Ray Kurzweil is one of the advocates of the so-called nerd rapture, generally known to adherents and critics as The Singularity.

I have to warn you that this review of Transcendant Man, the documentary on inventor and “futurist” Ray Kurzweil is going to overlap with a discussion of his ideas. I can’t help it, mostly because I’m a proponent of his optimistic views on technology, transhumanism, and the future we are already living. Also, there’s that this movie was ultimately a frustratingly shallow exploration of those ideas and a laughably insufficient discourse on their basis or the various critiques leveled against both the ideas and the man.

Kurzweil is a controversial figure because he is not generally included in the society of scientists. He has invented many useful things, most of which are philanthropic devices meant to help disabled people. A prime example is the Kurzweil Reader which is a cell-phone sized machine that scans text and iterates it for blind people. He has founded many companies including one that promotes longevity-enhancing diet plans and supplements which purport to reprogram biochemistry. The goal there is to live long enough for some of his predictions to bear out.

He believes that by 2045 it will be in humanity’s ability to patch our biological hardware enough to keep us alive either indefinitely (with regard to aging and design at least) or long enough for neuroscience and computation to give us the long-imagined means to “upload” our minds to different hardware including simulations and new bodies.

While the documentary touches on these ideas, it floats through them while returning to a heavy-handed Christ allegory that undermines the ideas themselves, the message Kurzweil is trying to disseminate, and the man himself. His most ad hominem critics characterize the Singularity as a pseudo-religious idea and Kurzweil as a self-made prophet with a fanatic’s devotion to his particular brand of belief.

The talking heads who criticize Kurzweil in what is obviously some weak attempt at providing balance to the discussion aren’t able to articulate much more than that. There is no systematic discussion of the ideas, Kurzweil’s reasoning, the information and science that support or decay his theories, etc. I would have liked to see a more sophisticated discussion where, if some credence to balance as opposed to a completely pro-Singularity message must be paid, a better articulated critique of Kurzweil’s theories could have taken place. The lack of this as well as the dogged determination the film has of returning to Kurzweil’s relationship with his father (providing for the film both a psychological and pseudo-religious subtext to his futurism) make for a sloppy and muddled film about a subject that deserves more than this.

I wouldn’t complain if it was just a pro-Kurzweil “get the word out” doc. It seemed as if it wanted to be fairly positive toward Kurzweil’s ideas but the cheap handling of the counter-arguments makes it look like the POV can’t handle sustained or serious criticism (which it can) or that the documentarian simply wanted Kurzweil to come off as a more controversial figure than he is. He is not L. Ron Hubbard. He doesn’t lead some cult of adherents which he exploits. He offers some advice, philosophical and mundane, about where we’re headed. His ideas are controversial but there is not a lot riding on peoples’ belief in them. To think that there are dire consequences in store if we start being more future-positive or techno-positive than we already are is a misunderstanding of how technology works as an evolutionary process.

Thankfully, the documentary does spend some time trying to establish a working Theory of Technology that is frankly something 90% of the people on our planet need to at least understand if not adopt. Even the critics are operating from insipid “robot uprising” fears and the mistaken belief that we can course-correct.

The reason Kurzweil is so steadfast in what he thinks is coming is because he sees it as inevitable, not due to some far-fetched extrapolation of the kind we laugh at nostalgically (flying cars and dome cities) but due to a few models of technological development that have not yet proven wrong. The things Kurzweil are most often wrong about are exact dates that certain gadgets will see wide use. He can’t predict economic trends, really, or what technology is going to be of interest to the culture in terms of consumption. A good example is Virtual or Augmented Reality. We can perform these (within reasonable limits) now but no one really cares. They simply are not priorities in our economic paradigm. Every other game is a First-person shooter. This is what makes money and that determines much of the technology that reaches consumers.

When it comes to paradigm-shifting technologies like the internet, Kurzweil’s predictions are a lot less about having fun imaging VR glasses or pocket secretaries. When it comes to the implications of cybernetics, robotics, nanotechnology, and biology (especially neurology) on the human condition, our health, etc things get a lot more interesting. Even if the exact years are wrong, the point remains the same: technology does not progress at a stable rate in general, every proceeding “generation” comes faster than the last one.

Therefore, the Singularity is best understood as a point at which the rate of progression is impossible to measure. At that point, our ability to imagine the limitations of our species abruptly comes to an end due to a fundamental change in definition and paradigm. Kurzweil suggests that intelligence-enhancing technology will beget better artificial intelligence which will begin to self-replicate faster and faster. Only by “merging” with such an intelligence can our species continue to evolve. This sounds far-fetched, for sure. It’s basically talking about apotheosis, which is why that quote Kurzweil gave is so important.

The idea is that all the properties we associate with a God are within our evolutionary grasp, thanks to technology. Many see technology as “playing God” or in some way “unnatural”. This is just due to beliefs about reality, the state of “nature” and that concept in itself, etc. It is absurd to think that anything a human does is ‘unnatural’ by the very definition of nature. As such, technology is just one more adaptation we evolved, but one which basically allows us to sidestep the evolutionary paradigm that created us as we are (and would continue to change us over the decades) and jump-start a replacement paradigm. That is a big deal. A much larger concept than it seems and very difficult to wrap your head around.

Kurzweil’s mission in life is to try and convince people to try to wrap their heads around this, so that as many of us as possible are prepared. Looking around and seeing how people in North America treat the fast-evolving technologies available to them now, including the internet and cell-phones as prime examples, I can see why he’d want to do that. It’s either figure out a way to keep up or get left behind.

It’s easy to look at transhuman futurism as hilariously utopian and optimistic. I don’t really subscribe to the belief that it’s all gonna be awesome possum but nor do I base my own speculation on the ridiculous belief that the way we think about the world now is going to continue. The only safe assumption when thinking about the future is that it’s going to be different. This means that you have to immediately ask how various technologies are going to affect current problems and/or create new ones that will change how we think of things.

And at the end of the day, no one is suggesting that the changes will be painless. It seems obvious that there will always be a division in human society between people with access to cutting edge technology vs. people who don’t. There are technologies that may change this but we can already note that new technology gets in the hands of disadvantaged parts of the world at a much faster rate than it did, and that rate has been and continues to be accelerated exponentially.

I have to suggest you read his books if you want a more compelling, not to mention convincing, discussion of these ideas. Kurzweil is also very good at dealing with the criticisms leveled against his ideas. His predictions are based on the evident exponential rate of technological progress, the various branches of which collude to produce even more accelerated progress and change. Whether or not this is a good thing is also only haphazardly discussed in the film.

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