AFO festival of science documentary films shows we are all in this together- the question is where are we headed?

'Ex Machina', photo: archive of AFO

Academia Film Olomouc is one of the longest running film festivals in the Czech Republic. What is unique is that this festival, now in its 52nd year, focusses largely on science documentary films. The Future is Now is this year’s motto and it won’t be a surprise that films being screened examine both the promises but also potential risks in fields moving rapidly forward, such as robotics, bioengineering, nanotechnology and of course the big one - artificial intelligence.

Jakub Ráliš, photo: archive of AFO
If humanity hits the so-called technological singularity in 10, 20 or 50 years, as many scientists now expect, will we be able to handle the impact? That's the kind of question that this festival raises.

Jakub Ráliš is AFO’s programme director; a little earlier he told me more:

“Our main purpose and main aim is to bring a message about the changing world, about the rapidly changing environment and that we are the cause of that change and that we as the human race are facing a lot of challenges ahead of us. Many of us have a tendency to think that some of these problems and challenges are somewhere on the horizon but they are already here and that is the whole point of the program this year.”

Which is something which is reflected in the motto you chose this year…

“Yes, exactly: The Future is Now. Primarily it is a warning but there is also a flash of hope. We still have some time if we stand up to the challenges now, there is a small window of opportunity in which we can still change things. There is a still a chance - but it is not a big window - to act.”

Obviously there are many advances: some scientists, futurists among them, believe that the opportunities are greater, that there is a reason for hope, while others are more sceptical. Certainly we see the destruction of the environment, overpopulation, global warming, and another aspect of it entirely is the speed of advances in technology: biotech, nanotech, genetics, robotics, and artificial intelligence. One day soon the world will change beyond recognition: would you agree than in ten or twenty years we face what is known as a technological singularity?

“Many of us have a tendency to think that some of the challenges lie somewhere on the horizon but they are already here.”

“Yes. Absolutely. And that is another point: basically, we aren’t really all that optimistic about that. The topic of the singularity, nanotech and automated robotics are among the main issues which we are examining at the festival. We invited a lot of guests to talk about these topics from the point of view of industry, science, even people working in high industry positions that are leading some of these processes. If you examine robotics alone, again, the future is now.

“It is not in 10 years but we are holding it back because society is not really prepared for it. Of course we don’t have a singularity in the form of a general purpose AI, but robots alone could take over more than 50 percent of the work space at the moment. And things are only speeding up. Unless we prepare for it, while there may be positives, we fear that much of the impact could be negative and will change civilization as we know it.”

'Ex Machina', photo: archive of AFO
There are many different sections at the festival, too many to name, what are some of the more sought-out? Since we are talking about robotics, I came across the section entitled referring to Čapek’s robots and there was also a reference to a Philip K. Dick's androids dreaming of electric sheep…

“Yes, the section is called R.U.R. and in our case we focus both on robotics and artificial intelligence. This reflects what I said earlier - that progress is immense but if we don’t grasp these tools systematically, as a society, we will face only problems. The films vary from AI and the future singularity to robots as social workers helping the elderly to philosophical problems. We have a wonderful panel which will discuss the issues and the many implications and issues which will arise over the next 10 to 50 years.”

One aspect that is evident in the festival trailer but also in one of the festival sections is the portrayal of science in popular culture. Obviously science fiction holds a special place, sometimes predicting things which later come to pass, something once only imagined has become real over the years… What are some of the films being shown there?

“The topic of the singularity, nanotech and automated robotics are among the main issues which we are examining at the festival.”

“To name two in this section, I would definitely mention Ex Machina which really nicely touches upon robotics and perfect AI and the interaction between these two. It is a wonderful movie that was not shown widely in the Czech Republic, so I hope that people will enjoy it. Then we also picked movies about Jacques Cousteau, paying tribute to this legendary oceanographer and I would just mention The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which is a kind of parody of early Cousteau movies which will be screened Friday.”

A great pick for Bill Murray fans as well…

“Exactly. It is a really lovely film by Wes Anderson from 2005.”

You mentioned Ex Machina - that is superbly acted and directed, a fairly low budget independent film which shows how much you can do with a few actors and is a deep psychological study, the story of a general AI underestimated by her, or its, human handlers. One final film I would like to ask about is Ikarie XB 1 because as some of our listeners will know, that is a sic fi film from Czechoslovakia which influenced Stanley Kubrick in the making of 2001.

'Ikarie XB 1', photo: Czech National Film Archive
“The impact of that film on popular culture is just immense and I think a lot of people don’t realize just how much. It was so important for Kubrick but also for a lot of comic book authors and other sci fi authors. We have the huge honor of being able to premiere a new re-digitalized copy here in Olomouc on Sunday, with the authors and people from the State Fund for Cinematography. That is one of the closing events of the festival and we are so proud to have it here.”

An important aspect of many festival today but perhaps especially this one, are the lectures, talks and so on. Since we have been talking about AI, I wonder if you can tell me a little about one of the guests, Susan Schneider.

“Susan Schneider is very well-known in the field of philosophy she edited the very important and authoritative companion on sci fi and philosophy. In connection to sci fi and robotics in an extremely engaging way and we are very lucky to have her, if only for two days. She will be taking part in the panel debate I mentioned as well as give a lecture. For anyone interested in science, sci fi and philosophy, it is an absolute MUST.”

“Primarily it is a warning but there is also a flash of hope.”

We touched upon the dystopic threats we face today… one film, in a section named Game Over? is called Earthlings and some people will have heard of it or seen it but I expect that this film will have to come with kind of a graphic warning because its subject is human cruelty to animals. It has some incredibly shocking footage including an injured dog being thrown into the trash compactor at the back of a garbage truck and crushed alive. I don’t really want to end on such a brutal note but I want to ask if people are ready or willing to see that side of things as well.

“I am very curious to see what the reactions will be here at AFO. The reason for screening the movie is very simple: if we come back to the motto The Future is Now, when you say it a lot of people imagine something like Star Trek, where animals are never harmed, or indeed even eaten, and there is world peace or a peaceful association of planets. In the 'possible bright future' it goes without saying that we cannot continue to cause suffering to other sentient beings on Earth. That is why we are showing Earthlings: we want to show another obstacle beyond global warming and other problems, another big obstacle which is the treatment of animals. That stands in the way of that maybe possible bright future such as that envisioned in Star Trek. We have to get rid of that if we are to have any peaceful future at all.”

Let me ask you about the positives of this festival as a whole: obviously, there is an educative role, there is also entertainment, there are musical events, evenings and so on.

“We think of the festival as a whole package. It’s not just the films, it’s not just one thing. Of course, you are free to screen a film and have a beer after and go home. Or you can stay up and stick around until three am, listening to music or taking part in the longer parties. It’s up to you, but all these events are essential to AFO – it is a thing of variability and we want to be accessible to as many people as possible.”

And I imagine that the aspect of the shared experience, and I’ll end with that, makes the whole thing that much more intense, adding different layers…

“Precisely. That goes for all the topics, positive and even negative. That is the whole point of doing a festival like this.”