HI-A.I.-Pepper

Hot Docs 2019: Hi, A.I. Review

A meditative sci-fi doc

Hi, A.I. isn’t your ordinary documentary about technology. It’s a measured and thoughtful examination of the nature of consciousness, our need for connection, and our relationship with robots/artificial intelligence. Director Isa Willinger describes her film as a science fiction documentary, and that’s a fitting label. It’s a film that highlights the limitations of today’s technological innovations while casting an eye towards the industry’s unlimited potential.

Willinger doesn’t bother asking whether robots and advanced AI will integrate themselves into our daily lives. That’s a foregone conclusion. The more compelling question for this filmmaker is, “How will they?” Her documentary anticipates where the relationship is headed by focusing on where we’re at right now. Hi, A.I. focuses on two case studies. The first spotlights Grandma Sakurai and Pepper. Pepper is a spunky little Japanese robot tasked with keeping Grandma Sakurai (a lonely senior) company. The second thread follows a man named Chuck who brings home a human-looking emotional support robot named Harmony.

Hi, A.I. takes an observational storytelling approach which isn’t as exciting as the film’s logline, and trailer would have you believe. The film lacks one-on-one interviews, narration, and animated interludes to liven things up. But we do occasionally hear excerpts from conversations with noted intellectual Sam Harris discussing the ramifications of evolving AI. The doc mostly asks viewers to sit back, relax, and watch robots and humans interact.

The film’s robots are the stars of the show, even though they lack star power. Even today’s most advanced AI software doesn’t come close to replicating human conversation. Most of the film observes people have long and stilted conversations and miscommunications with their robot companions. Enduring these encounters is as exciting as watching somebody speak with Google Home or Siri.

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Hi, A.I. - Harmony

Interacting with these robots is similar to role-playing. You figure out its basic rules of conversation and then speak specific phrases that unlock the desired reply. Dialogues don’t feel organic and lack speeches’ free-flowing rhythms. It’s mostly a lot of work with little payoff. Which leads one to wonder who would prefer these mechanical interactions and what are the benefits?

Though impressive, each robot’s programming isn’t as advanced as the user wants it to be. In Chuck’s case, he isn’t communicating with a sophisticated robot companion like Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Mr. Data. It’s more like a sex doll with a Google Assistant packed inside it. I’ve seen more insightful conversations come from shaking a magic eight-ball.

The only reason Chuck’s “relationship” with Harmony is intriguing is because of Chuck. The man is either role-playing with a high-priced electronic device or fundamentally misunderstanding Harmony’s capabilities. If he is looking for a replacement for real human companionship, he’s barking up the wrong tree. And I think Chuck is smart enough to realize that his robotic companion is nothing more than a fleshy mound of ones and zeros. But if he’s seeking an entirely different form of social interaction, then that’s just what he’s getting.

How many of us have been attached to a piece of clothing or stuffed toy? They aren’t alive but are still capable of providing a strong emotional response. And with well-managed expectations, a companion AI fits into the same category. We get why people have security blankets and emotional support animals. So why not an emotional support humanoid?

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We all have some degree of social anxiety. But put yourselves in the shoes of a person who experienced emotional trauma. Doesn’t it make sense to let them work their way back into the flow of human interaction by spending time with a humanoid AI? What about people who are awkward around potential lovers? Or people living in remote locations? A relationship robot could help them build up confidence or feel less isolated?

Issues arise when people prefer the company of robots to the company of humans. Hi, A.I. doesn’t do a great job delving into these types of moral quandaries, but viewers get a front row seat to how the technology is affecting us in real time.


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