I Am Mother envisions a dark future world where AI is almost human

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A young girl is raised underground by a robot mother (Rose Byrne) following an extinction event on Earth in I Am Mother.

A humanoid sentient robot raises a young woman from an embryo in an underground bunker, after an unspecified cataclysmic event wipes out the human population of Earth. That's the basic premise of I Am Mother, a thoughtful and chilling new sci-fi feature on Netflix that explores questions of contextual morality—and what it means to be human.

(Some spoilers below.)

The AI robot, Mother (voiced by Rose Byrne), has a whole room full of embryos in its underground bunker, with the objective of eventually repopulating the Earth. But first she has to prove she can be a good Mother by raising the perfect daughter (Clara Rugaard), who grows into a smart, fit, and highly capable young woman. But Daughter is also naive, a bit lonely, and frankly approaching puberty with no prospective human partners on the horizon. Then their peaceful existence is shattered by the arrival of Wounded Woman (Hilary Swank), who somehow survived the cataclysm. Her hostile presence drives a wedge between Mother and Daughter.

I Am Mother is very much in the tradition of small-scale features with big ideas, like 2009's Moon—not surprisingly, a favorite of Director Grant Sapore. There's a limited cast of characters and locations, relying on strong writing and performances from the actors to flesh out and illuminate the broader themes and ideas. Films like I Am Mother remind us that sci-fi has always been multi-leveled in terms of its storytelling, and you don't always need a huge studio budget to make something deep and meaningful. Ars sat down with Sapore to learn more about the underlying philosophy and thought process that drove the development of his film.

Ars: Let's talk about why you decided to make this film. What drew you to explore these particular themes and ideas?

Sapore: Michael [Lloyd Green], who wrote the screenplay, and I set out specifically to make a sensible first film, with three characters, one location. We wanted to bring something new to that and make it really personal. So we had a long conversation about what was going on in our own lives, and what's going on in the world around us that we found most thought-provoking. What topped both lists was whether or not we were ready to be parents, in tandem with the question of whether or not humanity was ready to be the parent to artificial intelligence. That coalesced into this image of a robot holding a baby. What is it like to be raised by a robot? Who is that young girl, and what's her story? That became the movie I Am Mother.

Ars: Early on, Mother is teaching Daughter about ethics using a version of the famous Trolley Problem called the Transplant Surgeon's Dilemma. How does this ethical quandary play into the film's developing story?

Sapore: One of the big questions is, do the ends justify the means? Is Mother good, or is Mother bad? It's really a matter of perspective, which links into a related question: how do you ever know what's right and what's wrong? The first instance of the trolley problem is, “Absolutely, I'd pull the lever to divert the trolley, to save people and kill the one.” But the natural next part of the trolley problem is the “fat person dilemma,” where you push a fat person into the tracks to stop the train, sacrificing one to save five. Most people have a problem with that.

Pulling a lever to sacrifice one, save five—people are okay with that. But pushing somebody to save five and sacrifice one—people have a problem with that. That's how flexible, variable, and contextual our morality is. The film becomes a giant exploration on that, and hopefully sends people away thinking, “Am I cool with this? Was that right? Was that wrong?” So many people have come away saying they're okay with some of the more heinous aspects of how the story ends, because the outcome, in their point of view, is worth it.

Ars: Artificial intelligence is developing rapidly, and one thing Mother demonstrates is that an AI might not interpret these kinds of moral quandaries the same way the average human would.

Sapore: I think humans have a hard time grappling with what's right and what's wrong, too. But a miscalculation in the values of a machine can have ramifications beyond what any individual person might be able to do, so the stakes are that much higher if an AI makes the wrong choice.

The film functions on two levels. On one level, it's a very legitimate examination of the era of machines that is imminent, that we'd all do well to talk more about. On another, it's just the story of a young girl working out who she is, independent of the beliefs of her parents, like any teenager—that pushing and pulling on the boundaries. One level hits you more in the heart, one hits you more in the head. It was a conscious goal. We wanted to make a story [that] was an emotionally satisfying experience while you were watching it, but then send you away with stuff to talk to your friends about after.

Ars: At one point, Wounded Woman lashes out at Daughter, telling her that Mother is just a thing that feels nothing for her. But I think there's evidence at the end that she might indeed “feel” something akin to love for Daughter. 

Sapore: I think machine learning as the basis for artificial intelligence software creation opens up a whole new set of questions. Historically, we've been fascinated by the question of how different are machines from us? At what point does their sentience make them human? How different are they really? Blade Runner is a great example of a film in that mold.

“Everything that we cherish about being human is really an emergent property that's popped up through the process of evolution.”

But what machine learning does for me is put the mirror back on humanity. I don't think that ultimately they'll be all that different from us. The process of machine learning is not really that different from the way that we as humans learn. Daughter being taught ethics in the opening is not that different from us teaching ethics to a machine in the form of programming. What's the difference between programming and education? They're not radically different. A machine learning algorithm could give a bit of software access to every film that's ever been made, come to understand what a film is, what does and doesn't work well in a film, and then go and make a movie.

You talked about Mother having emotion for Daughter; is that real love? Well, what is love? And what value does love have to humans? Everything that we cherish about being human is really an emergent property that's popped up through the process of evolution. Similar things happen to machines that are created through machine learning. There are tics and quirks that come up through the process. I think some of the stuff that we most cherish about being human is really just a quirk that evolved through evolution. We love our children, because that's the best way for them to flourish in the world and go on to have kids of their own. It's interesting when you look at these things through a different lens.

Ars: Hilary Swank as the nameless Wounded Woman brought a very nuanced moral ambiguity to her character, because she's not necessarily the good guy. Or the bad guy.

Sapore: No, and there's no reason to expect that humans are perfect, in contrast to machines that aren't. Humans can and do express the full spectrum of good and bad traits, and it's hard to judge Wounded Woman's behavior outside of circumstances. She made what was the right choice for her at every turn. That's something that Hilary's character grapples with. “Did I make the right choices to get me to where I am now?” We wanted her to stand in contrast to Daughter, who's all brain. She's very much up in her head, whereas Wounded Woman is far more primal and is actually operating from her gut. It becomes a further opportunity to explore how we navigate this world. The decisions that we make, do they come from our head, or from our heart, or from our gut? They're all different aspects of what makes us human and leads us to make different choices.

I Am Mother is currently streaming on Netflix.

    <em>Listing image by YouTube/Netflix</em>
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