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Five Questions with Welcome to the Machine Director Avi Zev Weider

The process of making your first documentary – overseeing all of the moving parts, researching and scheduling interviews, shaping raw footage into a compelling, complete whole – this is undeniably a daunting process. Now imagine doing the same while caring for newborn triplets.

When filmmaker Avi Zev Weider and his wife turned to in-vitro fertilization after having trouble conceiving, they never expected triplets. But this is indeed what they got – three underweight infants who spent the first several months of their lives in the hospital’s high-tech neo-natal intensive care unit. Weider was already fascinated with the topic of humankind’s relationship with technology. But having personally witnessed the miracle of life made possible via scientific innovation, he set out to explore the implications of man’s growing dependance on technology from a decidedly personal perspective.

Filmmaker: Welcome to the Machine is part personal doc, part educational doc. How did you decide to explore the subject of man’s relationship with technology instead of simply focusing on the birth of your children?

Weider: The short answer is that it was decided for me. I was at work on a film about our relationship to technology for some time before I became the father of triplets. My realization that their birth, survival and continued growth were intimately tied up with technology came after I was already putting the film together. Similarly, I had no intention of making a film about having triplets, but there I was, living what I was already illustrating in the film. So, it all evolved rather naturally.

Filmmaker: Your topic is so vast, with so many different implications and applications across modern society, how did you go about choosing your subjects?

Weider: At first I just went after what I thought was interesting, trying to focus on certain key subjects, like artificial intelligence or the Turing Test. I was reading a lot of books on these kinds of subjects, so I began contacting the authors to see if they would interested in doing an interview. But after a while I began to see connections between these and other potential interview subjects and knew that when I finally got to editing the film, I would want them to ‘talk’ to each other. So, I always tried to see if an interviewee had some kind of take on or relationship to the others in the film.

Filmmaker: Were there any unexpected revelations along the way of researching and shooting the film? Were there topics that you learned about that surprised you?

Weider: Looking back, I think there were two unexpected things that really made an impact on how the film turned out.  The first was hearing Jaron Lanier speak about Alan Turing in a way that I hadn’t known before. I was already interested in Jaron’s views on technology and transhumanism when I happened to catch a radio program one day wherein he was discussing Turing’s life. His take on how Turing came up with the idea of artificial intelligence really opened my eyes to just how much our own values and sense of self inform our conceptions of computer intelligence. We reflect ourselves into our technology.

The second surprise was finding a letter from Kevin Kelly in the collected archives of Ted Kaczynski. Again, I was already interested in Kevin’s writing and was planning an interview with him. I already had one connection to Kaczynski through Ray Kurzweil’s writing, but now I suddenly had a second. It was very surprising to ultimately see how many people had some kind of connection with Kaczynski; these connections were both structurally helpful in making the film but also difficult to deal with from a values standpoint.

Filmmaker: There’s a vast disagreement at the center of Welcome to the Machine. Some of your subjects discuss technological development as a natural, even divine process, while others argue that it will lead to nothing less than the complete destruction of the human race. Where do you as an individual come down in this debate?

Weider: My feelings about this have shifted over the years and certainly becoming a father has shifted my worldview. But at the end of the day, I am an optimist. I believe that technology is fundamentally a part of what it is to be human; it is a force that is inseparable from what we are as a species and a civilization. Therefore, just as we exist, so does technology. And although there is much to fear and worry about, I think that it comes down to individuals making choices based on what they value in life.

Do I think it’s divine? That’s probably not the word I would use, but I do think that it is the thing that will allow us as humans to conquer our problems, even if those same problems are in some part created by technology.

Filmmaker: There’s this strand through many of the interviews that most people have no idea just how rapidly our technology is developing, and about the sorts of changes that are ahead. What kinds of ideas to you hope Welcome to the Machine gets people thinking about?

Weider: I think that people are beginning to look around and ask questions about all their surrounding technology.  It’s hard to put these questions into words because it’s a slippery slope – and when you start talking about technology you always end up talking about yourself. And that’s really the point of the film – to underline the fact that technology is about us.

So, why bother thinking about this? Just think – most people watching this film will experience the equivalent of hundreds, if not thousands of years of technological progress in their lifetimes. That’s just a fact now, and if it sounds outlandish, just think about what you’ve seen change in the past ten years. Now look ahead and know that it is probable that by 2020 a $1000 computer will have the hardware computing capacity of the human brain. Now look at yourself and the cellphone in your pocket and the tablet computer in your bag. Now look at your partner, your children, your friends – you all may be here for a much longer time than any other human has ever been. Now ask – what is the value of being a living human being?

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