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The Future of Robots Won’t Be Like ‘The Terminator’ — It’ll Probably Be Worse

The documentarian behind ‘The Truth About Killer Robots’ talks about how machines are slowly, methodically destroying our economy, our relationships and how we see ourselves

Maxim Pozdorovkin, the director of The Truth About Killer Robots, is tricking us with the title of his new documentary. While the film, which aired last night on HBO and is available now on HBO Go and HBO Now, does show instances in which robots have recently accidentally caused the deaths of human beings, those incidents are merely attention-getting grabbers for what actually disturbs Pozdorovkin about our mechanized future.

For years, thanks to sci-fi literature and blockbuster films such as The Terminator and The Matrix, we’ve operated under the assumption that, some day not too far away, robots will rise up and become our masters — creating a nightmare scenario in which Keanu Reeves must save us from the machines. But The Truth About Killer Robots punctures that familiar scary/cool dystopian vision, instead offering a far more mundane but equally horrifying possibility: Maybe robots will just systematically erode the quality of our lives to such a degree that we no longer remember what it means to be human?

Such an outcome might not make for exciting Hollywood action movies, but Pozdorovkin’s film is, nonetheless, a tingling little horror film about a future that’s already here. Narrated by a robot, The Truth About Killer Robots presents us with police drones that kill criminals, lonely factory employees surrounded by whirring robot coworkers, permissive android girlfriends, driverless cars and hotels operated by eerie mechanical concierges. It’s too late to reverse all this advancement, so what do we do next?

I recently spoke by phone with Pozdorovkin to get his thoughts on humanity’s complicated, deepening relationship with artificial intelligence. We also discussed how robots are encouraging us to be assholes and whether machines can make better art than we can. Also, he explains why people shouldn’t get so hung up on whether robots are better sex partners than humans.

When people imagine a dark dystopian future, the robots are always enslaving us, like Skynet in The Terminator. Your documentary argues that it’ll be a far less apocalyptic scenario — although we should be just as scared. Did that conclusion surprise you when you did the research for the film?
When I read a lot of books and reports and watched a lot of films on the subject, I kept coming up against two blind spots. And one of them was this idea that you mentioned: Our imagination reaches for the science-fiction, dystopian scenario of a robot that actively hunts you down and kills you. The second blind spot was that almost all the books and reports were basically told from the voice of the engineer, CEO, the technology owner, who was directly benefiting from the technology. The underlying theme of all the writing — or the vast majority of it produced on the subject — is really about what robots can do for you, with an occasional caveat that maybe in the future they will kill you.

I realized that the only question that I’m really interested in isn’t what robots can do for you, because that’s a marketing thing. It’s what robots do to us. So rather than thinking about A.I. as a distant threat on the horizon, I wanted to think about A.I. as just a simple continuation of the automation process that’s been [going on for a long time]. During that historical process, a lot of real significant issues come up — things like the loss of dignity that’s associated with labor, or our loss of memory — and I think that those things will have a devastating negative effect on society long before the potential adverse effect of unchecked A.I.

Killer Robots isn’t advocating that we stop technological advancement — that’s impossible. But you do seem to be asking us to pause and consider the ramifications of modernization.
That’s exactly right — we need to reflect on it. I feel like the real disease — the real kind of myopia of our age — will come from this broad techno-optimism and this idea that these technologies will solve global warming and terrorism and ultimately will restructure the economy in such a way that no one is left out. That [optimism] is what will create the biggest blinder, so I wanted to undercut that idea. By talking to the people who are impacted by this technology at different levels — not just at the top — I wanted to see the ways that it’s affecting them.

Along those lines, the film touches on something else that’s rarely discussed in sci-fi films: A more heavily robotic workforce can be an economic killer.
It’s another blind spot. I found that all the reporting was, effectively, quantitative: It was making numerical predictions about what jobs will be eliminated or [a certain portion] of these kinds of jobs. But the qualitative challenges are more interesting and less discussed. Like, a truck driver who drives a truck for 20 years has a certain amount of travel stops and knows how to do that well. But, now, a truck driver is really not the truck driver, because basically they’re not doing anything. They’re babysitting the [computerized] truck — they have very little agency within that. And the fact that they’re doing very little is used to drive wages down.

[We should] think about these qualitative sides of what’s happening to the labor market — or even the way that the experience of a factory worker who worked alongside people is very different than a person who stands in a sea of robots and is just subjected to an endless clatter of machines. It’s not that we should go back to cars being assembled exclusively by hand — of course not. But thinking about the experience of those people gets at something about the way that automation works. The way that it’s consuming our lives into the rhythm of machines does have these effects that we should be thinking about.

You also spend a little time talking about robot girlfriends.
I’ve been working on this film for the last three years or so. I’ve seen literally hundreds of reports about sex robots and android girlfriends. And, literally, every single report was predicated, premised and structured around the question of whether the sex was any good — as if that’s an interesting question. It’s the least-interesting question. To me, the question is, this will be a part of our society — and a lot of lives — and part of being empathetic is to understand the central reasons for them coming into being. In China, the tendency may be exacerbated a little bit, or arrived a little bit sooner, because of a demographic crisis. But the disparity between the number of men and women will be the single-most-determining factor that makes this a constant presence in our lives. And it will [raise] the question of whether a man marrying a robot humiliates all women and other human partners.

I think it speaks to an aspect of robotic advancement that still makes us queasy — it’s this idea of interacting with them in such a close, intimate, emotional way.
I think the main adverse effect will be felt in another way. Let’s say you’re driving on the freeway and you want to switch lanes. You look in your side view mirror, and there’s someone speeding along [in that other lane] — when you choose not to cut off that person, you’re effectively projecting fallibility onto that person. You’re saying, “Maybe they’re having a bad day, maybe they’re distracted.” You can project your prejudice on them, whatever it is, but you don’t cut them off because you accept that possibility. But when you’re getting ready to switch lanes and there’s a driverless car — a machine that is programmed and legally guaranteed to not under any circumstances run into you — you will drive like the biggest asshole in relation to that entity. You will cut them off. You will do all these terrible things.

And guess what? In the entire driver pool, if 20 or 25 percent is driverless cars, you will be acting in this way enough times where it will inevitably spill over into the way that you react with human drivers.

Philosophers make very similar arguments about sex with robots and sex dolls. The real problem is that when you’re interacting with an object that’s so lifelike and has human attributes, it’s absolutely naïve and neurologically unsound to assume that will not carry over into the way you relate to other people. Ultimately, it undercuts and undermines the possibility of human connection.

The film explores the 2016 Dallas shooting, in which the police used an unorthodox, and somewhat controversial, idea for taking out a dangerous sniper: A robot with explosives was sent in to neutralize him. But, of course, the U.S. government has been using drones in warfare for years. Aren’t we already enlisting robots to do our killing for us?
People who have seen the film ask me about the use of drones in warfare. And what I noticed was this: When people talk about drones, the debate goes into the weeds about how autonomous they are. What I’m fascinated by with the Dallas story is, if the [human] sniper had killed the active shooter, as he had done on previous occasions, there wouldn’t be a problem at all — you wouldn’t hear about it. But the fact that [the Dallas police] sent this machine to self-destruct and kill someone else, that feels awful. There’s just something about it that’s uncomfortable. People, when they’re caught in these life-or-death situations, they won’t think twice about the ethical questions ever — they will use whatever technology they have at hand. But even though the [active shooter] deserved no mercy, it just feels wrong. [Aspects of our lives are being] automated in ways that are challenging to our very idea of what a human is.

Something weird I noticed in Killer Robots: In all the older archival footage, people refer to them as “robe-uts” — as opposed to how we pronounce the word now: “row-bots.” The word sounds more menacing now than it did back then.
That’s funny, and it’s true — I wish there was more information about [why that pronunciation changed]. Also, you have to look at the history of the term “robot” and the way it’s been used. When new technology comes out, it’s called a “robot.” When that technology becomes ubiquitous, it’s reduced to being called a “machine,” and we stop calling it a robot. There’s an endlessly moving goal line with “robot,” and I feel like reserving this name only for novel things is driven precisely by this myopic credo of only thinking about this future thing that’s going to happen when A.I. reaches the level of a Terminator. It doesn’t engage with the actual process of it unfolding.

There are instances where I can imagine that dealing with a robot would be better than a human. A robot can’t be racist, for instance.
Yes, but there’s a broader degrading effect. Basically, in interacting with other humans, we have very clear tools that imagine what it’s like to be this other person. These tools can broadly be described as imaginative understanding: our ability to read cues, to read the tone of a person’s voice, to read another person expressing pain. These are hardwired. Now, every single time you receive a call and you answer it and say “hello,” you hear [back] the word “hello.” And for that second, where you don’t realize that’s an automated voice, you trust it and you say, “How you doing?” You buy that it’s a human. And that [exchange] undercuts a little bit of that faith in these faculties — in trusting that when we see a person who’s in pain that it’s real. We don’t have much else to kind of try for these kinds of authentic connections with another person.

There’s a question of “Why is a robot that remembers everything we ever said not quite intimacy?” Because I think mostly it’s solipsistic. If anything, it makes you distrust your own tools that you have for relating to other humans. And that’s a kind of erosion.

According to your film, so many jobs — even attorneys — could be replaced or streamlined thanks to robots. But what about art? Can robots make a better film or write a better book?
There are so many films, news reports and books premised and structured around this idea of, “Can a robot direct a movie? Can a robot edit a movie? Can a robot do these [advanced] mental tasks?” And at the end, you get this artificial pat on the back saying, “No, they can’t.” But if you look at the data, [the arts] aren’t immune.

So for us, it was about grappling with the modern. We had the first film that was narrated by a robot. And it was cheaper to do that — we could tweak the voiceover and the script and pronunciation. It would have cost much more money and require a studio [if we’d used a human actor]. Everything is being transformed, and no one is immune from it.