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“Emotion is data too” – Google’s screening of Transcendent Man

12th April 11

Posted by Mel Exon

Posted in Events, Film, technology

“Here’s to living forever. That’s not just a salutation in our family”
~ Sonya Kurzweil

“This is of mythical proportions. We have to deal with it, even if it turns out not to be true.”
Kevin Kelly

Sarah Speake introduces the 'Transcendent Man' screening

Regular readers of this blog will know we have an abiding fascination with what technology may bring in the far flung future (see our The Coming Age of Augmentation post and, most recently, Greg Anderson on Asimov’s First Law).

So it’ll be no surprise to hear we got *extremely* excited when an invite arrived, courtesy of Google, to attend a screening of Barry Ptolemy’s Transcendent Man at the Science Museum in London, followed by a Q&A with the director and the film’s subject, the futurist, author and engineer Ray Kurzweil.

The documentary is an elegant stringing together of a series of points and counter-points voiced by an extraordinary cast of technology sages, providing a coherency to the controversial Technological Singularity debate previously lacking (see our amateur knitting together of different points of view here, for example). It’s slick, impressive stuff. The film also contains a classical and wholly human theme which Ptolemy chose to highlight during the Q&A – Kurzweil’s complex relationship with his father, to which I would add: his overriding preoccupation with (avoiding) death.

Nonetheless, I can’t help but think these themes are the director’s attempt to lend some day-to-day humanity to what otherwise becomes a circular debate about whether technology will bring about a future Dystopia or Utopia. For brevity, the extremities of the debate can be summed up in sound bites from the film:

“People routinely underestimate the law of accelerating returns… in about forty years the pace of change is going to be so astonishingly quick that you won’t be able to follow it, unless you enhance your own intelligence by merging with the intelligent technology we’re creating.” ~ Kurzweil

“We always use the latest technology to create the new technology… we will create AIs that are real people.” ~ Kurzweil

“There will be a major war in the late 21st century between two human groups about whether to build or not build AI..the Artilect War” ~ Hugo de Garis

And, finally, the impossible-to-argue-with perspective: “The biggest implication of the Technological Singularity is that we don’t know the implications”  ~ Dean Kamen

At the very end of the Q&A we were lucky enough to ask Kurzweil a question that’s been vexing us since we first came across it:

“If we’re to believe we will live forever, it follows there will be no need to procreate and hence no evolutionary need for love… so what exactly are we transcending to?

His response was swift and fluent; the practised, polite putdown of a professional used to deflecting tricky questions:

“To be creative. To have relationships, to give to one another..”

Music to an optimist’s ears, perhaps: who wouldn’t want to eradicate poverty, disease and death if they could? And replace all of that with a pure and harmonious focus on creativity?

Nonetheless, I cannot help but think this isn’t a future I want. Give me the messy, heart-breaking, silly and all-too-short side to human life. And the joy brought about by children; not in terms of the hypothetical future they represent, but the way they are right now, in front of us, making us laugh and cry with their indescribable brilliance. What do you think? Do the laws of evolution dictate a future coloured by unending cyborgian perfection, or will we fight to wallow sentimentally in our flawed humanity?

The Science Museum looking suitable sci-fi last Monday night

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