To robot or not to robot, that is the question in “Plug & Pray,” Jens Schanze’s superbly realized look at the promise, problems and ethics of robotics. A great conversation piece and a refreshingly open and nonjudgmental survey of scientists at work and in debate, the docu favors a more skeptical view of utopian visions of robotics, without stacking the deck. A fine festival run should continue in the new year, followed by solid vid and cable play.
A measure of the film’s intelligence is how it avoids the documentary form’s common pitfall of posing easy opposites to cook up a phony conflict in the eyes of the viewer. Thus, although Schanze clearly sympathizes with famed MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum’s view that the recent scientific and industrial shift toward greater emphasis on robots and robotic research is a potentially dangerous path, Schanze is also clearly fascinated with the missionary zeal of scientist/futurist Ray Kurzweil, who firmly argues the positives of a future where human and machine merge into a new kind of being.
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Both men are, in their distinct ways, outstanding communicators, and the effect on the open-minded viewer is intellectually dazzling. Schanze displays his own curiosity by traveling to several countries to observe various robotic scientists and their visions, all of which seem viable and are pure eye-candy for cinematographer Borres Weiffenbach’s attentive camera.
Professor Minoru Asada is seen developing robots with extraordinarily human-like characteristics and appearances. Italian scientist Giorgio Metta (whose team strikingly resembles a group of artists at work in a studio) stresses the fundamentals of biology in his project to create humanoid robots, noting, “There are no limits to the possibilities.”
This is where Weizenbaum begs to differ; as the man who created “Eliza” in 1968, the world’s first great leap in artificial intelligence research, he early on recognized that robotics could potentially hatch monsters (not unlike a HAL 9000 machine run amok), and worse, become a fully owned subsidiary of government defense departments. Schanze’s visit to a European military showcase of robot-based weapons suggests Weizenbaum may not be paranoid. “Plug & Pray” unexpectedly concludes on an almost cosmic note, contemplating not Kurzweil’s notion of ultra-extended human life via nanotechnology, but the poetry and certainty of human mortality. Not just the idea of man playing God is raised here, but also the meaning of life, and whether such life has a beginning, middle and end, unlike robotic “eternity.”
Cinematic enough to satisfy the bigscreen viewer but conventional enough to please the more info-hungry audience, Schanze’s film strikes a balance between form and content, and is suitably technically polished in every department.