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Review: Unknown: Killer Robots (2023)

Unknown: Killer Robots (2023)

Directed by: Jesse Sweet

Premise: This entry in the Unknown documentary series explores the use of artificial intelligence in the military, explaining the development and deployment of this technology and its moral and strategic implications.

What Works: The rapid advances in artificial intelligence have impacted a number of industries and fields but the application of AI is most troubling in military technology. The documentary Unknown: Killer Robots surveys how we got here, where the technology stands at this moment, and where it might go in the near future. The film does a very good job addressing all three of those points. Artificial intelligence has been around for some time but it has made leaps forward in the past decade. Killer Robots demonstrates some of the technological accomplishments made by AI researchers and these technical breakthroughs are genuinely exciting. The film allows us to share in the enthusiasm of the researches as they work through challenges and then asks us to step back and consider the implications. The selection of commentators in Killer Robots cuts pretty evenly between advocates of this technology and activists and academics who are critical of its implications and applications. The topics are smartly organized with arguments for and against this technology set up and then rebutted. The weaponization of AI is almost certainly going to lead to something horrible but as the documentary attests various governments throughout the world are in a technological race and it would be naïve to abstain from that competition. Over the course of this documentary it becomes clear that the weaponization of AI has the potential to transform warfare in ways not seen since World War I. What warfare and statecraft will look like on the other side is frightening to consider.

What Doesn’t: Unknown: Killer Robots doesn’t explore any of its topics very deeply. The film only runs about seventy minutes so it could have afforded to delve more substantively into the issues. Of particular importance, the documentary raises the issue of how AI will change warfare, making a comparison to the invention of the Gatling gun which was supposed to reduce the number of casualties in war but did just the opposite. There is also a frightening implication of what weaponized AI will look like in ten to twenty years (maybe sooner than that) as it becomes accessible to all nations, citizens, and paramilitary groups and what AI proliferation will do to local and global safety and security. These topics and more warrant deeper consideration than they are given here.

Disc extras: Available on Netflix.

Bottom Line: Unknown: Killer Robots is a useful primer about the weaponization of artificial intelligence. It’s a cursory examination and it will probably have a limited shelf life as source of information. But this documentary does address many of the pertinent issues and could be a notable time capsule from this period.

Episode: #968 (October 8, 2023)