KDocsFF – A new form of life: can Artificial Intelligence become a tool for surveillance capitalism?

“We are setting the stage for something that transcends us. A new form of life is emerging. Artificial Intelligence is rapidly reshaping the world. It’s going to be everywhere all the time. It’s going to hear everything. It’s going to be connected to every single camera on the planet. AI will ultimately be the best thing to happen to humanity – or the worst thing ever.”

This mosaic of diverse voices comes at the very beginning of iHuman, a provocative political documentary presented at the Kwantlen Polytechnic University of Surrey’s (KPU) KDocs Film Festival (KDocsFF), Mar. 12–21.

The documentary by director Tonje Schei (Sweden, 2019, 99min), investigates how Artificial Intelligence (AI) impacts people and how legal and ethical standards can make sure global tech companies develop AI that is safe and is employed for the common good.

Throughout the film, examples of the positive social impact AI can bring include optimizing healthcare and driving forward progress on the UN 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development and Sustainable Development Goals.

Foreseeing a future when Artificial Intelligence is just as smart as, or smarter than humans, the film asks an important question for the 21st century: how to set the boundaries between tech-paranoia and a critical evaluation of our society’s use of AI?

Director Schei acknowledges that the best way to combat paranoia is by getting informed.

“Today that means we need to develop a new way of critical thinking, that goes beyond clicks, likes, and headlines. For me as a director, it was most important to focus on the ethical challenges we are facing with AI today, to make sure we are in control of this powerful and far-reaching technology rather than tech giants that now are the most powerful companies in the world,” she says.

Schei believes that people working in the AI industry are solving the issues of today’s ethical challenges, doing their very best to ensure that the field is laying the best possible groundwork for further ethical development.

“Some of the experts in iHuman hope it will lead to AGI, Artificial General Intelligence, where AI is just as smart or smarter than us humans. So, when many of the world’s smartest computer scientists are spending tons of money and resources to make this happen, we better pay attention, and make sure we are going the right way,” warns Schei.

KDocsFF 2021: 15 films in 10 days of dialogue

With the theme of “Resistance. Freedom. Justice.”, the 2021 edition of KPU’s KDocs intends to engage, through documentary film, documentary activism, and community dialogue, debates around critical thinking, and understanding about multiple communities.

Explaining the choice of iHuman for this year’s selection, Janice Morris – founder of the festival – agrees that the world of artificial intelligence is already a reality for mankind. “AI is a far-reaching technology that has endless implications and ramifications for systems of power – be they social, political, or economic. And yet, AI is understood and controlled by relatively few people,” she says.

“Documentary film and documentary activism (where a documentarian’s artistic creation becomes a mechanism for activism, organizing, and advocacy) have become essential tools in the fight for social justice across the globe. As such, documentary film and documentary activism, because they call attention to injustice and oppression, are necessarily acts of resistance, of protest,” Morris explains.

Schei agrees that documentaries have the unique ability to go behind the headlines, tell human stories, and show the context and connections of power and control.

“There is a lot of power in AI, and as Putin says, the ones who will control AI will control the world,” she points out. “There is a lot of truth to this. We often question the new power structures of our society, and the truth is that tech empires have more power and spend more money on developing AI than entire nations.”

Schei believes a new digital future is possible.

“I hope this is a place where our beautiful diversity as the human species reigns, rather than algorithms that enforces a system of surveillance capitalism which we have today.”

Resistance, Freedom, Justice: the triad of documentary activism

Morris points out that while this kind of technology undoubtedly promises advancement and innovation, society must understand the ways in which it also consolidates power and, thus, power inequities.

Tonje Schei. | Photo by Marte Garmann

“As global citizens, we are obligated to understand artificial intelligence – what it is, how it’s created, how it’s implemented, and how it’s controlled,” says Morris. “We must immerse ourselves in thinking about and discussions of AI and ask ourselves not just what we can do with it but also what we should do with it.”

As a social justice film festival, the importance of KDocsFF’s programming, and its community outreach program, year-round program, and YouTube channel (KDocs Talks), is to speak directly to the issues of social justice, human and animal rights, environmental stewardship, and anti-oppression.

Welcoming people to attend the festival, Morris states that films like iHuman seek not only to raise awareness, but to educate, and to catalyze action against injustice and oppression. Consequently, documentary activism becomes a fight for freedom and, ultimately, justice.

KDocsFF 2021 will be held virtually/online and will showcase 15 award-winning documentary films. As a part of the program, iHuman will be screened with the support of keynote speaker Anita Ho.

For more information about KDocsFF, the films, and/or to view trailers, visit the festival’s website (KDocsFF.com) or join their Facebook (@KDocsFF), Instagram (@KDocsFF), Twitter
(@KDocsFF) and YouTube channel (KDocs Talks).