An entertainingly ambitious albeit incoherent ode to A.I., and those who dare to dream
‘More Human Than Human’ (2018) dir. Tommy Pallotta & Femke Wolting. 119 mins.
“I think we’re going to the moon because it’s in the nature of the human being to face challenges. It’s by the nature of his deep inner soul.” – Neil Armstrong
That’s the quote that opens the documentary ‘More Human Than Human’ (2018). This is an ambitious quote to start the film, as it attempts to convince the audience of the hurdles artificial intelligence (A.I.) will face in not only advancing beyond anything that was thought to be possible for humankind before at a technological level, but also it’s potential to replicate and/or transcend human intelligence.
The documentary tries to answer this by marketing itself with a very interesting proposition: whether A.I. can replace the role a director who is making said documentary. Tommy Pallotta, the documentarian of this film, wanted to utilise several elements of A.I. technology in order to conduct this experiment. But what begins as one man attempting to bridge the gap between human and robot quickly becomes more of a study of human behaviour, specifically the ability of people to attach deeper meaning to machinery. Throughout the documentary, Pallotta spends a lot of time instead interviewing a number of leading future thinkers, A.I. engineers and academics to question the potential and risks involved with technology which is posed in the film as being able to alter the way entire industries and social classes function in society. This gives way to a tedium of sometimes repetitive existential-based points and counterpoints that usually occur regarding a technology that has the ability to supersede human utility. In fact, the main experiment is barely addressed, only popping up in a few scenes with engineers and technicians to test a machine that isn’t really used fully until in the last few scenes at the end, as a way for the director to link a lot of unwieldy concepts together.
The most fascinating parts of the film are the parts where Pallotta as director and narrator reminisces on his early fascination with sci-fi and speculative fiction. Pallotta previously collaborated with Richard Linklater on ‘Waking Life’, a cerebral sci-fi docu-drama (animated with rotoscope technology) that explores similar themes of free will and existentialism. Where ‘Waking Life’ succeeded in bringing together multiple heady themes through focusing on intensely intimate conversations between lovers and friends, as well as strangers, ‘More Human Than Human’ is similarly benefitted by a series of stories from across the globe focusing on the role of A.I. in assisting with the daily routine of people trying to live their lives to the fullest. This ranges from a young boy on the autism spectrum who uses A.I. to communicate; a woman who designed an online chatbot that mirrors the speech pattern of her deceased partner; to lonely elderly citizens in Germany who have found company and entertainment from conversational robots. One of the interviewees provides for a well-needed moment of humour in the film when he describes, as leading researcher for a program which aims to detect A.I. scams, becoming victim to one of the scams when he dated a Russian chatbot for almost 6 months without detecting that he’d been deceived. The film’s focus on the engineers and future-thinkers is also fascinating when they discuss pop culture’s expectations for A.I. based on existing popular media, and Richard Linklater briefly drops by in a few scenes to give the project his tick of approval while questioning how effective a robot could really be at covering the multiple highly emotive aspects of filmmaking such as casting and acting.
While the documentary covers a lot of ground in educating viewers on the progress of A.I., most of the scenes depicting the progress in constructing the robot which is meant to replace Pallotta as director are curiously absent from much of the content. Important information is seemingly glossed over, making the audience wonder how involved Pallotta was in this process. It certainly would have made for a much more engaging example of the testing nature of human nature if Pallotta was the central narrative presence (beyond his narration) and linked better with the various vignettes of people interacting with new A.I. technology. ‘More Human Than Human’ is at its most thought-provoking when the filmmakers involved focus on the very real and relatable aspects of mortality in the face of artificial immortality, and specifically the yearning for a greater understanding within our infinitely limited human perspective; as is the crux of the matter for the best speculative fiction.
‘More Human Than Human’ is showing as part of the Transitions Film Festival 2019, running at Cinema Nova until Friday, March 8th.