"I'm less freaked out," Giamatti says of his involvement in the show

By Alex Heigl
Updated October 26, 2015 03:00 PM
Credit: Maarten de Boer/Getty

With the exception of the robotic suit that he donned to play Rhino in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Paul Giamatti didn’t have a lot of experience with cyborgs or artificial intelligence.

But narrating and directing an installment of Nat Geo’s new series, Breakthrough, quickly caught him up to speed. Giamatti’s episode focused on emerging cyborg and artificial technology: PEOPLE caught up with him to see what – if any – threat level we should be escalating to.

I did an interview with you a few years back where we talked about your interest in science fiction. Was your involvement with this show an extension of that?
Well, I’m interested in science. And I’m not very smart about this stuff. I don’t know much about it, but it’s always interesting to me, and so I supposed science fiction has always been my “in” with it, because it’s so imaginative. My interest in this stuff is purely speculative; the actual facts of it I didn’t know too much about.

What was the most surprising aspect of it for you?
Oh, the whole thing was surprising. I didn’t know any of this stuff. I didn’t think that there were thought-controlled prostheses, I didn’t know anything about it. There’s some stuff that didn’t make it into the final edit that I thought was interesting, stuff about the singularity and that whole concept of machines taking over.

And every scientist I talked to had different thoughts on it. All of them were of the opinion that, in a sense, it’s already happened. It happened the second we started making wheels and fire and things to help perform tasks. We were already creating cybernetic systems and interfacing with machines.

The most interesting guy was the Brazilian scientist, Miguel Nicolelis. Every scientist had different takes, some were pessimistic, some were optimistic, but Nicolelis said he thought the whole idea was specious, that it wasn’t ever really going to happen, because if we were creating artificial intelligence, it was going to be as close a replication to us as it could be, and even if it moved beyond us, it would have humanity in it, and therefore it would never be something that would try and take over, or destroy us.

Having talked to all of these experts, where do you fall now?
I’m less freaked out by it. The idea of robotics as just an extension of making a spear or a cart – I’d never really thought of it this way. And meeting these guys, they were not freaky guys. They put me at ease, they were good guys. And if these are the guys doing it, that was nice – to encounter these guys who were very thoughtful about it.

I was heartened to talk to [David] Cronenberg for it and see that he’s really not pessimistic about it at all.

Which is strange, because so many of his movies are.
Well I said to him, “But your movies are so dark,” and he said, “Yeah, because that makes for good drama.” That’s a good story, if it’s pessimistic. It’s not gonna be interesting if it’s optimistic, which is true.

Stephen Hawking has come out as very anti-A.I. recently. Do you think people want to play up the negative aspects of AI to draw attention to it?
One of the guys I talked to, who I don’t think actually made the cut, was this paleo-anthropologist, and he had this incredibly menacing and harrowing sort of view of A.I. as this other kind of species arising. It certainly seems of concern to some of these guys, and they’re a lot smarter than I am about it, so I don’t think they’re being alarmist, I think they’re genuinely concerned about it.

Listen, I get freaked out by the all the digital technology we have now, and it’s weird, and supposedly it’s changing our brain chemistry, but on the other hand, it’s just what is. It’s not gonna stop, which is what David Eagleman says: “This is just happening now. There’s nothing you can really do about it. We just have to be vigilant about it.” I don’t know that being too hysterical about it is a good idea, but there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t stop the progression.

This has become a surprisingly deep conversation for this early on a Monday morning.
[Laughs] Well, there was a lot more of this side of it in the show, but they wanted to focus on the technology more than the philosophy. Either way, I hope people watch this and get as much from it as I did, because it’s interesting stuff.

Breakthrough premieres Nov. 1 at 9 p.m. on Nat Geo.