“Does God exist? Well, I would say, ‘Not yet.” — Ray Kurzweil, Transcendent Man, 2009
It’s not every documentary that predicts humanity will someday create and become God. Transcendent Man says it will happen in the next twenty years. A bold statement for a movie about a bold man. Barry Ptolemy’s Transcendent Man is a biopic of famed inventor, writer, and futurist Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil is author of The Singularity is Near, a best-selling book describing humanity’s journey to becoming non-biological life.
Singularity Hub was at the Tribeca Film Festival debut of Transcendent Man, and the revealing panel discussion that followed. Whether you are new to the concept of ‘the singularity’, or whether you are a well-known authority on the subject, you will want to see this film.
Kurzweil, his family, his friends, his colleagues, and his detractors all appear in filmed interviews to discuss his most famous predictions: intelligence is following an exponential growth curve, as technology increases the differences between technology and humanity will shrink, and eventually the human-machine civilization will be advancing so quickly that no one can truly understand what it will be like. The last concept is known as the singularity. Borrowed from physics, Kurzweil and others use the term to describe the inability to comprehend the seemingly limitless intelligence that will arise past this point in our future. This intelligence will have amazing powers of perception, communication, and understanding, and could seem in our eyes to be God-like.
Transcendent Man does a good job of describing this concept to its viewers. Flashing diagrams and evolving graphs are interposed with images of current robotic technology. Ptolemy pushes ideas into the audience with repetition and visual support. Words from Kurzweil and other interviewees are captured and reappear as flowing, growing subtitles. Data and statements swirl around faces as they talk about them. It’s like watching an interactive holographic projection of their thoughts and it works beautifully.
Revealing the Wizard behind the Curtain
More than just an explanation of the singularity, this film sets out to help explain the transcendent man, Ray Kurzweil himself. The very first scene is a forty old year clip of the classic TV game show I’ve Got a Secret. Here we see a seventeen year old Kurzweil play the piano and answer the panelists’ questions. The big secret? Kurzweil’s music was composed by a computer he built in his own home. That’s right, in 1965, while still a teenager, Kurzweil was using computers to perform tasks as ephemeral and promising as composing music. It’s a sucker punch that welcomes you to the entire film.
But the blows keep landing. Kurzweil invented the flatbed scanner, a piano synthesizer, a book reader for the blind, and the list goes on. He’s predicted the Internet, the success of the Human Genome Project, and the fall of the Soviet Union. This is a man with so many awards that he values them about as much as his cat-figurine collection (both are given their own huge tables in his home). It’s like Transcendent Man gets up, walks to your seat, and shouts “He’s an amazing genius! Believe it. But we have other things to talk about.”
If you know Kurzweil’s work, you know those “other things” are likely to be the singularity, but that’s not the only subject Transcendent Man explores. Ptolemy explains the theories, clobbers you with Kurzweil’s genius, but then just as quickly exposes the man for what he really is: human. More than I ever could have expected, Transcendent Man reveals Ray Kurzweil as a vulnerable, extraordinarily gifted, loving, worrying, wonderful human being. And Ptolemy uses death to do so.
Ray Kurzweil’s father, Fredric, passed away due to heart failure while Ray was in his 20s. From that launching point we are shown Kurzweil’s perhaps obsessive rejection of death. He takes over 200 health supplement pills a day, he says people who accept death are in a kind of denial, and he even wants to use future technology to revive his father. We are shown a warehouse where Kurzweil keeps his fathers belongings, a considerable collection, in anticipation of that day.
“Death is a great tragedy…a profound loss…I don’t accept it…I think people are kidding themselves when they say they are comfortable with death.” —Ray Kurzweil in Transcendent Man, 2009
With this seeming vulnerability, this rejection of death, Ptolemy opens the flood gates for a wave of interviews that qualify, argue, or flat out refute Kurzweil’s predictions. To some degree, the optimism and hope of the singularity is washed away in this flood. In fact, the end product is so inundated with contrary opinion that you wonder what the director actually believes.
And that question shows how wonderfully made this documentary really is. This is not a propaganda piece for the futurists or the singularity lovers. It’s not a diatribe designed to pull down or belittle those beliefs either. Transcendent Man is a balanced and insightful look into the man behind the philosophy, and an open call for discussion.
“The end of the film is the beginning of the conversation.” —Tribeca Film Festival, Behind the Screens
Which is why the panel that followed the movie was so amazing. NPR’s Robert Krulwich asked questions and moderated for Ray Kurzweil and Barry Ptolemy. Krulwich’s questions were fairly predictable at first: do you really believe that the singularity will happen, are you afraid of death, aren’t you being too optimistic, will you really bring your father back? And Kurzweil’s answers followed suit: yes the singularity will happen because intelligence is following exponential growth, I’ve seen the data, I think death is a loss, I think bringing my father back is a reasonable thing to do, etc.
Things really heated up, however, when the audience got a chance to jump in. First, Ben Goertzel and Hugo DeGaris, famous in their fields and interviewed in the movie, were actually in attendance. The applause they received was almost on par with that for Kurzweil himself. Goertzel asked how far we could expand our intelligence and still remain ourselves. Kurzweil’s opinion is that we will always be ourselves, that we can never not be ourselves. We are in part defined by our limitations, but we will always have limitations of some kind.
The concept of the singularity seems almost designed to evoke this type of philosophical pondering. Goertzel’s question speaks to a wider fear that many have: does the singularity mean the effectual death of humanity? For myself, I can only assert that adulthood means the death of childhood, not the death of the child.
Yet, many may not see the singularity as such a natural step of humanity’s growth. Hugo DeGaris, in an echo of his time on the screen, told the panel that many people exist who would rather shoot scientists than allow them to build the machines that would bring about the singularity. How can Kurzweil be certain that a war isn’t brewing between technological acceptance and technological rejection? Transcendent Man already raised this concern, highlighting the manner in which fundamentalist religions will respond to perceived threats.
Even while accepting the possibilities raised by DeGaris, Kurzweil is quick to point out the problems with such a war. There can be no Us vs. Them over technology when we are all using the same technology. Already, cell phones and other modern day necessities have become common place all over the world. Even if a war between the technological haves and technological have-nots did occur, the haves would when easily. Technology is power. In Kurzweil’s words, “It would be like the U.S. fighting the Amish.”
So the question begs itself, if there’s not going to be a war, and if Kurzweil is so optimistic about the singularity, why does he even bother talking to us about it? Why write a book? Why go on tours speaking at conventions as diverse as video gaming and Brazilian business?
Perhaps Kurzweil realizes that so many of the promises of intelligence and technology come with risks of tragedy. He was quick to point out during the panel discussion that he is helping design the rapid response system for bio-technological terrorist attacks. The dangers of our own technological process loom heavily in these years leading up to the singularity. So Kurzweil is taking precautions, I think. He’s seeding us with the hope for a grander future.
If there is a choice to be made, a decision about whether or not we will use technology to destroy us or to change us, I think Kurzweil is urging us to decide to change rather than fall to calamity. In that way, Kurzweil is no different than many other successful modern day rainmakers. He’s asking us to move from fear to hope, to push beyond our current childhood and embrace a greater destiny. In philosophy, at least, Ray Kurzweil has already become the transcendent man.