• George White

iHuman: An interview with director Tonje Hessen Schei


iHuman is the latest hard-hitting documentary from Tonje Hessen Schei, which dives into the booming artificial intelligence industry and the impact it could have on, well, humans. We talk to Tonje about the project, the threat of deep fake and working with Edward Snowden.


Why was this an important documentary to make, and how much has that importance increased since Covid?


For me, iHuman was an incredibly important film to make – as it takes on the ethical challenges we are facing with the most powerful and far- reaching and disruptive technologies of our time.


I got the idea for iHuman in 2014 while I was working on my last film, Drone - a political thriller on the CIA's secret drone war. When I started looking into autonomous weapons I realised that AI not only transforms modern warfare but everything around us. This was in 2014 - and since then I've been in the midst of an AI explosion, also called The New Big Bang.


We are facing a technology that is changing who we are, our societies and our future - without us having a proper debate about the consequences of AI invisibly creeping into our lives.


So with iHuman I set out to do exactly this: Start a much-needed global debate on the impact and governance of AI in our lives.


We do live in incredibly intense times, and 2020 has been a shit year. With Covid-19 I also feel that a lot of the sci-fi scenarios the experts in iHuman talk about have become part of our everyday lives.


When the pandemic hit it was quickly revealed how governments globally already have AI surveillance architectures in place, and this in a time when we are more dependent on the digital realm than ever.


During times of crises it is ever more important to understand how our human rights often get stripped away in acts of panic and fear.

I was scared to realise how we might not be ready for this technology

Did you learn anything particularly shocking or revelatory while making this film?


One of the most shocking things I learned during the production of iHuman was how AI is already everywhere. We are addicted to intelligent machines that pretty much hear everything we say and see everything we do. AI is in our phones and in our computers - and we are increasingly using machine learning and algorithms in our daily lives.


I was scared to realise how we might not be ready for this technology, especially because of how fast AI is developing – and because we haven’t solved some of the main issues of AI, like dirty data sets which enhance bias and discrimination and that there are no international regulations in place to govern the most powerful technology of our time. That is deeply frightening to me.


I was also surprised to learn about the goal of many computer scientists: to make AI that can be smarter than us. In some ways I feel we’ve already been outsmarted by this technology as it’s made us ever more addicted to a destructive digital rabbit hole.


But most of all I was shocked to see the immense power the tech giants have in our world today. Artificial intelligence is now largely under the control of a few white, very wealthy young men, and the decisions they make have consequences for most of humanity.


How will AI affect the future of the film industry? I imagine actors and celebrities will be particularly impacted by deep fake technology


Pretty soon I do think most of us will learn how to use AI as filmmakers. We played around a lot with machine learning in the process of making iHuman. Mostly as inspiration and in creating our VFX, and it was incredible to see how fast the tools are developing.


It is predicted that in a year deep fake will be so good that it will be impossible to see the difference between what is fake and what is real.


As a big fan of democracy and as a documentarian I am extremely worried about what deep fake means for our understanding and trust in the media.


People do call this the end of truth – and I fear there is some truth in that statement.


How was the filmmaking process for this film?


The making of iHuman was an incredibly exciting journey. I had the honor of working with an amazing creative team of DPs, VFX artists and a brilliant sound designer.


I am a big science fiction fan – and our references ranged from Inception, Blade Runner to Black Mirror, and Koyaanisqatsi.


But in particular the creative process with our main VFX artist Theodor Gronenboom, was mind blowing. Theodor is a genius, with experience from films like Gravity, Star Wars, Dr. Strange and Alien – and his mind is limitless.


So working out how we would visualise an invisible technology, and how we would give life to artificial intelligence in the film was such a blast. I am proud of how it manifested itself in the film.


It involves some huge figures in the AI industry, how was it to work with them?


Through iHuman I got to meet some of the leading pioneers at the front line of AI development at some of the world's leading AI labs in the US, China and Europe.


It has been an amazing journey. As a tech nerd it’s been such an honour for me to spend time with these brilliant computer scientists – and to get on the inside of their mindsets to learn of their hopes, questions and fears developing AI.

I think it is crucial for people to become informed so we can take back our narrative of who we are

The film has picked up awards on the film festival scene. Have you been happy with the response?


iHUMAN had its world premiere last year at IDFA, one of the largest documentary film festivals in the world. Edward Snowden was first to see the film – and he agreed to join us for our world premiere, which was a great honour, for sold out audiences.

Since then the film has travelled the festival circuit, and we’ve had some incredible impact screenings at the UN, EU and G7. So I’m grateful to see how the film is travelling, and more so I’m thrilled to see what kind of impact the film is creating on both the policy level and through our tech partners.

And we are still just beginning our work here.


Why should people check out iHuman?


I believe iHuman raises some of the most important questions we are facing today. How do we live with AI, and how do we make sure this technology is used for our common good?


Without regulation, legislation and governance frameworks based on crucial ethical standards we risk losing our grip on this powerful technology, removing human intelligence and our uniqueness from the equation.


I think it is crucial for people to become informed so we can take back our narrative of who we are and what world we want to live in. We as humans are unique individuals and should protect the right to be so. We are citizens. With rights that we need to fight for. We have to. Because who we are as humans is at stake.


Visit Modern Films to find out how you can watch iHuman.