“The visions of yesterday have all caught up to us and we must start looking towards the next visions,” stated moderator and veteran TV writer and producer Wendy Calhoun (Station 19, Empire) emphasizing a recurring theme of the June 22 Sloan Salon panel “Storytelling and Tech: Crafting Human-Centered Stories About Technology.”
The online conversation delved into timely subjects such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and ChatGPT, raising ethical questions about how we represent technology in stories and highlighting some optimistic views on where it could all be headed.
This dynamic discussion was made possible due to Film Independent’s exciting 15+ year partnership with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation that encourages filmmakers to create more realistic and accurate stories about science and technology that challenge existing stereotypes about scientists and engineers in the popular imagination. Learn more about Film Independent’s Sloan-supported programs and grants here.
The panel featured Sloan-supported storytellers writer/director Kogonada (After Yang, Columbus) and writer Rom Lotan (Code of Virtue) discussing how they develop stories that responsibly highlight our relationship with technology. Karim Jerbi (Professor, Canada Research Chair, Computational Neuroscience and Cognitive Neuroimaging, University of Montreal) rounded out the panel to share his expertise working at the forefront of technological innovation and discuss the importance of telling inspiring stories with scientific accuracy.
On his initial interest in the intersection of storytelling and technology, Kogonada referenced two books, Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, as works that got him thinking more consciously about technology and how it impacts society in ways both overt and subtle. On McLuhan’s 1964 work, he said: “It was the first time I thought it’s not just content, but it’s the technology that shapes us. We don’t just use technology, but technology can alter us and society.”
During his formative years growing up in Tel Aviv, Rom Lotan described how he loved sci-fi and ultra-futuristic stories featuring advanced technology such as Blade Runner. In the process of refining his early writing projects however, he was more drawn to grounded and realistic technological and science narratives such as 2014’s The Imitation Game, which received funding from the Sloan Foundation. 2001’s A Beautiful Mind, based on mathematician John Nash, was another film he referenced as inspiring in a similar way. Karim Jerbi became excited about science around age 10 by the possibility of creating an actual dream machine. “My dream was to build this machine that would allow us to watch our dreams in real time as they unfold. Some 30+ years later this process, now known as brain decoding, is becoming quite close to reality. He went on to talk about how what seemed like impossible science fiction from a technological perspective just a decade ago is now possible and forces us to constantly reconsider what the genre should be moving forward.
From there, the conversation flowed into quite a few fascinating directions. Through his exploration of Asian and Eastern science fiction works, Kogonada had several revelations on how AI is presented in Western media. “In a dominant white male narrative, traditionally anything that’s ‘other’ is vilified. It is a threat. There’s been a real history of treating otherness as an immediate threat to whatever is dominant.”
He went on to explain how, in Eastern sci-fi, ]the emphasis is more concentrated on understanding the other and its intent rather than condemning it without thoughtful evaluation. This thought process informed his writing on After Yang and how he presented the titular character, an Asian robot.
Lotan echoed the sentiments of Kogonada (“K” as the group warmly referred to him) about blindly viewing AI as a destructive force. Collectively, they felt a more philosophical approach was productive. “Tech, like any other tool, isn’t bad or good in and of itself. It’s about how people harness and use it. It’s the same with the atom bomb, or with the knife, or with AI. It’s important to identify who is behind the technology and for what purpose it is being used.”
What concerns Lotan is the fact that the public is not a part of the conversation with AI or other emerging technologies. Even decisions such as what type of literature AI is programmed on are important ones that can be made with ill intent if diverse voices are not represented.
Jerbi and Calhoun both decided to take time to discuss optimistic aspects of the future of AI. While the fear of AI replacing human creativity with large language models like ChatGPT is certainly real, Jerbi believes collaboration can exist and enhance creativity overall. “There may be new roots of co-creativity between humans and machines, synergistic approaches.” He went on to discuss how we’ve always incorporated technology into our daily lives and professions, so it is more about figuring out where each new tools fits into the process.
Calhoun spoke to a welcomed byproduct of now-engrained technologies such as social media and how they have been able to act as at times as democratizing forces. “It has done some very positive things for people who weren’t heard, who weren’t seen, who were othered. It has brought them in to a part of the social discourse that they weren’t in before because I think some gatekeepers may kept them and their stories from being heard.” While emerging technologies present inherent threats to society, there are reasons to be hopeful as well.
The Film Independent Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Grant rewards $120,000 annually through four grants to projects at various stages of development. Past recipients of the grant include The Who Knew Infinity, Future Weather and The House of Tomorrow, among others.
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