Wide-ranging documentary which tracks the rise and rise of artficial intelligence
Dir. Tonje Hessen Schei. Norway, Denmark. 2019. 99 mins
Whether it’s algorithms potentially driving “fake news” or the consideration of what increased robotics might mean for the jobs market, the subject of artificial intelligence is rarely out of the papers these days. It’s also been a hot topic for documentarians, with Chris Paine’s Do You Trust This Computer? and Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim’s The Great Hack amongst recent forays into the arena. A crowded marketplace to enter, then, for Norwegian documentarian Tonje Hessen Schei, which, coupled with her broad-brush approach to the subject, might see iHuman struggle to find a foothold on the festival circuit after the film’s world premiere at IDFA.
’iHuman’ works as a thought-provoking primer to AI but those who already have a grounding in the subject may find it lacks depth.
The film’s chief success is in the calibre of the interviewees who have been assembled to talk about the AI revolution - including “father of AI” Jürgen Schmidhuber, and Ilya Sutskever, who is the chief scientist at Elon Musk’s OpenAI. Hessen Schei also moves out of the scientific realm to interview human rights lawyers and journalists about the wider implications of machines that can think much faster than humans. Demonstrating an awareness that talking-head style interviews can be dull, the director situates the contributors in unusual places, such as up a mountain, while also using techniques such as speeded-up weather patterns and crowd shots of people using their phones as they go about their day to day lives to add interest.
But AI is always a tricky topic for filmmakers because computers aren’t particularly cinematic and talking about their processes relies on being able to illustrate the invisible. This means that Hessen Schei has to lean fairly heavily on computer graphics to illustrate her point. As we watch an animation straining to take on human features there’s no doubting that she favours the dystopian argument, a tone set from a Stephen Hawking quote at the start: “Success in creating AI might be the biggest succcess in human history. Unfortunately, it might also be the last.”
iHuman is a solid introduction to the topic, covering the way that algorithms “watch us” and evaluating how much data about us is being shared with tech companies on a daily basis. The idea of manipulation and monitoring of people via the internet, coupled with the huge advances in facial recognition software that contributors here say is already being used to target ethnic Uyghurs in China, makes one of them fear it could creat “infinitely stable dictatorships”.
This is a frightening thought and one Hessen Schei focuses on, although she strays into the world of speculation in certain places. Take, for example, psychologist Michal Kosinski - whose research is said to have inspired the creation of Cambridge Analytica. (“I guess I have to deal with being blamed for all of it,” he says). He claims that computers can analyse physiological traits to determine a person’s sexuality and even their political leanings, which, if true, would certainly be a concern, but there’s definitely a sense of the worst-case scenario being explored at all points in this documentary. This is further underlined by a portentous sound design and score.
Because Hessen Schei is trying to cover so much ground, the result can feel scattergun. She also deals with predictive policing’s problematic data bias, the way that alogrithms can push people to extremism simply by giving them more of what they want, through to the international “arms race” to create machines that are not only intelligent but which learn from their experiences. iHuman works as a thought-provoking primer to AI, but those who already have a grounding in the subject may find it lacks depth.
Production company: UpNorth Film
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Producer: Jonathan Borge Lie
Cinematography: Henrik Bohn Ipsen
Editing: Torkel Gjorv, Aleksander Kvam
Music: Olav Øyehaug