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  • Hooman Razavi

iHuman- AI & Ethics of Cinema | 2020 Hot Docs Film Festival

Updated: May 18, 2020

By: Hooman Razavi

The post-human age is not far from imagining but its cinematic representation could be harder to pinpoint in the age of astronomical change and innovation. iHuman is an award-winning film by Norwegian filmmaker Tonje Hessen Schei, who previously directed two documentaries on similar themes, Drone (2014) and Play Again (2010). iHuman world premiered at IDFA in 2019 and after winning best Norwegian documentary and Human International Film Festival awards this year, it will have its North American premiers this week at the 2020 Hot Docs Film Festival (May 28 – June 6).

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is not one of those off-the-radar topic to us as global citizens. It is constantly in the news and praised, feared and graciously debated. However, there is too much to know and digest on it and its current degree of advancement, as such, many may consciously ignore to pay much attention to all the new developments. What iHuman does aptly is to take the complexity of available information and disjointed pieces of research and present it to general audience to get a decent overview of the issues and currents within the field. The narrative strategy, which includes use of extensive imagery, archival footages and interviews with leading experts in the field provide that background. Admittedly, some viewers may still be too unfamiliar with some of the technical jargons and overwhelmed by the amount of information iHuman feeds them visually and aurally, but it is better to know the scale of AI development than be left in the dark.

The documentary interviews range AI top researchers and thinkers as Jürgen Schmidhuber- Father of Modern AI, chief scientist at OpenAI Ilya Sutskever, Google whistleblower Jack Poulson, computational psychologist Michal Kosinski, Techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, Journalist Lee Fang and Deepfake pioneer Hao Li. These choices which are diverse and indicative of far-reaching influence of AI on the modern zeitgeist; additionally, the intellectual editing accompanied helps the viewer not only to understand the complexity of thoughts each contribute to the whole story/topic but how all these interwoven fields of AI-research are connected. The power of the documentary is not to present a one-sided picture of AI and its impact but both the opportunities and the dangers; in a sense, viewers can clearly understand the Fire analogy and other references made by characters that stress the dual-nature of AI-futured dominated world.

The storytelling in 95-minutes documentary is assisted highly by use of timely quotes and titles (opening and ending), suspenseful music and shot assemblage done craftly through editing. The footages are mostly archival, but one can see the dominance of aerial shots meshed with dystopian urban and digital landscapes. Moreover, the portrayal of AI-assisted innovations as neural networking and hominid and robotic modelling convey and amplify visually the themes of automated, surveillance and de-humanized (post-humanized) society. Through the of use of these stylistic and aesthetics choices, Tonje Hessen Schei and cinematographer Henrik Bohn Ipsen presented and informed the global public opinion of deep questions that AI has brought and will bring. Among these contested questions alluded in the film, one can think of how much is worth to give up our sense of privacy for the sake of security? Is it worth to invest AI-technology so heavily and uncontrollably in military and law-enforcement? Who should own AI and who should monitor who has access to latest AI-discoveries? Has AI-advancement already surpassed human race capacity to stop it or there is a window of opportunity to bring it under control; and most importantly and in the words of one character-interview, philosopher “Tobias Rees”, is anything left of who we are as humans as our subjectivity may erode and overtaken by AI in the future?

iHuman has sparked this good conversation and presented intelligent background and current state of AI in multiple fields affecting every human affair. Could we know and be more informed more about Google, Facebook, Project Maven, Deepfake, Palantir, In-Q-Tel, killer drones, Megvii, Chinese interest in world domination through AI, protective policing and digital footprints misuses and Deep learning, indeed, we do; should we take any action to resist our lives to be dominated by these forces and technologies, possibly it is still within reach. Nevertheless, apart from these highly unresolved social and existential inquiries, iHuman showcase the power and ethics of filmmaking to be the voice of the human collective and dissent to inform and present the evolving social and virtual reality, albeit not completely in a flawless manner.

Grade: A-


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