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PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: Artificial intelligence, animal intelligence

CHARACTERS: Dave Hoover (wild animal trainer), George Mendonça (topiary gardener), Ray Mendez (mole-rat biologist), Rodney Brooks (robot scientist)

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR ERROL MORRIS: Gates of Heaven (1978), The Thin Blue Line (1988), A Brief History of Time (1992), Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. (1999), The Fog of War (2003).

SYNOPSIS: In this documentary, director Errol Morris weaves together interviews with four people: a wild animal tamer, a topiary gardener, a mole-rat biologist, and a robot scientist. The four figures discuss their respective lifelong projects and reflect on what their subjects tell us about life and human nature. The theme that ties the four projects is life: plant, animal and robotic. The interviewees occasionally make funny comments, but the humor of the film arises from old movies and cartoons inserted at poignant moments. In the making of this film, Morris used a device he created called the "Interrotron," which allowed Morris to project his image on a monitor placed directly over the camera's lens. Interviewees address Morris's image on the monitor while looking directly at the camera, which let Morris and the audience achieve eye contact with his subjects.


1. Which of the four figures was most interesting, and why?

2. The description of the film on the DVD box states that the movie is “a compelling, kaleidoscopic look at the very thin line which separates madness from genius.” Does anything in the movie suggests this or is this just marketing hype?

3. The mole-rat biologist states that people look at mole-rats with special interest and that people are “constantly trying to find themselves in a social animal.” Why do people do this?

4. The robot scientist states the following: “When I think about it, I can almost see myself as being made up of thousands and thousands of little agents, doing stuff independently. But at the same time I fall back into believing the things about humans that we all believe about humans and living life that way. Otherwise I think that if you analyze it too much life becomes almost meaningless.” How, if at all, does this statement differ from the following by Hume: “I am confounded with all these [skeptical philosophical] questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty. Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, Nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when, after three or four hours' amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any further.”

5. The lion tamer stated that if he was injured by a lion during a show, he had to continue with the show anyway. What message would this impress on the lion, and are there any human equivalents of this?

6. The robot scientist states the following: “Evolution spent a long time – billions of years – getting to the point of little creatures which could chase each other around, have mobility and interact with the world in a meaningful way apart from being an amoeba and just sits there and doesn’t do much. Once that stuff was there all this other stuff evolved quick. Higher-level intelligence -- whatever that is -- is pretty easy once you have the ability to move around, hunt, chase; they’re the tough parts.” Assume he’s right; why would mobility be so much more difficult to evolve than higher-higher level intelligence?

7. The robot scientist states the following: “I don’t believe it is possible to have a disembodied intelligence without a physical connection to reality. Everything we think, everything in our thought process is built around being in touch with reality. Even the word ‘touch’.” Is it true that *everything* we think emerges from being in touch with reality?

8. The robot scientist states the following: “A cockroach has 30,000 hairs, each of which is a sensor. The most complex robot we’ve built has 150 sensors, and it’s just about killed us. We can’t expect to do as well as animals in the world until we get beyond that barrier.” What does this imply about the prospects of creating a machine with higher-level intelligence?

9. The robot scientist suggests that robot-agents can be introduced into many facets of our lives – for example tiny robots that would clean the dust off the TV screen. Is this example very likely?

10. The mole rat scientist states that mole rats roll in their own feces as a way of making everyone smell the same. Subtle differences in aroma of other mole rats, then, might set them off against an enemy. Are there human equivalents?

11. The lion tamer and mole rat scientist relay interesting aspects of sophisticated animal psychology. Does this blur the distinction between humans and animals?

12. The robot scientist states the following: “The only consciousness we’ve ever experience is our own. I know I’m conscious, but I don’t know about anyone else. I sort of infer they’re conscious in the same way that I am, but I don’t know that. But what about a horse, or a cow, or a cat or a dog: how conscious are they? What about a chimpanzee or a gorilla?” What enables us to infer anything about the consciousness of animals?

13. The robot scientist states the following: “Some people argue that consciousness arises through language. But I’m not quite sure I believe that. It seems that language is a very late thing that’s come about accidentally.” What would pre-linguistic consciousness be like?

14. The robot scientist speculats that “consciousness was put there by God so he would have a very quick interface to check on what we’re thinking.” What does that suggest about the function of consciousness in animal or human life (apart from it’s divine function)?

15. The more rat scientist says that in nature “You’re either prey, you’re an enemy or you’re ignored.” To what extent is that also true in human society?

16. The topiary gardener says he spent half his life on that garden. He describes his task like this: “It’s just cut and wait, cut and wait.” Why would this be any more satisfying than working on an assembly line?

17. The mole-rat biologist discusses how socially oriented animals like mole rats dispense with individuality in the interest of the greater good. He states, “We wouldn’t tend to say, ok, listen in this village, since we’ve run out of food we’ll only be able to raise one kid, we all know it, so let’s kill the other 57. Can you imagine where that’s going on? I can’t. Culturally what we tend to do is let everybody die.” Is he correct?

18. The mole-rat biologist states the following: “In the ultimate form, all of this stuff is looking at ‘other’. The exploring and finding of animals, it had nothing to do with any control that we as a person would have. That feeling you are in the presence of life irrelevant of your self: that’s the other. And the other isn’t something to be feared ... It’s something to be wondered at, and looked at, and explored. Perhaps communicated with, not to sit down and have a conversation, but to take pictures of it and see if you can get the moment where the animal is actually looking at you and you feel that there is a moment of contact: I know you are, you know I am.” Could a hunter experience this presence of the other, or is this nullified by the fact that the hunter sees the animal as principally sport or prey?

19. The robot scientist states the following: “This approach to building robots will eventually lead to robots as intelligent as human beings. Whether we’ll be able to interact with them as we interact with other human beings I think is more open to questions because it’s unlikely that they’ll be embodied in the same way that we are. They’ll have different physical experiences and they will be aliens to us.” What sort of different physical experiences would make interaction with humans impossible?

20. While the robot scientist is making the above statement, Morris intersperses clips from an old science fiction movie in which a robot is attacking humans. The point is that if the robots are aliens to us, they might attack us. Is this a reasonable inference?

21. The animal trainer states that all the lion’s creature comforts are inside the cage. From the lion’s perspective, “outside the cage is the cage, inside is their world.” What would be a parallel human example?

22. The robot scientist states the following: “Often I’ve called the robots that we build artificial creatures. I like to think of them as prototypes towards entities which exist in the world and live in the world in the same way that animals live in the world. They may still be useful to us. You can have a chicken that lays eggs, but you don’t tell the chicken, hey chicken lay an egg every day. You just put the chicken in the chicken coop and give it food, and out comes an egg every day.” Thus, useful robots will be like useful animals. Does this call for an organization like People for the Ethical Treatment of Robots?

23. The mole rat scientist states the following: “The Zen of watching them [i.e., the mole rats]: they would have the same fascination that you’d have in watching fish in a fish tank or ants in an ant colony. It’s constant movement, it’s only bigger. And it has more of a purpose. And it’s trying to figure out what the purpose is that interests me.” Later he says “it’s the intellectual part that’s as stimulating as the reality. This has nothing to do with science; this is not scientific observation. I look at them strictly from the point of self-knowledge: of learning not only about them but about myself and they way that react and act towards each other.” How does this differ from a philosopher’s quest to understand human nature?

24. The robot scientist states that the appeal of his vocation is “understanding life by building something that is life-like.” How does this differ from the mole rat scientist’s perspective on his own vocation as indicated in the previous question?

25. The robot scientist states the following: “Some of the researchers view building these robots as the next step in evolution, a step beyond mere human bodies which decay after 70 years, building something that can reproduce at a much faster rate and carry on throughout the life of the universe.” Later he says, “Some people really believe that we are going to replace ourselves by building these machines, and carbon-based life is on the way out and the silicon-based life will be what emerges and is the next step, if you want to make things sequential, in evolution. That may be. There may not be a place for humans in the future if we’re really successful at building these systems. They may in fact be our legacy for the future.” Is this a prediction or just the wishful thinking of robot scientists who are seeking for immortality through their work?

26. Throughout the film Morris intersperses clips of the Clyde Beatty film “King of Jungleland.” What was his point?


Errol Morris is known for producing documentaries with a unique perspective. These films are thought provoking and usually connect well with the audience. Perhaps one of the few exceptions to this trend is Fast, Cheap and Out of Control. The movie does not, however, fail in provoking thought. Each interviewee has an extremely interesting job and equally intriguing approach to his vocation. In this respect, the film approximates what Morris did in his short-lived television show that chronicled the stories of interesting people. On the other hand, Fast, Cheap and Out of Control does fail to connect well with the audience. This failure really stems from the film’s inability to mesh the content of the separate interviews into a cohesive unit. The title offers no unity to the interviews in that, outside of Rodney Brooks, each interviewee asserts a substantial amount of control in their careers. It is later revealed in the film that the title comes from a report written about robotic intelligent and by one of Brooks’s colleagues. In this issue, the film does achieve philosophical significance as it asks, "How much control will humans assert over forthcoming intelligent robots?" If humans assert on intelligent robots the level of control George Mendonca does on his topiary animals, then certainly there is nothing to fear in artificial intelligence. But, Mendonca’s animals have no functionality, and controlling robots to this extent will render them not as useful as they could have been. Dave Hoover asserts a level of control over his animals, but, occasionally, they attack him and cause physical harm. Hoover’s situation reflects the root of the fears many have toward artificial intelligence. Even if humans can control intelligent robots to an extent, it does not mean that these robots will not cause harm to their human owners. Perhaps, it is Ray Mendez’s level of control on the mole rats that best approximates a healthy view toward controlling artificial intelligence. Mendez does little to interfere with what the mole rats do. However, he controls their environment and, thus, makes them scientifically observable and useful. But these inferences are not explicit, which is why Fast, Cheap and Out of Control is difficult to enjoy. Its meaning and message are far too surreptitious. -- Shifty

Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control: I’m not quite sure about the philosophical themes in the movie, but it was a very random movie. I did however enjoy the segments about the naked mole rats and the circus lions. I have a real deep passion for animals of all kind. The scientist talking about the moles rats said that they have a language of their own in the tunnels; I think that is so interesting. I like finding out weird facts about rare or newly discovered animals. I did not like the treatment of the lions in the circus. I don’t think people should enslave any animals in the circus. I agree with them being in a stationary setting like a zoo, but not in a traveling circus. That does not give the animals any freedom be animals. I do not care too much for robots or any type of engineering. The things people made in the video were interesting. I did like how they brought evolution into the picture. I really don’t like computers either, but because of the technological advances, everything will be run by computers some day. I really don’t understand the segment about the garden sculptures. I do like to look at them. It takes a lot of man power and dedication to create some of the sculptures in the movie. I enjoyed the random facts about all four of the topics. — C.J.

Fast, Cheap and Out of Control: I wasn’t really prepared for the strangeness of this movie. Fast, Cheap and Out of Control is about four individuals who blur the line between genius and insanity. All of the people were obsessed with their chosen field. This movie shows that obsession isn’t related to intelligence or education. The mole rat specialist and robot scientist were obviously intelligent people. The lion trainer and topiary sculptor seemed to be less educated though just as obsessed and intelligent in a certain way. The mole rat specialist claims that mole rat society is not that different from humans. There are a few degrees of separation, and differences that exist are differences in degree only, not differences in kind. The robot scientist also claims a robot society, should it ever exist, would not be completely different than human society. Though there would be a few differences they would be differences in degree not in kind. Thus, the experts seem to be saying that mole rat society and a robot society are not as different as we might think. — N.T.

The movie “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control” is an oddly-made film which features Dave Hoover, who is a lion tamer; George Mendonça, who created topiaries at Green Animals Topiary Garden in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, including giraffes made out of boxwood; Ray Mendez, a hairless mole-rats expert; and Rodney Brooks, an M.I.T. scientist who has designed bug-like robots. Probably one of the most interesting character in the movie was the robot expert Rodney Brooks who compared the evolution of man with robots and asks the question “Evolution spent a long time – billions of years – getting to the point of little creatures which could chase each other around, have mobility and interact with the world in a meaningful way apart from being an amoeba and just sits there and doesn’t do much. Once that stuff was there all this other stuff evolved quick. Higher-level intelligence -- whatever that is -- is pretty easy once you have the ability to move around, hunt, chase; they’re the tough parts.” Assume he’s right; why would mobility be so much more difficult to evolve than higher-higher level intelligence? However, I also liked the hairless mole rat guy, though he was probably the most eccentric of the characters and he asks us to question the issue of humanism in respects to how mole rats run their own little society. He states , “We wouldn’t tend to say, ok, listen in this village, since we’ve run out of food we’ll only be able to raise one kid, we all know it, so let’s kill the other 57. Can you imagine where that’s going on? I can’t. Culturally what we tend to do is let everybody die.” — A.V.

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