Q&A: Documentary filmmaker Chris Paine on AI


Film still via YouTube

Pitt Cyber will show Chris Paine’s film “Do You Trust this Computer?” at 6 p.m. on Thursday in the Teplitz Courtroom of the Barco Law Building.

By Griffin Lynch, Staff Writer

Just 50 years ago, computers were barely capable of doing basic math. In the decades since, huge strides in technology and software have made artificial intelligence, or computer programs that attempt to emulate the higher decision-making faculties of intelligent beings, like humans, viable.

Companies and researchers have developed artificial intelligence to play arcade games and drive autonomous cars, and it’s the technology that powers Snapchat’s face-recognizing lenses. It also suggests products to buy on Amazon, tells us what to watch next on Netflix and controls what news feeds appear on Facebook, meaning that AI is in control of a lot more than how we look in a video sent to our friends. It can influence our outlook on the world, even going so far as to impact elections.

That’s why Chris Paine, an award-winning documentary film director and producer, made the movie “Do You Trust this Computer?” The film takes a look at the possibilities and dangers brought about by the development of AI. Paine has worked on several documentaries in the past, most of which discuss technology in the context of transportation like automotives and bicycles. Although “Do You Trust this Computer?” mentions the automotive industry, where AI is used extensively in self-driving cars, the film focuses on AI generally, apart from any particular implementation.

Pitt Cyber will show the film at 6 p.m. on Thursday in the Teplitz Courtroom of the Barco Law Building. A Q&A panel that includes Paine and several Pitt professors will follow the screening. The Pitt News talked with Paine before the showing about the documentary, AI and his filmmaking process.

TPN: Tell me a little bit about yourself to get started.

Paine: Well, I’m a documentary director and producer, and I made a film called “Who Killed the Electric Car” back in 2006, about the destruction of 5,000 electric vehicles in California, and then … [laughs] … sorry, I haven’t answered this question in such a long time. I generally tend to do films about technology and the environment, and I care about narrative tradition, so I try to make the films as exciting as possible. And we’ve done three or four films about electric cars, bicycles, motorcycle racing and science fiction. And [Do You Trust this Computer?”] is a mash-up of sci-fi and technology. Did you get to see the movie?

TPN: Yeah, it’s on YouTube, right?

Paine: It is on YouTube, yes, but the film was made for the theater. We have Chris Jenkins, who did the sound [mixing] on “Mad Max” and got an Oscar for that, and we try to make real theatrical presentations. Because so much of the AI story is in the minds of science-fiction creators, it became a really cool way to play with the documentary form and make a film about what could be happening right now.

TPN: What brought you to artificial intelligence?

Paine: You know, I was reading Stephen Hawking … Well, before he passed away, he was talking about the existential threat of superintelligence and artificial intelligence. I went, “Really? That seems unlikely. What’s he nervous about?” Of course, I knew about privacy issues around Google and all the rest of it, but I didn’t really know the story of superintelligence. I didn’t understand how powerful the algorithms were in terms of targeting messages and computational propaganda. I realized, “Wow, this technology could accidentally overwhelm us, and this is really the time to get people knowledgeable, and get people interested and aware of what’s going on so that we can democratize the technology so that everyone can have a say in where it’s headed. Or try to have a say.”

TPN: Could you briefly explain what artificial intelligence is?

Paine: Well, the idea of artificial intelligence changes for every generation. If you told someone in the 1830s that a computer could beat you in chess, that would be artificial intelligence. The idea is building machines that can think and problem-solve on their own. If you take the Turing test definition, if it’s impossible to tell as a user if you’re interacting with a human or a computer, you’re looking at artificial intelligence.

We use simple AIs in everything. For some people, the autopilot is artificial intelligence, whether it’s in a self-driving Tesla or in that Boeing Super Max jet that you came down in that was guiding a human being all the way down to the ground. We use these things as tools, and we just have to be careful not to let them make the final decisions for us. The great line from the film is “AIs know you better than your mother does.” Some algorithm at Google probably knows more about you than anyone in your family. So that’s kinda cool in a way, because it can cater to your interests, but what’s the flip side? That’s what our movie is about.

TPN: You talked to a lot of people for the documentary, including Max Tegmark, Rana el Kaliouby and Elon Musk [Interviewer’s note: Tegmark is a professor of physics at MIT, El Kaliouby is the CEO of the tech start-up Affectiva and Musk is the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla.] What was it like to talk to people who are at the forefront of artificial intelligence development right now?

Paine: Super hard to get interviews with people that are at the top of their game in AI. That was by far the hardest part of this film. People are getting seven-figure salaries, it’s impossible to work into their schedule. They don’t want to be seen as overly cautious in their approach to AI because there’s millions and millions and millions of government funding going into these programs.

It’s especially tricky for women, because the women who have managed to break into this mostly all-male world don’t want to be seen as troublemakers. I give Rana a ton of credit as a CEO of a start-up company coming on camera and talking about stuff. And she’s a believer in the technology. Most of the people we interviewed are believers — Elon, of course, uses AI in his cars and rockets, and Rana does it in all of her emotion-recognition software. So they have a lot of vested interest in seeing that the technology be beneficial, and it’s built their careers.

But it’s interesting that the moment you get interviews with them, you say, “Is there anything you’d be concerned about, or is this just hype?” and they go, “Well, I am a little concerned about this.” And you get a little shiver down your spine and you go, “God, they actually are a little bit nervous about that.”

TPN: What do you think would be a best-case scenario? What steps do you think would create the best future for humanity with respect to this technology?

Paine: Well, I don’t think we should turn them off, because we use them all the time. I love my computer. I don’t trust my computer, but I love my computer. I’m not a person who’d say burn your computer. Really, I believe in it. It’s just we can’t let five guys at Google, two guys at Facebook, the NSA and China be in charge of all these things.