My Thoughts on the movie "Transcendance"
#1
I saw "Transcendance" today. Starring Johnny Depp, Paul Bettany, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, and Kate Mara, the movie poses a moral dilemma. It's a good, old-fashioned morality play and a rather creepy one, in my opinion.

Depp, Bettany, Hall, and Morgan are part of an elite community of artificial intelligence scientists who -- collectively -- are on the verge of creating a truly independent artificial intelligence. The critical question throughout the movie is, "Can you prove that you are self-aware?" For a human this is a very hard question to answer. Hence, any answer provided by an AI system would be suspect.

Closely tied to the question of self-awareness is the issue of what is the difference between "right" and "wrong". The audience is treated to a conflict in definitions although it doesn't become clear until the very end that there is indeed such a conflict.

For me as a long-time computer programmer and technologist it is always very hard to watch movies about artificial intelligence, computer systems becoming self-aware, etc. because any serious attempt to depict such a thing veers quickly into the realm of fantasy. Our technology is not yet to the point where it can create a spontaneously self-aware mechanism, although as someone who as studied large systems theory in considerable detail I know fully well that complex systems produce unexpected behaviors -- what some people call "ghosts in the machine".

The concept of "ghosts in the machine" was explored in the movie "I, Robot" starring Will Smith. That film was based loosely on Isaac Asimov's robot stories and I have always had problems with Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics". Any attempt to impose such laws on cybernetic systems will ultimately meet with failure because long before we have independently self-aware robots we will have already fully deployed them for war. RoboCop is probably closer to reality than "I, Robot" ever could be.

As far as "Transcendance" is concerned, however, the movie raises another complicated issue. Can we in fact preserve our consciousness after the death of our body? Might we be able to transfer that consciousness to a new vessel of our own choosing? The movie attempts to resolve this question but I am not convinced.

This is a very real-world issue, though, because there are very wealthy people today who are trying to develop the technology to "copy" our minds onto computer systems. But to me the idea of replication is repulsive. You would not be transferring your consciousness to a new medium; rather, you would be creating a facsimile of it. And this is one of the questions the movie asks: are we just making copies or is the human "soul" actually moving into a new vessel?

As I watch the movie it occurred to me that you would never be able to devise a scientifically reliable and convincing test to show that a consciousness has been "uploaded" into a new medium (such as a computer network). You would at best be able to show that you can program the network to replicate many of your logical processes and to preserve (maybe) your memories.

For real transcendance to occur I think you would have to gradually extend the biological vessel that holds our consciousness and temporarily shutdown that biological portion without losing anything of the personality; and then finally re-extended the non-biological vessel back into a biological vessel. We have partially achieved some of this by shutting down people's vital bodily functions (respiration and heart beat) for extended periods of time (upwards of 40 minutes) by lowering body temperatures to prevent decay of brain tissues. These procedures have been employed in rare, very dangerous operations.

But even such a gradual transition of personality to a non-biological containment and back to the same body would not really convince me unless I could make the journey myself without "blacking out". And I'm not sure we even have the theoretical science to figure out how that might be done.

The movie touches on other disturbing concepts as well, such as the loss of individuality and "humanity". It's really never clear to me who are supposed to be the "good guys" and who are supposed to be "the bad guys". The story doesn't even appropriately assign blame for the great conflict to anyone in particular. In fact, the whole conflict arises solely because of a paradox: the people who most fear transcendance in fact trigger it, and we don't find out until long afterward why they set about opposing the research that makes it possible.

The self-appointed defenders of humanity make some clever choices but they don't actually prove that they have the moral high ground. They act out of fear and heightened compassion but they don't really understand what is happening, so the audience is left to wonder if they are making good choices.

If you like movies that make you think then "Transcendance" is definitely a movie to see. If, however, you're just hoping for a lot of science fictiony action -- well, there are explosions but they are not really the main point of the "action".

The film sees to be getting mixed reviews and I suspect that is because it is so cerebral and also because it takes on so many issues it's not clear where the moral dilemmas begin and end.
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