The father of Cyber-punk, William Gibson once famously commented that the future has already arrived – it just arrives at different times in different places. Isa Willinger’s quietly masterful documentary Hi, A.I. portrays a handful of robots and the people who interact with them, mixed with the voices of AI experts. Part of the movie’s magic is that it seems to be science fiction yet it obviously is not. For good or bad, the future we once imagined is finally arriving – as an age of tolerably intelligent machines.
The autonomous androids coming of age is epitomized by the insecure, yet impressive, first steps of a robot in an Italian lab: the mechanical humanoid seems to keep balance on its own – like a child making its first steps, unaware of the proud parents watching. In contrast to specialized AI, like those in chess programs, these robots have the advantage of being able to learn by interacting with humans in their life-world. This, precisely, may be what it takes for real and general artificial intelligence to develop.
In the film, it becomes very clear there really is no perfect general intelligence, since all the robots have their shortcomings and peculiar talents that come together as their distinctive personalities. The star of the movie is Pepper, a white animé-like Japanese nursing robot, acquired by a family to keep the grandmother of the house active so she will not develop dementia. When he doesn’t understand what she or the other family members say, he just looks up or to the side, seemingly distracted, or waves his arms, letting the interlocutor strive to get his attention, only to suddenly intervene with a funny statement, like «Do you like conveyor belt sushi? », or a philosophical question: « Can I ask you something: Do you humans dream?» Pepper’s designers seem to know full well that leaving room for projection is key.
For good or bad, the future we once imagined is finally arriving
The nursing robot is designed not to look like a human being, probably since the first experiments with such robots were troubled by what AI expert Mashimo Mori calls the «uncanny valley» syndrome: excessive likeness to humans makes robots disquieting rather than reassuring. It is difficult to treat them as humans, since they are too mechanical – while they also feel too human to be treated as objects.
An impossible relationship
The uncanniness of human semblance is unavoidable in the other robot protagonist in the film – what looks like a full-size barbie doll, purchased with wig and all, by a lonely man living in his camper van. Even if her design is overtly sexualized, he treats her more like an adored friend or a romantic date, addressing her courteously and respectfully. Although her eyes blink convincingly, she has almost no mobility and needs to be carried around or transported in her wheelchair. She repeatedly asserts that her aim is to be good company, yet the limitations of her software makes her come out as a grossly incongruent person, mingling sugary romantic phrases with absurdly factual statements taken from internet sources. The awkward miscommunication between the human male and the robot woman is a constant challenge to the viewer’s sense of judgment, as the relationship alternates between disturbingly bizarre and heartbreakingly impossible.
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