I have not seen Transcendence, but the critical buzz is not good at all. Cinematographer Wally Pfister’s directorial debut, headlined by Johnny Depp playing a scientist specializing in AI, follows that scientist as he gets his brain uploaded into a computer and begins to leave his humanity behind. While it’s a thoroughly sci-fi concept, there are some who believe that such scenarios will in fact be possible one day — and that that day may be sooner than you think.
The chief proselytizer of such ideas is Ray Kurzweil, one of the most famous futurists in the world. He’s made a fortune off of multiple patents, and he doesn’t like the idea that he’ll die someday. Which is fair enough, as most people harbor the same feeling. But unlike most people, he’s serious about beating death. He consumes over 200 pills a day to regulate his body, claiming to have beaten diabetes through this regimen. But that’s just a stalling tactic until science brings us to “the singularity.”
Kurzweil has proposed “The Law of Accelerating Returns.” The rate of change in evolutionary systems, he argues, increases exponentially as time goes on. It took a billion years for single-celled organisms to develop from the elements, but “only” 10 million for more complex life forms to come about. In the past century, humankind has seen more technological progress than in most of our previous history.
Kurzweil asserts that within 20 years there will be nanobots in our blood. By 2030, we will have self-aware AI. By 2045, we will have merged with our machines in some way or another, the rate of change coming so fast that it will be the only way to keep up. That is the singularity in a nutshell. It sounds like an almost religious idea, which is especially amusing given that mostly atheistic or agnostic scientists espouse it.
Transhumanism has been a theme in science fiction for years, and Transcendence is merely the latest — and perhaps most blockbuster-minded — incarnation of the idea in entertainment. What the 2009 documentary Transcendent Man does is truly pick apart the idea, while Transcendence seems to fly thick with CGI nanobot clouds. While Kurzweil is the doc’s main character, numerous other scientists are brought in to voice their own perspectives, both on his ideas specifically and the concepts of transhumanism and the singularity in general. Most unusually for a doc, it feels like these conversations can provoke debate between viewers after the film whether they are laymen to its themes or well-versed in them already.
But what truly sets Transcendent Man apart is how it maintains a center through character study. In observing Kurzweil’s history and personality, the movie draws connections between the man and his ideas. He is haunted by his father’s early death and hopes that, when the singularity comes, technology will be able to resurrect him. To that end, he’s kept as many of his father’s possessions as he can, believing that such material will be instrumental in reconstructing his personality. It’s sad, it builds deep empathy between the audience and Kurzweil and it demonstrates how transhumanism speaks to our common fear of death. The doc might not win you to Kurzweil’s worldview, but you will understand him and sympathize with him.
And if Transcendent Man doesn’t make you at least open up to the idea that Kurzweil is on the money, if only for a few moments, then I don’t know what to tell you. It helps that many of the man’s previous predictions have been mostly accurate (he figured out how big a gamechanger the Internet would be long before most other people did). And he speaks quite persuasively. One character in the film describes him as a “highly sophisticated crackpot” which is a possibility. But just as transhumanism has its religious qualities, such talk of course appeals in the same way that religious talk does, with the assurance that you don’t have to die.
Whether the singularity is in fact on the horizon or not, Transcendent Man makes a strong argument that the future can be a better place, rising on the back of advancing technology. I don’t know that Transcendence could approach even a fraction of its thoughtfulness, or its humanity.
Transcendent Man is available on DVD and for digital rental from iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and YouTube.