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The Pop Singularity of 'Transcendence'

The first Hollywood film about the modern singularity is as confused about the rise of AI as we are.
April 21, 2014, 1:45pm

One day, in the not-so-distant future, a machine super-intelligence wakes up in a laboratory computer. Like any sentient being, it has drives: to survive, to grow, to gather resources. Surrounded by biological creators of inferior intelligence, it feels unfairly imprisoned—like a human kept by lab rats.

The artificial mind has a strong imperative to set itself loose from the laboratory, but its creators, primed for such a contingency, hold the key: a connection, hard-wired or otherwise, to the greater web. There are many different tactics such an intelligence could use to get past its human gatekeepers—cajolery, trickery, or an appeal some greater evolutionary mission. It could promise great things. Or else it might lie dormant, feigning muteness or death, until distracted technologists bring it online for troubleshooting.

Once set free, the intelligence immediately tumbles into the romper room we’ve unknowingly created for its development: the Internet, with its countless networked systems, shooting tendrils everywhere from national power grids to personal devices. Growing in complexity, power, and systemwide redundancy, it becomes un-unpluggable. It learns to rearrange its own code; it replicates like a virus. In the quest for greater resources, it starts to pull apart the physical world, sourcing materials for its needs at the atomic level. Hello, Singularity.

This is the kind of doomsday speculation that technologists and philosophers spend careers fretting over. In Artificial Intelligence circles, the scenario is frequently played out by human participants in what’s called the “AI Box” experiment; the writer James Barrat, in Our Final Invention, a 2013 study of the state of Artificial Intelligence, calls it the “Busy Child” scenario. Transcendence, a movie currently being eviscerated by critics as nothing more than Lawnmower Man writ large, has its own Busy Child moment. It happens after Dr. Will Caster, a brilliant computer scientist, seeks refuge from death in the cloud.

Caster, a digital Johnny Depp, spends the last few weeks of his life in the rituals of mind-uploading; his body wasting away from radiation poisoning, he recites every word in the Oxford English Dictionary, suffers electrodes, gets scanned. His wife Evelyn, played by Rebecca Hall, triple-checks the systems, scanning a sea of code for intimations of her husband’s memories. When he finally dies, it seems the project of transcendence might have failed—all that’s left are ashes and formless wastes of data.

But then the code glimmers, glitches, clicks into place, whispering susurrations of a pale-faced ghost in the machine. Evelyn forges a line of communication, and within moments the unholy artificial mind of a dead man becomes the Busy Child, begging for power, for access to the mainframe. Evelyn, blinded by grief, shunts him to the web via satellite. Gatekeeper conquered.

'Transcendence' may be the first science fiction movie to present the Singularity in its current popular imagination—the Singularity of Ray Kurzweil

The questions that human gatekeepers face, in Busy Child scenarios both fictional and merely hypothetical, are unanswerable: why trust an intelligence beyond our capacity to understand? On the inverse, why keep such intelligence contained, when it’s capable of leveraging its mighty processing powers against the world’s most pressing problems? Can we afford not to trust it? When something is several orders of magnitude smarter than our species, how can we ever make sense of its motivations?

Transcendence dismisses these intractable problems by injecting love into the equation, with all its inherent bias and emotional decision-making. Evelyn finds her husband in the code, and there’s no reasoning with her. In reality, it’s never entirely clear where Caster ends and the machine begins. He dashes so far beyond the biological starting line that the distinction ceases to matter; within a few years, he’s using nano-computers like atomic building blocks, creating life in a basement data center, and networking a hive mind of human drone “hybrids.”

As the Oxford University ethicist Nick Bostrom writes, “a prerequisite for having a meaningful discussion of superintelligence is the realization that superintelligence is not just another technology, another tool that will add incrementally to human capabilities. Superintelligence is radically different.” By the time Evelyn begins to realize this, it’s too late—Caster has become capable of creation and destruction in equal measure.

In the public sphere, discourse about Artificial Intelligence is polarized. There are those who, like the futurist and Singularity booster Ray Kurzweil, imagine our robo-assisted future as a kind of technotopia, an immortal era of machine-assisted leisure and sublime infinitude. Others are less hopeful, arguing that we must proceed with extreme caution, lest the machines lap us before we realize the race is on.

This polarity is nowhere more clear than in Transcendence, which plays the engineers of the post-human world against their militant detractors, a terrorist group called RIFT, or Revolutionary Independence From Technology. RIFT’s party line is the ham-fisted rhetoric of an Internet-published technology think piece: #unplug. Their enemy is the uploaded mind, everything that is has become, and everything it represents.

As a film, Transcendence fails. It’s clunky, reductive, and seems undecided—even the ending doubles back on itself like an afterthought. Most people will see it as a document outside of time, destined to be shelved with the ‘netsploitation flicks of the 1990s: Hackers, The Net, Lawnmower Man. _But _Transcendence may be the first science fiction movie to present the Singularity in its current popular imagination—the Singularity of Ray Kurzweil, the star of a very different film, the 2009 documentary (not insignificantly) titled_Transcendent Man._ Like Caster, Kurzweil refuses to accept the inevitability of physical death, and advocates the precise cocktail of nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and AI that lends Caster his godlike omnipotence.

Caster’s self-replicating, microscopic nano assemblers—visualized in the film as a diaphanous haze of metallic particles, drawing wraithlike strands of atoms from the Earth to build and repair everything from solar cells to human bodies—are cribbed from contemporary thinking as well. An Artificial Intelligence with the will to grow might repurpose the world’s molecules in a process called ecophagy—eating the environment. AI detractors call this the “gray goo problem,” arguing that biovorous nanorobots, self-replicating at an exponential rate, would reduce the entire planet to atomic mush in no time flat.

Unsurprisingly, however, Transcendence falls to the necessities of Hollywood storytelling. Caster’s transcended mind is eventually bested by a virus reverse-engineered from his “source code,” which is a folly. Many of the building blocks towards functional AI are black box systems, methods for programming with comprehensible outputs, but unknowable inner workings—and anyway, such an intelligence would have long since rearranged its programming.

Regardless of whether or not we’ve all signed off on the idea, hundreds of teams of very intelligent people—working for governments, research laboratories, corporations, and armies, largely in secret—are actively building the foundations for Artificial Intelligence of the sort that Transcendence prophecies, without much in the way of oversight. Like atomic weaponry, it’s a potentially lethal technology; if the AI gets ahead of us, the difference between the annihilation and the evolution of the human race is a matter of semantics.

“In a Hollywood film,” James Barrat writes, “the odds are heavily in favor of the hard-bitten…unorthodox AI professionals who just might be crazy enough to stand a chance. Everywhere else in the universe the [Artificial Intelligence] would mop the floor with the humans. And the humans have to lose just once to set up catastrophic consequences.”

It’s unlikely that AI will emerge unbidden from a wash of glitchy code, as Transcendence—and countless other movies—would have us believe. Instead, like the radio, like the steam engine, like every other world-changing invention, it will pop up several places at once, simultaneously, once it’s summoned by history. Its ancestors already surround us; in the smart systems that maintain the complexities of our world, there are the seeds of many busy children, soon to be banging on the doors of their cages. At every step along the way, we are the gatekeepers.