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Transhumanist Media: Transcendent Man April 17, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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Ray Kurzweil is probably going to die.  There, I said it.

To say that I have been anticipating the release of Transcendent Man, a documentary about the life and ideas of inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, would be a gross understatement.  Since I heard this movie was in production I have been counting the days till its release.  Now the time has come and I can finally say that I was not disappointed.

At its core this movie is an exploration of Kurzweil’s ideas.  Concepts like the law of accelerating returns and Kurzweil’s obsessive life extension supplement program get plenty of screen time.  All the while Kurzweil sits calmly in his interview chair, often staring directly at the camera and speaking to the audience like a professor to his class, and calmly explains why most of us will live to see the most profound event in the history of humanity.  Kurzweil is not what you’d call a dynamic speaker.  Indeed its somewhat amazing how he can make ideas that sound like something Philip K. Dick would have dreamed up after a night of hard drinking seem so…boring.  In a way though this is actually to the films benefit.  By taking what will strike most people as just bad science fiction and presenting it through the prism of the ever rational Kurzweil the movie disarms any knee-jerk reaction to dismiss it outright.

Of course whether or not you stay with it will largely depend on how you view Kurzweil. The movie manages what I didn’t think was possible, simultaneously making him seem more and less than the human computer that he has constructed as his public image.  A large portion of the film involves Kurzweil explaining how the death of his father, a composer who died of heart disease, severely affected him and in many ways drove his obsession with technology and futurism.  It humanizes him in a way that I’m sure will surprise many who only know him through his writings.  Of course in exploring Kurzweil’s relationship with his father it gives Kurzweil time to explain his desire to use advanced nanotech and synthetic intelligence, as well as a vast store of his father’s writings, to create a copy of his father’s persona; in essence, bring his father back to life.

At that point, and more likely well before, I think many people will mentally check out of the film.  Ideas like bringing back the dead in some new form are still too out there for a large portion of the population to accept as a possibility, even a distant one.  For better of worse Kurzweil has largely become the face of the transhumanist movement and as such many in the general public take Kurzweil’s personal beliefs as indicative of the broader philosophy.  Now I’m not saying this totally a bad thing, after all a charismatic spokesman can be a powerful boon to any burgeoning movement but it does mean that the fortunes of transhumanism in the public eye largely rise and fall with Kurzweil.  Thankfully the film is wise enough to include other voices within the community.  People like Ben Goertzel and Kevin Kelly (who actually denounces him as behaving like a modern day prophet) show both the intellectual scope of the movement and remind people that not all of us follow in Kurzweil’s footsteps.

Another feature of the film that stuck with me is how while Kurzweil spends plenty of time explaining how we can achieve godlike powers, immortality and reincarnation he never really explains why we should want this.  While the answer may seem self evident, and I certainly think we should want this, the impression I get from Kurzweil is that for all his drive he really hasn’t considered the why.  More importantly I get the impression he doesn’t care about the why.  At times he comes across as little more than a man driven to thumb his nose at death for taking away someone he quite clearly loved very deeply.

Finally the film also makes it apparent just how certain Kurzweil is in his own predictions.  There is no room for doubt in his worldview, no possibility that he may turn out to be wrong.  He dismisses his opponents criticisms as nothing more than ill informed opinions, claiming that they simply haven’t thought out the problem enough.  There is an arrogance to Kurzweil that is off putting no matter how polite and genial it is.  This of course isn’t even mentioning the fact that not all of his predictions have panned out (though you won’t hear him admit that) or that his supplement program is based on some very selective readings of medical journals.  In this regard I return to the sentence I opened this article with.  To paraphrase a person from the film, its amazing how all these wonderful developments will occur just in time to save the people who are now dreaming of them.

Thankfully agreeing with Kurzweil is not necessary for enjoying the film.  Whether you’re an ardent transhumanist, a Neo-Luddite or a complete neophyte you should see this movie if you can.  Like him or not Kurzweil’s ideas are shaping the world.  Unless you want to be left behind you better try to keep up with him.

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Transhumanist Media: Limitless March 20, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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As transhumanism moves farther and farther into the mainstream we are beginning to see more explicit examples of the philosophy in the mass media.  While very few of them actually refer to their subject matter as such the influence of the transhumanist movement on much of modern science fiction is hard to discount.  Last year gave us three movies that dealt with the possibility of mind-machine interfaces and one of them, James Cameron’s Avatar, ended up being one of the biggest hits of the year and a Best Picture nominee.

Limitless is a movie that definitely crosses into transhumanist territory even if it never explicitly uses that word, examining one of the corner stones of modern transhumanist futurism in the possibility and ramifications of intelligence enhancement.  Starring Bradley Cooper as an aspiring (read unemployed) writer who through a twist of fate ends up with the hottest new drug being primed to hit the market: a pill that can increase a person’s intellect to unnatural levels.  With a stash in hand Cooper decides to do what I assume many of us would if we found ourselves instantly turned into the smartest man on the planet; he joins a Wall Street firm and proceeds to make himself obscenely wealthy.  Of course if this was all there was to the movie it would be pretty damn boring so no bonus points for guessing that the drug quickly turns out to have side effects that reek havoc with Cooper’s new found prosperity.

Let me say that I definitely think Limitless is a good movie.  The acting is uniformly good including a nice turn by Robert de Niro as a powerful and dangerous Wall Street executive.  The cinematography is particularly noteworthy with some brilliant use of color and tone to differentiate Cooper’s up moments while on the drug to his down moments at all other times.  If the film has a problem, and it does, it’s that its not nearly as deep as it seems to think it is or want to be.

Lets start with the basic premise.  The movie’s explanation for the drug’s amazing ability is that it allows an average person, who only uses 20% of their brain, to access the other 80% and utilize their full capabilities.  No, really.  I seriously hope that no one in the audience or on the script team actually believes that old urban legend but that fact that the use it as their basis is not very inspiring.

Secondly is what the drug actually does.  Though the film is very hazy on the details (this is soft sci-fi through and through) it appears to be some sort of super stimulant, a sort of Ritalin on steroids if you’ll pardon the expression.  It allows the user to concentrate on their tasks at an almost supernatural level, gives them access to every memory they have ever had including ones they can’t remember when off the drug and gives powers of deductive reasoning that make Sherlock Holmes look like Sarah Palin.  Disregarding the fact that the film never explains how the drug does all this to any sort of satisfaction (again, soft sci-fi) my big problem is that the effects of the drug seem limited only to his intelligence.  Outside of developing a severe case of narcissism there seems to be no effect on a persons personality or emotional intelligence.  Now of course analytic intelligence is  a distinct feature I personally find it hard to believe that such a major change in one facet of a person would not produce a similarly major change in other facets.

Those who have seen the movie will probably think I’m being overly critical towards it and in many ways I am.  Its not 2001 or Blade Runner and it really isn’t trying to be so if you go in expecting an interesting story briskly told then you should walk out feeling like you got your moneys worth.  Finally I will say that despite spending a good portion of its screen time on the dangers of intelligence enhancement the film ends on what is almost a positive endorsement of the idea.  SPOILER WARNING: though he has to give up the drug due to the negative side effects he tinkers with the formula and develops a safer version that allows him to stop taking it and retain his newfound mental acumen.  In a time when so much science fiction is about how new technologies will destroy us that ending is enough for me to support the film.