Warning: This review might be judged by some as a “spoiler” so be ready!
Last Thursday, Ray Kurzweil’s new movie “The Singularity is Near: A True Story About the Future” premiered in New York City as part of the World Technology Network’s Imagined Worlds Film Series. Before the viewing, Kurzweil gave a short introduction on the concept of the singularity and his take on where humanity is heading with the accelerating pace of our technological advancements. After the conclusion of the film, Dr. Moira Gunn from NPR’s Tech Nation moderated a question and answer session with Kurzweil. It was a unique opportunity to engage Kurzweil about his ideas in general and the film in particular.
The documentary features several prominent interviewees discussing their vision of the future and includes such names as Marvin Minsky, Robert A. Freitas Jr, Aubrey de Grey, and Richard A. Clarke. In an attempt to make the story more appealing to a mainstream audience, the interviews are interspersed with a fictional story about an AI named Ramona, who is learning to be human. After being charged with serious cyber crimes, Ramona is slated for destruction, unless she can convince the court that as a sentient being, she should be afforded the same rights as a human. This translates into Ramona having to pass the Turing test and as she prepares, she gets assistance from notable figures such as Harvard Law professor Alan M. Dershowitz and self-help guru Tony Robbins. Even though the story is fictional, it highlights some very important issues that may come up as we continue developing AIs with a greater awareness and eventually, a human-like sense of self. As mentioned above, the most directly addressed issue is whether self-aware AIs will be given the same rights and protection that humans have. However, Ramona’s criminal charges stem from her attempts to stop self-replicating nanobots from destroying the Earth; this is another serious issue that Kurzweil has addressed in the past.
So, was the movie a success or a flop? Not long ago, we found ourselves pondering this very question. After viewing the film, I’d have to say that it was a success, although I do hold some reservations. My biggest complaint against the film is the lack of dissenting voices against Kurzweil’s predictions. While the experts interviewed throughout the film were an impressive bunch, it would have lent some credibility to the film to have experts who don’t believe that humanity will ever reach such a time. Bill McKibben, the notable environmentalist, was the only person to show hesitation about some of Kurzweil’s predictions. As ideas about the singularity continue to spread to a wider audience, more and more people who have legitimate objections are coming forward. Instead of dismissing these objections, I believe it would have been greatly beneficial to the film to openly discuss these opposing points of view and give the audience a chance to decide what they believe.
As for the content of the movie, there is nothing new for those who are familiar with Kurzweil’s ideas (and his book of the same name). However, for those who are new to these concepts, the movie should inspire some thought and discussion. Blending the dense substance in the interviews with the light-hearted and often comical story about Ramona was a great idea, at least in theory. The execution, however, was less than ideal. While I understand that this film did not have the budget or backing of a major production company, certain elements created the feel of a cheesy straight-to-DVD movie. The fact that the sultry Ramona is clad in a tight, leather body suit throughout the movie is gratuitous. And the judge presiding over her trial appears to be quite an unsavory figure, rather than a serious purveyor of justice. Ok, perhaps I’m nit picking here about relatively minor points, but I think their combined effect detracted more from the serious subject matter rather than adding to it.
Overall, the movie was a cool visualization of the complex and exciting concepts surrounding the technological singularity. While it probably won’t receive critical acclaim for the acting, portraying Ramona’s story in a more serious light would have helped make the film more credible. However, as a first attempt to educate the masses about the singularity, I would recommend watching the movie, as it is both entertaining and thought-provoking. I may be biased, but you probably can’t say that about Twilight!