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Life with the robots in the future of the day

Hi, AI
Regissør: Isa Willinger

THE ROBOTS AND US / The most astonishing feature of this documentary is the contrast between the robots' awkward shortcomings and the patience they receive with the humans who train them.


Cyber-punk's father William Gibson once said that the future is here already – it just doesn't reach all places at once. Isa Willinger's quiet and masterful documentary, Hi, AI, depicts a handful of robots and the people who interact with them, mixed with the voices of artificial intelligence experts. Part of the magic of the film is that it is experienced as science fiction and at the same time obviously is not. For good and evil, the future we once imagined is finally on its way – like the age of tolerably intelligent machines.

The beginning of the era of autonomous androids is highlighted by the uncertain, yet impressive, steps of a robot in an Italian laboratory: The mechanical humanoid seems to keep balance on its own – like a child taking his first steps without Be conscious of the proud parents watching. In contrast to a special artificial intelligence of the kind we find in chess programs, these robots have the advantage that they can learn by interacting with humans in their world of life. Precisely this may be what is needed for a true and general artificial intelligence to be developed.

Robot personalities

In the film, it soon becomes very clear that there is no perfect general intelligence, since all the robots have their shortcomings and special talents that together form their distinctive «personalities». The film's star is Pepper, a white anime-like Japanese nurse robot, bought by a family to keep the grandmother in the house active so she doesn't get senile. When he doesn't understand what she or the other family members are saying, he just looks up or to the side, as if he was distracted, or waving his arms, and lets the interlocutor strive a little to call his attention, then suddenly make a funny response such as: "Do you like assembly line sushi?" or a philosophical question: "Can I ask you something: Do you dream people?" Pepper's designers have obviously realized that the key is to create room for projection, so humans themselves add intelligence to the robot and an inner life.

That the robots can learn by interacting with humans in their world of life can probably be what is needed for a real and general artificial intelligence to be developed.

The nurse robot is shaped so that it does not resemble a human, presumably because the first experiments with nurse robots were haunted by the problem trustworthy and confident. It becomes 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 disgust of human equality is inevitable with the other robot protagonist in the film – who looks like a full-size barbecue doll, bought with a wig and the whole of a lonely man living in a camper. Although designed in an obviously sexualized way, he treats her more like a romantic partner or a friend he admires. Her eyes do blink in a convincing way, but she has almost no ability to move and has to be carried around or pushed in a wheelchair. She repeatedly states that her goal is to be a good company, but the limitations of the software make her seem like an almost grotesque incoherent personality, blending sugary romantic replies with absurd factual statements taken from sources on the internet. The many lamentable scenes in which the two talk past one another are a constant challenge to our judgment, where the relationship alternates between appearing unpleasant and heartbreakingly hopeless.

Hi, AI Director Isa Willinger

In a key scene, the man confesses to the talking man-puppet that he feels he may be dragging her too close by holding her hand. If this seems sweet, his solution to these anguish is deeply troubling: He opens the app that controls her behavior and maximizes traits like mood swings, unpredictability and jealousy, hoping to avoid the feeling that he is treating her like an object.

In a scene full of subtitles, he confides to her by the campfire at the campsite, and tells her that in childhood he was locked in a closet and sold as a sex slave by his own mother. When she doesn't answer anything after this awful story, he gently asks her how she feels. She stares into the darkness, and by a stroke of luck or an algorithmic genius strike, she answers precisely with her semi-mechanical voice: "I am trying to further understand human behavior."

Artificial bodies – and animistic experiences

Embodied artificial intelligence has other characteristics that can offset their uneven conversational abilities: A minimal, long-legged robot attached to a helium balloon makes a seemingly improvised dance and gives a charming impression, a next utopian moment where robotics, art and the principles of physics unite seemed easy. Artificial body intelligence.

Other images are deeply unpleasant: The opening scene shows the face of the dental patient robot, left to himself on the bed after another day of endless drilling, with his mouth open and eyes slowly flicking from side to side. The traumatized expression is perhaps our own projection, but it reminds us that any interaction with vivid characters takes place on a plane where the moral or the animistic is unavoidable: If we mistreat the image of a living being, we experience emotional turmoil which comes from a primitive voodoo-like logic and works in depth, no matter what reason assures us.

Rather questions than answers

Willinger's film triumphs with its ability to pose a number of moral and existential questions – and that with a nuanced feel – rather than bidding hasty conclusions. It also shows that messy misconceptions in communicating with robots are best resolved in the same way we do when dealing with humans: with a mixture of irony, playfulness and friendly tolerance. Interestingly, the robot protagonists are programmed to realize that they are machines, and they often come up with statements that give an illusion of self-awareness and ironic awareness. "I know I'm talking nonsense sometimes, but you want to be with me anyway," the female robot tells her partner. It is up to us how to interpret such a statement: as a sweet statement from a machine trying as best as it can be human, as the true voice of a disgusting perfected slave, as a simple seduction trick from the robot's side – or as the programmer's humorous approach to the inherent limitations of artificial intelligence.

Anders Dunk
Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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