Robots are making us less human, too: "Certain things essential to the democratic fabric erode"

Salon talks to filmmaker Maxim Pozdorøvkin about his new HBO documentary "The Truth About Killer Robots"

Published November 23, 2018 10:00AM (EST)

"The Truth About Killer Robots" (Courtesy of HBO)
"The Truth About Killer Robots" (Courtesy of HBO)

“The Truth about Killer Robots,” premiering on HBO November 26, looks at how advancements in technology can sometimes have lethal results. This fascinating documentary, directed by Maxim Pozdorøvkin and narrated by Kodomoroid, a robot, considers several case studies. One features a robot at a Volkswagen plant in Germany that trapped and killed a man on a table. Another involves a Tesla driver who was killed when he hit a semi because he wasn’t paying attention while using the autonomous driver function. A third story addresses the use of a robot to kill a sniper who murdered five policemen in Dallas.

Pozdorøvkin also fleshes out these stories with subplots about how automation is making our lives easier, but at a cost — there is a displacement of human capital and the discrediting of personal connections. One example involves robots making pizza or managing hotels. Another features Jia Jia, a Chinese man who has married a female robot for companionship.

Throughout the film, the director makes several references to “I, Robot” author Isaac Asimov’s first two laws of robotics: 1) A robot may not hurt humans; 2) A robot must obey humans. (Asimov’s third law is that a robot must protect its own existence as long as that does not conflict with the first or second law). These laws were not met in the film’s case studies, and yet, the robots are not able to be prosecuted by law.

“The Truth about Killer Robots” considers the ethical dimension of using robots in our everyday life, as well as side effects from doing so in this technological age.

Pozdorøvkin met with Salon at this year’s Camden Film Festival to talk about his documentary and robots.

Do you think, as someone in the film suggests, that automation makes humans “less feeling and more robotic”?

I think absolutely. One of our mottos for this film was that it’s more than just about the numbers. What I saw as the major blind spot in a lot the reporting and writing on the subject is a certain kind of myopia to the way that automation deprives us of human dignity and deskilling robs us of fundamental abilities that we evolved to have. For me, that was the main crux of the film. Most films I saw were about what robots can do or will do for us in the future, and I wanted to think about what are they doing to us now and what does the process of greater exposure to technology — how does that take away and undercut certain elements of our humanity?

“The Truth about Killer Robots” is a follow-the-money movie. The film talks about employment displacement, mentioning a case at Rapoo, where 3,200 workers dropped down to 800, with several earnings losses. You also highlight economic insecurity, especially when your film covers how taxi cab drivers are struggling against Uber. How much is our economy going to suffer (or benefit) as automation becomes more popular and makes companies more efficient?

Exactly. I wanted to make a labor panorama, make a movie about structural economics that wouldn’t feel like you are getting homework. So to use the guise of this sci-fi premise, which is traditionally how these kinds of stories are presented — as freak accidents. For me it was a combination of Studs Terkel meets true crime.

In terms of the economic displacement, I think there’s also — even though I do mention specific places, and the scale at which automation takes place and the rate at which workers are displaced — for me, almost the more important element of it, and what often gets lost, is that the economy is very elastic, and it responds in different ways. What I see happening is that the service sector continues to create low level jobs that require no expertise. No one working at Best Buy knows anything about technology. Because the economy is elastic, it can adapt in a certain way, but the more crucial thing is the way that the dignity of doing the work is stripped away, and what effect that has on us.

When you look at a rise in suicides by older men, that’s not something you can adequately diagnose with one thing or another. But one factor I suspect is at play is that so much of the work and skills that that section of the population did has been so dumbed down and so deskilled that a lot of the self-satisfaction that people would have at learning a skill over a 25-year career, and having a sense of becoming better at what you’re doing than you were before, that kind of inner progress is gone. If you look at a truck driver today, their job is essentially to babysit the truck. We have to talk about how that’s less fulfilling on at a certain fundamental human-philosophical level, and that’s what I tried to do these different perspectives in this film.

What was your criteria for the case studies and interviewees you included?

I started out going to Germany to see about this case that had a sensational aspect to it. In talking to the workers, I saw two things. A tragic mechanical [error] was largely covered up. Volkswagen told their workers not to talk to anyone about it. But in reaching out to the workers and talking to them about the way this story existed in their heads, I immediately saw this resonance of labor issues and job displacement and deskilling. So, the central idea of this movie was to relate literal death to metaphorical death and see incidents that are treated as freak accidents reveal something else. If we used the paradigm of a murder story. Here, it’s not psychological motivation, but there are other kinds of motivations in play.

I saw that the first case clearly correlated with manufacturing and the disappearance of manufacturing and the different stages. Watching the integration of more and more touch screens into all aspects of the service sector — what has to be the central problematic element or dynamic in terms of how we are transformed by this? The automation in the service sector requires the trust and cooperation. The way that will happen is ceding more control and being more accommodating during times when machines don’t quite respond properly. We dumb ourselves down in interacting with them.

Then I wanted to go beyond. I thought about when I receive a call and it’s an automatic voice — and you have that tiny moment when you catch yourself thinking it’s a real voice, and you respond as if it’s a human — at some kind of gut level, I knew that there was something wrong there, but it’s difficult to articulate, so with the third act, I wanted to pick a case where there’s a bad feeling — strangely nothing problematic with the way the robot was used.

I wanted to undercut those kinds of narratives that expect it to be a full-acting autonomous killer robots. I’m purposely using the title as a kind of provocation to get people to think about these issues.

Robots are assembling pizza and managing the Henn Na Hotel in Japan as your film shows. Is this progress? Do we want to eat robotic pizza and check into hotels without humans?

This is going to be a wonderful example of liberal myopia. I can see that an automated pizza store or burger store will win people because it will offer a product with better ingredients at a similar price point. Since that’s an idea of cleaner, more resourcefully-sourced produce is a net benefit. That’s going to be how we accept more technology and less people.

For us, in making the film, one of the ways filmmakers and artists contribute to a certain amount of misunderstanding about this issue is by setting the goal line way too far by saying, can a robot direct a movie or edit a movie or be a director of photography? In the end, a robot can’t do those things, they are high-order cognitive tasks. Robots aren’t there yet in terms of embodiment of anything and that gives us a false sense of superiority.

Did you use any robots or drones in making your film?

We used an automated narrator which was free and pliant and easy to work with. We used drone shots to not only replace aerial shots, but also inside factories, to replace steadicam shots. When we travel to film a movie, we have a lot more toys and a lot fewer people to do that job. I’m not going to go against that, or not use them. As a person that’s making something, I also want to be efficient. We wanted the film to be grappling with that problematic. That’s why [we're] putting the irritating narrator front and center to read the news.

You present the stories in a very nonjudgmental way. Why did you take that approach?

One of the things is that I am resistant to in documentaries is a certain kind of liberal self-seriousness and earnestness that permeates everything. That’s one of the things that conservatives scorn and troll liberals for. How do you make something that engages with serious intellectual issues but does it in a way that is not prescriptive, earnest, this is what you should do . . .
One of the big crises of our age — and I’m being facetious to a certain extent — is that people operate under the assumption that you can watch a TED talk for ten minutes and learn theoretical physics.

So, when you’re dealing with a topic that is as large as automation, to me, there is something so vulgar in trying to reduce that to what should be done about it. It’s such a groundswell in everything, that what you should do about it is hold off on thinking about how you can change it and just engage in the enormity of the question. That creates a certain necessity to create that space and put different perspectives against one another.

There’s enough in the format and the general sense of the film where my perspective and my sensibility come through. Within the individual people, I didn’t want to tailor it to the fact that you have to have a universal basic income because that would trivialize and be reductive of the scale of what’s happening.

Touch screens have made life easier; we can relax a bit and even get lazy (as the Tesla driver did). What are your thoughts about responsibility, safety, and misuse?

Your not going to the bank [instead, banking on your phone] undercuts the social fabric. There are so few truly democratic institutions, like the post office, where people who are different bump heads. When you automate those things you make it convenient, but certain things essential to the democratic fabric erode. I don’t lament the fact that I don’t remember 100 phone numbers, but thinking about what it means to actually lose our ability to maintain eye contact, or to focus, or to orient spatially, are massive foundational elements of what it means to be human, and the rate at which they are atrophying is something we should think about.

Likewise, robots are designed to blink and move like a real woman. That’s creepy, yes?


It’s even creepier that Jia Jia has a robot girlfriend, yes? Have we gone too far?

That case that was another kind of blind spot I tried to uncover in terms of female androids and sex dolls. What I saw in a lot of reporting was this focus on how good is it? There was very little on the human dignity aspect of it and the demographics of it. So, introducing the story of a guy who married a robot girlfriend in China, and putting it in the context of a demographic crisis where certain men cannot have a girlfriend or will not, this will be there. It’s a necessity. There’s no point in trying to regulate it. But I also included him reflecting about an old guy who saw this wedding to a robot and that humiliated him. Because this idea that these androids could perform the function of a woman is insulting.

But it’s a two-sided thing and you have to grapple with that. I had to build the scene on that, and people wanting to look down at him, and feel pathetic, the way we look down on computer nerds who play with their robots too much. Then introduce his base demographic reality as a way of understanding him and maybe humanizing him a bit more. Ultimately, the integration of robotics into society and our acceptance of them, will be driven by demographic issues, for example, an aging population of Japan, which is talked about as a gateway for hospital robots, and the demographic issues in China as a way toward robot companions.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

MORE FROM Gary M. Kramer

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Ai Documentary Editor's Picks Films Hbo Robotics Robots The Truth About Killer Robots Tv