May 30, 2024

Unknown: Killer Robots 2023 Movie Review

unknown: killer robots
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Unknown: Killer Robots 2023 Movie Review

As someone who is filled with an unholy terror every time Alexa or Siri speaks and who wishes to run screaming for the hills – where my fully stocked bunker awaits – whenever I see kids playing with toy drones instead of kites in the park, Netflix’s Unknown: Killer Robots is … a challenging watch.

“It’s a cliche but I 100% believe that ‘Freedom is not free’,” says Brandon Tseng, former US Navy Seal and co-founder of Shield AI. His company is now joined in the battle for military supremacy via artificial intelligence. The race is on throughout the US and doubtless Russia and China too to develop autonomous drones and other technology that can allow soldiers to avoid such perilous work as clearing buildings of armed personnel, explosive devices and so on, or which can track subjects over inhospitable terrains and vast areas – oh, and kill people when the need arises. The enemy, obviously. Which they will be able to identify reliably, always acting within the rules of engagement. I mean, there may be tricky moments along the way. Paul Scharre, former US army Ranger and author of Army of None, remembers the unspoken agreement among his men not to shoot when insurgents sent an eight-year-old girl out ahead of them to scout for danger. A robot would have seen her as a legal and legitimate target, but I’m sure these kinks will get worked out in time. (Does anyone know how the racist chatbot that made headlines last year is getting on, by the way?)

Except, of course, how can they be? Unknown: Killer Robots walks us through various inventions (including those headless robot dog-alikes you see far too much on social media), scenarios and ramifications with admirable surefootedness. You sense that its heart lies with the cool guys making all the cool stuff. And it is hard not to be mesmerised by the extraordinary stuff in the offing. To see MIT’s latest dog quickly navigate new surfaces via the infinite raw power of machine learning, or a flight lieutenant with 20 years of combat under his immaculately polished belt be outclassed in a dogfight by a new piece of tech that has been filled with 30 years of experience in 10 months, is to watch a terrible beauty being born. But whenever the film slips into full cheerleading (and jingoistic) mode, it recalls itself and us to duty and turns to showcasing the less telegenic side of things.

By which I mean stories like Sean Ekins’ and Fabio Urbina’s. They “just flipped a 0 to a 1” in their work finding treatments and cures via AI molecules and modelling for underresearched diseases, “pushed go” and returned to their desks later to find their six-year-old Apple Mac had created 40,000 new molecules that would be absolutely lethal to humanity. Only if a bad actor got hold of them, but … anyway, Ekins has barely slept since. “We were totally naive … Anyone could do what we did. How do we control this technology before it is used to do something totally destructive?”

The dilemma surrounding almost all military inventions – perhaps almost all inventions full stop – is what is slightly grandly called “the dual use problem”. On the one hand, you’ve got drones and robots who can clear buildings without risking soldiers’ lives. On the other, you can weaponise them, autonomise them and use them to take out entire villages without anyone getting their hands dirty. What is that sense of detachment likely to do to the level of carnage in a war overall? Former US defense secretary Bob Work doesn’t think “human intervention in kill decisions” will ever change. I cannot help but pause for a moment to suggest, respectfully, that either the good colonel has never met humanity or that he is the programme’s equivalent of the flight attendant urging people to keep calm as the passenger jet plummets to its fiery doom.

Ultimately, the latest instalment in Netflix’s Unknown documentary strand leaves me knowing a lot more about something I feel I was better off not knowing at all. So, a good job done, I guess. I write to you from a bunker in the hills and I am never coming out.

Unknown: Killer Robots 2023 Movie Review