Screening for eight weeks at modernfilms.com/ihuman
When a ship’s artificial brain fails, its crew must rebuild it from scraps in this techno-theological thriller by the author of Dune.
IN 2010, she made Play Again, a film about digital media addiction among children. In 2014, she won awards for Drone, which explored the CIA’s secret role in drone warfare. Now, with iHuman, Norwegian documentary-maker Tonje Hessen Schei tackles – well, what, exactly?
iHuman is a weird, portmanteau diatribe against computation – specifically, the branch of it that allows machines to learn about learning. Artificial intelligence, in other words.
Incisive in parts, often overzealous and wholly lacking in scepticism, iHuman is an apocalyptic vision of humanity already in thrall to the thinking machine. It is put together from intellectual celebrity soundbites and illustrated with a lot of upside-down drone footage and digital effects. As such, the whole film resembles nothing so much as a particularly lengthy and drug-fuelled opening credits sequence to the US crime drama Bosch.
The film opens with the famous Stephen Hawking quote: “Success in creating [AI] would be the biggest event in human history. Unfortunately, it might also be the last.” If that seems heated, go visit Xinjiang, a region of China seen in the film in which 13 million Turkic Muslims (Uighurs and others) live under AI surveillance and predictive policing.
Nor are the film’s speculations particularly wrong-headed. It is hard, for example, to fault the reasoning that leads Robert Work, former US deputy secretary of defence, to fear autonomous killing machines, since “an authoritarian regime will have less problem delegating authority to a machine to make lethal decisions”.
iHuman‘s great strength is its commitment to the bleak idea that it only takes one bad actor to weaponise artificial intelligence before everyone else has to follow suit in self-defence, killing, spying and brainwashing whole populations as they go.
“iHuman is a profoundly fetishistic film, worshipping at the altar of a god it has itself manufactured”
Yet its great weakness lies in its attempt to throw everything into the argument: social media, prejudice bubbles, election manipulation, deep fakes, face recognition, social credit scores, autonomous killing machines and more. Of all the threats Hessen Schei identifies, hype is conspicuously missing. For instance, we still await convincing evidence that propaganda campaigns on social media really can tip an election.
Much of the current AI furore looks jolly small and silly once you recognise the role of advertising in AI development. Most assertions about how our feelings and opinions can be shaped by social media are retreads of claims made in the 1910s for the billboard and the radio. All new forms of media are terrifyingly powerful, and all age very quickly indeed.
So there I was, watching iHuman through my fingers – the score is terrifying, and artist Theodor Groeneboom’s animation of what the internet sees when it looks in the mirror is the stuff of nightmares – when it occurred to me to look up the definition of “fetish”. In one sense, it means an inanimate object worshipped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit. iHuman is a profoundly fetishistic film, worshipping at the altar of a god it has itself manufactured. Nowhere does it mention the work being done to normalise, domesticate and defang our latest creations.
How can we stand up to our new robot overlords? Trying politics would be my humble suggestion.