Film Review: Do You Trust This Computer?

A panicky mashup of wonder and worry about what artificial intelligence will mean for humanity, from the director of 'Who Killed the Electric Car?.'
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The delicious danger of malevolent machines has been an attractive science-fiction standby ever since R.U.R., Karel Capel’s 1920 play about a robot rebellion. There are a couple of problems with that statement, both of which are obliquely referenced in Chris Paine’s stylistically monotonous but occasionally thought-provoking documentary Do You Trust This Computer?. The first is pointed out by “Westworld” showrunner Jonathan Nolan, who says that by going to the evil-computer model so often (cue clips from WarGames and 2001: A Space Odyssey), “we cried wolf” and desensitized people to the threat. In other words, no scary fictional scenario will serve as sufficient warning about the fast-approaching arrival of artificial intelligence. The second is that just to write my first line, this writer double-checked the spelling and date of R.U.R. on Google, which, as Paine’s movie argues, could well be the world’s first true artificial intelligence. That is due in part to the Google search algorithm’s strengths in machine learning, but also because humans are so willing to use it for just about any task imaginable.

Paine is no Luddite, though it’s possible that the dread his movie could inspire might lead to such a charge. His last two movies, after all, were advertisements for how electric cars could help save the Earth. Those comparatively simplistic movies benefited from streamlined storylines and clear heroes (those who make, sell and drive electric cars) and villains (the companies and politicians who try to stop them). With its star-studded cast of experts, from Ray Kurzweil and Elon Musk to automated warfare experts like Peter Singer, and a brief that is nothing short of the survival of humanity, Do You Trust This Computer? is a more sprawling and diffuse piece of work. It has a larger frame of reference than Paine’s battery-car docs but never hammers it into shape.

The blizzard of imagery that launches the movie is like many a pre-credits sequence these days. Flickering screens and blaring music are teamed with voiceover teasers about whether technology will “contain the good parts or the bad parts of humanity.” Unfortunately for the viewer, that style never lets up throughout the movie’s short running time. Blending talking-head interviews with rapid-fire imagery, the film seems forever on the verge of hitting a crescendo that never quite comes.

This is not for lack of trying. In a matter of minutes, Paine dashes from top tech writer John Markoff talking about the “Faustian bargain” implicit in the giving over of our lives to tech companies to how reading all of Wikipedia helped IBM’s Watson beat human champions at “Jeopardy!” to a child declaring, “I think everybody loves their computer!” The movie presses on, twinning the quantum leaps in things like pattern recognition that have already left AI researchers scratching their heads at how their inventions are doing such things with dark warnings about how all this ends. One strong through-line is suggested by a clip from Terminator 2 and ominous warnings from the likes of James Barrat, the title of whose book, Our Final Invention, neatly sums up his and many others’ worries about what happens when an AI deep in some remote server farm realizes just how glitchy and unreliable humanity is.

Like many warnings of its kind, Do You Trust This Computer? can overstate its case. Technology’s ability to amplify the worst of human behavior is well proven by examples Paine offers, such as the 2016 election’s fake-news surge and how it took just 24 hours for Microsoft’s AI Twitter bot to become a racist troll. But the movie also references developments like the Da Vinci surgical robot and Cambridge Analytica’s voter-target “psychographics” tool. The former was recently argued to be a waste of money (see Kirby Dick’s The Bleeding Edge) and vaunted claims about the latter have been strongly contested. By taking so many of the technorati’s claims about the inevitable dominance of AI in every aspect of life, Paine could in fact be contributing to a crisis in human confidence as much as his movie is trying to head it off. Scared as they might be of Skynet running the world, if people assume that it’s automatically better at everything, there might be some who welcome the day when the machines take over.