Does Transcendence Herald The Singularity?

Opening today in U.S. theaters is Transcendence, the feature debut of director Wally Pfister, the long time cinematographer for Christopher Nolan.  Nolan serves as executive producer of the film (and Nolan’s next science fiction film, Interstellar, will come out this fall).

Since I will be discussing plot elements of the film, it seems proper to note SPOILERS before continuing.

The film – which I have not yet seen – engages at least two major science fiction themes that have relevance to modern day debates.  The main characters are artificial intelligence researchers who (and this is in the promotional material for the film, so not really a spoiler) appear to succeed in uploading a human intelligence into a computer.  The transcendence of the title appears to be either the uploading of that intelligence, or the connection of that intelligence to the Internet.

If it’s the latter, that would resemble the Singularity predicted by Raymond Kurzweil.  His singularity is a point in time when machines become smarter than humans and things change so dramatically that it would be tough to predict what might happen.

The antagonists in the film are opposed to the goal of the artificial intelligence research in the film, which is to generate a sentient machine.  They take to violent means to achieve these goals, which helps propel the plot.  It certainly makes it easier to create drama with the judicious (or excessive) application of violence.  But I am concerned that it makes the treatment of the serious issues at the heart of the film more one-sided that it needs to be.  People can object to the means by which others obtain goals that the first group might otherwise support.  In the shorthand of cinema, I hope it doesn’t get lost in the drama and theatrics that those who would rather not download their consciousness into a machine (and/or connect it to the Internet) have a perspective worth discussing, even worth respecting.


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