Film—Plug & Pray

Plug and Pray

I must admit, I hadn’t really done my research before going to watch Jens Schanze’s Plug & Pray at HRAFF on 18 May 2011. I knew it was a documentary about robots, and that it had been described as “chilling”, but that was it. Nonetheless, from the first scene I was hooked.

It is true that Plug & Pray is about robots. But when I think robots, I think Wall-E. The concept of robots in Plug & Pray is taken much further, as the movie explores the full range of ways that people and technology can interact or merge.

… the movie explores the full range of ways that people and technology can interact or merge.

As one of the protagonists, the futurist Raymond Kurzweil, points out, “we already have today many examples of … narrow artificial intelligence: flying airplanes, guiding intelligent weapons systems … diagnosing illnesses”.  These technological tools are the laptops, the mobile phones, the ATMs—familiar and unthreatening. Professor Joseph Weizenbaum, however, questions the wisdom of allowing machines to perform tasks that we don’t ourselves understand. What happens then, when something goes awry?

At the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University, Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro takes things a step further.  This is where humanoid robots are created—instead of being “mere tools”, these robots mimic human behaviours and interactions. They even look like us.

… instead of being “mere tools”, these robots mimic human behaviours and interactions.

In me, the resemblance evokes unease rather than awe but, as Ishiguro says, “When I come home, I just sit in front of the TV. If someone says something, I just reply ‘yes’. A robot would be sufficient for that. If this conveys the feeling of my presence, then I guess a robot could very well replace me.”

It seems absurd, but it speaks to the central question of Plug & Pray: what does it mean to be human? This question becomes even more pertinent when nanobots are discussed. Previously, nanobots hadn’t figured in my concept of “robotics”, but they represent the most complete merging of human biology and technology. Kurzweil optimistically foresees a future where these tiny, cell-like, pieces of technology can float around in our bloodstream by the billions, fixing “bugs” and prolonging life—perhaps indefinitely. Wouldn’t that be great?

… nanobots … represent the most complete merging of human biology and technology.

The different “categories” of robotics are by no means neatly separated, and Plug & Pray captures the complexity of the current state of research without overcomplicating or confusing the issue. It elegantly weaves scenes from the various laboratories around the globe into a multifaceted backdrop for bringing to light a number of possibilities and problems. While some of the questions raised may lie in the realm of academia and philosophy, rather than being pragmatic concerns for the foreseeable future, other questions hit closer to home.

… a multifaceted backdrop for bringing to light a number of possibilities and problems.

Weizenbaum expresses a particular concern for the current ethical dilemmas faced by lay people as well as scientists. As an example, he discusses his own involvement in the Navy, doing work that eventually lead to the development of the cruise missile. Thus, he now advises his students to carefully consider the future implications of their work. This prescient consideration contrasts strongly with the claim by Professor Hans-Joachim Wünsche that “we work in a branch of technology where these issues of ethics hardly arise”. Wünsche is shown in Plug & Pray participating in a competition, hosted by the US Department of Defense, involving autonomous vehicles.

Whether you are interested in the implications of eventually creating machines that possess a human identity, or perhaps wonder what happens when a child-like robot named iCub meets a human child, I recommend watching Plug & Pray. Hire the DVD, get your laptop out, make yourself comfortable under a blanket on the couch … and plug and play.

Plug & Pray screened as part of HRAFF at ACMI on Wednesday 18 May, 9:00 pm.

Visit www.plugandpray-film.de/en

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