PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 22: (L–R) Sam Zuchero and Andy Zuchero speak at the Beyond Film discussion “The Big Conversation: Screen of Consciousness.” (Photo by Stephen Greathouse/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)
By Annie Lyons
A series of clips — from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner to Her and After Yang — showcased at The Big Conversation: Screen of Consciousness highlighted how filmmakers have long explored artificial intelligence to interrogate the depths of the human experience. Though these narratives go back decades, current anxiety and curiosity surrounding machine learning have given such stories new urgency, as evidenced by the numerous films at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival exploring AI, including Love Me, Eternal You, Love Machina, and Seeking Mavis Beacon.
During the Beyond Film discussion on January 22 at the Filmmaker Lodge, Love Me writer-directors Sam and Andy Zuchero took the chance to reflect on their film’s depiction of AI. The U.S. Dramatic Competition film took home the 2024 Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, which honors an outstanding depiction of science and technology. Taking place in a post-human Earth, the science-fiction romance follows the millennia-spanning relationship between a buoy and a satellite who meet online. The filmmaking pair prioritized using the high-concept premise as a way to explore the intersections of emotion and logic.
“We use AI as a lens to look at us as humans without judgment,” Sam Zuchero explains to moderator Dr. Heather Berlin, an associate clinical professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “In general, in my life, I’ve always felt like emotions were both my superpower and like Achilles heel,” she adds. “If you don’t figure out a way to find a balance between your emotional life and your intellectual life, it can paralyze you.”
Supported by the Sloan Foundation, The Big Conversation: Screen of Consciousness delved into the philosophical questions that the technology provokes, the thorny ethics involved, the potential value and risks, and how science fiction stories can help us begin to sift through all these complexities. The Zucheros’ fellow panelists included Dr. Martin Monti, a UCLA professor in the departments of Psychology and Neurosurgery; Dr. Monica Lopez, the co-founder and CEO of Cognitive Insights for Artificial Intelligence; and writer-director Alex Rivera, whose film Sleep Dealer won the 2008 Sloan Feature Film Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.
The discussion kicked off with a particularly existential question: How will we know if these systems are conscious?
In his reply, Dr. Monti references Bertrand Russell’s distinction between knowledge by description (aka, the facts) and knowledge by acquaintance (aka, what you feel and experience). “We will live presumably with increasing AIs that will look the part. They will look at the sunset and say, ‘Oh my gosh, isn’t this beautiful? They will tell us, ‘Of course I care.’ And they will tell us, ‘Good morning, did you sleep well? I had a wonderful night,’” he says. “But inside we will always have that nagging doubt that, unless we develop a theory of what makes something conscious, you will never know if they’re acting the part or if there’s anything that it feels like to be AI.”
When asked about the creative potential of AI and its possible downsides, Andy Zuchero provokes laughter from the crowd, replying, “How do we feel about being obsolete pretty soon?” He then shares an anecdote about using ChatGPT when working on another script and asking for ideas for the ending. While the filmmaker didn’t like any of the suggested ideas, he still found it a valuable experience that gave him feedback and new ideas, just like any other collaborator. “I feel that the best art comes from a confluence of perspectives. Like Sam and myself, we both see the world in a very different way,” he says. “What could be a more interesting confluence of perspectives than somebody who’s inside a computer and somebody who’s outside a computer?”
“The true test is whether or not if I feel something when I’m looking at [art], if it makes me feel connected to who I am and who others are in a deeper way,” he explains. “I have no idea if AI will ever write a poem or movie or a song that moves me. But I’m open to it if it does.”
Dr. Lopez highlights how human creativity itself is also something essential that helps us adapt to our environments in a functional, meaningful way. “The fact that we’re here telling stories to each other, with each other, for each other, to one another, it’s collective creativity,” she explains. “You’re creating these stories because you know that there’s going to be a human, or other entity, who’s going to listen, who’s going to perceive it in some way, because of the shared knowledge we have, like the fact that we are human, but also because you’re going to challenge them. You’re going to ask these questions that most likely the other human on the other side is asking. You’re not going to be thinking like, ‘Oh, an AI system is going to come and watch my movie.’”
Recalling his individual experience working with AI systems for visuals, Rivera reflects, “When I started to, I couldn’t sleep. I was disturbed, fascinated, thrilled, frightened all at once.” The most intriguing piece of the puzzle for the filmmaker is how AI connects to questions of labor and control. “I really believe technology and the resources thrown at it are primarily there to create disturbances — what we might call efficiencies — in labor systems. The word robot derives from a Czech word for ‘slave,’” he notes. Later in the conversation, he elaborates, “How can we dream of technology that is in service of the public good?”
In a sentiment that receives resonant applause, he continues, “We can’t have amnesia. We’ve been coming out of two decades of extremely problematic technological development, social media networks that have presented themselves as opportunity to connect with our friends and loved ones, but were actually surveillance machines to extract value from us and polarize us. And if we enter this realm of these incredibly new, incredibly powerful, almost transcendent technologies, controlled by five men in California, we’re in trouble.”
Rivera adds, “It’s just creating so many questions, and so we need these conversations, and we need independent science fiction to wrestle [with it].”
To see more of the magic from the 2024 Festival, click here.