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
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