Documentary Review: “Do You Trust This Computer?”

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Every so often, we remember to tape over our built-in laptop camera, turn off location tracking on our smarter-than-us phone and that there are other search engines aside from all-knowing/all-coveting Google.

But for the most part, we try not to think about the fundamental question of our age — “Do You Trust Your Computer?” 

Chris Paine, director of “Who Killed the Electric Car?” and “Revenge of the Electric Car” rounded up scientists, software engineers, journalists, futurists and filmmakers to discuss the reasons for asking that “trust” question about the gadgets we let do our taxes, plan our trips, perform surgery and soon, drive our “electric” cars.

And in this eye-opening, sometimes chilling film, he talked to a wide range of the engaged and the clueless among us on the street and on the beach, and posed that question to one and all. “Do we?” “Should we?”

With the birth of “machine learning” largely unremarked when Google came along, with digital “super intelligence” on the horizon, with science fiction, “a lie that tells the truth” warning us from Asimov’s “I, Robot” to “Terminator: Judgement Day” to “Ex Machina,” maybe it’s time, one and all in this film seem to agree, that we wrestled with the morality, ethics and simple safety of the technology that has taken over our lives.

As a surgeon makes the ethical choice of not continuing a computer/robot-assisted brain aneurysm operation where the probability of success has slipped, mid-surgery, declares, “It’s not the future, it’s the present.”

It’s a brisk blur of a documentary that ventures from “How could a smarter machine not be a better machine?” to “the Faustian bargain” we’ve made with technology that will render 7,000,000 data entry jobs and 4,000,000  driving/transporting jobs (very soon) to medicine, law, journalism and other careers obsolete.

A former deputy Secretary of Defense, Christine Fox, discusses the debate over “autonomous weapons” (not just drones, but drones that decide who to kill) to Stanford professor Jerry Kaplan noting that “machines are natural psychopaths” as the film touches on the stock market’s “flash crash” of 2010 and computerized trading’s soulless role in it, the worrying collection of facts and problem areas swells.

And then we’re told that worrying won’t help. Not at all. If there’s something this lively film lacks, peppered as it is with cautionary words from IBM “Watson”-creator David Ferrucci to Elon Musk, interspersed with film clips from movies ranging back to “Forbidden Planet” to “The Matrix” and “Ex Machina,” it’s that simple solution, that “action” step at the end of a persuasive speech or argument.

“Awareness” of how Big Data allows companies like Cambridge Analytica and malevolent states like Russia to custom-message the impressionable and manipulate democracy, of how “we’ll be helpless” as computers get better at assembling our profile and learning how to manipulate us, will not be enough.

Adaptation will have to be rapid, human/machine interfaces will be more elaborate. There’s a Cyborg in our future. If we don’t want to be utterly subsumed by machines, we’ll have to become part machine.

As filmmaker Jonathan Nolan (“Westworld/Interstellar” screenwriter, and brother of director Christopher) notes that “We’re the last analog object in a digital universe,” questions like “Can A.I. (artificial intelligence) be compassionate?” leap forward in importance.

When Hiroshi Ishiguro demonstrates “Erica,” the most advanced/human–like, empathy-recognizing/empathy-generating android in Japan, gosh you hope so.

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But even that isn’t reassuring.  “A.I. doesn’t have to be evil to destroy humanity,” Elon Musk notes. “We might just be in the way.”

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MPAA Rating: unrated, some profanity

Cast: David Ferruci, Rana El Kaliouby, Christine Fox, Elon Musk, Hiroshi Ishiguro

Credits:Directed by Chris Paine, script by Mark Monroe. A Cinetec release.

Running time: 1:17

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