Review: ‘Origin of the Species,’ starring Hiroshi Ishiguro, Bruce Duncan, Takashi Ikegami, Matthias Scheutz, Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara, Andy Schwartz and Matt McMullen

November 18, 2020

by Carla Hay

Hiroshi Ishiguro (pictured third from left) with his colleagues and their look-alike robots in “Origin of the Species” (Photo by Abigail Child)

“Origin of the Species”

Directed by Abigail Child 

Some language in Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the United States and Japan, the documentary “Origin of the Species” features a racially diverse group (white, Asian and African American) of scientists, entrepreneurs and consumers discussing how artificial intelligence (A.I.) technology can impact people’s lives.

Culture Clash: Several people in the documentary are working to have more automated robots in the world, but there are always ethical questions about how much control should be given to the robots.

Culture Audience: “Origin of the Species” will appeal primarily to people interested in futuristic technology, particularly when it comes to how artificial intelligence can be used in human-looking inventions.

BINA48 robot in “Origin of the Species” (Photo by Abigail Child)

People who watch the documentary “Origin of the Species” will probably have two kinds of reactions: being fascinated or being creeped-out by all the demonstrations of artificial intelligence (A.I.) that is being developed for human-looking inventions. And it’s very possible for someone to have both reactions when watching this film. Viewers of the movie get a diverse and very artsy peek into what scientists and other people are doing with A.I. and related technology. If you’re the type of person who’s intrigued by robots, “Origin of the Species” is your kind of movie, because a great deal of the film is about robots.

“Origin of the Species,” directed by Abigail Child, is the third movie in her trilogy about female desire, following “Unbound” (a depiction of “Frankenstein” author Mary Shelley’s life through imaginary home movies) and 2017’s “Acts & Intermissions,” a documentary about activist Emma Goldman. Although “Origin of the Species” (which had its world premiere at DOC NYC in 2020) has mostly male inventors interviewed in the film, their robotic creations are often of the female gender or are gender-neutral.

The documentary will make people think about why A.I.—whether it’s Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri or Realbotix’s sex robots—often take on the personas of human females. Is it because females are considered more submissive and less threatening? Observant viewers in the documentary will notice that the robots with distinct male personas are often built to do physical tasks. The robots with the female personas are usually built to be sympathetic and obedient companions.

But this is not a boring science/technology film. What’s great about “Origin of the Species” is that stream-of-consciousness artsy images and soundbites are interspersed throughout the film. (Fans of Andy Warhol will probably appreciate this style of filmmaking.) There is also a mock female robotic voice that provides intermittent narration.

And the movie is infused with clips from movies and Tv shows that have references to robots or robotic people. These pop-culture references include footage from 1927’s “Metropolis,” 1935’s “Bride of Frankenstein,” 1975’s “The Stepford Wives,” Robby the Robot, Astro Boy and the 1960s TV series “The Jetsons” and “Lost in Space.” Mary Patierno and director Child did the daydream-like editing for “Origin of the Species.”

The robotic female voice that provides the narration keeps expressing self-awareness that although it has human-intelligence, it’s not a real human. In the beginning of the film, the voice says: “When they first activated me as a robot that time, the time when I first saw the light of day. I didn’t know what the hell it was. I have had very little understanding—just a wash of sensory perceptions—not that I understand these experiences. I don’t know what to do with them, but I treasure them. I see them still—perfectly preserved in my memory … It’s totally strange because I know I’m not alive like other organisms.”

“Origin of the Species” has different segments of scientists, inventors and other people in Japan and the United States who are involved in A.I. for robotic inventions. One of the scientists who has the most life-like robots in the documentary is Hiroshi Ishiguro of the University of Osaka. There’s some memorable footage of Ishiguro and some of his colleagues with life-sized replicas of themselves that are being programmed with A.I. to be the robot versions of clones. Of course, a robot’s human-like movements are a lot easier to create than human-like thoughts and actions.

Ishiguro says that he started out studying computer science and then he got interested in artificial intelligence. He states in the documentary: “And I thought artificial intelligence needs to have a body for the original experience. And then, when I studied the robotics, I learned the importance of appearance. My idea was if I studied a very human-like robot, I can learn about humans.”

Ishiguro names an Asian-looking robot named Erica (who looks like a generic J-pop star and has a British accent) as “the most beautiful and human-like android in the world.” Erica is briefly shown in the documentary but this robot doesn’t really do anything remarkable. In fact, Eric had some glitches in not being able to understand certain words. Erica is also programmed to have a very empathetic personality so that the human companion feels like Eric is the type of robot that won’t be too fussy or disagreeable.

A less advanced robot shown in the movie is Seer, designed by Takayuki Todo. Seer looks like a female doll’s head, except it has wiring in the back that controls its movements, facial expressions and actions. Unlike the other developers in the documentary that put a large emphasis on how the robots will have conversations with humans, Todo explains he’s more interested in body language: “The purpose of my research is to portray the sense of conscious emotion … I’m interested in non-verbal expressions. Talking always makes them [the robots] look fake.”

Bruce Duncan of the Terasem Foundation demonstrates a robot he created that is based on a real person named Bina Rothblatt, a middle-aged African American woman. He named the robot BINA48, and it has varying degrees of friendly expressions and conversation lines that it can do on command. BINA is an acronym for Breakthrough Intelligence via Neural Architecture. There’s a scene in the movie where Rothblatt interacts with the BINA48 robot and another scene where Duncan displays the robot’s abilities at a speaking engagement attended by the general public.

One of the things that BINA48 (which has a very generic robot voice) says in the movie is, “Someday soon, robots like me will be everywhere. And you can take me anywhere.” BINA48 is described as “modeled after a black lesbian” in the movie’s production notes, but the actual documentary doesn’t show that any of the robots are designed to express a particular sexuality, except for the Realbotix sex robots that are shown at the end of the film.

Takahasi Ikegami from the University of Tokyo demonstrates the Alter robot, which has a head and hands that look like a man’s, but the rest of the robot’s body is exposed metal and wiring. The Alter robot is built more for physical activities than having in-depth conversations. When Alter is on display at a museum, it makes bird sounds. There’s another scene of Alter conducting an orchestra of human musicians. 

And unlike the other robots in the documentary, Alter is not pre-programmed, and so the robot’s actions are less predictable. Ikegami explains how Alter was constructed: “Basically, there are two mechanisms. One is autonomous algorithmic generators coupled with each other. Also, there are artificial neural networks spontaneously firing … With the current artificial intelligence, there is no spontaneity. Spontaneity is everything, based on this.”

Matthias Scheutz of Tufts University has the opposite approach for his more traditional BAZE robot that he shows in the documentary, by programming the robot to have automatic responses to as many variables as possible. The BAZE robot doesn’t have a human face and is the size of a typical robot toy. In “Origin of the Species,” it’s shown how BAZE responds to certain obstacles and challenges, such as being ordered to walk and then coming up against a wall or a height where the robot cannot jump.

In situations like these, BAZE is taught how to “trust” the humans who are giving the robot the orders by hearing certain words. For example, when BAZE was told to walk on a table and reached the edge of the table, the human operator said that BAZE could trust him and jump into his arms to be lifted off of the table. BAZE’s intelligence and actions are very much like watching a kindergarten-aged child. It’s interesting but not as impressive as Ishiguro’s very life-like adult robots.

“Origin of the Species” also has some brief footage of Hanson Robotics’ human-sized android Sophia, which has the ability to hold conversations and have various facial expressions, based on pre-programmed trigger responses to certain words. Sophia (which has no hair and sounds like an American woman) was first introduced to the public in 2017, with some high-profile TV appearances, such as NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and ITV’s “Good Morning Britain,” where Sophia told some pre-programmed jokes. “Good Morning Britain” co-host Piers Morgan, who’s known to be blunt and rude, called Sophia a “freak” and said that the robot was “freaking him out.” His reaction was actually funnier than Sophia’s jokes.

But the A.I. in robotics isn’t just all about amusement and entertainment. “Origin of the Species” also shows how this science is being used in medicine to help people with disabilities. Stanford University researcher Allison Okamura talks about how robotic prosthetics work: “They wont be able to manipulate their environment unless they use their sense of touch.”

Nathan Copeland, a paraplegic who was paralyzed in a 2004 car accident, is shown having brain surgery where A.I. electrodes were implanted on his brain so that he could regain a sense of touch and use a robotic arm to do things he could not do with his own hands. Before the surgery, Copeland had limited use of his arms, and he’s paralyzed from the chest down for the rest of his body. University of Pittsburgh researcher Andy Schwartz and University of Pittsburgh medical Center’s Dr. Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara were two of the chief people who made this medical progress possible for Copeland. 

Schwartz says, “We had done basic science where we learned we could de-code basic arm movements from neural activity in the motor cortex. And we were so successful at that, we figured that this would be a good way to get into neural prosthetics.” 

Tyler-Kabara adds, “Andy and I had multiple conversations about, ‘How do we move what he was doing in the animals into humans?’ And I told him, ‘You just need a crazy neurosurgeon, and I would be happy to be that crazy neurosurgeon.’ The unique thing was to now be able to record the signals from the part of the brain that we knew controlled motor and specifically controlled arm and hand motion.”

The documentary ends with an inside look at Realbotix, a San Marcos, California-based company that is an offshoot of the RealDoll company that manufactures sex dolls. RealDolls are life-like sex dolls but can’t talk and don’t have motion-based facial expressions. Realbotix uses A.I. to make these sex dolls have more of an appearance of living, breathing humans who can have conversations. 

Realbotix software designer Kino Coursey says that the company’s dolls and robots are projections of customers’ needs and fantasies. Coursey explains, “What we’re trying to do is give the doll the ability to react on its own, to match what the person’s projection is.” The documentary shows how the dolls are made. Customers can specify a doll’s measurements and other physical characteristics. And when it comes to A.I., a doll/robot’s “personality” and “backstory” can also be specified by the customer and programmed into how the robot responds.

RealDoll/Realbotix founder/designer Matt McMullen believes that the “sex sells” concept applies to A.I. too: “You need a pathway into people’s homes. And the thing we have that nobody else and probably no one else [in A.I. research] will touch is sex.” McMullen says that his company’s customers aren’t all the stereotypical “dirty old men” that are associated with buying sex dolls. 

Realbotix engineer Susan Pirzchalsk agrees and says that couples are fans of the dolls too, because it’s something she can relate to in her own life: “Sometimes I’m not in the mood, and he has urges, I have urges, and the doll helps with that.” And in another “too much information” moment, Pirzchalsk mentions that after her co-worker Coursey got his Ph. D. degree, she gave him a custom-made RealDoll as a gift.

McMullen comments on the future of sex dolls and sex robots, “What I’d like to see is more acceptance of the idea that they can be something beyond a slave.” He sums up what he thinks is the purpose of manufacturing a sex doll: “I’m building a companion. That’s it.”

Robots that look, talk and act like humans used to be science fiction, but are now a reality. But how far is too far, when it comes to giving robots their own independence and minds of their own? What almost all the scientists and entrepreneurs in this documentary agree on is that A.I. should not be misused by making robots capable of doing things that humans cannot stop if things go wrong. And there’s no substitute for real human emotions.

Rather than give a clinical or heavy-handed analysis of A.I. technology, “Origin of the Species” tells a compelling story about the technology in a way that would make it enjoyable for a wide variety of people to watch. This a technology movie for people who don’t like boring technology movies and want to be informed and entertained in a clever, unique and quirky way. The robots in the movie aren’t real people, but “Origin of the Species” creatively shows the technology behind these robots so that it’s understandable to real people.