Director Werner Herzog Talks About The Intersection of Humanity And Artificial Intelligence

Is technology making us less human?

Over the course of his 50-year filmmaking career, director and documentarian Werner Herzog has often explored humanity’s complicated relationship with nature. His newest release, funded by an internet security company — Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World —examines the changing roles technology plays in our lives. Herzog says he rarely uses the Internet himself, and didn’t make his first phone call until the age of 17. It’s this outsider’s perspective that imbues the film with both ­curiosity and concern. Here Herzog muses that artificial-intelligence has the potential to enhance ­society, but that a consequence could be losing touch with the very things that makes us human.

A robot named Chimp stretches its limbs in Herzog's new film.
A robot named Chimp stretches its limbs in Herzog’s new film. Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

In Herzog’s own words:

The field of artificial intelligence research is a beautiful one. I’m not surprised by how far it has come, but I am surprised by the speed with which it has come upon us. Photography had long years of predecessor technologies, and cinema had almost a century of predecessors.

It’s too primitive to say that the Internet and artificial intelligence are evil. The reality of how it works is not how it’s portrayed in the world of movies. But what I think isn’t good is that people lose ­themselves in it if they don’t read every day and develop critical and conceptual thinking: Your examination of the real world happens through these tools.

Overdependence on the Internet is not a healthy thing. We should indeed develop our own intelligence and not rely on artificial intelligence, because it will never really replace human interaction. In West Virginia, people will still gather at a campfire to play bluegrass music and sing. You cannot match this kind of community with anything else, and it cannot be replaced.

Rather, artificial intelligence will augment. At its very best, it will create tools that assist us with our everyday chores. It will replace certain jobs, like how mechanical weaving ­machines replaced all the hand weaving, and the bulldozers replaced the horses. Yes, it replaces human beings, only for very specific things, and at the same time, it creates many other jobs.

The deepest question I had while making this film was whether the Internet dreams of itself. Is there a self of the Internet? Is there something independent of us? Could it be that the Internet is already dreaming of itself and we don’t know, because it would ­conceal it from us?

There is a lot of terra incognita out there. My instincts tell me that it will reach such a complexity that it might ­become self-reflective.

An A.I. Primer:
  1. Watch: Nick Bostrom’s 2015 TED Talk, What Happens When Our Computers Get Smarter Than We Are?

  2. Read: John Markoff’s Machines of Loving Grace. The author examines robots’ roles in our lives throughout history.

  3. Listen: Ethical Machines podcast. Experts debate ethics in technology—beyond just the shallow hype.

  4. Watch: Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. An egotistical tech billionaire builds a sentient robot. What could go wrong?

This article was originally published in the September/October 2016 issue of Popular Science, under the title “Werner Herzog On The Intersection of Humanity and Artificial Intelligence.”