'Killer Robots' film warns of perils of automation

Toronto (Canada) (AFP) –


Automation is killing us, warns filmmaker Maxim Pozdorovkin in his new documentary "The Truth About Killer Robots," which premieres Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The film is also the first ever to be narrated by a robot -- a possible sign of what's to come in the motion picture industry.

"When I started making the movie, the idea of robots killing people was very trendy, people were talking about the theoretical possibilities," Pozdorovkin told AFP.

Most cautionary tales about automation have considered "what robots will be able to do in the future," he said.

"But I'm more interested in how technology presently works on us. How is automation transforming us? This is a deeper issue, fundamental to who we are as a species."

The movie considers laws for robots first imagined by Isaac Asimov in the his 1942 short story "Runaround," which states that machines must not harm humans.

It presents the viewpoints of engineers, journalists, philosophers and, through archival footage, Asimov himself.

In the film, Pozdorovkin points to deaths at a VW factory in Germany, in self-driving Tesla vehicles in the United States and from an explosives-carrying robot used by Dallas police to end an armed standoff.

The cases raise questions about accountability, legality and morality.

Robots, Pozdorovkin suggests, are also job killers, as well as making our minds lazy and fraying our connections to other people.

"We're talking about massive societal changes," he said. "And I think it's going to continue."

Many of the impacts are incremental, as in the case of American truck drivers who are now being tasked with effectively "baby-sitting" robot navigators, for less money.

"Before a truck driver is fully replaced by automation, their wages, their skills and their sense of dignity are slowly being degraded" as they hand over more and more tasks to computers, Pozdorovkin explained.

He noted inroads by artificial intelligence and robots far beyond factory floors, such as in law firms, pizza restaurants and taxis (which provoked five driver suicides in New York), and supplanting even a spouse in one case in China, where men outnumber women.

- Losing our humanity -

The economic benefits are easy to understand: robots are faster and more productive. But what will happen to all of the people who lose their jobs to automation?

More pressing for UC Berkeley philosopher John Campbell is the "loss of authentic connections with another person" as we increasingly turn to robots and artificial intelligence.

He explains in the film that robots made to mimic human emotions -- or trick us -- risk making people less empathetic overall.

"Relying on tech, your mind gets lazier," comments a witness to the Florida highway crash with a semi-trailer that resulted in the decapitation of the owner of the self-driving Tesla car, who was watching a movie at the time.

The case of the Dallas police attaching explosives to a bomb disposal robot and sending it into a building to kill a man who ambushed a group of officers in 2016 was described in media reports cited in the film as a "watershed moment in police tactics."

It was the first time American police used a robot to kill anyone.

But it was what came afterward that interested Pozdorovkin: the Dallas police chief asked the city council for more technology, not officers, to respond to future threats.

The filmmaker interviewed Chris Webb, a police sniper who responded to the Dallas attack, saying increased automation in policing was leading to "a loss of interpersonal relationships between officers and the community the officers serve."

"We're becoming more robotic," he said.

HBO television will show the film on November 26.

On Tuesday, Pozdorovkin and the film's director of photography Joe Bender will also host a talk in Toronto about increasing automation.