Film Reviews

Review: ‘More Human than Human’

Hot Docs 2018


More Human than Human
(Netherlands, USA, Belgium, 79 min.)
Dir: Tommy Pallotta, Femke Wolting
Programme: Special Presentations. (International Premiere)

Tommy Pallotta, a Richard Linklater collaborator who worked on Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, and co-director Femke Wolting open their doc about artificial intelligence with montages of robots like monstrous Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still, cute R2-D2 and C-3PO, and tragic Roy in Blade Runner.

The clips set up the film’s various takes on Artificial Intelligence (A.I.). The machines might be harmless friends, or potential fiends that could eventually destroy us. Near the end of the movie, one of its expert interviewees comes up with the scary question: what if a mind control machine tells you that you are not mind-controlled?

Narrating and appearing onscreen, Pallotta counters those who say that the flying contraptions used on the ‘60s American cartoon show The Jetsons will never be made. In fact, the film argues, we are already living in a sci-fi world. It’s just that every leap into the future instantly becomes mundane. It is only fairly recently that we began talking to phones, but nobody is impressed anymore.

As their film looks at A.I. in the present and imagines where it might go in the future, the directors build a string of fast-paced, entertaining quick hits. More Human than Human is a channel-switcher, a web-surfer of a movie that zeroes in on people who have had intense human-machine interactions, experts who talk about the benefits as well as the dangers of smart machines, and innovators in the field.

While singling out the many jobs that have been eliminated by automation, Pallotta engages a tech team to build a face and voice sensitive robot cinematographer. Capable of finding shots and framing them, not to mention conducting what he imagines will be especially intimate interviews, the bot-cam will replace the film’s cinematographer, who looks bemused. This wry, somewhat crackpot endeavour is the doc’s through line.

Along the way, we meet chess master Garry Kasparov, who hasn’t quite recovered from being defeated by the computer Deep Blue. Not surprisingly, Kasparaov thinks we’ve unleashed a monster that will take down the human race, as did Stephen Hawking. Naturally 2001: a Space Odyssey’s HAL, which operates with its own non-human agenda, exemplifies, as one observer puts it, the hubris of humans creating entities superior to humans.

Among the film’s briefly sketched characters engaged in relationships with machines, Gus is an autistic kid whose constant interaction with Siri frees his mom, who no longer has to field relentless questions about his fascination with arcane information. “Will you marry me?” Gus asks Siri, and she comes up with an answer that satisfies him. (Gus’s mother wrote a best-selling book about him and the i-Phone lady.)

Then there’s the young woman who resurrected her dead boyfriend with a chatbox built from the texts he sent her and photos. She says that artificial Roman is only a “shadow” that “resembles him online,” but is a comfort to her, his friends and relatives.

What is the future of humanity? Various specialists ask from various perspectives. Robotics can enhance human life and come to the rescue of, for example, people with missing limbs. But machines can also mislead and fog minds. We see humans who create robots that respond to their programmed talkback as if it were charming, and even witty. “Upload me,” says an artificial girl, as her creator asks if she’s flirting with him.

Recalling the protagonist of the film Her, psychologist Robert Epstein realizes, after many months, that the woman he’s been attracted to on a Russian dating website is just another computer. “Our symbiosis with the machine is near complete,” summarizes an interviewee.

As for Pallotta’s robot crewmember, a woman who participates in a test says it’s “organic,” that it makes her feel “seen.” Richard Linklater, who shows up in the film, is less impressed. Sure, you could program a robot to shoot a movie with Michael Bay or Woody Allen filming approaches, but movies are “not just the shot.” On top of that, the bot turns out to be more like an interrogation machine than an interviewer asking ridiculous, non sequitur questions.

This enjoyable film doesn’t come up with a final answer to the questions it raises other than to assert, like most essays or dramas on the subject, the primacy of the human heart. Without it even the most brilliant machines are less human than human.

Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.

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Maurie Alioff writes about movies for publications off- and on-line, and is a screenwriter currently collaborating on a documentary featuring Bob Marley’s granddaughter while researching other Jamaica-related projects, including a magical-realist crime story drawing on stories he hears on the island. He has written for radio, journals and TV, taught screenwriting and been a contributing editor to various magazines.

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