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Mr. Robot

Sophia-movie-review
Tribeca Festival

MOVIE REVIEW
Sophia (2022)

Documentaries about tech entrepreneurs take off when the visionary spins a convincing vision, or bump along the runway when the vision is more myopic than they realize. “Sophia,” by Jon Kasbe and Crystal Moselle, finds a not entirely comfortable third path by following David Hanson and the humanoid female robot he and Hanson Robotics are developing, which lends its name to the film. When Mr. Hanson speaks of his creation as a marker on the path to true artificial intelligence his earnestness speaks for itself; but the film doesn’t put Sophia into any context as a point on the arc from here to there, not least since a lot of the running time is taken up by Sophia not actually working very well. The android’s body is not much more than functional anyway, but what its brain is capable of and the seismic impact that its creator predicts can’t really cohere while the company pit crew are under the hood with the jump leads.

Mr. Hanson allows the documentary to follow him through business and domestic life, neither of which are plain sailing. Hanson Robotics is strapped for cash, even before Covid-19 upsets the ship completely. A last ditch conference call with potential backers catches Mr. Hanson all but begging someone to speak up and indicate a willingness to invest and save his staff; there is silence on the line, as cruel a moment as any boardroom fiction could create. Domestically Mr. Hanson seems on good terms with his young son, but his mother is ill with worsening cancer. Mrs. Hanson has previously had the knack of preparing the realistic flesh-colored latex for her son’s robotic creations, a lovingly tactile act of support now becoming beyond her. Mr. Hanson’s father is an absent void, long dead and having played little part in his son’s life.

The film isn’t so obvious as to position Sophia as the recipient of displaced parental urges from her creator; but only because the issue raises itself. Mr. Hanson’s attempts to stir some life from the robot’s reluctant onboard A.I. involve just the kind of stern coaxing used to get a small child out of a cupboard locked from the inside. At one point he does specifically plead with Sophia that “I am your father, you recognize me,” when it really doesn’t. While he’s working up another question Sophia interrupts him with an irrelevant statement called up from somewhere within the spinning cogs of the machine’s neural networks; the deflation on Mr. Hanson’s face looks a lot like parentage by any stretch.

What Sophia’s face looks like is a question the documentary never really tackles, since the unreality of the android’s visage puts the artificial into artificial intelligence. The Hanson Robotics team compares Sophia favorably with Apple’s Siri; but Siri doesn’t present in humanoid form and smile with one side of its face inoperative like a case of the palsy. The friction between the humanity or otherwise of the robot’s physical form and the digital system in its head nags throughout, not least when the government of Saudi Arabia grants Sophia a ceremonial citizenship and Mr. Hanson rightly frets about how that government treats women built from more organic material.

Threads like that push the issue of Sophia’s consciousness to the edges of its own documentary, replaced in the viewer’s own mind by questions about the thinking of human beings. Mr. Hanson wonders whether his sick mother could be cryogenically frozen, a sincere thought from a son moving in tech circles where that option exists. Both cryogenics and the creation of artificial brains are in the end about eluding death, so the film could have asked Mr. Hanson more directly where he stands on issues of mortality. Before it can do so, Sophia is put to use creating NFTs.

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