Friday, July 19, 2024

“THE THINKING GAME”

THE STORY – Chronicles the efforts of scientist Demis Hassabis and his relentless pursuit to perfect the use of artificial general intelligence through his company, DeepMind.

THE CAST – N/A

THE TEAM Greg Kohs (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 83 Minutes


J. Robert Oppenheimer’s ultimate goal with the Manhattan Project was to create an atomic weapon so powerful that it would not only decimate territories but terrify anyone who witnessed its impact in some form or fashion. That’s why the surrender of the German Third Reich was mere progress on the United States’ road to victory in World War II. It didn’t sniff perfection, the only thing remotely acceptable to Oppenheimer and his colleagues. Perfection would look like “a pillar of fire 10,000 feet tall.” Perfection meant using a weapon that no country should be trusted with despite its ability to start a chain reaction that would destroy the world. “They won’t fear it until they understand it,” Oppenheimer (as played by Cillian Murphy in Christopher Nolan’s Oscar-winning film, “Oppenheimer“) tells a group of scientists regarding the bomb being used on the Japanese. “And they won’t understand it until they’ve used it.”

Though it’s not quite capable of destroying a city and all people within (well, yet), the same could be said for artificial intelligence. At least, according to Demis Hassabis, the scientist and CEO behind DeepMind, a machine learning AI startup that has been based in London, England, since Hassabis co-founded it in 2010 (Google purchased DeepMind for the low, low price of $509 million back in 2014). From his standpoint, it’s a crucial tool for solving the world’s most complicated problems, scientific and otherwise. Greg Kohs’ “The Thinking Game” chronicles Hassabis’ ever-evolving insistence that AI can, essentially, save the world. It’s a belief he’s harbored since his days as a child chess prodigy who felt that plugging hundreds of chess-playing brains together could form one sentient, dominant mind to counter all possible chess moves from a single opponent, rendering them useless in a match. Think of it as “The Queen’s Gambit’s” worst nightmare, only stronger.

As a child, Hassabis viewed chess as “a good thinking game” and went on to model his artificial intelligence empire in the wake of that thought. Having grown up as a board game obsessive, he began crafting his entity – run, Ethan! – as the ultimate gamer. Hassabis repeatedly entered his DeepMind technology in tournaments where it would take on masters in chess, Go (widely considered the world’s most complicated board game), the online strategy game “StarCraft,” and more, hoping to watch his brain baby beat world-class players at their own games.

Of course, these small steps served as giant leaps for artificial kind, to the point where, in “The Thinking Game,” Hassabis felt it appropriate to repeatedly reference numerous achievements of global proportions as comparisons to his AI’s abilities, as well as his own. Not only does he invoke Oppenheimer’s name more than once – as in, unveiling his creation to the public is introducing the world to an unknown force, just one that thinks more about the morals of its work than the scientists behind the atomic bomb – but he and his employees view their invention as a scientific moon landing of sorts. It’s no wonder that every branch of this AI has the prefix “Alpha,” from “AlphaGo” to “AlphaZero,” and so on. The men and women of DeepMind aim solely to be the first and the best in their field, the Sputnik of artificial general intelligence.

As a general concept, the development of AI is as disconcerting as they come, particularly for those in the arts, a field desperate to evade AI’s grasp as it clamors to stunt creativity in favor of what’s “right” rather than original. That “The Thinking Game” unfolds at such a breakneck pace, cramming endless conversations, revelations, and statistical anomalies into 83 jarring minutes, might otherwise seem like an achievement in documentary filmmaking if its subject wasn’t so prescient, to the point where it feels as though it made this film itself. To his credit, Kohs – who has had some minimal success as a documentarian willing to tell fascinating stories about Iditarod champions and a Neil Diamond tribute band from Wisconsin – attempts to make Hassabis seem human. However, true geniuses tend to remain closed off unless they see something to gain from exposure, and Hassabis appears no different in this exercise. He notes that his early investors, a company kept by none other than Elon Musk, didn’t need to think that artificial general intelligence was a “great” idea, just that it was a “cool” one.

So it’s noteworthy that the film dedicates an extremely select few backhanded snippets of airtime to a smattering of well-educated AI detractors who feel its presence in technology and human surveillance is a cause for concern. There to answer the call with reassurances based on AI’s “cool” factor – its alpha-ness, if you will – are Hassabis and co., armed with metaphor-loaded defenses that sound like inspirational quotes from the imagination of ChatGPT. “It doesn’t help to have the tallest ladder if you’re climbing to the moon,” one neuroscientist offers. “You can’t afford to break things only to fix them afterward,” says another. These baffling ideas only make Hassabis’ assertion that his machine is neutral “depending on how people use it” even emptier than it might land on its own.

And then there’s AI’s presence during the COVID-19 pandemic, which Hassabis felt highlighted “the incredible need for AI-assisted science.” Now, I’m not one to defend every decision made over the course of our still-recent world health emergency, but I’m hesitant to endorse the notion that a chatbot would’ve done wonders for vaccines in the way medical professionals managed. Hassabis even goes out of his way to note that the algorithm in question was generated by humans from human understanding, but where does the itch to create such an algorithm come from? Who said it was necessary? When he mentions that he felt like he was in a science fiction novel when he was stuck inside during the pandemic, only venturing out to deliver food to his parents, does he know that the arrival of artificial intelligence into most stories tends to spell doom for its protagonists? Has he seen “2001: A Space Odyssey?”

That’s where I come into play. I’m a film critic. I’ve only ever pondered neuroscience studies when it’s been the subject of a movie I feel is of interest or have been assigned to write about (as is the case here). However, when viewing a film for review, I always prioritize artfulness and ingenuity in my criticism. Films like “The Thinking Game” might showcase ingenuity in some form. Still, they also play like advertisements, PR-influenced portfolios for their subjects that neglect humanity so as to prop up a world-defying mind’s inflated ego and his truly terrible creation (something the Tribeca Festival has, itself, embraced this year). This particular example is the least worthwhile of the bunch. If only it had its own personal Lewis Strauss, a foe willing to tilt the scales before the opposition could become death, destroyer of worlds.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - A free reminder of "Oppenheimer's" unparalleled greatness. Plus, it's over in a flash.

THE BAD - That flash is painful, chock-full of ego-stroking commendations for a truly terrifying entity that continues to spread across the world like a virus.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 2/10

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>A free reminder of "Oppenheimer's" unparalleled greatness. Plus, it's over in a flash.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>That flash is painful, chock-full of ego-stroking commendations for a truly terrifying entity that continues to spread across the world like a virus.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>2/10<br><br>"THE THINKING GAME"