2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘I Am Human’

May 5, 2019

by Carla Hay

Bryan Johnson in “I Am Human” (Photo by Joel Froome)

“I Am Human”

Directed by Taryn Southern and Elena Gaby

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on May 3, 2019.

Most of the recent movies about artificial intelligence (A.I.) play on fears that A.I. technology will replace jobs previously done by humans and/or will take over the world in sinister ways. The documentary “I Am Human” takes a more optimistic view by examining how the links between the human brain and A.I. technology can be used to improve health sciences by helping solve human medical problems. If you have absolutely no interest in science or A.I. technology, then you’ll probably find a great deal of this movie incredibly dull since it relies heavily on talking heads explaining complex issues and trying to make them more understandable in layman’s terms. However, the case studies presented in “I Am Human” make the documentary worth watching for anyone who’s curious about the future of medical science.

There are three people profiled in the documentary’s case studies. Bill Kochevar is a tetraplegic who receives treatment at the Cleveland VA Medical Center. Anne Shabason is a Parkinson’s disease patient in Bolton, Canada. Stephen Shrubnall is a blind man who’s hoping to have a limited fraction of his eyesight restored. All three patients undergo risky, experimental brain surgeries, which are chronicled in the film.

These case studies are part of the clinical trials known as BrainGate2 Neural Interface System, which began in 2009 and is owned by Braingate Co. BrainGate2 is the successor of BrainGate, a brain-implant system that was built and previously owned by Cyberkinetics.

Among the experts interviewed in “I Am Human” are Dr. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist from Stanford University; sci-fi author Amez Naam; Dr. Andres Lozano, a neurosurgeon at the University of Toronto; Dr. Robert Deveny, an opthamologist a Toronto Western Hospital; Dr. Nita Faranhay, professor of law and philosophy at Duke University; and Bryan Johnson, a neurotech entrepreneur.

Kochevar’s, Shabason’s and Shrubnall’s respective surgeries involve getting sensors implanted in brains, with the sensors being able to affect an external objects. These surgeries are very expensive  and recommended only to people who have severe diseases. The goal is for technology to advance to the point where brain implants can be done without surgery. Another goal is to have brain interfacing by just putting on a headset, which could be possible in the future. It would vastly improve communications and decrease language barriers. Scientists and neurotech entrepreneurs are planning to introduce the first high-resolution, wearable brain interface by the year 2021.

Kochevar’s surgery was meant to have his brain control some of his machine-enabled movements through A.I. technology. As a result, his abilities to reach and grasp greatly improved. Shabon’s brain implant is connected to a pacemaker in her chest, and her anxiety greatly decreased after the surgery. Shrubnall’s surgery involved a band sown around his eye to stimulate the retina. He then had to wear special glasses, which submit electrodes to the brain, which resulted in his vision being partially restored, by him being able to see shadows. The best parts of the documentary are to see the elated reactions to the surgery results.

Of course, any new technology comes with concerns of it being used for unlawful purposes. One of the biggest issues, which is addressed in the documentary, is the idea that A.I. technology that involves brain implants will lead to “brain hacking.” But as neurotech entrepreneur Johnson says in the documentary, the rewards outweigh the risks: “Nothing is more important than addressing a broken brain.”