Friends or foes?

New York-based film­maker Maxim Poz­dorovkin's doc­u­men­tary, The Truth AboutKillerRobots, ex­plores the sub­tle ways ro­bots can take our jobs, kill em­pa­thy and pose a threat to hu­man­ity

Business Standard - - IN DEPTH -

INDIRA KANNAN Toronto, 29 Septem­ber

In the early 1940s, pen­ning what was then sci­ence fic­tion, author Isaac Asi­mov out­lined his laws of ro­bot­ics, which spec­i­fied among oth­ers, that ro­bots could not harm hu­mans. Yet to­day, with ro­bots mov­ing firmly into the realm of re­al­ity, hu­mans are still de­bat­ing the risks, reg­u­la­tions and ethics sur­round­ing their use and func­tions.

Maxim Poz­dorovkin, a New York-based film­maker, is push­ing that de­bate for­ward with his lat­est doc­u­men­tary, The Truth About Killer Ro­bots, which re­cently pre­miered at the Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val or TIFF. The ti­tle does not re­fer only to ac­tual in­stances of hu­man death caused by ro­bots; the film show­cases sev­eral case stud­ies to ar­gue that ro­bots can also kill jobs and hu­man em­pa­thy. In an in­ter­view at TIFF, Poz­dorovkin said, “We de­cided to build this film on this axis be­tween au­toma­tion as a cause of lit­eral death and also a sort of metaphor­i­cal death in mak­ing us less hu­man in our ca­pac­i­ties as we are en­gag­ing more and more with tech­nol­ogy.”

In an ex­am­ple of the first in­stance, the film opens at a Volk­swa­gen fac­tory in Ger­many where a worker had been crushed to death by a ro­bot. It also cov­ers a cou­ple of fa­tal in­ci­dents in­volv­ing self-driv­ing cars in the US. In one, the driver of a self-driv­ing Tesla was killed as the car failed to de­tect a huge trailer truck cross­ing its path and smashed right into and un­der it. In an­other ac­ci­dent, a woman walk­ing across the road with her bi­cy­cle out­side the cross­walk was killed by a self-driv­ing Uber, the first such pedes­trian fa­tal­ity. The laws re­lat­ing to cul­pa­bil­ity in such ac­ci­dents are still very vague. “Com­pa­nies al­ways write in things that will make them less cul­pa­ble,” said Poz­dorovkin. “A car maker will never call it an auto pi­lot, they will call it an as­sis­tant, they will call it semi-auto. The rea­son these ac­ci­dents are shoved un­der the car­pet or there’s a set­tle­ment is that cul­pa­bil­ity is so dis­persed…it’s just op­tics man­age­ment.” Ear­lier this year, Uber set­tled out of court with the fam­ily of the pedes­trian.

The film also ex­am­ines the eco­nomic con­se­quences of ro­botic in­tru­sions, one that could be es­pe­cially rel­e­vant in coun­tries like In­dia, al­ready strain­ing to cre­ate jobs for a vast, young work­force. It’s not only the blue-col­lar, fac­tory jobs that could be at risk. One of the lighter mo­ments of the film is the ex­am­ple of Tim Hwang, an Amer­i­can law school stu­dent who worked at a law firm by day and wrote pro­grams to do the same tasks by night and found they could be done in a frac­tion of the time by com­put­ers, an es­pe­cially tricky predica­ment for a pro­fes­sion that bills by the hour. But armed with two au­to­mated as­sis­tants, he soon set up the law firm of Ro­bot, Ro­bot & Hwang, as a means of ex­plor­ing how le­gal prac­tice could be re­made with tech­nol­ogy.

The con­se­quences of greater au­toma­tion are dis­played more starkly in a se­quence filmed at a Chi­nese post sort­ing fa­cil­ity, where a sole fe­male em­ployee is sur­rounded by dozens of Roomba-like ro­bots that whiz around the floor in a cav­ernous room, de­posit­ing let­ters and pack­ages neatly into des­ig­nated slots ac­cord­ing to their postal codes. The hu­man em­ployee’s only func­tion is to place the pack­ages on the backs of these wheeled ro­bots.

Poz­dorovkin said he wanted to con­vey more with such scenes than mere job loss: “The ser­vice sec­tor is adapt­able so it will sort of ex­pand and take peo­ple in but the prob­lem is that those jobs, in ad­di­tion to not pay­ing very well and even­tu­ally dis­ap­pear­ing, will also not have very much dig­nity in them be­cause there’s so lit­tle skill or even knowl­edge that’s re­ally re­quired for them. What gets lost when you fo­cus ex­clu­sively on the num­bers is the more ex­is­ten­tial ques­tion of what hu­mans get out of work­ing, in terms of per­sonal sat­is­fac­tion. It’s easy to for­get that for some peo­ple work­ing in a fac­tory with other work­ers is sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter than be­ing sur­rounded by the din and clat­ter of in­dus­trial ro­bots.”

The third as­pect, that of the loss of hu­man con­nec­tion, is ex­em­pli­fied by the case of the Ja­panese ho­tel where guests are greeted and checked in by a hu­manoid fe­male ro­bot, or the Chi­nese man who “mar­ries” one. These are both symp­toms of unique de­mo­graphic sit­u­a­tions, but the use of ro­bots is al­ready wide­spread and poised to be­come even more so as the film’s nar­ra­tor will af­firm. For The Truth About Killer Ro­bots is nar­rated by an an­droid cre­ated specif­i­cally to be a voice-over ro­bot. As Poz­dorovkin ex­plained, Ama­zon’s Polly was cheaper and more ef­fi­cient to use than a hu­man nar­ra­tor.

“For­some peo­ple, work­ing in a fac­to­ry­with oth­er­work­ers is sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter than be­ing sur­rounded by the din of ro­bots”

Stills from the movie

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