A new film warning of the dangers of tech consumption appears on a streaming service that uses our data to feed us more content. Surely it’s too late to save ourselves?
Last modified on Mon 3 May 2021 10.14 BST
It is a bold mainstream movie that truly sticks it to Big Tech, but that’s what zippy new animation The Mitchells vs the Machines purports to do. A fractious family who’d rather spend time on their screens are forced to cooperate when evil robots take over the world. The robots are made by a nonchalant mogul as an upgrade to his ubiquitous “Pal” – a disembodied Alexa-type app, playfully voiced by Olivia Colman. Pal doesn’t take her rejection well, and being an all-knowing, all-connected AI, she has options. Giving the robots the ability to shoot laser cannons from their hands might have been a bad idea.
Ironically, if Pal’s creator had spent more time in front of a screen, he’d have known better. The movies have been warning us for more than half a century that artificial intelligence has an incurable habit of turning against us, especially if it hasn’t got a body of its own. From Kubrick’s 2001 and Colossus: The Forbin Project, the idea has virally passed down through the likes of War Games, Terminator’s Skynet, the Matrix’s machines and Avengers’ Ultron. At best you’ll get a morose onboard computer such as Moon’s GERTY or an artificial lover like Scarlett Johansson in Her.
The Mitchells vs the Machines knows its history (there are stylistic nods to Tron), but it also connects AI-phobia to our social media addiction, which is dangerous territory. The movie was originally made by Sony and intended for theatrical release but, owing to the pandemic, it was acquired by Netflix, a company for whom screen addiction is kind of the business model. A few years ago, Netflix’s recommendations algorithm – the tech that watches what you watch and strives to give you more of the same, for ever – was valued at more than $1bn a year.
In its defence, Netflix also gave us The Social Dilemma, a documentary on the dystopian dangers of social media addiction, and Tau, a not-very-good thriller with Gary Oldman as the voice of a smart house that gets too smart. The real-life purveyors of family-invasion, apps such as Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, are also set on colonising our viewing habits. Are these really the platforms to preach about big tech?
AI has been working its way into the industry for some years now, including programs that predict box office, advise on which movies to greenlight and even analyse scripts. Early experiments in entirely AI-generated scripts have produced diabolical results (check out Oscar Sharp’s Sunspring and Zone Out), but the machines are learning. It may be a while before AI produces anything as slick and savvy as The Mitchells vs the Machines. But then isn’t a movie that satirises social media even as it draws viewers into yet more screen time exactly what an AI might write? Perhaps Netflix’s algorithm is sentient already.