When it comes to the dangers posed to us by automatons, film-maker Maxim Pozdorovkin wants us to start thinking beyond what Hollywood has warned us about.
“This idea of a single, malevolent AI being that can harm us, the Terminator trope … I think it’s created a tremendous blind spot,” he said to the Guardian. “[It gets us] thinking about something that we’re heading towards in the future, something that will one day hurt us. If you look at the effects of automation broadly, globally, right now, it’s much more pervasive. The things happening – de-skilling, the loss of human dignity associated with traditional labor – they will have a devastating effect much sooner than that long-distance threat of unchecked AI.”
That isn’t to say that robots can’t also just reach out and crush us. In his new documentary, The Truth About Killer Robots, Pozdorovkin traces all manner of dangers – economic, psychological, moral and, yes, mortal – posed to our species by automation and robotics. At the center of his film lies the question: “when a robot kills a human, who takes the blame?”
Pozdorovkin had long sought to make a film on automation, but he had a difficult time figuring out a way to approach the subject given its scope, as well as the many misconceptions surrounding it. It wasn’t until he heard about a case in Germany, where a manipulator arm crushed a line worker at a Volkswagen plant to death, that he knew he had his way in.
Using science-fiction author Isaac Asimov’s First Law of Robotics – “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a being to come to harm” – as a jumping-off point, his documentary covers a sampling of deadly incidents involving automated machinery, including a couple driverless car accidents that resulted in fatalities, as well as the first intentionally lethal use of a robot by American law enforcement.
In describing how his film came to fruition, Pozdorovkin recalls, “I went [to Germany] to investigate, to talk to the workers. Most of them were forbidden from talking about the accident. But a lot of them talked about the perils of automation, the way that their work environment was made worse as the result of robots. I’m using the tropes of science fiction and true crime to make a film that investigates some of the philosophical and economic problems that automation brings with it.”
The film distinguishes itself from other science documentaries thanks to its holistic approach: rather than speaking exclusively to the people behind the tech – CEOs, programmers, engineers – Pozdorovkin also interviewed members of the global labor pool – truck drivers, factory workers, gas station attendants, Swat team snipers – those whose lives and livelihoods have seen the most immediate effects of automation’s disruption.
Given the dire nature of those effects, such as the hollowing-out of entire labor sectors and the rise of global inequality, you would think automation would be public enemy number one among the middle and lower classes. Yet, as a political issue, it remains on the margins. Pozdorovkin believes it’s because “we’re still feeling it in qualitative ways.” He continues: “A lot of things that you see, like the rise in suicides amongst older white men in America, has to do with the way labor has been stripped of dignity and existential value.”
Meanwhile, “anti-immigrant and anti-globalization rhetoric covers up a lot of the structural damage done by automation. It goes back to the qualitative/quantitative distinction. The economy is elastic, so way before massive job loss will be a period of broadly sucking out the skills from the labor that’s involved.”
Our fears over the rise of machines therefore tend to take a sci-fi, post-apocalyptic bent, a la The Terminator. Those fears are exacerbated by examples where Asimov’s First Law is blatantly violated, such as when the Dallas police strapped C4 on to a robot (a bomb-detecting robot, ironically), sent it into the corner of the library where they had mass shooter Micah Johnson cornered, and triggered it, effectively killing Johnson. In the aftermath, many observers wondered if we’d entered a new stage of weaponized robotics for domestic use.
Pozdorovkin doesn’t think that there was anything that problematic about the use of the robot in this particular case. “Ultimately, had the sniper, who we interview in the film, shot [the suspect], as he had done many times before in other cases, there wouldn’t be any problem. [But] sending a robot to go in and kill someone feels uncomfortable. You can’t quite pinpoint it, but it touches into some kind of fundamental, uncanny, discomfort.”
That sense of the uncanny is not limited to lethal examples. One of the most memorable segments in his documentary centers on Zheng Jiajia, a Chinese engineer who married a silicone sex robot that he designed himself.
The rise in robotic pleasure dolls was something that Pozdorovkin knew he had to cover, but he wanted to avoid a sensationalized approach. “I’ve watched and read hundreds of reports, articles, etc, about sex robots and silicone dolls. And every single one was predicated on the question of whether the sex was any good. This sounds like the most interesting thing, but it’s by far the least interesting. The most interesting questions are ‘what are the social factors that will bring this into the mainstream?’ The obvious answer is demographics. It’s just a fact that certain people will not have mates. This is exacerbated in China because of the one child policy, but it will be true around the world as inequality skyrockets.”
If the results of all this new uncanniness were as simple as law enforcement using robots to supplement legally sanctioned police manoeuvres or giving lonely people a new form of emotional and physical reprieve, there wouldn’t be that much to fear. But Pozdorovkin worries about the effect it will have on our individual and collective empathetic abilities. That, more than anything, may be what’s truly at stake.
Pozdorovkin lays out a thought experiment: “Picture yourself driving on the highway. You decide to switch lanes, and in your sideview mirror you see a car going really fast. You don’t veer over and cut off that person, because you project fallibility on to them. They could be distracted, they might have a death in the family, they could just be reckless. You’re just going to let them pass and then go. But when you see that there’s a robot next to you, you will drive like the biggest asshole, because the machine is programmed not to bump into you.
“And the kicker is this: once there’s enough of these entities which we treat without any ethical regard, without projecting possible fallibility unto, the way we interact with them will spill over and we will be ruder, more aggressive, more inconsiderate to humans. This argument applies to sex dolls, it applies to a lot of things that we see.”
Have we already crossed the point of no return? Is the current political climate throughout the west the result of this degradation of empathy, stemming perhaps from the way we communicate with each other online, where we can automate personal exchanges via a retweet, like, or eye-roll emoji – to say nothing of the way we spread vitriol?
“I think that a lot of the sheltering and toxicity that you see online is ultimately part and parcel with the shielding mechanism that the anonymity of social media permits,” he says.
Ultimately, it’s just one of the ways in which the takeover of machines is well under way. Even as we continue to reel from the pace at which it is happening, those in charge of, or with access to, the technology – the corporate owners, the military, the police – will not hesitate to use it. Nor will they concern themselves with “the philosophical consequences and complications of breaking Asimov’s Law”.
And what about his own field: the movies? Can the people in front of and behind the camera expect to lose their jobs to robots, the same way those in manufacturing and the service industry have? Pozdorovkin thinks it entirely plausible.
“Artists have become shameless in promoting our absolute immunity from this. But if you look at the economic data, the exact same thing that happened to all of these other industries is happening to the arts.”
Rather than attempt to fight against this new paradigm, The Truth About Killer Robots embraces the inevitability, using an android robot (originally designed to read the news on Japanese television) and automated narrator as its face and voice.
“It’s cheaper, easier, more flexible. But most importantly, it’s a way for us to be honest about the process. The worst thing that we could have done was hire a James Earl Jones sound-alike to add human gravitas to the story.”
It’s a fitting choice, considering that the medium of film – like the broader story of this moment in history – no longer belongs first and foremost to humanity.