J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

DOC NYC ’16: Machine of Human Dreams

As the free-spirited child of former hippies, Ben Goertzel intellect is unfettered by conventional boundaries. Awkwardly, the same might be true of his ethical judgement. His life-long passion has been to create a high-functioning Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) system through his OpenCog software. Rather problematically, he does not seem the least bit curious about the Chinese Government’s motivation for funding his research throughout Roy Cohen’s Machine of Human Dreams, which screens during DOC NYC 2016.

You need to get through the nauseating first ten minutes of Machine before things start to get interesting. Once we get past accounts of Goertzel’s precocious brilliance and his mother’s lingering contempt for America, Cohen begins to chronicle Goetzel’s rather checkered career. The genius programmer met Lisa Pazer, the venture capitalist with whom he co-founded Webmind through the online personals, even though he already had a pregnant wife at the time. According to Pazer, they burned through twenty million dollars, but only earned roughly one hundred thousand dollars in revenue, which is why Webmind is no more.

Pazer has plenty to say in the film, but one thing that stands out is Goertzel’s track record of disastrous demos. When history repeats itself with the (Beijing approved and dominated) Hong Kong government, it frankly comes as a relief. As one of the only conflicted members on Goertzel’s team points out, their work preparing for the HK government took place during the height of the 2014 Umbrella demonstrations, yet Goertzel never stopped to ask why his funders were so interested in this technology.

If burying the lede were an Olympic sport, Machine would be a gold medal contender. The relationship between Goertzel and Beijing’s hand-picked Hong Kong government raises a host of questions, but Cohen never puts any of them to Goertzel. Like his subject, he is often too enamored with the cute toy robots whom Goertzel hopes to invest with self-learning AGI.

Goertzel’s enthusiasm is infectious, but the way he keeps landing on his feet after one professional setback after another is remarkably fortuitous. Both he and the estranged Wozniak-figure from his Webmind and Simon’s Rock College days credit science fiction as an early source of inspiration, but nobody seems concerned about the potential dangers of the Singularity sf regularly explores.

Yes, there is some provocative stuff in Machine, but it is the sort of film that makes you want to watch the outtakes and possibly re-edit a different cut. Generating wildly mixed responses, Machine of Human Dreams screens tomorrow (11/13), as part of this year’s DOC NYC.

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