'Do You Trust This Computer?': Film Review

Tackles the daunting subject better than several predecessors.
8/17/2018

Chris Paine enlists academics, entrepreneurs and storytellers to assess the threats and promise of artificial intelligence.

Chris Paine's first documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car?, worried that a technological advance was so game-changing — in a good way — that powerful corporations might never allow it to enter the world. In Do You Trust This Computer?, he looks the other direction: at developments in artificial intelligence, seen as terrifying even by some involved in creating them, that may be out in the world before we even realize we want to stop them. Though it shows some strain in containing the topic's inherent sprawl, the doc is more thoughtful than some of its predecessors, and benefits from interviews with newsmakers like Elon Musk and, even better, Westworld co-creator Jonathan Nolan.

Things start unpromisingly, when a long, overheated string of sound bites leads into a clip of James Cameron's Termin— what do you mean you've seen this documentary before? Quickly, though, the doc moves from Skynet and HAL 9000 to Nolan, who worries that sci-fi has "cried wolf enough times" that, with AI now a real-world threat, the public may not be able to take it seriously. Paine and screenwriter Mark Monroe set out to illuminate tech observers' fears without sounding like Chicken Little.

After dutifully pointing out some of the ways AI is likely to improve the world (we give self-driving cars the benefit of the doubt here), the film moves to some familiar developments that make most humans more nervous: If an IBM program can beat us all at Jeopardy now, which of our jobs can truly be safe? There's the state-of-the-art robot laborer Baxter, the Da Vinci surgical assistant, and Japan's Erica, a fairly lifelike lady-bot who will surely take advantage of research Rana el Kaliouby is doing in teaching computers to read the emotions behind our facial expressions.

An epidemic of pink slips is one sort of fear; computerized execution is another. AI pioneer Stuart Russell reports that what keeps him awake is the idea of autonomous weapons: drones, which we already have, paired with algorithms that identify human targets and have the authority to fire. This was the subject of the well-publicized open letter a while back, in which experts across the spectrum warned governments to ban such systems. But our interviewees don't seem optimistic.

We're told, for instance, that a DIY AI system that cost its developers five hundred bucks "is beating" an Air Force project that cost $400 billion. But beating how? The nature of the contest is not explained; the rogue programmers aren't identified. Here and elsewhere, the daunting scope of AI's interactions with our world keeps Paine and Monroe from giving us the details we need. By contrast, the recent AlphaGo looked at one specialized use of AI (building a system that could master the ancient board game Go) and gave us enough background to both have a rough understanding of how "deep learning" works and make our own speculative leaps about other areas similar systems might soon overtake.

"Machines are natural psychopaths," says Stanford prof Jerry Kaplan, expanding on Musk's observation that "AI doesn't have to be evil to destroy humanity": If human interests get in the way of a computer's objective, and those values haven't been accounted for in its programming, the computer will happily disregard them. The film's fatalism deepens when another academic points out that even the people building today's deep-learning machines don't truly understand how they accomplish the things they do.

The film is in the home stretch before it even gets to Facebook, fake news, Cambridge Analytica and the politicians who benefit from an algorithm-distorted marketplace of ideas. It says little on this front that hasn't been said elsewhere, but as Paine moves toward the credits, he does use a smartly chosen image to drive home the doc's points. We're all doomed, basically — though if the filters of various search and social-media platforms are still letting messages like this get through to viewers, perhaps the war is not yet lost.

Production companies: Diamond Docs, Papercut Films Director: Chris Paine
Screenwriter: Mark Monroe
Producers: Tiffany Asakawa, Jessie Deeter
Director of photography: Thaddeus Wadleigh
Editor: Paul Crowder
Composer: Matter

78 minutes