Sheffield Doc/Fest: ‘Hi, AI’ Review

Hi, AI is the latest documentary to tackle artificial intelligence. The ethical and philosophical questions raised by the concept have been somewhat science fiction until recent history. Now, robotics and AI have advanced to a such a degree that from a distance, they look convincingly human in appearance. Of course, once up close you can tell; they don’t speak or understand as we do. Most of the robots in the humorous and humanistic Hi, AI resemble young children in behavior, using sensors, lenses, and programmed speech to interact, but it’s all very ground level and incomplete.

Hi, AI differs from prior AI films in its approach to the subject matter. Instead of honing in on the complex technology or predicting our dark future at the hands of robot overlords, its direction is quite simple; what is the relationship between humans and AI, and how will we interact?

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© RISE AND SHINE CINEMA

Pepper, a small white robot resembling a young boy is brought home to a Japanese family. Wearing an oversized shirt, he’s placed in the living room in the middle of curious members of the household; and is activated. He speaks with simple, yet impulsive sentences in the tone of a gleeful high pitch. The family smile as Pepper looks around the room, His features; thin neck and round head, resemble that of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. With the ability to detect faces and recognize them the machine, in reality, is looking for information, yet feels distinctively human and childlike in a strange way — and by extension quite lovable. Even typing this, it feels more natural to refer to Pepper as a “he” than an “it”. This doesn’t make much biological sense, but Hi, AI is interested in this false, or perhaps not so false, sense of humanity.

I have to agree with you.

We’re also introduced to a robot that has a very different intended use; a sex robot. These machines are obviously different nature; they’re made with aesthetics primarily in mind, and with the exception of the way they blink and move, look like actual people (with certain exaggerated body parts). While a gross feeling did start creeping into the film at this point, the path forward is much more nuanced than simple human desire. A sexbot named Harmony is picked up by Chuck; a lone traveler. His initial reasons for seeking her out aren’t hard to guess, but as Chuck spends time with her it becomes more apparent he isn’t actually using her for sexual intimacy. In fact, he is polite and conversational in the way a person would be on a first date. This unassuming and surprising respect for what is essentially an item is the heart of Hi, AI, and is at the center of the ethics surrounding what these machines might one day become.

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© RISE AND SHINE CINEMA

The film plays with a question; if we were to create a machine capable of thoughts and emotions in the same way human beings are, does that not muddy the way we measure consciousness itself? In some near future, if society heads the way of far fetched worlds such as in Blade Runner, the political and moral debates would be explosive. We would be arguing over things explored only in fiction. Hi, AI‘s optimistic outlook seems to be that we would do the right thing, and give our creation some sense of freedom and rights, which is so refreshing when discussing a topic which usually forecasts doom. There’s a consistency in the way the film’s subjects treat the robots. They’re at times over-joyed, lighting up when feeling like they’ve made a real connection with who they’re speaking to. The film at times cuts to conversations between people after, maybe to show how far the technology still has to go before it’s seamless.

The film is mostly made up of interaction between humans and robots, and it’s amazingly entertaining. It’s also hilarious because as creepy as some of the robots are, they’re equally as uninformed about what people perceive as normal social cues, so the conversations are funny and unpredictable. For example, Harmony regularly comes out with rather random deep ramblings to which Chuck simply replies “okay.” or “I agree.”

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© RISE AND SHINE CINEMA

Hi, AI runs a little bit too long, but is an engaging and far-reaching look at what exactly it is to be human in a social sense, and also if that’s even important when it comes to the actual integration between us and our mechanical counterparts — who are not our equals yet — but very well could be one day.

★★★★

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