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Best Research Film of the Year Winner 2017: Pain in the Machine

Project team (from L-R): Dr Beth Singler, Dr Ewan St. John Smith, Colin Ramsay, James Uren

The robots are taking over. We’re all witnessing a major shift in our civilization as what began as a particularly prescient sci-fi trope becomes reality, and robots – and artificial intelligence (AI) in particular – rapidly encroaches on many aspects of life.

Not just manufacturing and heavy lifting. But much more sophisticated occupations such as medicine, the insurance industry and journalism as well.

And as robots take on more human jobs, and become more of a part of our society by default, we need to decide what aspects of our character they need to possess to do this properly – and what this might mean for them, and us.

But while giving a robot the ability to ‘feel’ and understand touch in order to avoid damaging itself, or others, might be useful, should they be able to feel pain as we can? And what would be the ethical dimensions of such a development?

It’s these more nuanced aspects of the rise of the robots that are at the heart of the AHRC Best Research Film 2017 winner, Pain in the Machine.

This remarkable short film – which manages to dance with a light touch across such a heavyweight subject – is a part of a larger project on the implications of AI and robotics for human identity at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St Edmund’s College, Cambridge.

“We had always planned to open up the conversation through making a documentary. But then we got into the Cambridge Shorts scheme for Pain in the Machine, which brings together arts and humanities scholars with science scholars to make interdisciplinary films with Cambridge University and Wellcome Trust money,” says filmmaker Dr Beth Singler.

“That’s how I started working with Dr Ewan St John Smith, Group Leader/Senior Lecturer in Pharmacology, and then we brought on Little Dragon Films for the production side. 

“Pain was the subject where Ewan’s research and my research into the advances in AI and robotics really overlapped – although he works with naked mole rats, so it was a little outside of what he was used to!

“Film can force you to think beyond the desk and the laptop in front of you!"

“I’ve also always been a huge sci-fi geek and that was a skillset that the Faraday was specifically looking for in the researcher for their project!”

Dr Singler also used her experience as an anthropologist with a background in contemporary religious movements and how they engage with technology to link the way in which some of the more speculative ideas about the future of robots and AI tap into older narratives and even religious themes.

“The underlying idea was to get expert voices together to inspire conversation on a topic that might not have been considered before,” she says. “That’s key, alongside collaboration, and having something new to say, even if it’s only a new question for the audience to consider. 

“We’re already very pleased about how well the film had been received, and the boost that this award from the AHRC will give us is just amazing.

“The key thing for us was getting people talking about the implications of this technology and what might be done with it. We’ve attached a survey to the films as they’ve come out – Friend in the Machine, the second film, has just gone up on the University’s YouTube channel – and that’s another way for people to get involved in the conversation and to share their hopes, concerns, or ideas.

“Of course, we want people to enjoy the film too! It’s a serious subject. But we’ve handled it in a publicly accessible way - with even the odd joke or two!”

Dr Beth Singler, research associate at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, University of Cambridge

The way Pain in the Machine makes a complex subject accessible and opens up debate without losing gravitas makes it a great example of what the medium can do for academic discourse. And while Dr Singler does concede that film has its limitations for researchers – around budget, duration and technology – she argues that working within these constraints brings additional benefits in the way that they “force you to be even more creative as you try to make your ideas come alive”.

“Thinking about what does and doesn’t work in the space of a TV or cinema screen, or over X many minutes, makes you a better storyteller because you are forced to think about the audience,” she says.

“Sometimes researchers can get so engrossed in the small details of their research that they forget about audiences and making broader connections between what they are doing and peoples’ lived experiences. Film can force you to think beyond the desk and the laptop in front of you!”

Pain in the Machine was planned as part of a four-film series and the second film, Friend in the Machine, has just been released online, with co-sponsorship from the technology company, Arm.

“Next up, we are in production on Good in the Machine, which will consider ethics and how we make a ‘good’ AI; and then finally we will be making Ghost in the Machine, which will consider consciousness.”

All four will have the same format as the first film, coming in at around 13 minutes. And they will eventually be packaged together as a free resource for schools along with appropriate discussion materials.

“The prize money will go into the production budget for the next films and help us to get closer to the final quadrilogy!” says Dr Singler.

Read more about the winning films from the 2017 AHRC Research in Film Awards.

You can also watch a live stream of the awards ceremony, which were held at BAFTA 195 Piccadilly on Thursday 9th November, below.


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