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Transcendent Man

I really enjoyed the world that Deus Ex: Human Revolution created.  I liked the idea so much that I was poking around various message boards about the game, and amidst a discussion of technology, the film Transcendent Man was mentioned.  It’s one of the more out there documentaries I’ve ever watched, but it leaves a lasting impression.  It focuses on one man, Ray Kurzweil, who says that humanity will soon be reaching what he calls a Singularity with technology.  It’s hard to describe what he means by this, considering almost the whole film is an exploration of what exactly the idea means.  In it’s most basic form, the Singularity is the point where technology has become so advanced that we as human beings will need find new ways of interfacing with it to be able to keep up.  Augment ourselves, as it were.  The film didn’t convince me that I will be merging my brain with a computer any time soon.  It was a fascinating look at the idea though, but really the lasting impression of the film is that of Kurzweil himself.  Agree with his ideas or find him insane but there is no doubt he’s a figure worthy of notice.

Transcendent Man does an excellent job of slowly exposing the breadth of Kurzweil’s ideas.  It opens with a young Ray playing a piece of music on a piano, then revealing the music itself was written by a computer.  This was in the mid 60’s, so it serves as a good intro to the fact that Kurzweil is a genius.  While the focus of the film is on his more fantastical notions, Kurzweil is probably best known for his products to help the blind and learning disabled in his text to speech devices.  It’s actually one of my favorite scenes in the film, where Kurzweil himself takes the stage at a product launch for the smallest such device he’s ever invented and receives cheers when he demonstrates it.  A young blind man comes up to him after the press conference and gives such a sincere thank you to Ray for making such products that one can’t help but feel touched.

That’s actually what I found most surprising about the entire documentary; Kurzweil is LIKEABLE.  I was expecting an eccentric who holds to his ideas with such force that to even begin to disagree with him would bring forth anger or vitriol, but none of that can be found.  Kurzweil presents his ideas in a matter of fact way, coming off as he doesn’t care if you believe him or not since he knows he’s right.  I would think being optimistic when the ideas you’re expounding involve man and machine becoming one would be a challenge, but Kurzweil expects a bright future.  The singularity he refers too he expects to happen in his lifetime.  He explains how that means expanding our brains capacity by being connected to a computer and a network, literally being able to draw information from the internet just by thinking about it.  He also proposes that virtual worlds (akin to something like The Matrix) will become more popular than the real world.  Kurzweil draws a very clear distinction between mind and body, which is very important to the film.  He refers to his frustration at having health problems (he’s had open heart surgery) and even remarks that it’s imperative to him that he live long enough to be able to save himself on a computer somewhere, to actually take the mind he has and back it up to a server.

The real hand controls the movements of the robotic hand. This idea could be made into a sweet horror film.

What is striking is this is not a fantastical idea of the future for Kurzweil, it is something he fully expects to be able to do….and not just for himself.  Kurzweil talks a lot about his father, a musician who died while Ray was in his early 20’s.  He speaks of wishing he spent more time with his father and that he could share his accomplishments and ideas now with the man.  However, to Kurzweil, this not just an idle wish of someone who fondly remembers a lost loved one.  The most fascinating part of the whole film to me was the discussion of artificial intelligence.  Kurzweil believes that not only will AI exist soon and very quickly become smarter than any human being, but that AI will be able to create human beings in the virtual world.  To this end Kurzweil takes the filmmakers to a storage room he rents and reveals it be filled with every piece of information he has on his father.  Pictures, the music he wrote, financial records he kept in handwritten books, love letters to Kurzweil’s mother who was his wife.  Watching him stand amongst a room full of boxes and getting teary eyed at the mention of his father, Kurzweil explains that he fully expects to someday be able to take all this STUFF of his father’s and input it into a computer, and a recreation of his Dad will come to life.

Is that the driving force behind all these ideas?  Was the pain of his losing his father so great the Kurzweil dedicated his life to finding the technology and ideas that will be able to somehow bring him back?  Kurzweil never answers this question and even after watching the film, I remain unsure.  Transcendent Man doesn’t set forth to answer the question of whether Kurzweil is right or wrong, although interviews with supporters and detractors are both presented.  I appreciated the film because it is not judging, it is merely presenting.  Anyone interested in pushing the boundaries of technology should watch this film.  I’m not convinced that anything Kurzweil said will actually come true.  However, he says it with such belief and sincerity, that it truly makes me wonder if he isn’t on to something.

Likely? No. Impossible? Well.....

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