‘Love Machina’ Review : Doc About a Robotic Bust Becomes a Portrait of the Couple Who Created It

A robotic bust with a face modeled on a middle-aged woman who responds to questions using ChatGPT technology, Bina48 is a rather strange concoction. She sounds passably smart but definitely machine-like, looks nothing like a human being and yet the people behind her claim that she is the early prototype for how people could conquer death and live forever. In Sundance doc “Love Machina,” director Peter Sillen tries to find an answer for why Bina48 came to exist, yet ends up revealing the hubris of the people behind her.

The married couple at the center of the narrative, Martine and Bina Rothblatt, talk about meeting and falling in love in an attempt to get at the strength of their connection. Bina48 was developed with the idea that they would transfer their consciousness to the robot, through what they call an “AI mind file.” They started with Bina Rothblatt and based the bust on her likeness, continually adding her views on life — expressed through many interviews over many years — into the machine. The goal was for the robot to respond as close as possible to the way the original Bina would think and feel.

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It’s a spooky concept, made spookier by what the Rothblatts say oncamera. They talk of their love as a grand romance like no other; Bina even calls Martine “a Binaphile.” A romance so deeply encompassing that it needs to survive the last frontier for humanity: death. As a couple, they have gone through a lot, including a terminally diagnosed child (who survived through their care) and Martine’s gender transition in the 1990s. They are of different races living in a color-conscious and often intolerant nation.

What the film also shows clearly is that they have the resources and tenacity to try and accomplish this seemingly impossible goal. The resources come from Martine’s success as an entrepreneur, having invented satellite radio, among other successful endeavors. What remains unanswered is what makes the Rothblatts’ romance so special that it deserves to last forever. The way Martine and Bina present themselves uncovers their narcissistic tendencies, exasperated by the film’s reluctance to examine their marriage beyond their family’s on camera testimony.

AI and the impact it can have on humanity’s future is a hot topic of late, especially in the boardrooms and hallways of technology, business and entertainment corporations. It was a major issue in last year’s writers and actors strikes, though the fear and apprehension that many have for AI is hardly discussed. The filmmakers focus entirely on the story of Bina48 and the Rothblatts. However, in doing so, they end presenting a positive narrative about AI.

Love proclamations abound, as do technology experts talking about making AI as close to humans as possible. That’s understandable within the context of this narrative, but also limits the film’s scope and reach. Additionally, the religious and social implications of never dying are barely addressed. A Buddist monk associated with the Dalai Lama appears onscreen for mere seconds as the only sound of theological skepticism.

More interestingly, Sillen captures an installation by artist Stephanie Dinkins. In trying to communicate with Bina48, she concludes that the social and historical implications of being a Black woman are not within the robot’s reach. This counter-opinion reveals the shallowness of the Rothblatts’ theories. Sillen’s filmmaking remains observational, aided by T. Griffin’s unobstructive score, serving what could be a pointed rebuttal to the subjects’ proclamations.

What starts as an odd story about a speaking bust becomes a portrait of unexamined lives. Whether or not Sillen set out to tell this particular story remains unclear. Regardless, he should get credit for the fascinating revelations he uncovers. “Love Machina” does not have much to say about AI technology — or Bina48, for that matter — that the audience can’t find somewhere else online, but it has much to say about people’s nature to flatter themselves.

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