The Penn Bioethics Film fest is trying to start a public dialog about the real scientific issues that appear in films such as ‘Ex Machina,’ and ‘Her.’
In Spike Jones’ Her we were faced with the a rare positive depiction of invasive technology. While the human counterpart in the film becomes dependent on his AI operating system, voiced by the breathy Scarlett Johansson, there’s no hidden evil agenda of the machine. Instead, the film represents the computer as innocent—eerily similar fashion to Siri and Alexa. The integral question of the film is close to my heart: Namely, by learning to love, does it become a her?
Her is not the first charge into our dependency on complex machines. Artificial Intelligence, environmental impact, pandemic diseases, cyber-body modifications, and any point of tech often expand into a plot based on the question, “What if this went wrong?”
However, while films might implant multiple visions of a dystopian future, a real world discussion in the ethics of experimentation can be surprisingly absent. That void can breed a whole host of misunderstandings about real world science, leading us to treat revolutionary ideas, whether CRISPR or AI, only as things to fear.
Jonathan Moreno, a bioethics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is trying to bridge the gap of public concern, pop culture, and the isolation of the lab through movies. He launched the Penn Bioethics Film Festival in 2016 with the intent of opening a public dialogue between relevant films and bioethical issues. This year’s festival ran April 4-6, showing Ex Machina, Her and Avatar chosen for this year’s theme, “Almost Human.” Around 50 students, professors, and Philadelphia natives attended the screening of Her on Wednesday night representing this cross section of sci-fi and academics.
“People will simply allude to Spock or Data or some science fiction film in their lectures,” Moreno told me, “we do it all the time. There’s an implicit conversation between the entertainment industry and people who are interested in bioethical issues. Our biggest problem is trying to figure out what not to show.”