Actuary: terse sci-fi psychological drama on technology and determinism

Matt Hill, “Actuary” (2020)

In the not so distant future, an insurance company develops an artificial intelligence algorithm in the form of Benson (Chase Fein) that can predict the day its policy holders will die. A detective (DeMorge Brown) suspects the Benson bot is actually murdering the company’s clients and confronts the bot directly. Driven by the two actors themselves and their dialogue, “Actuary” becomes a crisp science fiction psychological drama investigating the possibility that prediction can become self-fulfilling prophecy and pretext for a perfect murder.

During the detective’s interrogation of Benson, the bot predicts that the detective will die very shortly by suicide and that he will try to frame Benson for murder. The evidence for either suicide or murder will be unclear because there will be a brief power failure and the CCTV camera will go completely blank. Benson tells the detective why this prediction will come true by revealing the detective’s private peccadilloes. Suddenly the lights go out, things start going bump in the dark and there is a gunshot noise followed by the clink of the bullet casing; sure enough, when the lights are back on, the detective is lying face down on the desk with a huge ring of red splash around his head, the gun in front of him, and Benson sitting facing the gun and the detective, its face completely blank and unblinking.

The death scene is set up in such a way that suicide or murder is equally possible, given what we have just learned about the detective. The detective has come to the end of his tether financially and existentially, and his investigation may be a ploy to mislead his creditors into believing he has been killed. Tension ratchets up quickly once the bot reveals the detective’s motive for his own death. The contrasts between the two characters – the detective becoming increasingly irritated, not a little panicky, and jumping to conclusions, Benson remaining clinically calm – help to establish and increase the tension and to focus the audience’s attention on their dialogue and the plot.

Viewers may dispute that visual details seem to favour one scenario (suicide or murder) over the other but the open-ended nature of the plot is clearly intended. One thing though that viewers might miss after watching this short film: even if artificial intelligence could predict the day a person could die, and the causes of that person’s death, is such technology ethical, and could human biases be incorporated unconsciously by their designers into the technology?

In real life, the conversation between the detective and the bot is unlikely to take place without at least one other interrogator present, and the investigation would have to consider whether the bot can be a reliable witness or suspect which would necessitate an examination of the programs and algorithms that the bot relies on to make its predictions. Nevertheless the film as it is presents an intriguing philosophical dilemma about how far technology may be allowed to go in determining people’s lifespans and eventual fates, and how this might affect concepts about free will and determinism.