My Great Uncle George was painful company for a child, a relic from what seemed to me a forgotten age, who believed more than any other grown up I met that little people should be seen and never heard. Yet to my surprise, he became one of the major influences on the person I became as an adult. For it was he who livened up several dull school holiday afternoons at my grandparents by arriving with a box of old black and white movies. These were the only times I remember with George that were not full of uncomfortable silences as prior to each film he explained what he liked about them. It turned out that rather than enjoying war movies as i’d expected, he was a connoisseur of science fiction and horror. Among the first we watched were the classics Frankenstein and Metropolis, and to my grandmother’s amazement I was not bored rigid like my younger sister, but in fact, mesmerised. At the end of Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, George explained, to my wide eyed disappointment that the creation of robots or any type of synthetic life forms that looked and behaved like humans was likely to be hundreds of years away.
Thirty years on, and having consumed much of the writing of Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov and films such as 2001 and Blade Runner, I have retained a huge interest in artificial intelligence and its implications for the future of humanity. This brings me to the latest work of maverick avant garde filmmaker Abigail Child, who has directed an experimental documentary on artificial intelligence, Origins of the Species. Like me, Child’s was influenced by the ideas of Mary Shelley and Dick, and has previously made at least two films on Shelley. Here, as the final part of a trilogy of films on female desire, she explores the current state of android development, using often unnerving sound and montage, mixed with more accessible industry interviews as well as commentary from leading A.I. scientists and their androids (including a black lesbian robot, BINA48 shown below), to look at the ever expanding relationship between man and machine and the ethical implications of this area of research.
Child, who has been at the forefront of experimental writing and media since the 1980s, travels through the US and Japan where she meets a diverse group of scientists and entrepreneurs who are quick to explain what robots can do for the human race. We are shown how the scientists project there own ideas on humanity into their creations, and how these creations could one day move beyond us, both physically and mentally.
One of Child’s more interesting ideas was to have an A.I. voice over (possibly from BINA). The supposed self awareness she expresses creates an unsettling tone across the film as she voice talks of her surroundings, her interaction with humans and what she believes she may become in the future.
In Japan we are told that the population is dropping and automation is the answer. We are introduced to Hiroshi Ishiguro of the University of Osaka, who in bemusing scenes, is shown talking with a life sized android of himself and those of his colleagues! (shown above). We see the remarkable advances in medical science as a man with no movement below his chest and no use of his fingers can have brain surgery and is later seen controlling an external robotic arm.
The ethical questions that hang over the film is how much power we would want androids or robots to have and what role and classification should they have in our future society? Science fiction has been warning us, for decades, about the dangers of humanity boldly rushing ahead with technology without questioning each jump forward. There appears a general consensus among the scientists and engineers featured that the misuse of such technology could lead the human race to disaster and needs regulation. However, while the US military talks of how their computerised weapons are always governed by human decision making, will this always be the case? And what about rogue states and leaders who have no ethical concerns. For example, we are shown, in disquieting sequences, how Russia uses robotics to create the next step in weapons.
What’s also up for debate here are questions surrounding gender. While many of the inventions are gender neutral, and some are deliberately made not to resemble humans, we are introduced to plenty of male scientists building female looking androids. The male like robots we do see, appear to be those carrying out more physical tasks while those displaying a more female look are engineered to be more like friendly servants (coming across in a similar manner to A.I. virtual assistants like Alexa, Suri and Cortana who all have female voices).
The issue is thrown wide open when Child takes us into the domain of those who build robotic sex dolls. The Realbotix inventors, clearly highly skilled individuals, suggest they are building companions and not sex toys for perverts, but it doesn’t take much of a cynical mind to see this as first step towards android prostitution (as portrayed in the futuristic worlds of films like Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Villeneuve’s more recent Blade Runner 2049).
Just as when watching the best examples of science fiction I found myself feeling both alarm (particularly weirded out by some of the interaction with life like androids like Bina) and yet continually fascinated. Child’s is an experienced filmmaker displaying great skill at editing and a compelling and lyrical use of music and montage (we are treated to clips from classic film and TV including Metropolis). While some may find the use of sound and the abstract visual style jarring, for what is classified as experimental cinema there’s a good balance here between Child’s artsy use of narrative and the intelligence and objectivity she shows towards the subject matter. Although, she never finds a real conclusion, and many of her questions can’t yet be answered, for fans of science fiction and anyone interested in the future of robotics this is a must see.
So what would my Uncle George make of all this? He died before the digital age, before there were talking mobile phones, at a time when A.I.’s like BINA 48 really still seemed like the stuff of science fiction. Would he have been amazed by the advances in technology or perhaps a little scared about where all this is leading? I know he would have been horrified by the sight of rows of robotic sex dolls ready to be boxed out to consumers, but I hope, that as someone who worked as a doctor for much of his adult life, he would have been pleased by the amazing breakthroughs that robotics have brought to medical science.
- Online Screening