A thriller called ‘Kimi’ capitalizes on Seattle’s tech cachet

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Zoë Kravitz plays a technician from Seattle in “Kimi”. (Warner Bros. Entertainment Photo/Claudette Barius)

Once again, Seattle’s tech scene serves as the backdrop for a high-profile movie on HBO Max – but this time it’s serious.

The tech-noir thriller from Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh, “Kimi”, echoes movies like “Rear window” and “The conversation” in a narrative that also reflects the harrowing isolation imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns over smart devices that can track our every move.

Zoë Kravitz portrays an employee of a Seattle tech startup that markets a smart speaker and AI voice assistant called Kimi. The startup is gearing up for an IPO that promises a big payout, but as Kravitz’s character is working on a list of audio files Kimi couldn’t understand, she comes across a snippet that suggests a crime has been committed. . His efforts to uncover the truth set off a classic spy chase with some added technological twists.

It’s a far darker tale than “Superintelligence,” the 2020 rom-com starring Melissa McCarthy as a Seattle techie and James Corden as an AI overlord.

Will “Kimi” spark a debate about AI voice assistants? Does the movie accurately capture the Seattle vibe? Will it generate as much buzz as Amazon’s Alexa, or will it flop as hard as the Fire Phone? Early indications are mixed: On the Rotten Tomatoes Websitefor example, the critical consensus is in favor (89%) while the audience score is a definite denial (52%).

To get the verdict from scratch, we turned to the experts who helped us sort out fact, fiction, and frivolity in “Superintelligence”: Carissa Schoenickdirector of program management and communications in Seattle Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence; and Kurt SchlosserGeekWire’s go-to person for coverage of Seattle’s tech culture.

Here’s the slightly spoiler-y breakdown from Schoenick and Schlosser, with a little extra spin provided by yours truly:

Smart speaker… dumb plot?

There are strong echoes of Amazon’s Alexa AI assistant and Apple’s Siri in the squat smart speaker that was designed specifically for “Kimi”. (Soderbergh’s ex-wife, Betsy Brantley, provides the placid female vocals that are a prerequisite for smart speakers.)

Screenwriter David Koepp was would have been inspired to write the screenplay for “Kimi” by a Arkansas murder case in which prosecutors sought to access audio files believed to have been recorded by a suspect’s Amazon Echo device. This case was eventually dismissed due to lack of evidence, but it is specifically invoked in the film.

In some Seattle scenes, we see flashes of billboards touting Kimi 6.0, but Schoenick was surprised by the simplicity of the speakerphone functions. “Everything was extremely Home Smart Speaker 101,” she said.

At the start of the film, the CEO of the company that makes Kimi claims that his product is superior to Alexa and Siri because real humans are employed to make sense of the audio that Kimi cannot understand. (That’s Kravitz’s character work.)

Real-world AI companies would likely dispute the CEO’s assertion.

“I’ve heard reports of Amazon using content workers to review misheard commands and help annotate them, to fix the system,” Schoenick said. “It’s absolutely par for the course with AI. Having a human in the loop like that is how you get annotated data to improve your models.

Director Steven Soderbergh looks over Zoë Kravitz’s shoulder during the filming of ‘Kimi’. (Warner Bros. Entertainment Photo/Claudette Barius)

An ethical company would erase audio files to ensure user anonymity. But since this is a movie, the company behind Kimi isn’t bound by real-world rules. “They had a really nifty, cool little app for how to spy on their users,” Schoenick said.

The same goes for other intrusive surveillance methods featured in “Kimi,” including triangulating cellphone signals and collecting retinal scans from employees without their informed consent.

“This is a good example of how a tech company could have abused personal data rights by collecting data and hiding that language in their terms and conditions because no one reads them is true,” Schoenick said. “This is where regulating the application of AI can be important.”

Unlike many other tech thrillers, the AI ​​isn’t the bad guy. Instead, the plot hinges on old-fashioned human villains who aren’t always as smart as the devices they use. Without getting into too many plot spoilers, Schoenick said the film’s climactic showdown put a strain on plausibility.

“Nobody was doing what they would really do in real life in this situation,” Schoenick said. “Including the bad guys. They seemed very bad at their job.

Seattle shines… maybe too much?

One of the less plausible aspects of “Kimi” has to do with the idea that Kravitz’s character could actually afford the apartment where most of the action takes place.

“She’s a glorified content moderator,” Schoenick said. “It’s work that people in crowdsourcing would do in the real world – you know, people in content moderation farms. It wouldn’t support the lifestyle of a single person in a huge loft.

Kimi’s serviced apartment serves as a fortress for the audio performer, whose fear of public places was born after a traumatic experience and was reinforced by COVID-related social distancing. It’s in a neighborhood that looks like Capitol Hill, Pioneer Square, or Belltown in Seattle, but is actually in Los Angeles.

Schlosser agreed that the apartment seemed a little too upscale for the typical Seattle tech, but he said Kravitz’s blue-haired, hooded persona was in tune with the Pacific Northwest vibe.

“She looked just like Seattle to me,” he said. “She had a young, fun, tech-savvy look, and her apartment was decorated with the requisite music posters and stuff like that.”

There are plenty of exterior scenes showing the Emerald City – including views of West Lake Parkthe Helix Pedestrian Bridge and that of the city light rail stations. There’s even a homeless protest that brought hundreds of extras to downtown Seattle during filming last year.

Zoë Kravitz’s character crosses paths with Seattle protesters in a scene from “Kimi.” (HBO Max / Warner Bros.)

Seattle looks good in the movie. Maybe a little too well, Schlosser said. According to him, a tech-noir thriller like “Kimi” could have made better use of the characteristic gloom of the Pacific Northwest.

“The sun was a little off-putting,” he said.

But Schlosser said the mere fact that AI-centric movies like “Superintelligence” and “Kimi” are set in Seattle says a lot about the city’s status as a tech capital.

“I just think it’s cool in terms of the fact that now filmmakers are moving beyond Silicon Valley and imagining Seattle as the setting for everything in tech — whether it’s misrepresented, weirdly portrayed, funny, exciting or beautiful to watch,” he said. . “Seattle is on the minds of the filmmakers of these guys who say, ‘Where is the technology centered? “”

Endnotes

AI2’s Carissa Schoenick: “AI voice assistant Kimi takes precedence over the psychology and action of the storyline. Kimi isn’t summoned in a surprising way that isn’t already possible with today’s smart speakers – instead, the technology is a plot device to motivate the main agoraphobic character to face his fears.The idea that humans would be employed to review and correct misheard voice commands is not unrealistic; in fact , human-annotated data is fundamental to developing and improving AI algorithms, and companies like Amazon do this guy voice command audit tool for speech recognition technology. The movie has a slow start and really uneven character development with a bit of a giddy conclusion, but if you’re looking for something short and a little weird, this is a pretty average watch. Grade: C for technology and C-minus for visibility.”

Kurt Schlosser, Geek Life Guru: “I lived through COVID and forced isolation for two years. I didn’t need a movie to lock me into all this for two more hours, especially with a smart speaker as my only friend. I want to escape! When ‘Kimi’ comes out, it’s in a Seattle that’s too sunny for such a psychologically dark film. Rating: C-minus.

Scientific connoisseur Alan Boyle: “Maybe ‘Kimi’ doesn’t quite live up to ‘Rear Window,’ but I think anyone who’s a fan of that kind of claustrophobic movie (which also includes “The Woman at the Window” from last year and a new parody, “The woman in the house opposite the girl at the window”) will want to check that out. The same goes for people who care about the issues raised by digital surveillance or just want to see if they recognize the Seattle landscape. “Kimi” is the first movie I’ve seen that incorporates the COVID-19 pandemic into its plot, and the first movie since. ‘Her’ give a central role to an AI voice assistant. Category B.”

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