Exclusive Interview With Doug Wolens, Director of “The Singularity”

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“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

If you watch Doug Wolens’ latest documentary, “The Singularity,” the quote from Arthur C. Clarke is the first thing you see. It aptly prepares you for the 75 minutes that follow over which a truly impressive cast of scientists, futurists and philosophers discuss the uncertainty of what the future holds for humanity and, for some, argue why Ray Kurzweil and others have it all wrong.

If you don’t have time to read The Singularity Is Near but want a more in depth understanding of the singularity, this is the film for you. Like the phenomena it attempts to explore, it takes off at an accelerating pace. In its first moments we meet Mister Singularity himself, Ray Kurzweil, who summarizes, for the uninitiated, what the singularity is.

And then come the experts, over 20 in all. Wolens weaves the conversation back and forth between these men and women of rarified technological air, among them AI expert Peter Norvig, Foresight Co-Founder Christine Peterson, neuroscientist Christof Koch who collaborated with Francis Crick (of Watson and Crick DNA structure fame) on the nature of consciousness, longevity guru Aubrey de Grey and Richard Clarke who oversaw cyber security for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

The breadth of topics covered in the film is truly impressive: artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, biotechnology, transhumanism to name a few. And of course no discussion about the singularity is complete without considering the prospect of a day when machines become conscious – what does that even mean and, well, should we be worried about it?

AI expert Peter Norvig offers his thoughts on what it would take for machines to gain consciousness.

I spoke with Wolens recently about the film which is now available on iTunes. He started researching the singularity heavily in 2000, reading Kurzweil’s and other’s books, reading everything he could find online and conducting his first interviews. But 13 years ago, at the start of his enlightenment, like most back then (and many now) the singularity was something he knew nothing about. But a fortuitous moment while on a flight to New York to promote one of his films changed that. Flipping through an issue of Business 2.0 magazine Wolens encountered a quote from Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines. Immediately fascinated, he got off the plane, made a beeline for St. Mark’s book store, picked up the book and proceeded to devour it over the next three days. “I thought this was the coolest thing,” says Wolens.

And so the digging began. “It was a tremendous amount to put together that is cohesive and engaging. It’s a story, it’s not just stuff thrown at you.”

The film is broken up into four major parts titled: Conscious Machines, Neuroscience, Techno-Utopia and Post-Humanism. It’s complex stuff. The Neuroscience segment, for example, discusses how the merging of biotechnology and nanotechnology move us toward transhumanism, or the joining of man and machine. But despite its complexity, Wolens does a great job of moving between speakers in a way that makes it feel like a conversation, like a meshing out of the topics that might go on in our own minds, albeit expressed much more expertly and eloquently. And he didn’t just want to put a textbook on the big screen. He wants the audience to go away feeling as though they know these people who ponder these thoughts. “It’s not just the things they say, it’s who’s saying what.”

Having explored so many ideas with these great minds, I wondered what Wolens might’ve found particularly interesting during the making of the film. He spoke about the essence of what makes us human, and what it would take to make machines humanlike.

“It’s funny, when I was talking to all the consciousness scientists and
philosophers they would say, the only thing I can tell you for sure is that I’m
conscious. I can’t tell you if you are. But they do go on to say that I will
assume your conscious because you look like me, because you have the same lineage
as I do. So there’s that connection that we have that makes us human. And there’s
something that gets lost when you talk to people who say that as soon as we get to
X number of computations per second then we’ll have computers that can mimic the
brain. That always bothered me. What is the definition of intelligence? What is
the definition of human, and what do we do as humans? One of the things we do is
we empathize with each other. And I think that gets lost so much in Singularity
circles. If we’re going to replicate the brain we have to replicate the things it
does not the things it can do.”

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warns that, while technological development moves fast, policy guiding that development isn't moving fast enough.

Wolens admitted that he is a little uneasy about the idea of a conscious – and possibly competitive – robot. But then he shrugged and quoted what environmentalist and author Bill McKibbon argued in the film: “It’s not that we should be concerned that something’s gonna go wrong, we should be concerned that something’s gonna go right.”

As many Singularity Hub readers are no doubt aware, not everyone is receptive of the idea of the singularity or compelled to explore the finer points of its approach trajectory. Wolens found this out the hard way. Despite a solid résumé – his short film “Happy Loving Couples” made the screen at the Sundance Film Festival and another film, “Butterfly,” about a woman who sat in a redwood tree for two years to prevent it from being cut down, was featured on PBS – investors were cool toward a documentary that delved into what they viewed was too speculative.

“They laughed at me. They said you can’t make a movie about the singularity. It’s science fiction.” Try as he might Wolens could not find funding for the film. But he was so committed to the film that, in the end, he paid to have it made himself.

And now that it’s completed, Wolens is using technology to distribute the film in a way that was impossible a couple decades ago – by himself. In addition to iTunes the DVD and Blue-ray discs are available at thesingularityfilm.com.

At the end of his travels, having met the people he met and explored the concepts he’d explored, I wondered how Wolens felt about the singularity. Was he excited about it or did it give him a sick feeling to his stomach? He answered the question by sharing a concern that many people share about, not just the technology of the future but today’s technology as well.

“I’m a humanist. That is the most important thing and I worry that as we become more and more entrenched in our technology, more and more connected to our technology we lose a sense of our humanity.”

The_Singularity_trailer from doug wolens on Vimeo.

Peter Murray

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.

Discussion — 8 Responses

  • Elliot Frickn Sumner January 20, 2013 on 2:20 pm

    Or, of course, if you don’t have time to read The Singularity Is Near but want a more in depth understanding of the singularity, you could watch The Singularity Is Near.

  • Matthew January 21, 2013 on 10:54 am

    i find this intriguing in the sense that i want to understand better how the mind of a pessimist works, so that i can better articulate rational optimism as it were. two quotes specifically:
    “One of the things we do is we empathize with each other. And I think that gets lost so much in Singularity circles. If we’re going to replicate the brain we have to replicate the things it does not the things it can do.”
    ‘Wolens admitted that he is a little uneasy about the idea of a conscious – and possibly competitive – robot. (he then quotes an environmentalist) “It’s not that we should be concerned that something’s gonna go wrong, we should be concerned that something’s gonna go right.”’
    the first one… i don’t even know how to look at this. he’s concerned that we’ll be unable to properly emulate regions of the brain responsible for empathy? why? it sounds like he watched too much star trek. just because data lacked an emotion chip doesn’t mean that scientists aren’t a decade deep now into reverse engineering the brain and simulating neural networks and yet newer and more accurate types of AI simulations having to do with the full range of logic and emotions. hugo de garis is making an artificial brain for china, kurzweil is now making one for google. i am sure they’ll be capable of a certain breadth and depth of emotions. furthermore, i somewhat (actually alot) resent the overarching judgement that singularitarians such as myself overlook empathy and it’s vitality to fully functional friendly AI. I vehemently disagree, and have in fact heard such concerns come out of key singularity institutions such as SIAI and singularity university. to me, the singularity represents nothing more than technology’s ability to hasten and facilitate human rights. I don’t start a conversation about technology until it applies directly to either the environment, economic equality, social rights, crime, poverty, disease, or any other human condition because i’ve learned that if that’s not the central theme people are either completely disinterested and/or terrified of thinking about the increasing pace of technological advancements and assimilation.

    next, why be uneasy about the idea of a conscious, competitive robot? we need to get over our cultural negativity bias. another area in which i long for the singularity. the ability for intelligence, knowledge, compassion (ultimately the culmination of the human experience post 10 thousand years ago when externalizing our nervous system began to accumulate with recorded history)–to defeat fear, confusion, loss, anger… more highly evolved neural regions such as the cerebral cortex–language, planning, spirituality, art–vs the amygdala. the beauty of designed AI is that we don’t even necessarily have to make them experience fear or anger or any other human fault, so there might not be anything to fear. perhaps it’s not empathy we might need to remember, maybe somehow ironically it needs fear and anger to be a perfect ideal creature such as humans are capable of sometimes potentially being. i don’t know. and it doesn’t surprise me that an environmentalist would have such a pessimistic outlook because it is after all aspects of our material realilty going far too right which create all the pollution. all i know is that things are actually getting better, there are facts and decade long trends to talk about instead of capitalizing on that panic button like mainstream media. i am tired of negativity bias everywhere i look i see bad news and mass hysteria and i find it extremely discouraging and want nothing more than this movement of solutions to represent more positive ideals like inspiring compassion and creativity with practical solutions applicable to our most pressing problems.

    that said, I definitely commend wolens’ ability to help lift this (hopefully–i think we all hope) humanitarian movement to mass consciousness through what i would call machiavellian means. maybe in 10 years he makes a sequal that’s more optimistic. 😉

    Love <3 and happy MLK and inaguration day! <3

  • genepope January 21, 2013 on 4:37 pm

    I liked the movie but felt it actually understated the speed and magnitude of the changes coming our way. Perhaps they needed to do that to keep from scaring the h*** out of the mainstream people?

    • Improbus Liber genepope January 22, 2013 on 11:16 am

      Yes, don’t scare the primates. They can be violent and irrational when frightened. Something politicians know only to well.

    • Mark Samule genepope January 24, 2013 on 2:52 pm

      Skepticism is good, we need to live in the here and now, those we may be wrong, attempting to forecast is also good, and we need to report our findings as we see them, It is not wrong to question the Motives of Ray, ie “Motivated by a fear of death.” Yes it is possible that is is wishful thinking, but it is also possible that we may be in for a wild ride. To balance both sides is important to some, and I think Wolens tried very hard to do that. Some will think it is Too optimistic others will think it too pessimistic, which means you probably got it just about right. So let me condenses my review “Good Job.”

  • Nathan Waters January 25, 2013 on 1:57 am

    Can someone please tell Doug to make the downloadable version of the documentary a neat $5?

    $15 is too much for this generation where everything can be pirated.

  • Pooky Amsterdam January 25, 2013 on 7:10 am

    The question is – How can advanced AI really help people? Will it be: to become kinder? Smarter? More understanding of the needs of others? For that would truly be a great accomplishment, to help people become more human. No time like the present for that.

  • Ellen Levick February 3, 2013 on 8:43 am