We Need to Talk About ‘We Need to Talk About AI’
Owing to coronavirus and worldwide civil unrest, no one is talking about this new AI documentary, so let’s give it the podium it deserves…
An unwitting victim of circumstance, We Need to Talk About AI was released on April 20th this year with shockingly little fanfare. But, like its central topic, we really shouldn’t let this insightful and thought-provoking feature documentary on artificial intelligence (AI) us by.
The latest creation from Leanne Pooley, the renowned Canadian director-producer behind the likes of The Promise and Beyond the Edge, We Need to Talk About AI is an important addition to an ever-growing library of content on one of the greatest potential threats to mankind.
Pooley brings together an impressive roster of contributors, including director James Cameron; MIT’s Max Tegmark, co-founder of the Future of Life Institute and author of Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence; and entrepreneur Bryan Johnson, founder and CEO of neurotechnology firm Kernel and contributor to Architects of Intelligence: The Truth About AI from the People Building it.
Along with a host of other big names, Cameron, Tegmark and Johnson look at where we’re at with AI right now before thrashing out the issue of whether the existential risk posed by artificial general intelligence (AGI) — which might not exist yet, but will be able to do everything better than humans when it does — outweighs its potential benefits.
As the talking heads contemplate a droid-populated future, one we’ve so far only seen on the whimsical pages of sci-fi but also one far closer than we might imagine, their varied opinions clash.
That said, like any documentary filmmaker worth their salt, Pooley never allows the discourse to edge too far in either direction. Instead, the award-winner keeps all empirical and theoretical considerations as balanced as possible, joining the burgeoning ranks of AI realists seeking to explore one of the most pressing issues of our time — and before humanity turns the gun on itself.
In doing so, We Need to Talk About AI asks some vital questions. What about the ethics? Would sentient robots have legal rights? What could happen if super-intelligent machines outsmart humans? What are the motivations of the tech giants trying to create such machines? Would they remain in control of their creations? How will machine-human interaction change as AI advances?
Actor Keir Dullea narrates. You might recognise him as Dr. Dave Bowman in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Pooley cleverly uses the film as a frame of reference throughout the documentary, showing how a cold-blooded — or should we say, no-blooded? — sentient automation like HAL 9000 could be, especially when its goals become inconsistent with our own.
Dullea’s raspy narration is unquestionably on the hammier side of Hollywood, which — alongside all the allusions to 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Terminator franchise — will no doubt attract some criticism. But I have a sneaking suspicion this was a deliberate move, aimed at bridging the two contrasting worlds in which these topics are usually addressed: those of science fact and fiction.
I’ve long argued looking at the imagined, sometimes over-theatrical — and often prophetic — futures of sci-fi tales is a perfect way to help plan for a future we can’t predict with any real accuracy. And more’s the point, there’s greater excitement in coming at the problem wearing a non-rose-tinted pair of cyberpunk goggles.
When we debate existential topics like AI, we need someone to speak on behalf of humanity. In this instance, Dullea is the perfect choice because, in the film, that’s exactly what his character does. An inspired pick, in my opinion!
On the technical side, Pooley successfully shoots for a tried-and-tested approach, mixing the above-noted talking head interviews with nifty graphics; the tickled ivories and synthy beats of a half menacing, half upbeat score; compelling moments from sci-fi movies; and loads of archival news footage.
The inclusion of such a broad range of material always works in a documentary to achieve that all-important variety. But here, it also helps in developing a real sense of urgency — and it manages to do just that without going totally doomster on us.
But, thankfully, although tempered by a shrewd degree of optimism, We Need to Talk About AI does go a fraction doomster on us. The truth is we need those outside the tight-knit AI clique — storytellers and generalists like Pooley — to raise awareness about the potential dangers of AI. These folks have a wider appeal than tech billionaires (who few appear to trust or believe in) tend to enjoy, and we need them to use that wider appeal to slap the public awake so they can smell the WD-40 before it’s too late.
At the moment, as discussed in the documentary, it feels a lot like we know about the imminent arrival of aliens on Earth as we choose to laze around with our feet up saying, “Ah, yeah, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
You can argue until you’re blue in the face fears around AI are nonsensical, but let’s not get to the point where we try to cross the bridge to realise it has already been destroyed by machines that don’t care for us to go anywhere without their say-so.
To come at it from a different angle, nobody bothered planning for a global pandemic of this scale, despite repeated warnings from experts, and look where that got us: up Covid Creek without a paddle. The difference between coronavirus and AI is the threat from the former was immediate, and it seems humanity needs that immediacy before they can be galvanised into action.
Whether you believe machines will make or break the future of mankind, this documentary is certainly worth your time. It’s ideal for those who know little about AGI, offering a comprehensive look at the major pros and cons. But there’s still plenty of value here even if you’ve been following the topic closely in the media in recent years.
Humans could essentially be in the process of bringing back the dinosaurs, so what’s an hour-and-a-half in the grand scheme of things if it means people can educate themselves out of the possibility of annihilation or subjugation?