Artificial Intelligence and Society – Review of the Documentary Plug & Pray

Last week as part of the Seattle International Film Festival I saw the documentary Plug & Pray which dealt with the development of artificial intelligence and it’s implications for society.

The tone of the film was set in the opening credits showing Joseph Weizenbaum, who was involved in the early development of computers and artificial intelligence, trying to start up his laptop and play some music, saying “you plug it in and it works … except when it doesn’t”. Most of the film went back and forth between researchers explaining their work and how it will improve society, with Weizenbaum coming in to argue that a lot of the benefits are overstated and too few people are thinking about the negative costs. This contrast is particularly striking in the scenes with Ray Kurzweil, about whom it would be an understatement to say he is optimistic about the potential for technology to improve humanity.

I think the film did a good job of presenting the importance for scientists to consider the impact of the work on society. Weizenbaum brought up the fact that when students would come to him for advice about thesis projects he would tell them to imagine being able to push a button to reverse all the work they had done. If a student thought they would want to be able to have that button, then they shouldn’t work on that project. Weizenbaum himself ultimately decided he didn’t want to be involved in the kind of research that was being done and finished his career teaching mathematics instead of computer science. Similarly, in the Q and A afterwards the director told how off-camera one of the researchers told him he couldn’t think too much about the long-term effects of his research, since then he wouldn’t be able to do it. I did wonder if that comment was being misinterpreted, since the director seemed to imply the researcher thought the consequences weren’t good. When I heard Weizenbaum’s advice about the button, I also thought that many people wouldn’t be able to do research if they thought that way; not because we think we’d regret doing the work, but because there are so many unknowns to take into account. Just considering all the possibilities would take so much work that it wouldn’t be possible to actually do the research.

I also saw what might have been a bit of disconnect when the director said that, other than Kurzweil, few of the researchers seemed to have really thought through the philosophical implications of their work. While it may have been edited to show the times they did discuss those issues, I thought several of them seemed well aware of the issues their work could bring about. However they also were often discussing it in terms of the inherent good of learning about how intelligence works. This valuing of knowledge for the sake of knowledge is something I see commonly in my fellow scientists, but often is less recognized by non-scientists – such as the director.

In general Plug and Pray brought up some interesting ideas that I’m still thinking about almost a week later. I’d definitely say it’s worth people trying to track down if it shows near you or once it comes out on DVD.

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