Who Made Who? An Interview with Iiris Härmä on A.I.

16 Jun

By Ed Sum
(The Vintage Tempest)

* Playing during Doxa Documentary Film Festival, from June 18 to 26. Tickets to an online screening can be purchased here. For information, please visit their faq.

Finnish filmmaker Iiris Härmä is perhaps best known for her documentaries exploring cultural identity. Her first work, End of the Line, is a sociological film about old men losing work at a bus factory and having nowhere else to go. It was developed in a time when globalization was making waves; the shift of where work can be done cheaper displaced many people. The ripple effect is disconcerting. Her degrees in Ethnology and Cultural Studies helps pinpoint topics of humanitarian interest. When she graduated with a diploma on film studies from the New School University in NY, the sky’s the limit for what she liked to explore in the cinematic medium–or rather, on what we learn from her discourses.

Her latest work Who Made Who? examines where artificial intelligence technology is currently headed. After her own experiences with it, namely in dealing with automated bank services through the phone, it got her curiosity going. She said another encounter was at a seminar in 2015 at Helsinki, where Michael Laakasuoed talked about the moralities of AI; it was an eye-opening experience. She talked about her inspiration in an interview with the Finnish Institute, and I’m fairly sure she took a lot more out of making this documentary than we as viewers did, as newcomers to a future not everyone is prepared for.

Essentially, this documentary examines the relationship between humans and technology. It’s not too different from Hi. A.I., a film I looked at some months ago (review link here) which dealt with similar themes. I was reminded of how robots can help keep some seniors occupied than the other one concerning Charles attempting to have a meaningful conversation with Harmony; a couple they were not.

Big businesses assume we’ll adapt to the coming techno-revolution easily. However, not everyone will be happy about it because machines are now replacing more than just the traditional labour force. Even the volunteer labour force, like greeters, are now being threatened! If this fact does not make a callback to Härmä’s first film, then people better look at what this feature length work is about to reveal!

I had the opportunity to communicate with this filmmaker, and asked a few questions:

What made you decide to examine the pros and cons of AI in culture–ranging from assisting the elderly and as sex toys?

Software and applications based on artificial intelligence come between me and other people, as a part of communication, claiming a part in human interaction. They are no longer a phase, like landline phones were: they make suggestions and shape our ways of communicating and expressing ourselves to others. Our wants and needs are fed back to us as commercial suggestions. In addition to this, devices and robots equipped with deep learning algorithms are becoming a new kind of operator that we also have to learn to communicate with.

The [segment] with the sex robots offers us the most practical example of the situation where values are encoded into machine. Mr. Santos created the robot to be a selfish human just like he thinks humans are.

Were there any hurdles when getting this work into production?

As artificial intelligence itself is not very photogenic, I was struggling a little with what to film rather than [to feature a lot of] talking heads and computers. I chose robots to represent AI-based devices. I understood that I cannot try to feature the latest inventions. The essence of my film is more philosophical.

As a film-maker, I have the chance to take a look at the nature of our time and ask how will all this affect our humanity, our way of existing. As a documentarist, I liked the old-fashioned task of encapsulating the zeitgeist in film. I realize the human race is right now in the middle of a revolution that stems from the exponential growth and development of technology, and I have the opportunity to try to somehow understand it through the process of film-making.

Was it difficult to find organizations or people to interview for Who Made Who?

As the people in the film were encountered in the context of only their work, it was not difficult. Everyone saw the theme of ethics and AI as urgent and relevant.

Would you say we’re headed to a “Cyberpunk” type of future (ala William Gibson’s Neuromancer)?

I found many things I encountered quite amazing. Particularly awe-inspiring was the method developed by professor Yukiyasu Kamitani, that scans the human brain for pictures that the person is thinking of. His team is also working on a way to scan dreams.

Also, meeting a developer of sex robot AI made me think about how we can learn a lot about what it means to be a human, when we code robots to be more human-like. New, AI-utilizing inventions will give us incredible amounts of information on ourselves and how our minds work. This is fascinating.

On the other hand, I was amazed by how quickly people are ready to adopt the changes – for example, in Sweden I filmed people having microchips implanted under their skin to make life smoother. Almost four thousand people over there have already done that. Watching them made me wonder how fast I’d be willing to take steps towards “cyborgism.” I think many people are curious and ready to give cyborgism a chance. Would you like to see in the dark or hear ultrasound?

The end of your documentary alluded to the problem the movie Terminator made famous. That is, having an A.I. become fully self aware. Is that a concern?

Technology is limitless, and no matter how I wish others shared the values I consider important, they might not. We already use apps that are designed in different cultural mindsets, and we don’t always see or notice how they operate. This was the reason I wanted to make a film to remind us that these apps that are becoming a part of our mental everyday carry values. This also brings about questions about how we should take into account the ethics and moralities in developing new technology–and in the political decision-making and legislature concerning it.

All over the world, decision-makers have to keep their eyes open and be mindful of these challenges of new technology. It might do good for everyone else as well to think about these issues at least for the duration of one film. Europe has already realized that the ethics of artificial intelligence have to be considered, but I am not overly optimistic about us achieving universal harmony on a global set of AI values.

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