What happens when advances in AI mean that human beings can routinely surround themselves with intelligent robots who can be made to look like humans and even approximate human emotion? That is the central question of director April Mullen’s new sci-fi, thriller movie, Simulant. Well, there are actually several quite complex questions being posed. First, what happen when AI allows life-like robots to literally take the place of our loved ones? Second, what responsibility can we place on these human stand-ins to guard human life? Third, what happens when this AI becomes sentient?
The movie comes at a critically important moment when AI is daily in the news, on the one hand for its capacity to make life better for humans, and on the other, for the obvious deficits in the legal and social guardrails to protect humans from computers that experts fear will soon (if they do not already) have the capacity to relinquish their subservience to human direction and authority.
Set in the not-too-distant future (we know this because of the look of the architecture, cars, and clothing), Simulant mainly unfolds across a cold and snowy urban and suburban North American landscape (it was filmed in Toronto) in which humans are constantly encouraged – via gigantic holographic advertisements and soundscapes – to upgrade to the newest model of simulant. Simulants are life-size highly evolved AI robots that can be ordered to look exactly like humans or as human-like and obviously robotic. The constant chatter of Nexxera’s corporate appeal explains that they ensure that all simulants must obey the precepts, an ethical set of rules designed to protect humankind from the potential threat of the advanced intelligence of AI. At the top of the list is that simulants cannot harm any human being, and just below that, simulants are not allowed to modify themselves or other simulants. Third, simulants must protect themselves from harm, but only if such protection does not conflict with the first two precepts.
The reasons for the three precepts seem clear. But to ensure the safety of the public, special police are on the job looking for simulants (and humans) that defy the precepts. Enter Kessler (Sam Worthington) a dedicated but distracted, officer with an obvious chip on his shoulder where simulants are concerned. He has a pervasive distrust of them that only grows when one of them, a young attractive woman named Esme (Alicia Sanz), reveals that she has feelings for someone, feelings she has recorded in a journal. Feelings, like desires, should of course be impossible for a simulant, hence Kessler’s unease.
The movie follows two main interwoven plots: 1) Kessler in pursuit of whoever has modified Esme which would be Casey (the Marvelous Canadian Simu Liu) and (2) Faye (Jordana Brewster of Fast and Furious fame) and Evans’ (Robbie Amell) experience of their strained marriage on the heels of a mysterious accident. Faye is more invested in simulants than is originally revealed, but as the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that she regrets a fateful decision to use them to stave off her overwhelming grief.
As the narrative unfolds, Kessler’s search for the truth about Esme leads him to Casey, an underground figure who actively defies the second precept by seducing simulants into modification with the promise of greater human sensory perceptions and freedoms. Of course, Casey’s pitch is seductive in part because simulants, as they come off the factory floor (so to speak), can be shut down on the whim of their human owner (with a simple tug behind both ears) and “frozen” with the pulse from Kessler’s or one of his fellow officers’ electronic guns. What kind of life is that? Do simulants have a life outside of their owners? Should they be allowed to aspire to a human-like status? Would a human-like status for simulants undermine the first precept of do no harm to humans? These are a few of the moral dilemmas that the movie explores.
It is only late in the film that we learn why Kessler has a huge bias against simulants, and like Faye, it has to do with a devastating personal loss. But the film’s lack of backstory for Kessler leaves him floating as a largely unlikable antihero. It is difficult to root for Kessler even if his beef with simulants is justified. Faye is cold and disengaged and constantly pushing her husband away – but for good reason we soon find out. Meanwhile, Evan is confused, clingy, and at times outright aggressive and Casey seems only in it for himself.
In the end, the film does not provide enough backstory or narrative for any one character to make you feel absolutely invested in their wellbeing or demise. Furthermore, Kessler’s mostly solo renegade policing (we barely see his concerned boss, Supervisor Abendjor, played by the British-born, Canadian-Jamaican Conrad Coates) paints an unrealistic image of what a simulant police force might actually entail. In an age where we are constantly being bombarded by the “good news” of AI advances with technology companies trying to convince us that the accelerating pace of AI is good for humankind, Simulant throws up a huge red flag and asks us to contemplate the life altering benefits (a life free of mundane chores) and drawbacks (that AI might literally kill us) of a world in which we give over so much power to machines that not only think and perhaps even feel like us, but one day have the capacity to become us. For that reason alone, Simulant is well worth our time.