'Alexa, should I watch Discovery Channel's "This is A.I." special?'

Posted June 18, 2018 2:55 p.m. EDT

— "This is A.I." brings a scholarly, understated approach to the topic of artificial intelligence, balancing the gee-whiz aspects of new developments with "We're all going to die" apprehensions about it. Nevertheless, this two-hour Discovery Channel documentary feels like important viewing, and not just for those waiting for a real-life "Westworld" to open.

Part of the tone might have to do with the sponsorship: "This is A.I." is presented by IBM, one of several companies whose innovations and experts -- including Dario Gil, IBM's vice president of A.I. and Quantum Computing -- are prominently featured within the special, which frequently turns to science fiction to help illustrate its points.

"A.I. will impact everything. There's nothing it won't touch," mogul Mark Cuban says at the outset, before the conversation demonstrates just that by flitting from one application to the next, from IBM's Watson winning on "Jeopardy!" to Deep Blue mastering chess to self-driving cars.

Much of the special is hopeful, but there's also a cautionary aspect throughout, including the uncertain impact that A.I. will have on employment. "Will it take away my job?" the narration asks, proceeding to show ways A.I. can actually make us more productive, without allaying legitimate concerns that it very well might.

Many of these technological wonders are undeniably advantageous, from helping educate children -- and giving teachers a powerful tool to aid them -- to assisting with healthcare. There's also the prospect of A.I. helping replace functions for those lacking limbs or sight, such as, remarkably, allowing a blind runner to compete in a marathon, using haptic effects to steer him (with some glitches, it should be noted) along the course.

Although the academics are largely and perhaps not surprisingly enthusiastic, the special underscores how much we still don't know about these scientific breakthroughs, which have been coming at a rapid, almost dizzying pace.

As one scientist notes, the developments discussed "all sounds very 'Star Trek,'" although it's amazing, in hindsight, how quickly many of us have gone from watching that show in its earlier incarnations to actually talking to a disembodied voice, blithely asking her to provide directions or play music.

So should you carve out a couple hours (or really, 84 minutes, for those tech-fluent enough to use a DVR to zap past the ads) to watch "This is A.I.?" If you currently have a slightly one-sided relationship with someone named "Siri" or "Alexa" and harbor any curiosity about where we go from here, the answer would seem to be a resounding yes.

"This is A.I." premieres June 21 at 9 p.m. on Discovery Channel.