MOVIE REVIEW: Kurzweil's Transcendent Man

Robert Bee
Robert Bee's picture

Transcendent Man is a documentary I’ve been meaning to review for Republibot for some time. It details the life and ideas of Ray Kurzweil, one of the main proponents of the Singularity, the idea that technology will reach a point, probably in the near future, when progress will be so rapid that the world will change instantaneously.

The singularity will lead to a hybrid Human-Machine civilization. The greatest changes will be brought about by GNR technology, genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics. We will use genetics to reprogram our biology away from aging and disease and to create a better human. Nanotechnology will create molecule-sized robots that will become part of our body and create any structure out of atoms. Robotics and AI will give our creations and us superhuman intelligence.

To compete with computers and other people, and even to understand the surrounding world, humans will have to merge with machines; we will need the additional memory and processing speed. The merger with computers will cause endless complications. How much of you has to remain biological for you to still be human? If most of your body is machine are you still human? What if you upload your consciousness into a computer? Are you still human?

Kurzweil is a fascinating man with a number of inventions to his credit. When he was in high school, in the early 60s, he appeared on the Steve Allen TV show I’ve got a Secret and played a piano piece composed by a computer he built and programmed. Over the course of his life, Kurzweil has created a flat bed scanner, a reading machine for blind, a synthesizer etc. According to one of his websites, “As one of the leading inventors of our time, Ray was the principal developer of the first CCD flat-bed scanner, the first omni-font optical character recognition, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments, and the first commercially marketed large-vocabulary speech recognition”( That description is promotional of course, but it’s also accurate; Kurzweil is a brilliant, successful inventor and entrepreneur.

Kurzweil annoys people with his bold conclusions. His predictions for rapid technological change are extrapolations built on the hypothesis that technology progresses exponentially, as each generation of technology builds on itself, making technological progress more and more rapid.

Kurzweil is an optimist, the Asimov of singularitarians. Asimov was a science fiction writer who believed we could solve any problem through science and technology. Whereas many science fiction writers focused on the dangers of science and technology, and described future dystopias, Asimov wrote stories in which science and reason eventually overcame obstacles and problems. For Kurzweil, like Asimov, technology and science exist to help humans, and Kurzweil believes we will overcome the enormous dangers singularity-level technology would bring about.

Not all intellectuals interested in the singularity are as optimistic. In the film, the director interviews Hugo de Garis, a computer scientist who works at a Chinese university and is building the country’s first artificial brain. De Garis believes that the worse war in human history lies on the horizon, between humans who want to create god-like computers, artilects, and those opposed to AI. De Garis also thinks a god-like artilect might destroy humanity. Artiilects may be so much more intelligent and advanced than humans that they will treat us like pests, just as we might squash an ant. De Garis, in fine mad scientist mode, concludes his commentary by stating that he’s willing to risk extinction in his quest to build an artilect.
Kevin Warwick, a roboticist and author of March of the Machines, claims that the Terminator scenario is virtually inevitable. When robots are smarter than humans, at best humanity will be kept as slaves or on reservation-like farms.

Kurzweil believes that instead of being left behind or destroyed during the singularity, humans will merge with machines and remain part of the new civilization. Also, he believes superintelligent AIs will revere us for creating them, a vastly more optimistic view than Warwick or de Garis.

A driving focus for Kurzweil is his fear of death, or as he puts it, his refusal to accept death. There is nothing good about death, even though we try to ennoble it; death is the loss of knowledge, relationships, and meaning. Whereas many people over the course of history have feared death, the most common response to that fear is religion, which promises a perfect afterlife for believers. Kurzweil is a modern secular intellectual, and his response to death is to find a rational or scientific way to transcend it. He believes if he lives long enough, another 20-30 years, technology will reach a point to keep him alive forever. Kurzweil takes 200 pills a day to reprogram his biochemistry so that he can extend his life. In one scene, the documentary shows Kurzweil taking trays of pills, which he does every day; he takes pill after pill after pill… And I do mean trays of pills. Part of the problem I have with Kurzweil’s pill-taking regime is that even if he does manage to live an extra few years, he’ll just spend much of that time taking pills. After all, he must spend 20 minutes a day taking pills; multiply that times 362 days a year (7,240 minutes a year, or 5 days a year in which he’s just taking pills). In ten years he spends 50 days taking pills. If this regime allows him to live forever, then that’s worthwhile, but I’m skeptical things will work out that well. Nonetheless, if you’re into taking pills, one of Kurzweil’s companies sells his supplements online.

Kurzweil is concerned that something will go wrong with his body, and there will be no established procedure; he will have to do something experimental or create a new procedure to stay alive.

Another of Kurzweil’s obsessions is bringing his father back to life. Kurzweil’s father was a musician and conductor who died from a heart condition when Kurzweil was a child. He has collected every document and scrap of information possible about his father and gathered it in a garage: the music his father wrote, his financial ledgers, his letters, etc. He plans to use the information to program an AI to reassemble his father. He also plans on recovering some of his father’s DNA from his grave as part of the reclamation project.

Kevin Kelly, a former editor of Wired magazine and the author of a number of books, including What Technology Wants, has one of the better comments on Kurzweil in the movie. He asks: in 40 years, when Kurzweil is no longer with us, and he hasn’t brought his father back, should we say that Kurzweil failed? Kelly believes that Kurzweil is right about some things, but that the precursors for the technology he envisions do not exist yet. Kelly feels that Kurzweil is wrong about the timing of technological development. We may eventually have self-aware AI, immortality, and practical nanotechnology, but not in the next 20 to 40 years.
The singularity is the ultimate geek fantasy, the point where everything becomes possible, and all our tech fantasies come true. We can live as long as we want, and experience a virtual reality that’s better than meat space. Think of the possibilities: robot sex dolls, superintelligent robots and AIs, jet packs, flying cars, flight to Mars and beyond!
I’m surprised SF writers haven’t done more with the singularity. The problem with the singularity as an SF theme is that it’s virtually impossible to imagine a world after everything changes; there’s a tendency to write Singularity stories from the pov of the ordinary humans the superpowered transhumans left behind, similar to the Christian SF series Left Behind, which portrays people after the rapture.

As a film this is a well-done documentary, running 1 hours and 15 minutes, but nonetheless holding my attention, despite the fact that the movie is mostly interviews and talking heads. The movie presents Kurzweil’s ideas extremely well and provides a decent biography of his life and his relationship with his father. The film’s creator is apparently an acolyte of Kurzweil because it provides a very positive portrayal of his views.

Will conservatives like this film?

That depends on what you think about the singularity. Kevin Kelly has described Kurzweil as more of a prophet and poet than a mechanic, and as the creator of the greatest myth of our age, a myth so powerful that we must think about it and respond to it even if it isn’t true. I largely agree with Kelly as long as we recognize that myths are not always false. Myths sometimes inspire or create entire civilizations and belief systems. Rapid technological change that results in humans evolving into machines is the future regardless of whether we like it, and we will need myths of one sort of another (whether they’re created by Kurzweil or SF novelists) to understand and cope with the massive changes ahead.
Kurzweil’s transhumanism concludes the movie: he’s confident that he will live long enough to at least back himself up and experience the singularity. By 2035 most of our time will be spent in virtual reality, and we will merge with machines. We will have many bodies and many backups of our minds. We will know virtually everything, live as long as we want, and communicate via thoughts over the Internet. We will be surrounded by intelligent computers, and through superior space technology we can expand into the universe. Does God exist? Kurzweil asks, and he answers: not yet.
So what do you think Republibot readers: does this last paragraph offend you? Is this deification of humanity naïve? Or are you ready to back up your brain and send one of your selves to explore the stars?