Sunday, March 6, 2011

Transcendent Man. (2011) Robert Barry Ptolemy

Futurist Ray Kurzweil has a dream.

It's a foreshadowing, a prediction of an age when sickness and death will disappear, blinded eyes will see and the deaf will hear again. "Humans" lucky enough to be alive during this age will gain exponential growth in intelligence. It's the culmination of the ages -- mankind's Utopian moment of perfection.

He's not talking about God or heaven. Those things for him do not exist. At least, not until we create them.

He gets dreamy-eyed when describing our next evolutionary step, a thought he constantly obsesses over whether in writing or lecturing or inventing. The convergence of the body with technology, the two woven into one sole fabric, he says, is beginning now and will accelerate over the next few decades.

That chip in your cell phone today is a million times smaller, cheaper, and more powerful than the same computer years ago that took up half a building and was shared by thousands of students. Being one of the original kids who worked with early computers like this, Kurzweil has seen first-hand how technology evolves exponentially. He wonders why, if everything is getting smaller by the decade, chips won't be implanted in blood cells in the next twenty or thirty years.

Remember The Matrix and The Terminator? Until now we thought all this was simply fiction.

Remember The Borg, that Star Trek pseudo-race of flesh and technology combined? Maybe they're not the bad guys after all. From Wikipedia:

Whereas cybernetics are used by other races in the science fiction world (and in recent times the real world) to repair bodily damage and birth defects, the Borg voluntarily submit to cybernetic enhancement as a means of achieving what they believe to be perfection (they also force their idea of perfection on others).

The idea of "forced perception" is perhaps closer to Kurzweil's ideas than he'd like to admit. He seems to think that because he wants this, everyone else wants this, and that it is not only our destiny but the most moral next step for human progress.

All of this is happening on the same timeline as the "Singularity" -- when computer chips and machines become life-like, self-aware in their decisions. By that time they should have already assimilated us, so this is something we need to pay close attention to.

While apocalyptic movies like The Terminator and The Matrix (and much of David Cronenberg's films) have a gloom and doom dystopian future, Kurzweil's ideas of assimilation are much more upbeat. The enhancement from strictly bio to bio-mechanical can only be seen as a good thing, he says. Nothing but good has come from science and technology so far, and he sees nothing but good happening when we give ourselves over to it completely.

He's a passionate visionary. No doubt about that. And the documentary about Kurzweil and his work is fascinating, well thought out, mind-blowing in places. But behind his passion is a suffering heart, bruised from the death of his father and hopeful that the heart disease that killed him is not hereditary.

A part of what drives this visionary man is the fear that he might die like his dad. Perhaps, even the fear of death itself, regardless of how it happens.

Kurzweil takes what looks like hundreds of vitamins and pills a day to fight off any oncoming hereditary issues. He also mentions that in the fight to prevent his own death is the hope that one day he might bring back his dad. "Death is supposed to be a finale, but it's actually a loss of everyone you care about," he says. While the film doesn't explicitly say how he might be able to bring his dad back, it is assumed that this will be done through the same DNA Kurzweil wants to alter with nanobots, the achievement happening sometime after Kurzweil's full transformation to a superior being. He will then have access to information that will reveal how this can be done.

Later he speaks about the evolutionary plan as a whole: "Nanobots will infuse all the matter around us with information. Rocks, trees, everything will become these intelligent computers.It's at that point we can expand out into the rest of the Universe. We will be sending basically nanotechnology infused with Artificial Intelligence -- swarms of those will go out into the Universe and basically find other matter and energy that we can then harness to expand the overall intelligence of our human machine civilization. If the Universe will wake up, it will become intelligent. And that will multiply our intelligence trillions and trillions fold. We can't really contemplate. That's really the main reason this is called the 'Singularity.' But regardless of what you call it, it will be the Universe waking up. So does God exist? Well, I would say, Not yet."

Without admitting it up front, Kurzweil makes a case that there is a standard present that the body isn't currently achieving. I don't know if this is something he has really thought through, but I'd like to know where he thinks the standard comes from. Who says the body should be better than it is? By what reasoning should there be no sickness? Why should there be no death? If a standard actually exists that says that these things really are bad, doesn't that suggest a plan already in place that's supposed to correct them?

He's also missing the current beauty that already surrounds him, both in the creation of his own body as well as the heavenly bodies above.

This... (I'm simply staring into the palm of my hand)... isn't already a sign of intelligence? We need technology to bring out the intelligence in creation?

I'm as confused as Kurzweil. I go back and forth on the God issue myself, but at least I recognize that if there is a standard, it didn't necessarily come from our heads. There's as much wrong in the body as there is in our own wrong choices and actions. We see daily evidence in the local news of those who won't improve, won't advance, people who are willing to trade in their morality instead of desiring to become better. I don't think mankind is ready for the "Singularity," even if Kurzweil says it is inevitable.

The whole film feels much like last year's excellent Collapse, the revelatory film about Michael Ruppert who also made predictions. Ruppert's prophetic thoughts were along the lines of the coming oil crash and the ensuing state of world collapse. Kurzweil is like the anti-Ruppert. There is no approaching nightmare. Technology saves us from everything. He's the flip-side to Ruppert, where everything that can go wrong won't. Praise to the little chips. Hopefully we can get them in the blood stream real soon.

The film is excellent and enthralling. Kurzweil himself is naive. Perhaps like many of us, he's stacked all his eggs in one basket. Unfortunately for him, his basket has some gaping holes in it.

But it's a great film to watch for the suggestive probings of the future alone. It's a film that gets the brain cells firing. It's fun to consider that we might someday be a part of a collective. Some of us even think that this is possible without technology.


  1. Nice review, Stef. Did you see this theatrically or on DVD? I've got one of Kurtzweil's books sitting unread on my shelf.


  2. Thanks, Russ! I was able to catch Transcendent Man via the iPod on a train ride from Chicago yesterday. I love watching documentaries on the train.

    This film has been sitting in limbo for close to two years, but was released only to iTunes last week. I didn't mention this, but the film has Colin Powell, William Shatner and Stevie Wonder... Oh, and Obama too, but he's at a rally. It seems like the kind of film that should get a wide distribution -- as wide as Collapse anyway -- and I thought I saw somewhere that it would be in theaters this Spring.

    Kurzweil is everything I've described and more. What book do you have?

  3. I have The Age of Spiritual Machines. Thanks for the tip. I think I'll look this up on itunes.


  4. Great review. That's how I felt while watching the movie.

  5. Thanks, Anonymous! Although I was expecting a backlash, as most who have made it a point to see the film so far are diehard Kurzweil followers. I tried to remain objective but remain true to my own beliefs, a hard combination. We'll see if anyone out there hates my reaction. :)

  6. I don't hate your reaction at all Persona... I think it was a thoughtful review based on your feelings about it... however, that being said I feel the film is soooooooooo much more than what your review suggests. I mean there has never been a film like this, ever! It seems to defy film itself, like it's a work of art for all of humanity. I want to tell all my friends to see it. It is truly a remarkable work. It's also just highly entertaining. I do agree with you on one thing -- it deserves bigger distribution.

  7. Wow. I am assuming from the change in tone that you are not the same "Anonymous". Since my friend Russ was the first "Anonymous" and the first poster before you simply called him or herself "Anonymous," and you are now the third poster (but the second I haven't met) that is calling him/her/itself "Anonymous".... I am really confused, does that make you "Anonymous #1" or "Anonymous #2"? I always thought it would eventually be fun to have comments at Filmsweep but now I'm not so sure. Perhaps in the Facebook age, no one has a blogger account anymore, and the whole world is going to simply be "Anonymous." If so, this is going to really stink from here on out. Perhaps I should create some rules, or I wonder if I have the power on my own blog to rename you people when you post comments? Things to remember to check into...

    In any case, most recent "Anonymous," -- Hello! And welcome to Filmsweep. And YOU are WAY overselling this film.

    Don't get me wrong. I like it and I think I indicated that in my post. But, um, to quote you and answer a few of your rather outlandish remarks:

    "I feel the film is soooooooooo much more than what your review suggests."

    But of course. If I could write what it was all about the film wouldn't need to exist. I would hope that any film is more than my Reaction suggests, and I would hope that some of my Reactions contain elements the film misses.

    "I mean there has never been a film like this, ever! It seems to defy film itself, like it's a work of art for all of humanity."

    This was where my original "Wow" came from. (See first word in this post.) I guess I agree with this statement, I guess I hope that all films aspire to be this. Sadly I'm sure many don't, but still, your wording here suggests HUGE OVERSELL, and kind of makes me wonder who you are and why you are anonymous.

    "I want to tell all my friends to see it."

    So you are either a backslidden Christian who really misses street witnessing, or you are a part of the production company behind the film, or are working for the film somehow, is that right? If so, why not just work harder at getting it distributed rather than leave comments on a blog?

    "It is truly a remarkable work. It's also just highly entertaining."

    Well I don't agree that it is "just" entertaining. I think it gives lots of bits for the brain to chew on. But I think you are saying that it is a good documentary full of great human insight and is highly entertaining at the same time... which, yeah, I guess is true. But I can think of many other documentaries that I would consider more "entertaining."

    "I do agree with you on one thing -- it deserves bigger distribution."

    Then please, work to get this done. :)

  8. some of kurzweil's same notions are explored with far more entertainment, if not lucidity, in various science fiction novels, most notably (as they come to mind) neal stephenson's "the diamond age" and david marusek's "counting heads". but if you prefer films to books, i guess this one's not bad.

  9. I just watched Transcendent Man on Netflix instant streaming, which in hindsight seems appropriate, since I can remember a time not too long ago when high-definition streaming video on demand was merely an intriguing idea. As Kurzweil is quick to point out, we live in an age when intriguing ideas are being realized on a regular basis. Excellent review, by the way. Personally I don't find Kurzweil's hypothesis to be all that far-fetched, as his many critics obviously do. But I do share their unease over the fervor with which he has embraced the notion of an inevitable and desirable stage of human evolution in which we grab the reins away from natural processes and start implementing our own changes through technology. We humans have a pretty lousy track record when it comes to messing with nature. Also, I hear faint echoes of the eugenicists of the 1930s and '40s in some of Kurzweil's rationalizations. Presumably, someone would have to impose this new evolutionary phase upon the public at large. Who would that be? How would they deal with those unwilling to participate? Kurzweil suggests natural selection would take care of those folks. But can you even call it natural selection if it's the byproduct of artificial human modification? Kurzweil is too intelligent not to grasp these quite basic questions and concerns, yet he gives them no consideration. I can't help regarding his perspective as a form of insanity.

  10. I'm not certain it's an either/or question in regard to natural selection or insanity. Could be a bit of both. Something being a byproduct of artificial human modification doesn't mean it still isn't a natural way we create. If "artificial" were the only definition, the wheel could have at one point been considered unnatural. We learn, we expand, we grow, we keep creating. Creation is embedded in us; there's a need to create that won't be satiated until it's done. Yeah - the level Kurzweil wants to "push" evolution to feels totally insane - but that insanity could well be in the very fabric of our creative nature.

  11. Nice review. I am not an atheist like Kurzweil. I believe human consciousness, human spirituality is more than merely a construct of the human brain -- that it is not dependent upon the body/brain to exist. If I am correct, then achieving immortality by being able to replicate the brain will never be possible. But if I am wrong, then what Kurzweil suggests sounds like the rational solution to the problem of death.

    So I liked the movie because it helped me to look through the eyes of a rational atheist. I found myself saying at the end that if I embraced his atheism, then I would embrace his solution, as well. Incidentally, I found it also interesting to consider the implications of the technology Kurzweil envisions becoming available. For those who are atheists, I think the decision to embrace the technology will be an easy one. Not so for those who are not atheists, though. They are potentially betting their eternal life when making their choice. If they reject the technology and die, and they are wrong and there is nothing beyond our natural state, then their choice leads to their complete extinction.

    It is easy for us to say we believe our existence continues past our body's death when death is unavoidable. But how many people believe that strongly enough that if there is a technology that promises to assure their continuation by merging with machines, they would still choose death? My suspicion would be that few people have *that* much faith, and the vast majority would choose a technological solution over a Biblical promise.

    I did want to try to answer a question you raised in your review, though:

    "Why should there be no death? If a standard actually exists that says that these things really are bad, doesn't that suggest a plan already in place that's supposed to correct them?"

    If you are an atheist, there is no plan. Life is merely an "accident" and so death of course is bad because it is the end of everything. The first time I saw Blade Runner, I didn't appreciate the movie. But years later when I saw it again I realized that replicants represent the cruelty of self-awareness in beings with no soul. Suddenly, I understood the rage ... and the despair. Atheists face the same hopelessness in death that the replicants do in Blade Runner. So if you are an atheist, death -- the irreversible extinction -- is always "bad". It is not just the extinction of life; it is the extinction of hope.

  12. Great thoughts, Greg. I appreciate you taking the time to comment. Lots to chew on, so I'll probably tackle more of this later.

    But I do think that the suggestion that something is "bad," when agreed upon, suggests a standard, and I guess in my mind if there's a standard then there's already a plan. I understand what you're saying, but you're thinking more along the lines of the "plan" than you are my reasoning of a standard that suggests there is one, regardless of how easily an atheist might dismiss that idea.

  13. Thanks, Persona. I didn't fully follow how a standard assures that there is already a plan in place to address it. I guess I would need some examples in order to see if I could come up with counter-examples that fail the same test.

    My expectation would be that the atheist argument against life beyond physical death is that those who believe it are simply practicing a form of cognitive dissonance. Here is this death thing, and we can't avoid it, so we rationalize that death is not the end to make ourselves feel better. Certainly we practice cognitive dissonance for much less significant issues in our lives so it is reasonable to suspect we might do the same thing for the most significant event that we are all unable to avoid.

    Of course, there is at least anecdotal evidence (NDEs, etc) that seems to support the belief in life beyond death. But there is no solid *evidence* to support this belief. It still requires faith. Currently that faith doesn't really "cost" anything, so it is easy for people to believe in. But once there is an alternative that promises to allow us to escape death, then you *really* need faith in order to pass on the opportunity to avoid death by merging with machines.

    Unlike Kurzweil, I seriously doubt that this option will exist in my lifetime, so I can consider it purely from a hypothetical perspective. But the next generation may actually be faced with such decisions. And Kurzweil's movie gave me the opportunity to contemplate a future that otherwise I likely never would have imagined. One part of me wishes I could know whether/how this turns out for future generations. But another part of me recognizes that I should be careful what I wish for.

  14. I guess the simplest way to respond to the question of standards and how that reflects design - 1. Love 2. Trust 3. Obligation 4. Guilt & Shame 5. Heroism 6. Honor..... That's just a few quick ideas that pop into my head. These are ideas of the human condition which are universally agreed on regardless of culture or time. These are the standards of the human condition, and they're found outside of cultural context, outside of the mores of societal influence, but most societies tend to promote these principles. I guess this suggests to me that since some things are universally agreed on and others are simply culturally taught or enforced, that there is an area there that is Reality, and the Universalness of that Reality in my mind suggests a Plan.

    There are times that I'm much more relational with God though. I guess this is the more critical approach to trying to rationalize my faith.

    Faith DOES cost something, though, because a person that has faith ends up making sacrifice that tend to go against his or her own desires. A person of any kind of faith typically lives for something higher than or outside of himself.


I like to respond to comments. If you keep it relatively clean and respectful, and use your name or any name outside of "Anonymous," I will be much more apt to respond. Spam or stupidity is mine to delete at will. Thanks.