A ranked list of all EA-relevant documentaries, movies, and TV series I've watched

by BrianTan8 min read21st Feb 202111 comments

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This post lists all the EA-relevant documentaries, movies, and TV series I've watched since learning about EA in 2017. This post is inspired by the list MichaelA made for EA-relevant books/audiobooks he found useful

There’s also a similar list for EA-relevant podcasts and YouTube channels, but none yet for EA-relevant films/series (as far as I know). There was a post crowdsourcing for altruistic movie suggestions, but it only got a few answers, so I decided to make this list. (Lewis Bollard wrote a post though with documentaries on farm animal welfare.)

I’ve consumed a lot of EA-relevant books and podcast episodes, but I’ve also consumed ~30 documentaries, movies, or TV shows that have relevance to effective altruism and a cause or topic within it. For most of these, I specifically watched them because of their relevance to EA. 

As such, I’m listing them all below, in roughly descending order of how useful I remember them being to me. For some of these, I include why I found them useful and/or entertaining. 

Caveats / notes about the list

  1. Obviously, something I find useful or entertaining might not be useful for or entertaining to you, especially if you have different cause area interests. But I think a lot of EAs would find some of these titles also useful or entertaining.
    • I'm interested in multiple EA causes, and I wanted to learn about them in an engaging way, so that's why this list features titles from various causes and topics. This is especially important since I'm a community builder who talks to people with different cause interests.
  2. I also listed at the bottom other films or TV shows that have some relevance to EA, perhaps recommended by other EAs, but I haven't watched yet.
  3. This list is not meant to be exhaustive. I'd imagine there are ~10-30 other films or TV shows relevant to EA that I might have missed. If there are films or shows you would recommend that I missed and are somewhat relevant to EA, whether for the information in them or their entertainment value, feel free to comment them below!

How I found these titles

I found out about these titles mainly through searching keywords on Netflix about each cause or topic (i.e. "artificial intelligence"), while a few were found by Googling "films about [insert cause/topic]". 

I’ve included below what cause or topics each of these titles fall under. I also include a list at the bottom where I split these films by cause/topic, if you mainly care about watching films on a specific cause or topic.

The ranked list (across all topics/causes)

  1. Next
    • TV Series (Fiction), 1 season, 10 episodes (~45 mins each)
    • Topic: AI Safety
    • Why it was useful: Next is a 2020 sci-fi crime drama TV series that vividly explores what might happen when a big tech company creates a dangerous superintelligence. This was first recommended by another EA I know, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching it. The show's creator, Manny Coto, read up a lot on AI safety to create the show. Jaan Tallinn also talked about how he liked the show in our fireside chat in EAGxAsia-Pacific. I was familiar with AI safety already before watching this show, but watching it made it more concrete and memorable on what would happen if a superintelligence is created. Unfortunately, the TV series got cancelled only after 1 season, but the one season is great on its own.
    • The show is available via YouTube TV for those in the U.S., or those who have a VPN.
  2. Eating Animals
    • Documentary
    • Topic: Animal Welfare
    • Why it was useful: I watched Earthlings already in 2019 before watching this in 2020. But this documentary focused more on the problem of factory farming than Earthlings, and it was eye-opening. Bruce Friedrich from GFI is also interviewed here.
  3. Pandemic
    • Documentary
    • Topics: Global Health and Development, Biosecurity
    • On Netflix
    • Why it was useful: I watched this in February 2020, before we had lockdowns in Manila, but when COVID-19 was already affecting other parts of the world. It made me realize the importance of preparing for pandemics, wearing PPEs, and how we’re not prepared for pandemics / epidemics.
  4. Contagion
    • Movie
    • Topic: Biosecurity
    • On Netflix
    • Why it was useful: Helped me understand pandemics more and how people and institutions would react. I watched this in February 2020, before COVID-19 forced Manila and many other places around the world into lockdown.
  5. AlphaGo
    • Documentary
    • Topic: AI Safety
    • on YouTube
    • Why it was useful: It’s a cool story of how DeepMind developed AlphaGo, and how it was able to beat a top Go player, Lee Sedol.
  6. The Social Dilemma
    • Documentary
    • Topics: Existential Risk, Improving Institutional-Decision Making, Mental Health
    • on Netflix
  7. A Thousand Cuts
    • Documentary
    • Topics: Global Health and Development, Improving Institutional-Decision Making
    • on YouTube
    • Why it was useful: I’m from the Philippines, and this documentary features the current Philippine government’s attacks against the press and its critics, and how the government has used social media to spread disinformation and gain power. I think this film is a Philippine version/counterpart of The Social Dilemma.
  8. The Great Hack
    • Documentary
    • Topics: Social Media, Politics, Improving Institutional-Decision Making
    • on Netflix
  9. Inside Bill’s Brain
    • Documentary - 3 episodes (~52 mins each)
    • Global Health and Development, Climate Change
    • Why it was useful: It features the Bill and Melinda Gates’ Foundation’s work on global health (sanitation and vaccination) and climate change. It’s also cool to just get to know Bill Gates more.
    • On Netflix
  10. Black Mirror
    • TV Series
    • Topics: AI, Social Media, Technology
    • on Netflix
  11. Earthlings
    • Documentary
    • Topic: Animal Welfare
    • available on Vimeo for free
  12. Transcendence
    • Movie
    • Topic: AI Safety
    • on Netflix
  13. Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower
    • Documentary
    • Topic: Hong Kong, China, Great Power Conflict
    • on Netflix
  14. The Edge of Democracy
    • Documentary
    • Topic: Brazil's Politics, Improving Institutional-Decision Making
    • on Netflix
  15. Knock Down The House
    • Documentary
    • Topic: U.S. Politics, Improving Institutional-Decision Making
    • on Netflix
  16. Snowden
    • Movie
    • Topic: Surveillance
    • on Netflix
  17. A Life on our Planet
    • Documentary
    • Topics: Climate Change, Wild Animal Welfare
    • on Netflix
  18. The White Helmets
    • Documentary
    • Topic: Syrian Conflict, Global Development
    • on Netflix
  19. An Inconvenient Sequel
    • Documentary
    • Topic: Climate Change
    • on Netflix
  20. I, Robot
    • Movie
    • Topic: AI Safety
    • on Netflix
  21. House of Cards
    • TV Series
    • Topic: U.S. Politics
    • on Netflix
    • I didn't finish this - I watched ~5 episodes of it, then just read the synopsis/plot
  22. A Plastic Ocean
    • Documentary
    • Topics: Climate Change, Environmental Degradation
    • on Netflix
  23. The Good Place
    • TV Series
    • Topic: Philosophy / Moral Philosophy
    • on Netflix
    • Haven't finished this yet - I think I watched the first 2 seasons only
  24. Minimalism
    • Documentary
    • Topic: Minimalism
    • on Netflix
  25. Forks Over Knives
    • Documentary
    • Topic: Animal Welfare, Plant-Based Proteins
  26. Unnatural Selection (Note: I haven't finished watching things on this list from 26-30, nor do I recommend them. They were interesting, but I didn't have a lot of motivation to continue watching them).
    • Documentary
    • Topic: Biosecurity
    • Description: "Pioneers in gene-editing techniques and artificial intelligence confront ethical and technological challenges unlike what humanity has faced before."
    • on Netflix
    • Haven't finished this yet, just watched 1-2 episodes. Kevin Esvelt, biologist from MIT, is featured here, and he has given talks in EA Globals before.
  27. Salvation
    • TV Series
    • Topic: Existential Risk and Asteroids
    • on Netflix
    • Didn't finish this, just watched 2-3 episodes and read the plot
  28. I Am Mother
    • Movie
    • Topic: AI Safety, Existential Risk
    • on Netflix
    • Haven't finished this yet, am only 1 hour through it
  29. Better Than Us
    • TV Series
    • Topic: AI Safety
    • on Netflix
    • Didn't finish this, just watched 1 episode so far
  30. Biohackers
    • TV Series
    • Topic: Relevant to Biosecurity
    • on Netflix
    • Didn't finish this, just watched 1-2 episodes and read the plot

The list split by cause/topic, and ranked within the cause/topic

Some of the films are put in more than one cause/topic.

AI Safety / Risks

  1. Next
  2. AlphaGo
  3. Transcendence
  4. The Social Dilemma
  5. I, Robot
  6. I Am Mother
  7. Better Than Us

Animal Welfare

  1. Eating Animals
  2. Earthlings
  3. Forks Over Knives
  4. A Life on our Planet

Biosecurity and Pandemic Preparedness

  1. Pandemic
  2. Contagion
  3. Unnatural Selection
  4. Biohackers

Climate Change

  1. Inside Bill’s Brain
  2. A Life on our Planet
  3. An Inconvenient Sequel
  4. A Plastic Ocean

Global Health and Development

  1. Inside Bill’s Brain
  2. The White Helmets

Improving Institutional Decision-Making / Avoiding Great Power Conflict / Politics

  1. The Great Hack
  2. The Social Dilemma
  3. A Thousand Cuts
  4. Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower
  5. The Edge of Democracy
  6. Knock Down The House

Others

  1. Black Mirror
  2. Snowden
  3. House of Cards
  4. The Good Place
  5. Minimalism
  6. Salvation

Other titles I haven’t watched, but are somewhat EA-relevant

  1. The Man Who Saved the World
    • Documentary
    • Topic: Nuclear Warfare
    • on YouTube
    • This is a documentary that depicts the story of how Stanislav Petrov averted a possible full-scale nuclear war. I watched about 15 minutes of this only (the exciting parts), but those 15 minutes were cool to watch.
  2. Okja
    • Movie
    • Topic: Animal Welfare
    • on Netflix
  3. Bending the Arc
    • Documentary
    • Topic: Global Health and Development
    • on Netflix
  4. Carnage
    • Mockumentary
    • Topic: Animal Welfare
  5. The Game Changers
    • Documentary
    • Topic: Animal Welfare, Plant-Based Diets
    • on Netflix
  6. Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics
    • Documentary
    • Topic: Psychedelics
    • on Netflix
  7. Spycraft
    • Documentary
    • Topic: Surveillance
    • on Netflix
  8. The Minimalists: Less is Now
    • Documentary
    • Topic: Minimalism
    • on Netflix
  9. Connected
    1. Documentary Series
    2. Topics: Nuclear Warfare, Surveillance
    3. on Netflix

Again, please comment below any films or shows I might have missed! I hope this list is useful for you. Maybe some of these films or shows can help you learn about an EA cause or topic in a more engaging way.

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11 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 5:45 AM
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A few additional EA-relevant Documentaries, movies, and TV shows:

  • Ex Machina
    • Movie
    • Related to AI safety
    • I'd recommend it as a good film
    • I also think it nicely portrayed an element of AI safety that non-EAs often get wrong, but I think explaining what I mean might be a spoiler
    • I don't expect EAs to really learn much from it
  • Devs
    • TV series
    • By the person who made Ex Machina
    • Seemed promising, but ultimately I felt it was mostly kind of weird and overly sure of its own brilliance or something, so I wouldn't really recommend it, personally
    • What it's related to is partly sort-of a spoiler, so I'll put it in a "spoiler block" below:
  • Devs is related to quantum computing, the simulation hypothesis, and free will/determinism

Also, for what it's worth, I watched all of The Good Place and found it enjoyable, but below-average for comedies I watch (for my tastes) and not particularly thought-provoking.

Thanks for sharing those! I might try to watch Ex Machina.

A while back I compiled a list of great historical documentaries. To the degree that they are relevant to EA, they are so indirectly, and to different degrees, but the list may still be of interest. (Perhaps the most relevant items in the list are Cold War, the Connections series, and the documentaries on Petrov and Arkhipov.) I welcome further recommendations!

Started watching Next. Think it's great and will recommend people watch it if they want to understand what the big deal is with AI safety/alignment. However, it's frustrating for UK viewers - Episodes 1-3 are available on Disney+, and Episodes 6-10 are available elsewhere, but where are episodes 4 & 5!? Will try YouTube TV with a VPN..

This is so excellent. Thank you :) Cannot wait to watch more of these. A strong endorsement from me on Pandemic, and Contagion! I wish they had done an accurate rendition of WorldWarZ it is such an amazing book! 

Glad you liked the list Kathryn! :) I also like the movie World War Z, but I wasn't sure if it was EA-relevant enough to add it here. It could well be though. I also liked the Netflix show Into the Night, which is about a fictional x-risk event.

The movie isn't very accurate to the source material ( I still like it a ton though!!) but the book is amazing- it does a ton of accurate state modeling which is so good that I went to a panel with the author and everyone was commenting on how he got it so right!! :) 

Thanks for this post!

I've often found collections like this really useful, and I think it's great when people notice that there isn't yet a collection of a particular type of thing and then just go make it themselves (rather than just thinking "hmm, someone should do that...").

And I also think it's great that you opened the post with a bunch of links to other somewhat related collections; I think that that sort of thing helps knit various parts of EA together in a useful way. In line with that, I've now added a link to this post from Where to find EA-related videos.

Additional animal welfare/plant-based food-related documentaries: Dominion, Unlocking the Cage, The Ghosts in Our Machine, Blackfish, The Cove, Food Inc., Vegucated, Cowspiracy, Seaspiracy (coming out soon), What the Health, Live and Let Live.

Of those, I've only seen Unlocking the Cage and Cowspiracy (which were fine) and Blackfish (which was very emotionally impactful).

From the trailer, Dominion looks like the most intense from a purely animal welfare perspective, especially if you're limiting to docs that include some content on factory farming (i.e. not sure how to evaluate Blackfish from an EA perspective because it doesn't deal directly with intensive animal agriculture).

I thought Seaspiracy was great - I started watching it without realising what it was, and it started with the filmmaker wanting to make a documentary about the oceans, then getting concerned about plastic waste (e.g. straws and bottles), and then it just kept going as he went down the rabbit hole. Seemed like a very EA kind of progression :)

I really enjoyed the Channel 4 series Humans, and know at least one other EA who did. I thought it was one of the best representations of the questions around the potential rights of artificial sentience I'd seen within fiction.