It’s easy to imagine a future where robots and people live together in households. There’s a big push in industry right now to build these machines. It is already happening with prosthetics and household units (Google Home and Alexa). When a robot has social aspects—you can talk to it in natural language, it reacts to your commands—will people prefer to hang out with robots rather than other people? Currently, sex robots are being built and introduced into society, and yet we have no legislation regarding them. What will this do to human intimacy? If we build an artificial system, i.e. an android that is capable, truly capable, of having emotions, then clearly there will be suffering in these systems as well. Issues of legal status and individual rights follow. Are robots “pets” or are they like primates, and do they deserve legal rights?
To explore contemporary discoveries and examine the ethics and cultural valences of human-machine interaction, ALMOST HUMAN follows five cutting edge laboratories in Japan, Hong Kong and the US, to discover competing approaches to how we conceive a “human.” The labs include those of roboticists Hiroshi Ishiguro at University of Osaka with his Geminoids, Takashi Ikegami from University of Tokyo with his android Alter, Matthias Scheutz’s lab at Tufts University, Allison Okamura at Stanford’s CHARM lab (Collaborative Haptics and Robotics in Medicine), Bina48 (Breakthrough Intelligence via Neural Architecture) at Terasem, and Andrew Schwartz's lab at University of Pittsburgh. These compelling, uncanny, obsessive and sometimes intense stories are intercut with an outer world which is moving swiftly into the future. Weaving through, as well, is a structure of archival montage “interruptions” used to trace historic mythologies and the mainstream culture that runs parallel to the development of artificial intelligence.
The film’s objective is to record the science of creating an artificial human for the public, and to do so through questioning the promethean aspirations of this science. How do we feel watching the current limits of the machine we keep on improving? What does it teach us about being human? What do we make of a group of scientists engineering machines and algorithms to create new life? How do different countries relate to these machines? How will our social experience change when interactive humanoid entities are as ubiquitous as smart phones? How will we respond to their humanoid, fashionable, possibly erotic, shapes? How will they play into human emotions and instincts for bonding, for violence? How will androids challenge our moral and ethical instincts? Will they make war in our place? Who will write their software personalities? Do they and AI really pose “our greatest existential threat?” (Musk, Gates, Hawking). We may not answer all these questions, but it is essential to raise them and document the relevant science in a way to bring us face to face with this fundamentally disruptive technology.