Monday, April 28, 2014


Raymond "Ray" Kurzweil is an American author, scientist, inventor, and futurist who has said that by 2029 computers will have consciousness. Bill Gates has called Kurzweil the best predictor of the future, and it’s also been said that he has predicted the future with more accuracy than anyone else in history. A documentary called Transcendent Man: Prepare to Evolve came out in 2010 that shares the life and ideas of Ray Kurzweil.

A new movie called Transcendence, starring Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman and Rebecca Hall has brought Ray’s idea to the Hollywood screen. The main character is Dr. Will Caster (Depp) a leading scientist and researcher in the field of Artificial Intelligence. Like Ray, his life’s work has been centered on the idea of mastering the singularity, or as he calls it ‘transcendence’.  We are introduced to PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network) who can identify someone who walks into the room and when asked ‘can you prove you are self-aware?’ counters with ‘can you prove you are self-aware?’ I tried asking SIRI that question and got ‘no comment’ and ‘I don’t really like these arbitrary questions’. Both PINN and SIRI dodged the question, although PINN’s answer was a bit more probing. While SIRI said she didn’t ‘like’ my question, she does not really experience emotions or even preferences.

While creating an AI that exhibits emotions is the task Will set out to accomplish, I don’t believe he was successful. What he was successful at, with the help of his partner in life Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), was uploading his consciousness into PINN as his body was dying. While it certainly looked and sounded like the Will Caster we had briefly viewed at the beginning of the film, this cyber Will seemed devoid of all emotions.

Once Will is connected to the Internet there is no stopping his power. While some of what he begins doing, like healing and restoring the sick and disabled, seems philanthropic, it begs the question: just because the power is available should it be used at all cost? Would you be happy you’d been healed if it changed who you were fundamentally without your choice or knowledge?

Throughout this film I couldn’t help but think of Ray Kurzweil and his desire to recreate his father who died when he was a young man. Is Ray correct in saying that computers will have consciousness in my lifetime? It certainly seems possible, but I think we have a ways to go before we can make sure that this new evolutionary ‘being’ also has a conscience, a value system and a soul.