Feature doc “It’s Called the Future” looks into the implications of artificial intelligence

A Utah professor developing a robotic brain and the sponsor of an annual artificial intelligence contest are two of Ken Gumbs’ first interviews for his feature documentary “It’s Called the Future.”

Before he’s through he plans to interview the world’s first cyborg, and a theologian who specializes in the spiritual dimensions of robotics.

Gumbs is out to open up the debate on the practical and moral possibilities of artificial intelligence, whose implications for the coming century he believes are as great as nuclear technology was for the last one.

“If we’d been able to have real debates about the Manhattan Project before the research on nuclear chain reactions, what kind of world would we be living in today?” he ponders.

“This film looks at the progression of artificial intelligence, where it will end up in our lifetime and in our children’s lifetime, if it’s something we should do, and if it’s not, whether it’s even possible to stop it.”

Gumbs stumbled on the idea for the project while transcribing footage for another doc. “I wondered if there were programs that could do my work for me and I started researching human voice recognition software,” he recalled. “That grew into, when would it be possible for computers to do all our work for us?”

His interview subjects see possible futures ranging from the apocalyptic, in the eyes of Utah State University computer scientist Hugo Degaris, whom Gumbs shot last summer, to the utopian, in the view of “Spiritual Machines” author Ray Kurtzwell, whom Gumbs hopes to shoot in the coming year.

Gumbs estimated he has about a third of his footage and aims to wrap post by mid-2005 with an eye toward festivals and a variety of distribution options. “Of course theatrical distribution is the dream of any independent filmmaker but I can’t limit myself to thinking that it’s only a successful film if it’s distributed in theaters. There are all these different forms of distribution that are growing out there.”

He’ll finance the film out-of-pocket through the end of production, and seeks finishing funds to cover an estimated $25,000 in licensing and other postproduction costs.

Gumbs plans a trip to England to shoot Kevin Warwick, author of “I, Cyborg.” “He put a computer chip into his arm that can detect signals coming from his nervous system and send them out to control a robotic arm,” Gumbs marveled. “It’s the first time in human history that someone’s been able to connect computer chips directly to the human nervous system.”

A Coal City native, Gumbs founded production company 4 Door Productions with fellow Southern Illinois University grads Tom Desch and Kate Oestrich.

Each of the partners is developing their own doc and helping out on one another’s projects. Desch is making “The Field” about the controversy over the proposed Peotone airport, and Oestrich is making “Intertwined” about two towns competing for the record for world’s largest ball of twine.

“Steve James went to Southern and we’ve always looked up to Kartemquin as a model of the right way to start a film company, having all these filmmakers under the same roof and benefiting from having all these quality films when you go to granting agencies,” Gumbs said.

“We got to show a trailer of the Peotone doc to those guys and they were very helpful in giving us advice about where to take the project.”

Gumbs also teaches video at Roosevelt High School and is an after-school mentor at Albany Park Community Center. He recently completed a promo video for the Center and is developing a gang prevention video with Roosevelt students.

Email Gumbs at kjgumbs@yahoo.com.

– by Ed M. Koziarski, edk@homesickblues.com