Since the dawn of time, philosophers have asked, ‘What is consciousness?’ And thus goes Transcendence, an undergraduate fumble through what should be an exciting and interesting puzzle.
Johnny Depp plays Dr Will Caster, a celebrity scientist who gives asinine TED talks about technology and religion. With his wife (Rebecca Hall) and partner (Paul Bettany), he is trying to create artificial intelligence because this will cure cancer, starvation, disease, and allow us to understand the soul.
Using a lot of ‘quantumy’ words, they’ve created a system which passes the Turing test, PINN. PINN can connect to the Internet and download lots of information about guests in the building. Very clever.
But not everybody wants to live in this world with computers doing things. A hardcore bunch of Luddite extremists, RIFT, have decided that everybody working on artificial intelligence needs to die. Methods include poisoned chocolate cake, explosions, and polonium-laced bullets.
It’s this last one that takes out Will Caster. Knowing that he has only a short while to live, his wife decides to ‘upload’ his consciousness to a computer. Thus begins a two hour exploration of what would happen if a white guy were allowed to go online.
When you get down to it, transhumanism is pretty stupid. It’s this idea that the human condition is dependent upon the fleshy substance that we call bodies: by removing (or augmenting) the bodies, we will somehow change the human condition. Race, class, religion, &c., &c., &c., will all become negligible as we all transcend the world and become genderless, disembodied entities (a.k.a. straight, white, and male) on the Internet. But Transcendence plays this line with a straight bat. In its internal world, scientists can become gods, evangelically healing the sick and the lame, resurrecting the dead, and creating new life. Thus, RIFT’s only angle is: ‘We really don’t like the idea of the world getting better.’
The white guy on the Internet turns out to be a privacy-invading, obsessive, supremacist weirdo, and so the audience sympathises with RIFT not because they are philosophically/morally/intellectually superior, but because Johnny Depp is so insufferable.
Indeed, RIFT is almost certainly wrong. They executed scientists because they were morally opposed to the research. It seems only reasonable that Depp would try to defend himself and his loved ones against him. And as the movie progresses and Depp’s behaviour gets weirder and weirder, nobody tries reasoning with Depp. Seriously, it goes from ‘Depp is curing the sick and injured’ to ‘Let’s call in the army to blow him up’.
The film never really comes to grips with its core themes. To what extent can scientists make unilateral calls about the welfare of others? Instead of taking an injured worker to a hospital, Depp experiments on him with nanobots. To what extent does our reliance upon networked services take away our capacity to make autonomous decisions? In order for Depp’s new services to work, he has to spread billions of nanobots into the ecosystem, including into drinking water. To what extent are we capable of protecting our privacy when basic services collect so much information about us? When Depp uploads himself to the Internet, he gets access to everybody’s private data — even stuff they haven’t uploaded themselves — to strike back at RIFT.
But it never — never ever — gets into the big question: to what extent is artificial intelligence Depp the same person as the man who died of radiation poisoning? If it is the same person, who is authorised to switch him off and on what grounds? If it’s not the same person, is it still a person? Either way, should we blow it up before trying to reason with it?
Nothing about Transcendence is fun enough to distract from the oafish handling of these bigger questions. Insipid garbage.
(On a personal note, I was amused to see the computer start constructing science experiments…)