Directed by Roy Cohen Documentary Film Review by Owen Herman
Machine of Human Dreams, an indie documentary from Roy Cohen and the interestingly named ‘Roast Beef Productions’, that tells the story of Ben Goertzel; the leading thinker in A.G.I. (artificial general intelligence). Brought up as a hippy, this modern genius is focused on creating an advanced A.I. mind. The result of his ideas is OpenCog, a human-like artificial mind that he wants to use, in combination with robotics, to create a fully thinking, independent, emoting intelligence.
The documentary weaves the tale of Ben Goertzel’s life, from growing up a hippy in Oregon during the Vietnam War to starting a business in 1990s New York, with the story of his more recent work in Hong Kong, attempting to input AI into toys so the Intelligence can learn and develop from toddlers around the world. Ben is an intriguing focus for a documentary; his vast intelligence and vision is breath-taking, yet there is a cloud over some of his past personal experiences. The influences of Hippy culture and sci-fi such as Star Trek are well explored and provide clear reasons why his vision is so huge. The film’s best moments come when Roy Cohen snap cuts between interviews with Ben and his acquaintances, such as uni friend Ken and ex-wife Gwen (Ben-Ken-Gwen as Ken says), which reveals inaccuracies in Ben’s stories when cross-referenced. This is very revealing and often leaves you sensing that Ben is quite ruthless in pursuit of technological advancement as well as being somewhat difficult to be close to.
As well as references to Star Trek, X-Men and Spielberg’s A.I., I found myself thinking of films such as Ex Machina and I, Robot as the camera cast its gaze over plastic-y replicas of the human face. Even the title made me immediately think of ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ (The book Blade Runner was based on). With all of these references and nods to sci-fi that told terrifying tales of A.I., it makes you wonder why this documentary avoids the morality of artificial intelligence altogether. The film looks at the technology behind its inception in detail but not to any ground-breaking effect; someone with an interest in this subject will learn little that is new. However it completely avoids the really interesting and morally ambiguous questions about A.I., which makes up the meat of discussions and reports on the subject. Ben and his team in Hong Kong want their central mind to learn from data collected from young children around the world. Straight away there are huge ethical, moral and even legal problems with this. It’s clear that Cohen isn’t oblivious to this, as he often plays ominous music whilst the camera looks into the dead eyes of a robot, and there are several montages that clearly are inspired by moments in sci-fi where robot or alien intelligence learn about the human race. Cohen knows there is a terrifying element to robotics and artificial intelligence yet doesn’t explore it.
A.I. is a deep, intricate and rich subject that is often explored to fascinating results. Machine of Human Dreams barely scratches the surface. There is an engaging personal and human story in there, thanks to the focus on Ben Goertzel, but it is not enough to save the documentary film from being disappointing.