There's Not Much Truth Found in HBO's Lazy Robot Panic Documentary

If Skynet looms on the horizon, you won't find the evidence here.


The Truth About Killer Robots. HBO. Monday, November 26, 10 p.m.

'The Truth About Killer Robots'
'The Truth About Killer Robots,' HBO

What could be better on a long Thanksgiving weekend than curling up on the couch for a documentary about murderous robots? Well, practically anything, including jabbing red-hot pincers in your eyes, if the documentary in question is HBO's The Truth About Killer Robots.

Turns out this show is a dead-solid lock for the Emmy for Best Camouflage Job in a Title. Director Maxim Pozdorovkin started out to make a film about an actual killing of an assembly-line worker at a VW factory in Germany, discovered nobody would tell him anything, and tacked on 80 minutes of Luddite squawking to fill in the enormous gaps.

So there's a long section on the sinister implications of a self-driving Tesla in Florida that ran into a truck, killing its human passenger. (No matter that human drivers acting without robot assistance killed more than 40,000 people in the United States last year.)

There's also a segment on the inhumanity of the Dallas police department using a reverse-engineered bomb-disposal robot to blow up a barricaded sniper. (No matter that the sniper had already killed five cops.)

And then the documentary discusses the creepiness of a hotel desk-clerk robot taking down your information. (Is that really more uncomfortable than giving your home address, phone number and credit card to a human stranger?)

Eventually Killer Robots dissolves into pure silliness. My favorite moment was when a Chinese assembly-line worker who complains that integrating robots into the line has dehumanized him: "I feel like I'm turning into a robot!" As if assembly lines were were warm, creative environments before the damn cyborgs ruined them.

Not that Killer Robots doesn't blunder into an intriguing moment or two along the way to complete incoherence—particularly concerning the 2015 attack that gives the show its name.

A VW assembly robot grabbed a human co-worker and crushed him against a wall. Three years later, neither VW nor the German prosecutor's office that investigated the case has released a single detail about it, not even the name of the victim. About all that remains on the Internet about the incident is an occasional bad Twitter joke.

If I shared Killer Robots' paranoia about 'bot intentions, I'd be highly suspicious about a segment in which a researcher is shown letting robots run into him, strike him, and generally bully him to get data for fine-tuning their movements to make them safer. What if the robots thought they were being trained?

Footnote: Sadly lacking from Killer Robots is any discussion of their varied sexual practices, from clandestine rendezvous to orgiastic exhibitionism to rapine plunder. That last one is actual from a computer enhanced with artificial intelligence and a mechanical penis, but let's not split cyber-hairs.