Director Maxim Pozdorovkin wants you to know the truth about killer robots. And it’s a truth that’s far more complex than you’d think.
While Pozdorovkin’s documentary, The Truth About Killer Robots, opens with the story of a robot on human homicide in Germany,
it isn’t purely about a Skynet future in which bloodthirsty androids kill indiscriminately to replace us. Instead the documentary is about all of the quieter yet equally insidious ways that technology has already replaced us.
“This is a movie about the effects of automation on humanity, and these kinds of large structural economic issues,” Pozdorovkin says. “We have these more alienated working environments where you have this very, very small number of humans that are kind of assisting the robots in places where there’s some kind of disconnect. They’re really not doing very much, and that has a really devastating effect on humanity, and I think the way that a lot of blue collar, middle-class manufacturing service sector jobs have been drained of that dignity and of those skills, I think has a lot of existential consequences.”
Pozdorovkin is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker best known for previous documentaries Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer and Our New President. The Truth About Killer Robots, with its aggressive branding may at first seem like a rather big detour for a humanist storyteller but the documentary is really about humanity, itself, and the relationship we have with our machines.
“Usually what happens is that when a new technology’s introduced the word ‘robot’ is used, and then when it becomes ubiquitous, it just goes back to being a machine,” Pozdorokin says.
We spoke with Pozdorovkin about robots, machines, and where humanity’s place is in all of this.
We spoke with Pozdorovkin about robots, machines, and where humanity’s place is in all of this.
Den of Geek: How you first got interested in the topic of automation and robotics?
Maxim Pozdorovkin: I noticed a thing all the reporting about robots and artificial intelligence, and a lot of books and a lot of new reports. And all of them I was always sort of frustrated with it, for two reasons.
One, it felt like everything that was done was under the premise of what robots can do for you in the future. And to me, the more interesting question is what robots do to us, and to you. How do they transform us? And I thought that was kind of just this incredible blind spot. Thinking about it, I realized that I think that blind spot came slightly from failure to see A.I. not as something that’s in the future that we’re heading towards, but there’s a certain kind of continuation of automation.
So the idea for this film started with hearing about this incident in Germany where a manipulated arm killed a worker who was installing it. This incident combines literal death and metaphorical death, in a way that really spoke to this blind spot of not connecting automation as a certain kind of historical trajectory that’s transforming society.
And then I was interested in a kind of doomsday scenario of robots killing humans. Those workers that we met outside on the bridge outside of the Volkswagen factory, which is the first thing we really filmed, that came together. In a way, also my dissatisfaction with what I was feeling with most of the reporting, and the writing on the subject also kind of crystallized at that moment. That became the organizing principles for the film, and it went from there.
Yeah, the reporting is pretty lacking in that area.
Well, I mean historically it’s an interesting thing because even semantically the word “robot.” Usually what happens is that when a new technology’s introduced the word ‘robot’ is used, and then when it becomes ubiquitous, it just goes back to being a machine, and the word, it gets reserved for newer and newer things. That is part of the definition from the beginning.
As you were researching this, what aspect surprised you the most? As you went to China, Germany, Florida, everywhere, was there anything that really stuck out to you as truly maybe dystopian? Or just really took you aback?
I think that there were a lot of small elements and what happened was that film is one of the really bad mediums for saying anything but it’s a really good medium for feeling something. Mediums that are really good for saying things, you know, for example print journalism and books, all of the writing about automation tended to be about quantitative consequences.
By obscuring that you really get to feel that aspect of it. And what I mean is it’s something that some workers tend to be skilled in. And it’s the idea is that these jobs, a lot of times, you know, people will say, it’s like “Well, how come there isn’t massive unemployment yet?” And it’s not spiking. The thing is that the way the economy works is that for a long time, jobs are just de-skilled, so a lot of what a truck driver, for example, does, nowadays is really just basic use of the computer. And that’s used to drive wages down.
But what creates this sort of dystopian thing is that a lot of these jobs, and even a lot of factory jobs that used to be in some ways more communal, or we have these Chinese post offices where you see it’s automated. We have these more alienated working environments where you have this very, very small number of humans that are kind of assisting the robots in places where there’s some kind of disconnect. They’re really not doing very much, and that has a really devastating effect on humanity, and I think the way that a lot of blue collar, middle-class manufacturing service sector jobs have been drained of that dignity and of those skills, I think has a lot of existential consequences. I think that things like even the spike in suicide rates, I mean, they have a number of factors, but I think that one of them is the causing of kind of basic dignity that humans for thousands of years have gotten from labor.
So, for me the film had to be about the way that we’re losing our ability to connect. The way that we’re losing spacial orientation, the way that we’re losing memory, and it’s not that, I’m not a Luddite. It’s just that we should be contemplating that as a thing, you know, we used these evolutionary, we developed these abilities to navigate space and it seems foolhardy to just dim that, in five years become completely helpless in terms of navigation, that your phone is just a whim. I’m not saying it’s completely a negative thing, but we are also losing something.
You ended up splitting up the documentary into three parts. It begins with manufacturing, then the service sector, and ends with final displacement. I was wondering what was, kind of, the decision making process behind that? If there were a fourth part, what would it be?
I had this idea of how do you make a film about, essentially, structural labor economics, but do it in a way that doesn’t feel like homework, that’s not dry, that’s compelling.
I used this guide that was sort of science fiction, dystopian, true crime shell, that allowed us to do that and initially my idea was to peg each of the incidents, each of the figures, to a sector of the economy, and so, first one was manufacturing. This was really was about this long-standing trajectory of what’s happening to manufacturing, and how the advances in computer precision have really pushed, have really catalyzed this development of this automation of manufacturing. We wanted to get that dialogue going so the first step, which was obviously the most literal one, and that’s inside of manufacturing.
The service sector argument, you know, would emerge to me as the most important component of service sect automation, was us adapting and accepting it. Accepting it, and getting sucked in with computers to run our lives, and kind of ignoring some of the consequences, that felt like the operative mechanism.
The third section, it was strange, because originally we wanted to have it be, sort of, the jobs that we previously thought could not be automated but now were automated. So it seemed like, pairing up matters of life and death, life, death, love, all these things.
Unfortunately, economics does not provide a handy category for that other section of the economy. It doesn’t quite fit into, it’s not just white-collar work, and it’s kind of a broad thing. But in thinking about this and organizing the last section, I kept on coming back to the story of a bomb robot in Dallas, which was used. Initially, we had a section about drone, but what I like in terms of, thematically, about that story was that, on the surface of it, there’s nothing problematic. In terms of what happened. In the sense of, had the sniper, who’d been in a movie, killed the active shooter, there wouldn’t be anything about it.
So in a way, the fact that they made this bomb robot and it blew up this guy, there’s nothing kind of wrong with it except it just feels awful, and it feels awkward, and even the police chief kinda flubbed a line when he said “Bomb robot,” because it touched on something that, kind of, deeply uncomfortable existentially. When robots and this kind of technology get too close for comfort. So for me, that’s why that case is so much more interesting than something like a lot of the cases of drone malfunctions leading to civilian casualties, or those mistakes, because I found that a lot of the debates about drone warfare tend to get into the weeds of, well, how economist was it? What was the extensive operative of control? What was the human error?
You have a robot named Kodomoroid narrating this film. What exactly is that machine? How did she come about, and how did she come to be the narrator of the film?
Kodomoroid was an android developed by Hiroshi Ishiguro, who’s in the film. And pre-developed, he’s sort of a roboticist-artist, and one of the things that he’s done is think about these places, these functions in society that really beg the question of “Does a human need to do this?” And for him, the news anchor that just sort of delivers information and doesn’t really add interpretation or anything else was that example. And so he built this child news-reading android that we used to narrate the film. It’s the first film that’s narrated by a robot to my knowledge, but that was also to make a humanistic film about this sect of automation that’s human. But also, at the same time, to not be in denial about how bizarre it is, it being irreplaceable, or any of those things
You know, the worst thing that we could have done for the narrator of the film was to get a James Earl Jones sound-alike, double down on how emotive humans can be. And I think that a lot of the films that have been made about robots and automation kind of take this gamble, they’ll say, okay, can a robot direct a movie? Can a robot be a DP on a movie? Can he be highly complex; do highly intuitive tasks, that humans are very good at? And the answer’s of course not, you give this thing a pat on the back about, look at, aren’t humans so great? Computers can’t catch up.
And, you know, it was easier to work than with a human. You didn’t have to hire studios. We’d be constantly tweaking the voice over in the edits without setting up a recording session, which is what you would do. But for us, it was like, if you’re making a film about this stuff, you have to grapple with that technology and move away, and you know, the industries also changing, and not do that, not recreate this other blind spot that will save, you know, humans from this.
Your documentary’s been picked up by HBO. How do you feel about your movie spending the rest of its life on servers right next to Westworld?
I mean, for me, that’s actually the best part of HBO. This is a movie about the effects of automation on humanity, and these kinds of large structural economic issues. But I think, and I love that people who usually watch Ballers or Game of Thrones or, you know, even Westworld, tend to still see it through this purely escapist prism will see the title The Truth About Killer Robots and they’ll be drawn by the title, and so in a way they’ll be exposed to something, to that kind of argument that they almost never see, you know. I like throwing this wrench into the heap of material that exists about robots and A.I. and automation, because I think that by taking this qualitative perspective on the issue does something that at least I haven’t seen other films try to do.