DAVID BIANCULLI

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The Frightening Side of A.I. on 'The Truth About Killer Robots' on HBO
November 26, 2018  | By David Hinckley
 

A show about Killer Robots could be one of two things: a 1950s horror film or a 2018 horror documentary.

The Truth About Killer Robots, which premieres at 10 p.m. ET Monday on HBO, turns out to document things that are quite real today, and it won’t surprise viewers that some of those things are scarier than anything the B-movie industry of the 1950s ever dreamed up.

Produced by Maxim Pozdorovkin, Killer Robots turns out to be more riveting than the concept of a documentary on robots would suggest.

It also deals only briefly with actual killer robots.

The first case, where a worker at a Volkswagen factory in Germany was crushed to death by a robot, seems to have resulted from either a malfunction or a careless programming order. 

The second victim was the serial killer who murdered five Dallas police officers in 2016. Because he was holed up inside a building where it could have been suicide to storm his position, Dallas police armed a bomb squad robot with – ironically – a bomb, and sent it close enough to blow him up.

In the wake of this latter case, Killer Robots talks with several people, including cops, about the morality of sending robots to kill people. While this surrogate function has been accepted for some time in warfare, many consider its implementation in other situations to create a potentially dangerous precedent.

A Dallas police officer who quit the force after the robot case says his biggest long-term concern is that technology has been inserted into too many human contact situations. Without a human link, he says, police work cannot succeed.  

Those concerns tie directly into the larger thrust of this documentary as well, because it’s really an exploration of the speed at which artificial intelligence and robots have been changing the world’s economy and culture.

Pozdorovkin clearly has deep concerns about what we lose and sacrifice when we minimize or eliminate the human element in areas like service – though he does interview corporate executives and robot technicians who argue that having robots do rote work can free humans for more rewarding tasks.

Still, while we’ve all become accustomed to seeing robots work on assembly lines, Killer Robots notes that the A.I. biz has moved way past that.

We see one Tim Hwang, a lawyer who started the firm of Robot, Robot & Hwang after developing software that enables a pair of robots to do the research and document preparation ordinarily handled by young aspiring lawyers, paralegals, and legal assistants. By working with algorithms and key words, he says, their work matches that of humans.

We see robot developers explaining how it takes a minimum of 30 “actualizations” to roughly mimic the expressions of a human face. Artificial faces – usually attractive – are then manufactured and placed on the front of robots who are programmed to hold ever-more sophisticated conversations.

We see robots making pizza to order. We see a hotel whose desk is “manned” entirely by smiling robots.

Things get a little creepier when Killer Robots takes us to a Japanese robot expo at which one of the demonstration models talks about how she has a nice body, but you can’t touch it because that would be sexual harassment.

She isn’t nearly as creepy, however, as the Chinese man who has built a robot “girlfriend” and “married” her in a ceremony to which he invited “our relatives and friends.”

And her “relatives” are, exactly, who?  

Somewhere all those dirty old men who used to buy life-size female blowup dolls are thinking they were just born too soon.

The Chinese man is an extreme, albeit terribly sad, case. The more disturbing truth, for most of us, is that little in Killer Robots surprises us. We’re quite comfortable with the likes of Siri and Alexa, and most of us some time ago accepted that when we call any corporate entity, we will be speaking with a machine.  

But Killer Robots suggests that the A.I. and robot industries are reaching far deeper in our lives than “Press 1 for billing questions.” Robots being developed today are programmed to glean personal information from reading our faces. The automatic vacuum cleaning our floor may also be collecting data for marketers.

Meanwhile, with each step forward for robots, another level of human employment may begin to vanish.

Killer Robots doesn’t suggest we’ve plunged into an apocalypse. It does warn that we need to ramp up our understanding of what it means when we bring these new tools into our world – lest it become theirs.

 
 
 
 
 
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