‘Superintelligence’ in Seattle: AI researchers do a reality check on a movie that adds romance to tech

Alan Boyle
·8-min read
Bobby Cannavale and Melissa McCarthy
Melissa McCarthy and Bobby Cannavale star in “Superintelligence,” a romantic AI comedy that’s set in Seattle. Late-night TV host James Corden provides the AI voice. (New Line Cinema / HBO Max / WarnerMedia Photo)

Seattle, Microsoft and the field of artificial intelligence come in for their share of the spotlight in “Superintelligence” — an HBO Max movie starring Melissa McCarthy as the rom-com heroine, and comedian James Corden as the world’s new disembodied AI overlord.

But how much substance is there behind the spotlight? Although the action is set in Seattle, much of the principal filming was actually done in Georgia. And the scientific basis of the plot — which involves an AI trying to decide whether or not to destroy the planet — is, shall we say, debatable.

Fortunately, we have the perfect team to put “Superintelligence” to the test, as a set-in-Seattle movie as well as a guide to the capabilities of artificial intelligence.

The Seattle area is one of the world’s hottest AI hotspots, thanks to Microsoft, Amazon, the University of Washington, the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence and dozens of AI startups.

We enlisted Oren Etzioni — the CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, also known as AI2 — and Carissa Schoenick, AI2’s senior program manager and communications director, to do a reality check on the movie’s depiction of AI. Kurt Schlosser, who covers the Geek Life beat at GeekWire, weighed in on the movie’s depiction of Seattle tech culture.

AI pros and cons

Right off the bat, Etzioni said Melissa McCarthy fans are likely to take a liking to “Superintelligence,” regardless of any AI faux pas.

“It’s always great to see her,” he said. “It’s actually fun for the whole family. My 10-year-old and my wife joined me, and so clearly that says something for it as a movie — although it’s not a classic masterpiece or as funny as when she was playing a James Bond character in ‘Spy.'”

“Superintelligence” goes heavy on the stereotypes — including the classic tale of rekindling romance with an old boyfriend, the high-tech situation room filled with world leaders, and hilarity from a hapless pair of FBI agents (one of whom is played by Ben Falcone, the film’s director and McCarthy’s husband).

Corden’s disembodied AI follows a stereotype as well, Etzioni said.

“The AI is omniscient and basically omnipotent, so long as it has internet, right?” he said. “There’s no real separation from the notion of highly intelligent and knowing every little fact about you, whereas we think of it at AI2 as very different things.”

In a way, the AI stereotype as portrayed in “Superintelligence” is “almost more pernicious than the Terminator,” Etzioni said: “The Terminator … you know it’s a monster, right? But here, it’s a comedy. It’s this guy’s voice, and of course, the AI knows everything. But that’s a stereotype.”

Previously at the movies: ‘Terminator’ is back — and AI experts do a reality check

Even though it’s lighthearted, “Superintelligence” comes with a scary premise, Schoenick said.

“The movie presents this AI as coming into existence suddenly, and it arrives with a built-in agenda of evaluating humanity for potential destruction,” she said. “That’s a pretty impossible, scary way to portray AI technology, though not uncommon in Hollywood.”

Schoenick noted that the AI could find its way into any device, ranging from a Tesla to a toaster, but couldn’t break in on the movie’s characters while they were working on secret plans to foil its scheme. “It’s exactly as powerful or not as it needs to be at any given point in the movie,” she said.

In one of Schoenick’s favorite over-the-top tech scenes, a Microsoft researcher points to the ups and downs of a worldwide neural network on a giant display screen. “I don’t think the audience would buy that as something that we could just dial up and say, ‘Oh, let me check the neural network activity today around the world. It’s really high, I wonder what that means?'” she said. “Also, why would Microsoft be the one coordinating the global response to a rogue AI?”

Etzioni said the movie gets at least one thing about AI right. “Emotions, interactions, the little contradictions that make us decide who to love and who not to love are very difficult for people to understand — and completely unfathomable for machines,” he said.

Etzioni noted that Yejin Choi, a researcher at UW and AI2, is working on a project that’s aimed at giving AI programs more common sense.

“We actually have benchmarks and metrics around social common sense, and it’s extremely opaque to a machine,” he said. “That’s the one part the movie really got right: Machines don’t ‘get it’ in that emotional sense.”

Seattle clips and slips

Like most movies that are ostensibly set in Seattle (such as Netflix’s recently released “Love, Guaranteed”), parts of “Superintelligence” were actually filmed somewhere else. Most of the Microsoft scenes were done at Georgia Tech, for example. In one such scene, a futuristic sculpture in Georgia Tech’s Clough Building takes center stage.

To be sure, there are the standard establishing shots of the Space Needle, the Monorail and other Seattle landmarks. “The first aerial zoom into a ‘tech office’ from Elliott Bay is actually the Zillow HQ or Russell Investments Center building,” Schlosser said.

There’s also the obligatory fish toss at Pike Place Market, although the filmmakers commit what Schlosser calls “the most egregious non-Seattleite mistake” by labeling it as Pike’s Place Market in a satellite-shot graphic. (We should note that we were watching a pre-release version of the movie, and there’s a chance that the graphic was corrected for final release.)

A graphic that makes an appearance in “Superintelligence” mislabels Pike Place Market, but hits the mark precisely on latitude and longitude. (New Line Cinema / HBO Max / WarnerMedia)
A graphic that makes an appearance in “Superintelligence” mislabels Pike Place Market, but hits the mark precisely on latitude and longitude. (New Line Cinema / HBO Max / WarnerMedia)

Sharp-eyed Seattleites might notice a couple of inconsistencies that outsiders would miss. For example, McCarthy moves into a Pioneer Square penthouse that seems to have a view of the Great Wheel and the Seattle waterfront — but that’s a perspective that could be seen in reality only from Pike Place Market, farther north.

Schlosser said “Superintelligence” capitalizes on the spirit of the Seattle startup scene when McCarthy’s character, named Carol Peters, looks for a job at a down-and-dirty matchmaking site called BaDunkaDunk.com (Sorry, geeks, that domain name was taken three years ago.)

“BaDunkaDunk goes all in on normal startup cliches, including absurd beanbag furniture and the use of ‘we need a rock star’ when interviewing Carol,” he said.

Another Seattle twist has Carol and her old flame, played by Bobby Cannavale, meeting Ken Griffey Jr. at a Mariners game. The Mariners get almost as much of the spotlight as Microsoft. “At one point, Carol’s boyfriend offers a toast to ‘another Mariners victory,’ which we all know doesn’t happen very often,” Schlosser quipped.

At least one Seattle icon is missing, however. “Why is Microsoft still the go-to tech representation for the Seattle area, in an age when Amazon has risen to such prominence?” Schlosser asked. “I don’t think I saw any Amazon clues in the film.”

Final grades

We asked each of our reviewers to grade “Superintelligence” on an A-to-F academic scale, for pure entertainment and for science.

  • Etzioni: Hollywood’s depictions of AI — ranging from “Terminator” and “Westworld” to “Her” and “Ex Machina” — typically don’t come close to the mark, in Etzioni’s view. And “Superintelligence” is a typical AI movie. “It did get me to chuckle, and I love Melissa McCarthy regardless. As a movie, I would give it a B. As an AI depiction, I would give it a C-minus. The only reason I give it a C-minus is because I’m grading on the curve, and the other students didn’t do very well.”

  • Schoenick: C-minus for entertainment, F for science. “Suspend all your disbelief for this one, because pretty much nothing the AI does makes sense, and the buzzword usage is sloppy, too. They even misused the term ‘Turing Test,’ which is pretty unforgivable in a movie starring an AI.” Her recommendation for a far more realistic (albeit far less funny) AI movie: “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix.

  • Schlosser: “I have laughed quite a bit at Melissa McCarthy in other roles, including ‘Bridesmaids’ and on SNL, but I did not like this movie. I thought it was just loaded with clichés, weird references and out-of-touch stuff. So I give it a low C or a D. I’m glad I got to watch it for free while I was working.”

  • Boyle: C for entertainment — with the “C” standing for a common cable movie. D for the science — with the “D” standing for “Don’t you dare take it seriously.” And B for serving as a parlor game to spot Seattle tie-ins — with the “B” standing for BaDunkaDunk.

HBO Max has launched a “20 Days fo Kindness” campaign on behalf of “Superintelligence,” with HBO Max donating $20,000 to a different good cause daily for 20 days. AT&T helped kick things off with a $1 million contribution to Girls Who Code, and there’s a Prizeo charity sweepstakes as well. To learn more about the campaign, check out 20daysofkindness.com or look for the #20DaysofKindness hashtag on social media.

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