Do machines dream of human rights?: Artificial intelligence as a theme for film – a journey through cinematic history

04. March 2019

Do machines dream of human rights?

Artificial intelligence as a theme for film – a journey through cinematic history

Illustration: Dorothee Mahnkopf © WISTA Management GmbH

Illustration: Dorothee Mahnkopf © WISTA Management GmbH

Essay by Rüdiger Suchsland, a German film journalist and film critic

The sentences have to be short and precise. That’s the first thing you learn when communicating with an artificial intelligence. It’s also the advice Chuck is given when he first picks up his robot companion, Harmony, directly from the factory. On the other side of the world, in Tokyo, the cute robot Pepper is heart-warmingly taking care of Grandma Sakurai. It was a present from her son. But Pepper also has a will of its own.

It’s not just the future love stories that hold surprises in store because they involve artificial intelligence. We are told all about this in the breathtakingly fascinating documentary “Hi, AI” by Munich director Isa Willinger, who only weeks ago won the prize for best documentary at the Max Ophüls Preis Film Festival. “Hi AI” shows how we will live together with artificial intelligence, who will be the winner, and who will be the loser.

These are questions that have also inspired many movie directors throughout film history. It all started in the 1920s, when many masterpieces of early cinema were made in the Berlin and Brandenburg studios from Adlershof to Babelsberg. Counting among them is Paul Wegener’s “Golem” trilogy, in which the artificial clay creature is something of a dim-witted lummox, a German Frankenstein who is unaware of what he is doing. Highly intelligent, in stark contrast, is the machine-woman in Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”.

Cinema, in its own right, is an artificial lifeform. Perhaps that is why it was so quickly eager to create our likeness in steel and plastic – and why it developed such a mischievous pleasure in painting the horrors of a world in which technology gains the upper hand. To what all began with the gleaming mechanical role of actress Brigitte Helms in “Metropolis”, generations of filmmakers have since helped themselves, from Michael Crichton’s “Westworld” (1973) to Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982), from “The Glass Bottom Boat” to “Star Wars”. Ever since, filmmakers have been moved by the question: do robots also have a soul?

In “Her” by Spike Jonze, we get to see the theme from another side:  A man falls in love with his computer, Samantha, or more precisely: in its non-local operating system. What can be summed up as a one-sentence plot idea is a provocation, a poke at the hornet’s nest, an occasion to ask so many questions that concern our self-image and personalities as humans. What does it mean if my partner is immortal? How could I cope with living with someone who knows so much more about me than a human partner ever could? What kind of a partnership is it if I can switch the other on and off? How does the sex work, and how can a machine have feelings at all? Samantha is anything but a monotonous wish-filling robot.  She is funny, spontaneous, quick-witted, learns at lightning speed and loves her human as much as he loves her.

“Ex Machina” by Alex Garland is also a film about such yearnings. The AI expert Caleb is asked to appraise a new robot model. It has the features of a beautiful young woman and is called Ava – a new Eve. Caleb is supposed to get past its inbuilt protective mechanism and determine whether Ava genuinely has a consciousness of her own. Ava soon has him confused and doubtful to the point where he starts to feel attached to her and unsure of his own humanity. How, Caleb asks himself a classic question, can he truly know that he is not also a robot that merely believes it is human?

What is human? How is it different from machine? Do machines dream of human rights? The outcome of these questions is how it will change us when machines become ever better, so good in fact that we can no longer tell the difference between us and them. Or, even more radically: that it won’t matter. Or yet a step further: that we will prefer machines: for work, for play, for sex.

As you have surely noticed: cinema is not content with simple answers and short, concise sentences.

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