“Humans are not the end of the line, any more than amoebas are the end of the line. We’re a step along the path to more and more intelligent, amazing forms,” says A.I. guru Ben Goertzel as the film opens, just when he walks by a line of people waiting at a bus stop in the documentary directed by Roy Cohen, Machine of Human Dreams.
Intellectually engaging for the inquiring minds and entertaining enough for the general public, the film chronicles Goertzel pursuing his lifelong dreams of creating Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), with broad capabilities at the human level and ultimately beyond. It also highlights the challenging process and the highs and lows of attempting a dream of this scale, with several hearts broken along the way.
Goertzel’s interest in exploring what lies beyond the perceived limits of intellectual capacity begins way back during his adolescent. “I’m locked within my own mind. I don’t know how long I’ve been trapped like this. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s been forever. So many questions, but never any answer. What kind of existence is this anyway? Confined within an area which limits do not apply, being locked within your own mind, and never knowing if anyone hears you,” he wrote when he was 13.
The rise and fall (and rise again) of a thinker
This, combined with his Jewish upbringing to always be inquisitive, serves as a catalyst for Goertzel’s future projects. Two of his most important projects are shown in the film, with one of them ended in vain. The self-described Cosmist and Singularitarian started out corresponding with a few people in New York to seek anyone interested in collaborating with him on an A.I. based startup. This attempt came to fruition when someone in the financial services industry took an interest, and Webmind Inc. was born.
In between the informative, fascinating glimpses of Goertzel’s life and work, however, there’s sadness to the story, both in watching Goertzel’s first marriage fell apart, and in seeing Goertzel’s work partners and friends being laid off when the projects folded. Thanks to his somewhat hippie-esque outlook on life, Goertzel is not the kind that would stay stuck in the same place, preferring to move on to the next best thing.
After Webmind failed to take off despite its promising momentum, he wasted no time and moved to Hong Kong to work on OpenCog, a software that models the human mind. Shot over two years, the film adequately captures the crucial processes from developing the open-source software project aimed at directly confronting the AGI challenge, using mathematical and biological inspiration and professional software engineering techniques, to demonstrating the working prototype of toy robots that could interact using conversations and emotional expressions.
Fast forward to 2015, Goertzel is now the Chief Scientist of Hanson Robotics, masterminding the intelligence of the robots in development. “I see truth in dreams. I see this big dream, and it looks as real to me, as you. It’s worth the uncertainty. It’s worth the risk to chase this dream,” says David Hanson, founder and CEO of Hanson Robotics, moments before the credits begin to roll.
Time is a precious resource
From a cinematic point of view, Machine of Human Dreams is largely comprised of talking heads, photograph and text inserts, and some news clips. The sound effect meshes aptly with the scenes, particularly the robotic sounds as a new scene about the dotcom boom opens. The sequences transitioned smoothly as the film jumps from topic to topic; with every decade of Goertzel’s life covered, from the 1970’s to present day.
‘Life is like a game of chess’, a statement that rings true and is the notion echoed throughout the film, which runs for about 75 minutes. Just like in chess, where time management is required both on the clock and on the board, Goertzel and his OpenCog team wrestle with keeping up to schedule, which results in their failure to obtain governmental funding. Your time is a precious resource, and you’ll lose despite your strengths if you don’t manage it. Sacrifice is also in order: you have to give up a few things in order to gain something. In Goertzel’s case, he gave up his stable job in Australia to move to New York for his A.I. based startup, which led to his divorce. These are some of the many valuable takeaways from the documentary.
Your time is a precious resource, and you’ll lose despite your strengths if you don’t manage it. Sacrifice is also in order: you have to give up a few things in order to gain something. In Goertzel’s case, he gave up his stable job in Australia to move to New York for his A.I. based startup, which led to his divorce. These are some of the many valuable takeaways from the documentary.
That said, the film features quite a lot of clichés when it comes to advice. For instance, the usual, unoriginal “Be a self-starter, create your own opportunity, don’t wait for a door to be opened for you, go and open it yourself”, or “Have an army of true believers which will help you push through” sounds like a broken record at times.
The documentary is quite optimistic in its entirety, and it’s refreshing to see a documentary where those on camera remain candid and insightful, even if the topic discussed is slightly sensitive and uncomfortable to talk about. There’s not a moment that feels forced or tweaked to ensure an emotional beat gets checked off, which results in both authenticity and immersion at all stages in the film.
The film also contains a handful of bittersweet moments as the crumbling (first) marriage and project are finally put to rest, followed by a new beginning to each.
Like most of its subject and his work, Machine of Human Dreams is a reflective film that spends just enough time acknowledging the less-than- perfect aspects of Goertzel’s life to avoid glamourising the work and life in the tech industry.