New Documentary ‘I Am Human’ Is About Brain Surgery But Raises Questions About Tuskegee Experiment, Racial Profiling And Police Data

Written by Lauren DeLisa Coleman
Photo credit courtesy of “I Am Human”.

“I Am Human”, a documentary film directed and produced by Taryn Southern and Elena Gaby, recently debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival yet still very much lingers like a haunting specter. It clearly marks the latest creative entry pertaining to technology and the deeper functions of the brain, heralding a new, challenging era for us all.

Essentially, this film tracks specific scientists and entrepreneurs on the edge of demystifying functions of the human brain. In a statement, Southern said, “In making this film, we realized that real-world brain technology was as compelling as what we see in science fiction.” She continues, “But there is a huge disconnect between the dystopian visions popularized in the media and those pioneers on the front lines of exploration and adoption of brain interface technology.”

Thus the documentary sets out to track various brain implant technologies that will change the course of, perhaps even the definition of, humanity. This is accomplished by following the stories of three people – all Caucasian – with neurological disorders. Bill, a tetraplegic from a biking accident; Anne, a former artist with degenerative Parkinson’s Disease and Stephen, a man who has lost his sight and sees only white.

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We follow a particular snapshot of their lives for a few months as they struggle with their physical challenges and then elect to undergo implantable brain interface treatment which is experimental. Each experiences various degrees of success from procedures anchored in surgically inserted electrodes into their heads.

While the possibilities are intriguing around the promise of healing, there is an uncomfortable minimum within the documentary on ethics and challenges around such work, particularly as the progression is projected to move rapidly from the medical realm to mainstream life, offering quick fixes from implants for character flaws, short-cuts to emotional insights and more.

However, judging from audience reactions to the film, such concern is a mere afterthought. Indeed, perhaps the biggest issue with elite film festivals these days is no longer the lack of diversity in projects but that of the lack of diversity of the audience — primarily Caucasian, professional and educated. One could easily overhear how excited they are about the technology with little or no hesitation. Perhaps such perspective comes from the luxury of not having undergone everything from the Tuskegee Experiment to racial profiling of police all thanks to science and “data.” Indeed one of the brain experts included in the film and the present during Q&A afterward mentioned that such technology is also being used to determine criminal proclivity but that that would all have to be worked out and addressed. The immediate question should be by whom and when? And once such capability is possible, how might one ever reverse-engineer that back into a Pandora’s box?

Given the undeniable issues around race and incarceration, the ability to access one’s brain and make potential feature determinations as if it were a real-world Spielberg’s “Minority Report,” let alone other ethical issues around connecting brains to technology for view, should make everyone call for massive ethics around this arena immediately.

It is said the pathway to destruction is paved with good intentions. Let us hope that such films spark deep discussion to make sure that such routes are detoured.