Never Trust the Hype

Never Trust the Hype

Hi, AI (Germany, 2019) is a cinematic reflection about the nature of consciousness, our very human need for connection, and our exchanges with robotic entities and artificial intelligence. Director Isa Willinger describes her film as a sciencefiction documentary, and that’s fitting—but it’s also an easy way out. As a researcher and tech enthusiast, I’m interested in the presentation of new technologies. How are they being introduced? What’s the elevator pitch? What’s the popular reaction? And how much money was invested in the storytelling aspect of marketing it? We live in a capitalist world, and little research is done for mere curiosity. 



Brecht wrote in the 1920s that a picture of a Krupp plant can’t show how Krupp functions as an enterprise. Back then, you could point the camera at machines and laborers. You’d have something interesting to analyze. If we want to show our service-oriented information society in a film, we have to show people on computers. That isn’t exactly entertainment. Good that we have fancy robots around. 

Hi, AI is observational. It presents a glimpse of the coming age of robots. The film shows hardware and how we, as humans, react to that hardware. Mechanisms, the truly important aspects behind the cute little robots, avoid displayability and thereby avoid critique. We see what we want to see. 

Technologies, be they power drills or talking robots, are tools. They are objects. We can’t assume that they’re anything more. We have to remind ourselves that specific use is never inherent to an object, even though technical demagogues like to claim such use is. It’s a hard task to find out what technology is and what it should do if you don’t have a clue about the context. 

Take a prehistoric artifact and describe what its use was. Usually, use is connected with an object through definition, such as instructions for use. But science and technology studies, especially by Langdon Winner and Bruno Latour, have convincingly demonstrated our inability to understand technological artifacts as fabricated objects and cultural phenomena derives from the fact that only those technologies that prove functional are preserved. We see them in retrospect. However, the perception of what is functional, successful, and useful is the product of social, cultural, political, and economic processes. 

Technologist Elon Musk is a fundamental critic of AI. He said, “With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon. You know all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water and he’s like… (wink) yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon… doesn’t work out.” 

Musk’s approach is very different from the one the director of Hi, AI chose, but it’s equally flawed. They both present robots as stars, but robots aren’t. They aren’t gods, they aren’t fairies, they aren’t demons, and they aren’t our silicon children. In reality, robots and AI are still nothing more than effective power drills. Don’t let yourself be tricked into assuming more.

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