Review: ‘Hi, AI’

Hot Docs 2019

5 mins read

Hi, AI
(Germany, 85 min.)
Dir. Isa Willinger
Programme: World Showcase (North American Premiere)

It’s been six years since Spike Jonze told the story of Theo and Samantha in Her. Cut to 2019 and Isa Willinger offers the story of Chuck and Harmony in Hi, AI One difference between the films, and easily the most unsettling one, is that Her is a science fiction drama with its love story of artificial intelligence, while Hi, AI is a documentary. What once was speculative is now reality.

Jonze wasn’t far off while playing with the idea that some humans have stronger relationships with operating systems than they do with their fellow man, as evidenced by Theo’s humorously offbeat relationship with his phone’s OS named Samantha. Harmony, on the other hand, nearly looks human. She’s a sophisticated and anatomically correct robot complete with blonde locks, an Irish accent, and a removable head. Her grasp for dialogue doesn’t match Samantha’s, since she mostly rephrases Chuck’s questions in the affirmative or responds with comically long-winded answers that are a Wikipedia click away. (She also lacks ScarJo’s seductively sultry voice, but nobody’s perfect.) Harmony resembles a sex doll more than a human being though, and there’s a deadness to her movements and communication skills that indicate how AI is still a work in progress.

Willinger offers an objective study of Chuck’s relationship with Harmony that seeks to understand if the early experiments in human-AI interactions offer positive or negative results. The same goes for a trial run in a Japanese household in which a son bestows a robot named Pepper upon his mother to keep her mind active. The grandma doesn’t seem nearly as attached to Pepper as Chuck does to Harmony, but this robot isn’t nearly as sophisticated. Pepper is clunky, slow, and annoying. The novelty seems to wear off for grandma as Pepper responds to her attempts at conversation with random questions about tidying the house. (And FYI, watching someone watch a robot is a novelty that wears thin quickly.) When her sister comes to visit, there’s a notable spark provided by human connection. On the other hand, Harmony proves therapeutic for Chuck as she helps him develop intimacy and trust as he works out a childhood trauma. There are obvious pros and cons to the relationships Willinger observes, if one can call them that.

Willinger features a number of other nifty robots in development to show the range of research and the levels of artificial intelligence in the field. One robot makes popcorn while another learns to balance. Segments with philosophers and researchers acknowledge the grand debates of AI: can consciousness can ever be created; will robots will ever surpass humans; could AI become like HAL 9000 (in 2001)and turn against the humans that developed it. Willinger covers the human/robot interactions with impressive coverage and she uses engaging shot/reverse shot dynamics to capture the attempt at human interaction created by the experiments. Even when the robots respond, Willinger observes some awfully one-sided conversations.

The conclusions of the “relationship” between and ’bot are still up in the air, but Willinger’s film says more about humans than it does about robots. Loneliness, disconnection, and isolation appear to develop in tandem with AI. The research into the effects of these designs upon humans is too new but Willinger’s film is an intriguing beginning. As a species, the human race has as many kinks to work out as Harmony and Pepper do.

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Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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