ONE OF THE STIGMAS ATTACHED TO SCIENCE FICTION CINEMA IS THAT OF BEING PERCEIVED AS SYNONYMOUS WITH ACTION, POPCORN AND SPECIAL EFFECTS.
One with which, in a way, our collective perception of the future itself is also burdened. This is a self-imposed limitation that makes us fall into the trap of the usual manichean visions: utopia or dystopia, order or chaos, spectacular progress or apocalypse.
In cinema, for example, production companies are forced to decorate the stories with elements of empty entertainment that often distract us from the philosophical reflections that some of these films hide between flying kicks and laser shots. Films like Cronenberg’s “Videodrome”, Verhoeven’s “Robocop” or, to a lesser extent, Riddley Scott’s “Blade Runner”, were treated with a certain disdain in their time and had to wait decades to receive the deserved recognition as the cult films they are today.
A similar case could be that of “Upgrade,” a 2018 film directed by Leigh Whannell that went unnoticed but may well one day earn a place among the classics of the genre. With an aesthetic and an approach largely reminiscent of such eighties gems, “Upgrade” offers a trepid cocktail of cyberpunk fantasy, action and “Matrix”-style fight scenes that, under its commercial appearance, hides a profound reflection on a question rarely dealt with in fiction: that of the limits of the ceding of human-machine control.
The film introduces us to a tetraplegic protagonist who manages to regain mobility thanks to an experimental chip with a CPU (Central Processing Unit) endowed with artificial intelligence implanted in his brain. This allows him to robotize, in a way, his nervous system, thus restoring the nerve connections between his body and his new human/machine hybrid mind. But he soon discovers that the chip doesn’t stop there but also begins to offer him recommendations. So, just as our GPS suggests the fastest route, the AI implanted in his brain advises him on the most “efficient” actions in his daily life, allowing him to improve drastically in many aspects of it.
Up to this point, the comparison with today is obvious: the use of AI and all kinds of algorithms to help us make decisions has made its way exponentially in almost every field, from medical to financial, including one as human as love relationships (does anyone still think that a match on Tinder is accidental?)
But, of course, the film goes beyond that. Following a parallel plot, the protagonist suddenly finds himself in a violent situation that requires quick decision-making. Too fast. So fast that it is no longer enough for him to follow the AI’s advice, but
in order to succeed the AI proposes only one solution: to temporarily cede control of his body to itself. This way, the machine takes the helm and, thanks to its superhuman efficiency and speed, manages to overcome all obstacles. He, a mere spectator -a passive subject-, is perplexed by the impossible movements of his body, fueled by a mental agility that surpasses him, that he does not understand. And, although his merit in such feats is null and void, and the machine makes decisions that his own moral code would not have accepted (some extremely violent) he cannot help but feel good. Powerful. A superman.
This act, that of ceding control of the body to the machine, represents a frontier that, far from futuristic fantasies, we are close to crossing. Or, indeed, that in a way we have already crossed. Because, although it is not yet possible to cede control of a human body to an AI, it is possible to do so with intermediate bodies such as, for example, cars. In this sense, we could establish three levels of human-AI relationship:
The first would be old-fashioned driving, without any AI intervention; the second would be assisted driving using, as we said before, a GPS (equivalent to the protagonist letting himself be advised) and the last would be autonomous driving (comparable to the AI taking full control of the body). In 1, you drive. In 2, you drive but if the GPS recommends you to take a certain detour you will probably do it (if you trust its judgment more than yours). In 3, the car will take the detour (with you in it, as a simple spectator).
The film, whose ending we obviously won’t reveal, ends up twisting the debate to existentialist extremes (to what extent do we still exist if we cede total control to an AI?), an extreme that we should nevertheless start to consider. The European Commission recently addressed the question of these limits, dividing the risks of AI into four levels: from unacceptable (uses that threaten democracy, security, integrity and the rights of individuals) to minimal (logistics, image and video games, among others).
But, beyond macro issues, it is interesting to ask ourselves individually what role we want to give to technology in our decision making, how to take advantage of its potential (AI can undoubtedly surpass human intelligence in more and more aspects) without renouncing what makes us human, finding a balance between being (almost) all-powerful and being… us.
After all, we are talking about something as relevant as the next step in human evolution.
An evolution that transcends the laws of genetics to give us, precisely, the control of where we want to go. Will it be a transhumanist model in which we incorporate technology into our bodies and minds in a limited way or one in which we gradually transition to an entirely artificial existence; posthumanist existence? Would it be desirable to blindly pursue evolution (to become more efficient, more powerful, almost godlike, to colonize space and defeat death) if that means ultimately sacrificing our human condition as we know it? While it is true that there is not yet a technology that compels us to make these kinds of decisions (e.g., a general AI superior to the human), all experts agree that, the day this happens, we should be ready for that scenario. For once in history we have control over our next great evolutionary leap as a species. Only if we stop being distracted by the special effects and pay attention to the underlying plot will we get the decision right.