News

Documentary Filmmaking, Artificial Intelligence and the Liberal Arts: Author James Barrat ’83 to Visit Jan. 30

by John Syme

James Barrat Book CoverDavidson College invites the public to two free talks by documentary filmmaker and author James Barrat '83 Thursday, Jan. 30.

At 11:05 a.m. in Lilly Family Gallery, Barrat will show clips from and speak about his documentary filmmaking career during a presentation titled, "The Liberal Arts and the Art of the Documentary."

At 7 p.m. in Lilly Family Gallery, Barrat will delve into the practical, ethical and philosophical implications of the unrestricted pursuit of artificial intelligence in "The Question of Our Time: Can We Share Our World with Smarter-than-Human Machines?"

Barrat has written and directed films on Afghanistan, the lost gospels, ancient tombs and great castles for National Geographic, PBS, Discovery Channel and other broadcasters in the United States and Europe.

He also is the author of the recently published "Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era." The book explores how the pursuit of advanced artificial intelligence (AI) challenges humanity's existence with machines that won't love or hate humans, but whose indifference could spell our doom.

Barrat recently appeared on "CBS This Morning" with writer Gary Marcus, of "The New Yorker," and in an in-depth interview on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's "Lang and O'Leary Exchange." "Our Final Invention" also has been featured by numerous national and international media outlets. For the latest reports, see Barrat's website press page.

Advancing Technology, Unexplored Questions

As artificial intelligence technology advances, Barrat offers "Our Final Invention" as a framework for critical analysis.

"As a culture we're entering a period of unease about technology," Barrat said. "We live in environments where computers are everywhere, and we're never apart from them. They're in our houses, our cars, our smartphones. We're beginning to see how that compromises things like our attention, privacy and safety.

"I think that's why my book ‘Our Final Invention' has been well received by the public and by technologists," he noted. "Ethical debates about high tech are everywhere."

As an example, Barrat cited current arguments about the development of autonomous killer drones and battlefield robots. "Those are killing machines that make the decision to kill without humans in the loop. Morally, do we want to introduce these machines into the world? Because, once they exist, you can't take them back."

The ongoing National Security Agency (NSA) scandal also is about artificial intelligence, Barrat said. "The NSA developed powerful data mining tools, and nothing could stop them from using them on Americans-not common sense, not the Constitution. Data mining is AI."

Recent treatments of AI in film reflect cultural shifts in thought about the subject. "Movies like ‘Her' and ‘Transcendence' are about the lines blurring between humans and machines. That's Hollywood gauging the pulse of our culture. In the past Hollywood has inoculated us from worrying about bad AI and robot takeovers because we have had so much fun with those movies. If it's in a movie it must be sci-fi. Now we're all taking a closer look at AI because it's not so futuristic anymore," Barrat said.

"My book won't make anyone feel better about the challenges ahead," the author noted. "One review said if you read this book you won't need coffee this week. It's a wake-up call about the most difficult technological struggle we'll face-the development of advanced AI."

Despite his reservations about AI, Barrat is enthusiastic about his next documentary, which harkens back to ancient times–with robots.

"I'm making an archeology film for National Geographic, a nice break from AI," he said. "But ironically, I'm taking three little robots to Sudan. They'll explore a Kush-era pyramid–about 700 B.C.–to find the best way for excavators to get into the king's burial chamber. The robots will see the king before we do."

Barrat's visit to Davidson is sponsored by the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, Department of Philosophy, ITS Department and the Digital Studies Program.