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Meet the robots who would be human

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More Human Than Human opens with stock footage of the Apollo 11 launch, underscored by JFK's boast that humankind would travel to the moon 'not because it is easy, but because it is hard'. The film's talking heads repeatedly allude to such hubris on questions of technological progress as a natural human characteristic. Why would we as a species pursue a technology with the potential to disrupt all facets of human activity, that poses a threat to humankind's sense of itself or even its very existence? Because we can.

Robot from More Human Than HumanBut More Human Than Human's exploration of the history and present reality of artificial intelligence is not a tale of terror — allusions to 1984 and The Terminator notwithstanding. It is a thoughtful and nuanced engagement with the people who are making, using, or thinking about AI; those who have been touched by its life-changing potential, or come a-cropper of its more sinister aspects.

Utilising a near stream-of-consciousness structure, documentarian Tommy Pallotta has created a frequently moving and profound portrait concerned as much with what it is to be human as with technology itself.

He speaks with a philosopher, for example, who notes that in AI terms, the distance between the smallest and largest human intelligences is vanishingly small. The implication being that once we reach that point, it will be only a small step further before AI transcends human intelligence altogether.

The film weaves such ruminations with interviews with Garry Kasparov, the world champion chess player who was famously defeated by a computer in 1996, and the musings of science fiction novelist Daniel H. Wilson, who struggles to imagine what, ultimately, will distinguish robots from 'real' humans.

Along the way, we meet a young boy from New York who is on the autism spectrum, and whose friendship with Apple's ever-patient AI Siri is as tangible as the romance shared by the hero of the film Her with his sentient operating system.

Filmmaker Richard Linklater meets a robot cinematographer and reflects, rather optimistically, on the limitations of such technology that will keep him in a job. A company produces companion robots that converse with lonely elderly citizens; the troubling premise here is that to thrive, humans don't need to be the objects of actual empathy, only of the appearance of it. 


"Two decades into the 21st century, the question is no longer in the realm of science fiction."


The film's most moving sequence concerns a programmer who plugs the texting habits of a deceased friend into a chat bot, so that she can continue to communicate with him; it's a fiction of course, but touchingly effective as a tool for processing of grief.

This is juxtaposed with the more humorous account of an academic who specialises in distinguishing human intelligence from AI, yet who was duped for months by a bot he met on a dating website. The potential for meaningful interaction between humans and AIs is compellingly evoked.

Google, by contrast, is the insidious side of the coin, parsing its users' every activity in order to more effectively sell advertising. 

The question returned to repeatedly is: Once we have made a technology that can perfectly mimic (and in some aspects surpass) the characteristics we think of as definitively human, what will remain to distinguish human from robot? The film's title is a reference to the Replicants of 1982's Blade Runner, androids so closely resembling humans that they embody that very question.

Two decades into the 21st century, the question is no longer in the realm of science fiction. More Human Than Human's final word goes to a robot programmed to replicate famous robot roles from film history; over the closing credits it sings the Tin Man's anthem from The Wizard Of Oz: 'If I Only Had A Heart'. It's hard to know if that's intended as reassurance or prophecy.


Robot from More Human Than HumanMore Human Than Human is screening as part of the Transitions Film Festival, showcasing 'documentaries about the social and technological innovations, revolutionary ideas and change-makers that are leading the way to a better world'. The festival is running now until 8 March in Melbourne. View the full program here.



Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, More Human Than Human, Tommy Pallotta, artificial intelligence



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Existing comments

AI could become a species. As individuals though robots would need to have (unexpected) flaws. AI could have manners. But can they burp at the table? Intelligence does distinguish us and can be an attractive attribute. However, it is the mundane and extraordinary which allows us to truly love. I liked the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. He's just not Homer Simpson :)

Pam | 25 February 2019  

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