Human-seeming robots are already among us – that’s what Isa Willinger shows in her fascinating documentary “Hi, AI”, which just won the Max Ophüls Prize. DW talked to the director.

Deutsche Welle: In your film you describe some examples from Japan, the USA and other countries. Take us on your journey to the robots – what exactly do you introduce to us in your film? – Let’s start with America.

Isa Willinger: In America you experience how a man meets a robot woman (see picture above). He picks her up at the factory and then spends the first week of this “relationship” with her. He goes with her on a journey, a road trip through the USA. We accompany the two, see how they get to know each other and how they try to find a form of relationship with each other.

Another encounter human-robot portray in Japan …

In Japan we are with a family that gets a robot. It is mainly bought for the grandmother, who always spends a lot of time during the day alone. Here, too, we witness the beginning of this relationship as the robot “Pepper” arrives home. We are observing – analogous to the first story in the US – the first week of this relationship between the granny and the robot and their attempt to build a kind of friendship.

Two Japanese women are sitting on a sofa with a robot in front of them.  Scene from Hi, AI by Isa Willinger.  (Kloos & Co. Media)

“Pepper” as a contact for an older generation in Japan

What was your main interest in robots and artificial intelligence?

I started working on the topic three years ago. Artificial intelligence in the media was not as widespread as it is now. I originally had a visual interest in robots that seemed insanely cinematic to me because the way they move, how they speak, interested me greatly.

That’s when the idea arose to visit different robots that exist in the world today, and then compress them in the movie to make you feel like you’re in a kind of future world where those robots are already everywhere ,

Fritz Lang and his Metropolis film crew are standing in front of a sitting robot.  (Getty Images)

Robots soon inspired visions in film history: Fritz Lang (r.) Shooting “Metropolis” in the mid-1920s

Then I started to read more about this topic. This is a huge topic of the future, one of the big questions we face in society. That’s where the appeal of dealing with it and making a movie became even bigger. Then it did not take long and the topic was strong in the media and got a lot of importance. Since it was nice that I was on topic earlier and even the treatment had already written and could put on the table of editorial offices and film promoters. The timing was very good.

How would you describe that? Is there already an industry behind it or are they rather small specialized companies that develop robots?

This is a huge industry that is the where to invest now in Silicon Valley inside. Robotics is the new future industry there. All the big technology companies – Amazon, Apple, Microsoft – invest a lot of money in it. There is the well-known saying by Marc Raibert of ” Boston Dynamics ” (“Boston Dynamics” is a US robotics company that mainly develops walking robots, Marc Raibert founded it in 1992, editor’s note) : “Robots are becoming more important be called the internet! ” That’s exactly what investors are thinking about. This is a huge new industry that is just emerging.

A man faces female robot faces in a lab and looks at his cell phone.  (Kloos & Co. Media)

“A huge industry of the future” – robotic company in the USA

… and the possibilities of the robots are also manifold, you show that impressively in your film. What will the robots do in the future?

Robots will penetrate into all possible areas. There are already robots in kitchens, in department stores. Increasingly, humanoid robots are being used. Also on the assembly line, there are first real tests, where robots work alongside people on the assembly line. Unlike industrial robots, which we have known for decades, humanoid robots have flexible joints similar to humans. They are therefore not so dangerous for humans, as far as the risk of injury.

Then of course they are used in the social field. In geriatric care this is a big topic. And then there are these playful companion robots.

Portrait of the director Isa Willinger, winner of the Max Ophüls Prize.  (Kloos & Co. Media)

Isa Willinger

What we already see, which already has a relatively large application, are those Amazon echo and google home stuff, where at home is a speaker that responds to speech. This speaker will probably also be able to move through the apartment at some point – and, if you like, also have a face. Then this is just a humanoid robot that performs all these functions: connecting to the Internet, a bit of communication, a little talk, a bit of solitude, a bit of gimmick.

Did not you have to shiver a little at the thought?

I had the shivering at the very beginning, when I started to deal with the topic. As probably many of us, there was such a mixture of fascination and fears. But the more I’ve dealt with it, the more I’ve lost that shiver. The view of the whole topic is then much more differentiated. One understands that there are also many useful applications.

Max Ophüls Festival Documentary We are the Robots (Kloos & Co. Media)

Future robot? “Pepper” and Co. are waiting for humanity

I think the key idea is that a robot like that does not replace a human, but – for example in the case of an elderly person – can replace many hours in front of the TV. The grandma then does more interactive stuff, plays games etc .. There are many positive applications.

Isa Willinger’s documentary will be screened in the German cinemas from 7th March, previously “Hi, AI,” will be screened at the Berlin Film Festival. The film is also in the running for the German Film Award. In addition, there are several invitations from foreign film festivals. 

The interview was conducted by Jochen Kürten.

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