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Ramblinactivist's Blog, 18th April 2018

Do You Trust This Computer? – a review

The new documentary highlighting the great political, economic and ecological issue of our Age

I have been lucky enough to have seen the new US documentary, "Do You Trust This Computer?". It's well worth the effort of finding someone with the ability to stream from the US, as it takes a prescient look at the issue of our Age (and yes, I do mean more important than 'Brexit').

OK, I do have problems with this documentary. Primarily through the repeated use of the collective "we", it keeps casting its subject accross an affluent, consuming, technocentric lifestyle demographic – which isn't me.

However, more than any other recent documentary, it outlines the many reasons why it might be good not to own a mobile phone, bank or shop on-line, and generally click "Accept" every time the little box on the screen tells you to.

The documentary was directed by Chris Paine, who has previously directed tech-splaining gems such as Who Killed the Electric Car?

Though it starts out as just another typical US-based tech-worshipping documentary, heavy on the high-definition jump-cut images of techno-wizardry, from ten minutes in it just gets better and better. The reason for this is that it shows how AND why the intertwined threads of technology, code, and the new field of 'artificial intelligence' (AI) are creating something wholly new in human history.

Best of all, it does a great job of showing how AI isn't replicating human thought. Instead it statistically assesses human behaviour – or the behaviour of the environment around the machine generally – in order to understand the "rules" for how the world functions. It then emluates those processes within its own actions to replicate our behaviour – only with the capacity to act far, far more quickly (e.g., there's a great shot of an AI playing video games at a blurringly fast rate).

Of course, it does all that without the moral or ethical framework which humans are (for the most part) naturally inculcated with – which is where the killer robots issue is so wonderfully woven into this whole theme.

To that end it uses a wonderful metaphor of an ant hill. Just as road construction might flatten an ant hill, so AI, if it doesn't fall within the parameters of the system, might potentially eliminate humans without any conscious thought.

Perhaps the thing I would have added to the documentary would have been a discussion of complexity and emergence, to explain why this 'new' thing is so significant. The other clearly missing thread is a discussion of the ecological issues surrounding digital technologies, in particular the depletion of rare resources and the ever-increasing use of energy.

I'm not technophobic – as anyone who has seen the scale of my own computer setup will attest.

I've worked around the issue of digital technology for many years: initially around digital rights, community ICT initiatives, and on-line protest; and latterly military drones, datatveillance, and how open source intelligence can be used by activists to turn the table of the establishment using these to target the public.

It is because I am aware of the capacity of networked information systems, and what they are potentially capable of in the future, which is why I have chosen to have a very deliberate relationship with digital technologies and networked applications: No mobile data; minimum practical social media use for communication; and using only free & open source software and largely recycled hardware.

That's probably why I like this documentary – it's taking the care to explain the complexity of the issues involved in a deliberative manner.

The growing significance of AI and networked intelligence – outside of the US election and Brexit referendum scandals (which are covered in-depth too) – is also excellently outlined by the documentary. That's summed up well in the theme at its core – automation.

For example, there is, today, a machine that can replace low skilled workers in industry at a fraction of the current cost of the human operative. However, AI will also target the more traditionally middle class professional roles, such as in accounting and finance.

It's been estimated that one-in-five jobs in Britain could be automated in a decade or so…
…and you through Brexit was our big problem in the near future?

The problem with technology is that it is often regarded – in a large part due to American economic culture – as an "uncontested good". Our culture fetishises technology (to see how just watch an episode of the BBC's Click) without asking very basic questions of whether or nor we should pursue such options for development. I think that Do You Trust This Computer? is perhaps the rare example of a tech. documentary that perceptively, and with excellent graphical and spoken technical communication, outlines the problems that might arise should we allow the unfettered adoption of AI by society.