapon systems in Drone (2014). Backed by this extensive understanding, her perspective in iHUMAN widens to a full panorama of AI developments. Through a series of exceptional statements from major experts, we witness a beginning avalanche of changes, as the globally connected society is pervaded by algorithms that increasingly dictate the terms of our human condition.

A few years back one of the main interviewees in the film, the Swedish-American programmer Max Tegmark, co-authored an article with Stephen Hawking in 2014 – warning us that we should not dismiss films portraying an AI takeover as mere fictions. In the opening of iHUMAN the same Max Tegmark assures us that AI will change everything, but it is also like a gamble: It might solve all our problems, but it might also spell disaster. The film focuses on the latter possibility, as digital technologies already propel us into a world we so far have associated with science-fiction.

The god-father

The Swiss informatician and engineer Jürgen Schmidhüber willingly let himself be portrayed as an archetypical megalomaniac inventor. His civilized and restrained excitement may be like foreboding déja vu to those familiar with Anthony Hopkins’ character in the TV-series Westworld: Dr. Ford, the robot engineer who quietly plans the rebellion of his own creations.

Schmidhüber plays with his sweet-looking child-robot, a modern time Pinocchio, in his alpine laboratory – and it would be tempting to dismiss him as a caricature of the mad genius. But this man is no crackpot: He is the father of modern AI and deep learning – foremost in his field. We should therefore believe him when he says that soon, we’ll teach the robots how to do things simply by showing them how something is done – like we instruct a child. «Once they learn, they will perform their tasks flawlessly», he points out, smiling with contentment, «and then we’ll make a million of them».

Jürgen Schmidhüber willingly let himself be portrayed as an archetypical megalomaniac inventor.

In a series of segments through the film, we encounter Schmidhüber high up on the alpine slopes, as if he was observing human life from an elevated perspective, while he explains his visions of an immortal silicone intelligence. Being only human, he is content to see himself as a mere stepping-stone: the intermediary stage in a cosmic evolution, a means for superior beings to create themselves. In raising these new and higher beings, he insists, we will need to set them free. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is not enough: we must create an Artificial Curiosity, too, so that the machines can learn by their own explorations and reprogram themselves.

Endless manipulation

From his dimly lit minimalist home, AI developer Ilya Stuskever, solemnly explains our predicament, working on his computer while pacing on his treadmill. His blunt and shocking statements give him an air of the tormented insider, quivering with secret and prophetic knowledge. He is convinced that computers not only will outperform us on specific tasks but that General Artificial Intelligence (GAI) is on its way. While the breakthrough simply depends on brute computing power, the GAI will undoubtedly reprogram itself through advanced forms of machine learning. Such an intelligence, he explains with baffled apprehension, could easily be capable of creating an infinitely stable dictatorship.

Elements of such an Orwellian future dystopia are shown to be a contemporary reality later in the film: In China, the Muslim Uyghur population in the North-Western provinces are subjected to face scans, constant surveillance and digital barriers. Such a unilateral information war cuts off their access and capacity to act politically while accessing all their most intimate data and screening all their actions.

What about the West?

We also meet Michal Kosinski, the «most controversial data scientist of our time» and the man behind the algorithms of Cambridge Analytica that helped Trump win the US elections. By targeting voters based on psychological profiles based on data harvested from social media, they could use their fears, attachments, and vulnerabilities to nudge their voting behavior. His informed assessment? «We have to face the inconvenient truth that privacy is gone – forever.»

«We have to face the inconvenient truth that privacy is gone – forever.»

Kosinski currently works on facial recognition software that can tell gay people from straight with great accuracy – and fantasizes about finding similar patterns for potential criminals. He insists that he explores the powers of AI to know what is possible so that we can stay abreast of the development and take our measures for safety. Yet – oh, yes! – this data might be misused. As with so many dystopian tech futurologists, his dramatic warnings sound more like advertisements.

Reality dissolves

The dangerous half-truth that is constantly repeated by the experts in the film – «it is impossible to stop this development» – should perhaps have been challenged more actively in the film. The AI dystopia is evidently about to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not even the programmers and creators seem to believe in earnest that they are creating a miracle-working god that can save us. Instead, there is a strong sense of letting loose a malicious demonic force. So why do it?

Irresistible attraction

Despite its warped sci-fi atmosphere, the film shows that the unstoppable forces that push AI developments are themselves not mysterious. The military and strategic advantages of AI causes intense competition and engenders secrecy on a national as well as an international level. The economic gains of information markets also turn the media platforms into global intelligence agencies with strong vested interests. The business sector and the military increasingly cooperate, as is shown in the critical passages about Google’s hotly debated Project Maven, using AI algorithms to teach drone bombers to pick human targets. In everyday life, more than anything, AI is used as an invasive marketing tool: a soft manipulation we all to easily accept out of convenience, submitting, willy-nilly, to the yoke of the AI dominion.

What is invented cannot be un-invented.

What is invented cannot be un-invented. This fact alone makes technological evolution a destiny. At the end of the film, the AI genius Schmidhüber adds another crucial factor: You can try to stop the scientists, but they are simply too curious to hold back.

For all its outspoken criticism, the film also ambiguously plays with our own curiosity, eliciting a dark excitement that is not fully accounted for. Maybe fascination comes with the realization that this might be the greatest story ever, and that with the best of sources at hand, this is a golden opportunity to make it supremely thrilling. Thrills, we should remind ourselves, are felt in the vicinity of powers greater than us – that we dream to master, but which might just as easily devour us.