Unknown: Killer Robots (2023) Documentary Review – Netflix unpacks the AI dilemma

Netflix unpacks the AI dilemma

Unknown: Killer Robots is a fascinating documentary that’s part of the Netflix docuseries ‘Unknown’. While the first instalment took us into the historical secrets of Egypt, this one takes us on a journey into the rapidly evolving world of AI with a close focus on its growing military applications.

We get a look at how militaries can use drones in warfare and use heat signatures to detect human beings. Or get AI-controlled fighter jets that can out-manoeuvre a high-ranking air force officer. More significantly, we see how a dog-like robot meant to traverse various terrains can then be strapped to a gun. Or how an algorithm to help cure diseases can be used to devise lethal chemicals.

The documentary uses a mix of news reports and experts including researchers, scientists, activists and military personnel. And while they do offer a comprehensive view, it can get a bit confusing to keep track of who’s who. It might have been better if the documentary film took the time to explain who these people are and their positions in their arena.  

This is a highly relevant issue with far-reaching consequences. The Netflix documentary does its best to relay this but overdoes it with some unnecessarily dramatic background music. It’s meant to convey the seriousness of the situation but only ends up making it sensational and ultimately detracting from the informative nature of the film.

Overall, Unknown: Killer Robots presents both sides to the issue of military use of AI — the necessity for countries to stay ahead in the arms race and the moral dilemmas posed by AI making life-or-death decisions. However, the balance did feel a bit skewed towards the military perspective.

Not all of the information offered is new to a general audience. With the conversation on AI getting more and more relevant, most people are aware of how AI can be used to fight wars. Still, the presentation of the information is executed well and there are two scenes that really stand out.  

The first involves Sean Ekins and Fabio Urbina, who are using AI to develop cures for diseases. The scene demonstrates how a tiny change in programming, like switching a 0 to a 1, can cause the program to generate incredibly deadly chemicals instead. It’s a powerful illustration of how easy it is for AI to go from being beneficial to destructive.

Another memorable moment is the narration of the invention of the Gatling gun. Richard Gatling created it to minimize loss of life during war and make it more humane. However, it ironically ended up doing the opposite. This serves as a stark reminder of how even with good intentions, technological advancements can sometimes lead to unforeseen negative consequences — a poignant remark amidst the conversation about AI saving the lives of soldiers.

Aside from these impactful scenes, the rest of the footage and discussions are pretty standard—interesting, but not exactly eye-opening. There are moments when Unknown: Killer Robots feels a bit slow-paced, which can be a little off-putting.

Another downside to the Netflix documentary is that it doesn’t delve deep into potential solutions to this dilemma of the use of AI. Sure, they briefly mention a ban on autonomous weapons and other regulations, but this crucial area — the one that could have the most impact and would offer the newest ideas — gets the least attention. It’s a part that’s often unknown to most people, even if they have a surface-level understanding of the pros and cons of AI.

All in all, you can watch this documentary film to understand the benefits and dangers of AI. But don’t expect to get any research done on potential solutions. Which is, arguably, what the world needs at this moment.

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  • Verdict - 7/10

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