Raindance 2019: ‘Who Made You’ Director Iiris Härmä On Our Future With Artificial Intelligence

Close-up Culture’s Anna Mayers spoke to director Iiris Härmä about Who Made You, a documentary that explores our future with Artificial Intelligence.

The film will screen at the Raindance Film Festival in London (27 and 28 September). For ticket info

Q: When did you start to take an interest in AI?

A: In 2015 I attended the University of Helsinki science competition and heard a young scientist, Michael Laakasuo, talk about his research project Moralities of Intelligent Machines. His speech made me realise how quickly we adopt new technology as a part of our everyday, and how close to our lives we let it come, without sparing a thought to the values it conveys to us.

About the same time, I encountered for the first time a speech recognition software-based chatbot when I phoned the bank, and talking to it felt a bit uncomfortable. Software and applications based on artificial intelligence come between me and other people, as a part of communication, claiming a part in human interaction. They are no longer a phase, like landline phones were: they make suggestions and shape our ways of communicating and expressing ourselves to others. Our wants and needs are fed back to us as commercial suggestions.

In addition to this, devices and robots equipped with deep learning algorithms are becoming a new kind of operator that we also have to learn to communicate with.

Q: How did you set about taking on such a big, complex and fast-moving subject?

A: I thought we would get used to these new things gradually, but as a film-maker I have the chance to take a look at the nature of our time and ask how will all this affect our humanity, our way of existing.

As a documentarist, I liked the kind of old-fashioned task of encapsulating the zeitgeist in a film. I realised the human race is right now in the middle of a revolution that stems from the exponential growth and development of technology, and I have the opportunity to try to somehow understand it through the process of film-making. 

As artificial intelligence itself is not very photogenic, I chose robots to represent AI-based devices in the documentary.

Q: Someone like myself might watch a film like ‘Ex Machina’ and feel a creeping sense of dread about the future of AI. Do you get a sense that we – on a global scale – are prepared to deal with the changes coming our way?

A: Technology is limitless, and no matter how I wish others shared the values I consider important, they might not. We already use apps that are designed in different cultural mindsets, and we don’t always see or notice how they operate. This was the reason I wanted to make a film reminding us that these apps that are becoming a part of our mental everyday, carry values with them.

This also brings about questions about how we should take into account ethics and moralities in developing new technology, and in political decision-making and legislature concerning it. All over the world, decision-makers have to now keep their eyes open and be mindful of these challenges of new technology. It might do good for everyone else as well to think about these issues at least for the duration of one film.

Europe has already realised that the ethics of artificial intelligence have to be considered, but I am not overly optimistic about us achieving universal harmony on a global set of AI values.

Q: You visited a number of different countries for this film. Can you pick out any particularly surprising or standout encounters you had with AI?

I had the opportunity to delve into this subject, and I found many things I encountered quite amazing. Particularly awe-inspiring was the method developed by professor Yukiyasu Kamitani from Japan, that scans the human brain for pictures that the person is thinking of. The team is also working on a way to scan dreams.

Also, meeting a developer of sex robot AI made me think about how we learn a lot about what it means to be a human when we code robots to be human-like. New, AI-utilising inventions will give us incredible amounts of information on ourselves and how our minds work. This is fascinating.

On the other hand, I was amazed by how quickly people are ready to adopt the changes – for example, in Sweden I filmed people having microchips implanted under their skin to make life smoother. Almost four thousand people over there have already done that. Watching them made me wonder how fast I’d be willing to take steps towards cyborgism, if everyone was doing it.

Q: How do you see AI shaping our future? And do we have any control over this future?

A: AI-equipped devices and applications will from now profoundly affect our life experience, as well as our children’s and parents’, whether we like it or not. We, ordinary people, also have great responsibility of how AI will be adopted in different societies.

During this project, I myself understood the scope and depth of this change in humanity, and how important it is right now for us to vote into office people who understand what these challenges are about.

Q: ‘Who Made You’ will screen a the Raindance Film Festival in London. What should audience expect?

A: For once, I’ve made a film about something every viewer has personal experience of. Even though you might think you are the only one that is clueless about new technology and its development, you are not. We are all on the same learning journey, and that feels somehow comforting.

You can see ‘Who Made You’ at the Raindance Film Festival in London (27 and 28 September). For ticket info

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