Marjorie Prime: how the arts can be a moral education for the era of Artificial Intelligence

One of our aims at A/UK is to try to make talk about our technological future less fatalistic, and much more confident and engaged. Why should it be moguls and corporates who set the pace on how we use genetic editing, or robotics, or artificial intelligence in our lives? Why can't citizens and communities also establish an agenda on radical innovation? 

One route to this is through the arts - their ability, through speculative stories and science fiction, to put human relationships at the heart of some astounding new advance, and see how they survive, adapt or transform. 

A great example of this is out this week in the UK's art cinemas (and available to watch online at Curzon Home Cinema) - Marjorie Prime. Here's the blurb:

In the near future, a time of artificial intelligence: 86-year-old Marjorie – a jumble of disparate, fading memories – has a handsome new companion (Jon Hamm) who looks exactly like her deceased husband Walter. This is a Prime, a holographic simulation programmed by Marjorie’s daughter (Geena Davis) and her husband Jon (Tim Robbins) to feed the story of her life back to her. But as their interactions develop it becomes clear that each of them has a very complex relationship with their shared histories, with each other, and with this new technology they’ve invited into their home.

An article in Engadget connects this movie to our evolving agenda on the ethics of AI:

The film challenges our mistrust of AI and technology, showing that if anything is untrustworthy, it's our own memories. We are the ones who contaminate software with our own biases. We don't need Marjorie Prime to show us that -- our own world today is full of examples: Microsoft's AI chatbot Tay, who was turned racist by Twitter users, and the company's subsequent bot Zo, who met the same fate. Some believe that in the US justice system, the use of algorithms that predict a person's potential for recidivism as a way to determine punishment is inherently biased. AI is a man-made product, and its flaws are created by us. It is also our fault when we entrust the technology with responsibilities, like making them our therapists, as the characters in Marjorie Prime have done, however unwittingly.

The film eventually takes its central idea to the logical conclusion, where we find out whether AI can even fool themselves into thinking they're human.

The questions of trusting AI and contrasting humans with machines have already been heavily explored (think: Her or the episode "Be Right Back" in Black Mirror), but Marjorie Prime delves deeper into how human nature is to blame. Yet it withholds judgement and shows how we can't help our failings, especially as we age. The beauty of humanity often lies in its flaws, and it's something AI can imitate but not fully replicate.

Add this to the "virtual girls" in Blade Runner: 2049 - see this superb New York Review of Books piece - and it's clear that the arts are taking up the task of our moral education in the coming age of artificial intelligence. Politics is largely deaf - but citizens should listen carefully.