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Transcendent Man

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Filmsweep Reaction:

Futurist Ray Kurzweil has a dream.

It's a foreshadowing, a prediction of an age when sickness and death will disappear, blinded eyes will see and the deaf will hear again. "Humans" lucky enough to be alive during this age will gain exponential growth in intelligence. It's the culmination of the ages -- mankind's Utopian moment of perfection.

He's not talking about God or heaven. Those things for him do not exist. At least, not until we create them.

He gets dreamy-eyed when describing our next evolutionary step, a thought he constantly obsesses over whether in writing or lecturing or inventing. The convergence of the body with technology, the two woven into one sole fabric, he says, is beginning now and will accelerate over the next few decades.

That chip in your cell phone today is a million times smaller, cheaper, and more powerful than the same computer years ago that took up half a building and was shared by thousands of students. Being one of the original kids who worked with early computers like this, Kurzweil has seen first-hand how technology evolves exponentially. He wonders why, if everything is getting smaller by the decade, chips won't be implanted in blood cells in the next twenty or thirty years.

Remember The Matrix and The Terminator? Until now we thought all this was simply fiction.

Remember The Borg, that Star Trek pseudo-race of flesh and technology combined? Maybe they're not the bad guys after all. From Wikipedia:

Whereas cybernetics are used by other races in the science fiction world (and in recent times the real world) to repair bodily damage and birth defects, the Borg voluntarily submit to cybernetic enhancement as a means of achieving what they believe to be perfection (they also force their idea of perfection on others).

The idea of "forced perception" is perhaps closer to Kurzweil's ideas than he'd like to admit. He seems to think that because he wants this, everyone else wants this, and that it is not only our destiny but the most moral next step for human progress.

All of this is happening on the same timeline as the "Singularity" -- when computer chips and machines become life-like, self-aware in their decisions. By that time they should have already assimilated us, so this is something we need to pay close attention to.

While apocalyptic movies like The Terminator and The Matrix (and much of David Cronenberg's films) have a gloom and doom dystopian future, Kurzweil's ideas of assimilation are much more upbeat. The enhancement from strictly bio to bio-mechanical can only be seen as a good thing, he says. Nothing but good has come from science and technology so far, and he sees nothing but good happening when we give ourselves over to it completely.

He is a passionate visionary. No doubt about that. And the documentary about Kurzweil and his work is fascinating, well thought out, mind-blowing in places. But behind his passion is a suffering heart, bruised from the death of his father and hopeful that the heart disease that killed him is not hereditary.

A part of what drives this visionary man is the fear that he might die like his dad. Perhaps, even, the fear of death itself.

Kurzweil takes what looks like hundreds of vitamins and pills a day to fight off any oncoming hereditary issues. He also mentions that in the fight to prevent his own death is the hope that one day he might bring back his dad. "Death is supposed to be a finale, but it's actually a loss of everyone you care about," he says. While the film doesn't explicitly say how he might be able to bring his dad back, it is assumed that this will be done through the same DNA Kurzweil wants to alter with nanobots, the achievement happening sometime after Kurzweil's full transformation to a superior being. He will then have access to information that will reveal how this can be done.

Later he speaks about the evolutionary plan as a whole: "Nanobots will enfuse all the matter around us with information. Rocks, trees, everything will become these intelligent computers.It's at that point we can expand out into the rest of the Universe. We will be sending basically nanotechnology enfused with Artificial Intelligence -- swarms of those will go out into the Universe and basically find other matter and energy that we can then harness to expand the overall intelligence of our human machine civilization. If the Universe will wake up, it will become intelligent. And that will multiply our intelligence trillions and trillions fold. We can't really contemplate. That's really the main reason this is called the 'Singularity.' But regardless of what you call it, it will be the Universe waking up. So does God exist? Well, I would say, Not yet."

Without admitting it up front, Kurzweil makes a case that there is a standard present that the body isn't currently achieving. I don't know if this is something he has really thought through, but I'd like to know where he thinks the standard comes from. Who says the body should be better than it is? By what reasoning should there be no sickness? Why should there be no death? If a standard actually exists that says that these things really are bad, doesn't that suggest a plan already in place that's supposed to correct them?

He's also missing the current beauty that already surrounds him, both in the creation of his own body as well as the heavenly bodies above.

This... (I'm simply staring into the palm of my hand)... isn't already a sign of intelligence? We need technology to bring out the intelligence in creation?

I'm as confused as Kurzweil. I go back and forth on the God issue myself, but at least I recognize that if there is a standard, it didn't necessarily come from our heads. There's as much wrong in the body as there is in our own wrong choices and actions. We see daily evidence in the local news of those who won't improve, won't advance, people who are willing to trade in their morality instead of desiring to become better. I don't think mankind is ready for the "Singularity," even if Kurzweil says it is inevitable.

The whole film feels much like last year's excellent Collapse, the revelatory film about Michael Ruppert who also made predictions. Ruppert's prophetic thoughts were along the lines of the coming oil crash and the ensuing state of world collapse. Kurzweil is like the anti-Ruppert. There is no approaching nightmare. Technology saves us from everything. He's the flip-side to Ruppert, where everything that can go wrong won't. Praise to the little chips. Hopefully we can get them in the blood stream real soon.

The film is excellent and enthralling. Kurzweil himself is naive. Perhaps like many of us, he's stacked all his eggs in one basket. Unfortunately for him, his basket has some gaping holes in it.

But it's a great film to watch for the suggestive probings of the future alone. It's a film that gets the brain cells firing. It's fun to consider that we might someday be a part of a collective. Some of us even think that this is possible without technology.

Edited by Persona

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These Stef doc threads look lonely sometimes. Transcendent Man is fascinating, and I thought it was surprisingly accessible for what's basically a bunch of interviews with tech geeks/geniuses.

Late in the movie, one of the guys mentions he's a practicing Christian and raises the issue of whether all that Kurzweil wants to happen is really what humans are meant to be. It moves on from the subject quickly, though. I would have liked to hear more from that perspective.

Kurzweil takes what looks like hundreds of vitamins and pills a day to fight off any oncoming hereditary issues.

During one scene when he's talking to William Shatner, Kurzweil says he takes 200 pills a day, including some to reprogram his biochemistry so his cells won't wear down and die (or something like that).

[edit] The DVD has a Q&A with Kurzweil and Ptolemy from the Tribeca film festival that's worth watching. It's moderated by Robert Krulwich (co-host of Radiolab).

Edited by Tyler

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These Stef doc threads look lonely sometimes. Transcendent Man is fascinating...

It's amazing that this particular film is still up there with Ink tied for first place for the most comments on my blog. Ain't sayin' much compared to the heavy hitters around this place and the traffic some of you get, but interesting to me nonetheless.

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