'Do You Trust This Computer?' Should Be Seen as Soon as Possible

Chris Paine changes his focus from electric cars to the future of AI and why we should welcome our inevitable robot overlords.

This documentary will self-destruct in five seconds. Well, not that shortly, but Do You Trust This Computer? will cease to be useful in a short amount of time. It’s the kind of doc that unloads all the latest on a pressing matter and will be somewhat if not mostly obsolete in a matter of months. In fact, another potentially more up-to-date film warning about artificial intelligence (Maxim Pozdorovkin‘s The Truth About Killer Robots) premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival in a few weeks. And the speed of relevant new information and technology is surely already surpassing both of them with every word you’re reading.

For the time being, though, Do You Trust This Computer? is worth watching. On a general and introductory level, it’s pretty current in showing and telling about the progress of physical robots and AI programs, which ones are to be embraced as a benefit to mankind and what to be concerned with as a threat to our existence or our freedom or our jobs (so far, I haven’t heard of an AI that can write movie reviews, though I could easily imagine one that does so in a flat objective manner, particularly for docs like this, analyzing film its value as a source of information). It all seems like obvious stuff, but that’s why it needs our attention.

Director Chris Paine, whose previous work has also been of fleeting relevance (he made Who Killed the Electric Car? and its sequel, Revenge of the Electric Car, both of which remain interesting but are no longer up to date), presents the material here in a clever manner despite the film being an info dump doc of standard structure. The mix of man-on-the-street interviews, expert talking heads (including IBM Watson lead developer David Ferrucci and Professor Stuart Russell, who literally wrote the textbook on AI), and clips from popular science fiction movies (2001, The Matrix, Ex Machina, etc.) together collectively addresses a three-part situation that proves the necessity of the film itself. Here’s where most people are ignorant about AI, here’s why they think it’s just fantasy, and here’s the reality.

Science fiction “is a lie that tells the truth,” says Jonathan Nolan, co-writer of the movie Interstellar and co-creator of HBO’s robot-heavy series Westworld. “This is about what’s next, what’s happening right now.” Do You Trust This Computer? is filled with great soundbites from him and other more qualified commentators involved with the tech world. Elon Musk is another prominent face who shows up a lot in the doc. He points out, “The average person doesn’t see killer robots going down the street, so they’re like, ‘What are you talking about?’ Man, we want to make sure we don’t have killer robots going down the street. Once they are going down the street, it is too late.”

There’s a sense I get from this film, though, that it’s already too late anyway. Machines are already promising to displace people in all sorts of professions from drivers to doctors, as is shown. A history lesson in submarine warfare implies an unavoidable tradition of sci-fi being prophetic, perhaps because it inspires more than it warns. Do You Trust This Computer? suggests our doomed future by detailing the present advancements in drones, Twitter bots, and data processing firms such as the scandalous Cambridge Analytica and how they tie into the probable worsening of problems regarding autonomous weapons, encouragement of hate speech on social media, and the proliferation of fake news.

Do You Trust This Computer? isn’t exactly an issue film, no more than the similarly daunting but more concerned (and actually increasingly important) Zero Days, which basically tells us how it is and how it’s going to be… sorry, kids. But the doc does leave room for solutions in the end. They’re just not the ones that are obviously unlikely; nobody tells us that we should all just kill the switches now and go back to nature before we’re all enslaved or slaughtered. A segment on the call for international regulation of AI specifically for military application is not placed in the final act of the doc as something to support but is swiftly found in the middle as just something that’s out there and therefore easily presumed improbable.

And the answers might not be what viewers want to hear. The concluding focus is on man’s need to accept and evolve and merge with AI rather than think of it as other. Yes, Ray Kurzweil is in this film, though he’s surprisingly given little screen time and doesn’t offer his latest theories on integration, transhumanism, and the singularity. Instead, it’s Musk who gets the final word that’s, essentially, that we need to welcome our inevitable robot overlords for the sake of our survival. Of all the many docs scripted by Mark Monroe, Do You Trust This Computer? most reminds me of Chasing Ice, a sort of issue film that recognizes climate change as something already here and has us feeling despairingly behindhand.

I wish there were more character-driven sequences in Do You Trust This Computer? That’s one of the elements to Paine’s Revenge of the Electric Car that makes it endure more than other films of his and its kind. It follows human subjects and narrative arcs in what’s basically a competition doc about the race to produce the first widely accepted electric vehicle. Paine’s latest has very few moments where it tracks characters, namely Affectiva co-founder and CEO Rana el Kaliouby and robot developer Hiroshi Ishiguro, and interestingly enough both human-interest arcs fittingly involve advancements in more human-like programs and robots.

But for the most part, the film is just a slick evaluation of info, to the effect that I imagined a computer could have directed (or at least edited) this or any similar kind of documentary. There probably will be an AI-helmed movie someday, and the first is likely to be nonfiction. And that will be when we start to really question whether we trust the maker and the medium. So don’t just watch Do You Trust This Computer? as soon as you can because it’s content will be dated soon, see it as soon as you can to enjoy being able to trust this documentary.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.