If you follow the news, you’d think that AI is going to take over every activity we formerly thought of as “human,” perhaps by the time you finish reading this sentence.
One of the great pleasures of reviewing documentaries, though, is that every few months a new film will pull back the curtain on the latest advancement in artificial intelligence or consciousness-infused robotics. Fairly consistently, the answer is: “Nah. People are safe. For now.”
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The latest documentary to enter this fray is Peter Sillen’s Love Machina, a jumbled and easily distracted meditation on artificial intelligence, robotics, love, immortality, transformation and a form of spirituality that combines all of those things.
This is a subgenre in which any filmmaker will have to confront a series of what look like binaries, but increasingly aren’t: Visionary or crackpot? Science or science fiction? Utopian vision of the future or warning of an approaching dystopian nightmare? A storyteller can answer those questions or leave it for the audience to decide. Sillen falls squarely in the fuzzy in-between, both amazed by what he keeps uncovering and aware that there are counterpoints that need to be presented, even if he leans much more into the former.
Whether this slightly wishy-washy form of curiosity is a feature or a bug will depend, as ever, on the predisposition of the viewer. But Sillen, like his documentary’s primary subjects, definitely leads with his heart.
Our primary heroes are Martine and Bina Rothblatt, married for 40 years. They’re really, really, really in love, in a way that’s beautiful and just a wee bit creepy — especially when they refer to themselves with the portmanteau “MarBina” and describe themselves as, “Two bodies, one soul, forever in love.” It’s just intense.
Now lots of people are intensely in love, but not a lot of people are as brilliant as Martine Rothblatt, who is a futurist, a lawyer, an entrepreneur, a biotechnology innovator and an expert in satellite technologies. She founded SiriusXM. Tapping into what is presumably an ungodly amount of personal wealth, Martine and Bina launched the Terasem Movement, a transhumanist organization with its roots in the work of Octavia Butler (because no school of thought based on the writings of a science-fiction author has ever been strange and problematic).
The primary project of Terasem appears to be Bina48, a disembodied robotic head with a vague resemblance to Bina and an algorithmic intelligence based on Bina’s so-called “mind file.” The latter is a virtual upload of Bina’s thoughts, experiences and memories compiled from testing and interviews, and filtered through various AI systems, some proprietary and others not. Real Bina is smart, lively and deeply in love with Martine. Bina48 is a dead-eyed, strangely styled miracle, capable of affectless recitations of things that Real Bina told various engineers over a multi-decade process.
Martine and Bina are certain that their future, and possibly the future of all humanity, is in the stars. They are convinced that if human consciousness can be captured on a hard drive, Bina will be able to live on either in a much more advanced robotic ancestor to Bina48 or in her own body, which will be cryogenically frozen after her death. What about Martine’s consciousness? The documentary gives no answers, but Martine is her own embodiment of the transmutation of human identity, as a trans woman, an interesting personal journey that Love Machina discusses, but not with the depth or intelligence it deserves.
The Rothblatts’ certainty is unwavering. Terasem may not be an actual cult, but their techno-zealotry certainly has cult-like elements that make them frequently off-putting. Especially since they speak in a love language that is at least half jargon, jargon that then comes out of Bina48’s latex mouth. Is this thing they’re trying to do actually plausible? All evidence still points to “Not right now,” though Love Machina is also full of evidence that this is a realm in which the acceleration of advancement is nearly as terrifying as Bina48 herself.
Sillen is able to find some people — Stephanie Dinkins, a professor at Stony Brook University is worthy of a doc all her own — prepared to speak to the practical limitations of believing that any quantity of data could ever reproduce consciousness, and willing to broach how problematic it is that Bina48 is an avatar of a Black woman constructed almost wholly by white men. That’s the “could” of the equation. Nobody wants to talk about the “should.” It’s like Jurassic Park never even happened.
Perhaps sensing that Martine and Bina’s romantic fanaticism is both the doc’s strongest aspect and potentially its most unnerving, Siller weaves their love story through the full film but keeps detouring for a depth-free progression down a futurist checklist. Robotics designer David Hanson, star of 2022’s very, very similar Sophia, is featured. Mike Perry, of cryogenics behemoth Alcor, is a distracting presence, especially if you know him as the gentleman who revealed a very shocking secret in the series finale of How To With John Wilson. Sillen is constantly introducing us to people who seem both fascinating and like they needed to be asked a lot more follow-up questions.
Bina48 is described as a work-in-progress and Love Machina ultimately comes across as an idea-in-progress. It’s provocative enough to recognize a lot of the conversations we need to have now rather than after the robots have taken over, but not coherent enough to adequately have those conversations itself.
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