Fortunately, I was able to make some time for movies, including Barry Ptolemy's TRANSCENDENT MAN, a documentary about inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil. Made with Kurzweil's cooperation, the film examines the theories of the acclaimed author of THE SINGULARITY IS NEAR (2005), as well as his personal history. In addition to lots of featured screen time for Kurzweil, director Ptolemy has included interviews with a number of scientists, writers and futurists. He's included thoughts from both detractors and supporters of Kurzweil's ideas, including inventor Dean Kamen; Robert Metcalfe, Co-Inventor of the Ethernet; and Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading.
The film opens with a primer on Kurzweil's background and accomplishments. At the age of 17, he appeared on the show I'VE GOT A SECRET, playing music written by a computer he built. Among other devices, he was the chief inventor of the flat bed scanner, a reading machine for the blind and the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano. He holds numerous patents, as well as 16 honorary Doctorates, and received the National Medal of Technology from President Clinton in 1999.
TRANSCENDENT MAN explores Kurzweil's belief that there will be a "singularity," a future period when the pace of technological change is so rapid that humanity will not be able to handle it unless we borrow from the technology we are creating. Kurzweil's basis for this idea comes from mathematical models he constructed of the rates at which technology has evolved over the years, and the observation that information technology is advancing in an exponential – as opposed to linear – fashion. He predicts that the singularity will take place in 2045.
NEWSWEEK did a piece on the film in May 2009 after it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, and does a lovely job of explaining exponential growth.
Kurzweil makes predictions based on a notion that he calls "the law of accelerating returns," which holds that technology does not advance in a linear fashion but rather at an exponential rate. It's the difference between 1-2-3-4-5 and 1-2-4-8-16. Go out 10 steps and the linear string has reached 10, while the exponential string is hitting 512. With an exponential progression, at first, when the numbers are small, the progress doesn't look like much. But each new breakthrough enables the next breakthrough to occur more quickly, so the rate of change accelerates. Represented on a graph, the line of progress looks like a hockey stick—it's flat for some years, and then there's a sudden rise, which gets misinterpreted as a sudden breakthrough when really it's just the continuation of an exponential progression, Kurzweil says.
In the film, Kurzweil states that the most important phenomenon in the universe is intelligence, and that developments in three key areas will bring about the singularity. Advances in genetics and biotech will allow us to reprogram our biology away from disease and aging. Developments in nanotechnology will lead to microscopic machines, smaller than blood cells, which will enhance our health from within our own bodies. Robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) will allow us to go beyond the limits of human intelligence and do li'l things like back up our brains.
Kurzweil makes no secret of the fact that he doesn't accept death, and that he believes that technology is the road to a form of immortality. This is where the film goes beyond being just another talking heads science program. Ptolemy delves into Kurzweil's family history, suggesting that his father's early death is partially responsible for the scientist's fascination with eternal life. Kurzweil was just 22 when his father passed away in 1970. He fully expects to be able to bring his dad – or a very close facsimile – back to "life" one day using a variety of technological advances, DNA information and artifacts from his father's life. Kurzweil may be a genius, but he's also a pack rat, and has boxes and boxes of letters, music, and artifacts from his father's life packed away until they can be applied to Dad 2.0.
So is Kurzweil a crackpot, brilliant...or both? He's got his fair share of supporters, such as Peter Diamandis, chairman and founder of the X Prize Foundation. Diamandis has signed on as Kurzweil's partner in Singularity University, a nine-week summer program which describes itself as an "interdisciplinary university whose mission is to assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies in order to address humanity’s grand challenges."
Others, however, take issue with Kurzweil on a number of different fronts. In the film, Dr. Hugo de Garis, a professor at Xiamen University under contract to build China's first artificial brain, says that neuroscience is still determining what intelligence actually is. He doesn't think Kurzweil takes into account the potential negative impact of these developments (something the fans of the The Terminator would probably agree with). This doom-and-gloom attitude doesn't faze Kurzweil; he responds to this criticism that the challenge of the 21st century will be to keep AI's "friendly," reflecting human values.
Supporter Diamandis expresses the idea that people who resist the process of being "upgraded" are actually resisting evolution, and won't survive. For me, this brings up the more philosophical question: at what point do we evolve into something completely different than that which we currently define as human? And is that "different thing" necessarily a bad thing?
After the film, there was a Q&A with Kurzweil and AFI programmer Lane Kneedler. An audience member asked Kurzweil his thoughts about immortality, posing the question: what is the point of creation once there is no death to frame meaning? The futurist answered that all limitations will not be thrown away, as there will always be a boundary of ignorance that we will aspire to conquer. He said, "I think death is a tragedy because it's a great loss. It robs us of what gives life meaning: having relationships...and creating."
Another audience member questioned Kurzweil about the where creativity fits in to his vision of the future, citing the example that an iPhone can download Shakespeare, but can't appreciate it. Intelligence and interpretation are not the same thing.
Kurzweil responded confidently, stating that while emotional intelligence is at the cutting edge of human intelligence, ultimately it's still a process that takes place in the brain. This means that when we complete the reverse engineering of the brain – which Kurzweil believes will happen within the next 20 years – we'll understand how emotional intelligence works just as we will every other activity that takes place in the brain. And once we comprehend those basic principles, we'll then be able to create systems that amplify them. Thus, the fusion of man and machine won't make us less human...we'll just understand much more about the processes that we currently define as human.