As much as you and I may geek out on the latest i-gadget, how many of us really take a moment to think about how rapidly technology will advance in our own lifetime? One of the most compelling documentaries at Tribeca this year, Transcendent Man, explores the profound and radical prediction of humans and technology merging by respected inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil.
First time filmmaker Barry Ptolemy powerfully brings to life Kurzweil’s vision of technological singularity featured in his New York Times bestselling book The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Through an array of visuals and interviews, Ptolemy illustrates this “point in the near future where technology will be changing so rapidly that we’ll have to enhance ourselves with artificial intelligence to keep up…and that there will be no real distinction between human and machine.” An eternal optimist, Kurzweil sees technology as a solution to our problems, and believes the singularity will cure illness and poverty, and more importantly, end aging. Did we mention Kurzweil sees all of this happening in only 30 or so years?!
If this sounds outlandish, Kurzweil is the first to admit it’s a long path to get comfortable with these ideas. But don’t take just his word for it: “Kurzweil is the best person I know at predicting the future,” claims Bill Gates. “Kurzweil envisions a future in which information technologies have advanced so far and fast that they enable humanity to transcend its biological limitations — transforming our lives in ways we can’t yet imagine.” Who wouldn’t listen closely to a seal of approval from Mr. Microsoft himself?
We see further support for Kurzweil from the likes of Colin Powell, Bill Clinton, Stevie Wonder, and even Tony-infomercial king-Robbins. Any why not? It’s hard to ignore Kurzweil’s accurate predictions of the Internet, the fall of the Soviet Union, the success of the Human Genome Project, in addition to his numerous inventions such as a reading device for the blind and the first flatbed scanner. We can’t resist but feel inspired by Kurzweil’s certainty that technologies will soon clean the waters of Africa or help us fully function on solar power.
Ptolemy is careful however to balance this inspiration with a number of technology authorities, top professors and journalists, and a literal “brain builder” Hugo de Garis who have reasonable doubts or philosophical concerns with Ray’s view of the next technological era. It’s fair to say Ray chooses to see hope in technology helping man, instead of its potential for destruction. Many of his critics question this optimism, in addition to the timing in which the singularity would occur.
As much as Transcendent Man is about daring predictions, it shares an intimate portrait of the man behind the ideas. From a young age Kurzweil was determined to improve lives through a series of inventions. Ptolemy delicately contrasts this drive with a vulnerability stemming from the early passing of Ray’s musician father Fredric. The tragedy seems to resonate in Kurzweil’s repeated notion of refuting death. He reflects upon death as “a profound loss of relationships, skill and meaning” and believes “people are kidding themselves when they say they are comfortable with death.” One begins to wonder if Kurzweil’s prediction and desire for immortality are fueled more by the momentum of scientific advances, or from a devastating personal loss. Either way, we we’re able to look beyond the important passion and certainty of this great thinker to find that he is above all things, human.
Whether you believe Kurzweil’s ideas will change the world or not, Transcendent Man successfully sparks important questions we need to begin asking in the face of an increasingly technological world.