Sunday, May 04, 2014

Transcendence (2014)

Movie reviewed by Bill Creasy

This movie starring Johnny Depp is, in my humble opinion, a real science fiction movie. There have been a lot of special effects and action movies recently that borrow sf elements, but this movie has actual thought behind it, and I found it to be very worthwhile.

The movie is about a computer scientist named Will Caster, played by Depp, who uploads his conscious mind into a computer network. (This is not a spoiler, since it is in the movie trailer.) Before doing so, he gives a speech at a conference referring to the Singularity, the idea promoted by Ray Kurzweil and others. The Singularity is the predicted time when computer or artificial intelligence capabilities exceed the brainpower of organic human beings. When this happens, technology will presumably be out of human hands, and the entire experience of being human will change. In the movie, an audience member asks Caster whether he intends to create God. Caster answers, "Isn't that what humans have always done?"

The scientist is happily married to Evelyn, played by Rebecca Hall. At the same conference, she paints a rosy picture of the way that such a transcendent intelligence could fix environmental problems.

Events that follow the uploading of Caster's mind are fantastic but naturalistic predictions of what the Singularity could accomplish. Nanomachines are developed that perform medical miracles. The nanomachines are self replicating and spread over the planet, and they begin to fix ecological problems.

There is a resistance movement that opposes these advances. The members of the movement question whether Caster is still human and whether he can be trusted to care about the best interests of the rest of humanity. However, they also sound like conservative technophobes, so the viewer has to decide how much credibility they deserve.

The resolution of the conflict between Caster, his wife, and the resistance is thought-provoking. It is perhaps not what the most forward-looking people would like, but it is also not depressing or too optimistic.

I will discuss the ending in the comments, with appropriate warnings to those who haven't seen it and want to avoid spoilers.

Bill Creasy is on the WASH Board and is coordinator of the Baltimore chapter. The review was printed in the May issue of WASHline.

1 comment:

Bill Creasy said...

SPOILER ALERT: This comment discusses the ending, so don't read further if you haven't seen the movie.

At the climax of the movie, Castor, who has remade his physical body, tries to save his wounded wife from death. His wife has been infected by a virus that will destroy his computer code and kill him. It isn't clear whether he is aware that it might be a trap. Of course, one can ask whether a superintelligent computer entity wouldn't have thought about protection against viruses, or whether it wouldn't be able to quarantine his wife so that she wouldn't be able to infect the entire system. But regardless, he tries to save his wife, and both are killed by the virus. Since he has infected all the technology on the planet, his destruction also destroys all computer technology.

I had major mixed feelings about this ending. Obviously, it means that the opponents to technology won, although it was at the cost of destroying all technology. So it was a hollow victory on their part. One could say that the movie is a cautionary tale, since the opposition to such an advanced entity might only be accomplished by the destruction of civilization and technology.

But another odd aspect is that Caster is a supercomputer entity and his first priority is still to save his flesh-and-blood wife. This is a heartwarming type of conclusion. It implies that a human can be uploaded without fundamental change, and the human will keep the essential human personality, including love of a spouse. But is this realistic? Would a powerful computer intelligence that is determined to improve the world simply take such a risk? The action almost appears suicidal. So in a sense, the ending is humanistic, but in another sense, it is anti-technology and anti-progress.

The later ending of the movie that takes place in the backyard of Caster's Berkeley house is discussed in the Wikipedia page:

I'm not convinced that this is a serious statement, or just a possible excuse to have a sequel. Are the film makers really trying to imply that Caster survived in the nanomachines in the water drops?

I'd be interested in seeing comments that other people have on this movie.