Today we give you a first look at the trailer for Transcendence, a new movie starring Johnny Depp that takes a look at one possibly outcome.  What happens when a human mind gets loose in the planet’s cybersphere of interconnected computing power and starts to function without limits or control?  Is that mind still human?  When man blends with machine, what will it mean to be human?

Depp plays Dr. Will Caster (“will caster”?  Okay, nyuk nyuk, we get it) is an artificial intelligence researcher who strives to create a machine that possesses sentience and collective intelligence. Extremists who oppose technological advancement target him, but their actions drive him toward his goal. Caster also wants to become part of the new technology, and his wife Evelyn and his best friend Max Waters, also researchers, question the wisdom of this drive. Caster’s goal to acquire knowledge becomes one to acquire power, and he seems to be unstoppable.

It is, of course, entertainment first, so there are a lot of very visual action sequences.  It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the Johnny Depp character gets shot and eventually killed, and that’s the jumping off point.

There’s a lot to this idea of Transcendence, and we do seem to be headed in this general direction as a species whether we all like it or not.

“Transcendence” as a Concept

In the trailer, Depp’s character gives us a catchy new name for a predicted step in the evolution of the human species, called “The Singularity”.  Futurist Ray Kurzweil, the current head of technology at Google, coined the term.  He has spent much of his life exploring the ramifications of the eventual complete merger of ourselves and our technology.  Though he has detractors who disagree, Kurzweil predicts that in 30 years, humans will be able to upload their entire consciousness to a cybernetic host, and that the entirety of the human body will be replaceable by mechanical components within 90 years.  He’s so certain that this is going to happen, and so certain about when, that he’s put himself on a dramatic health regimen to try to ensure that he will live long enough to see it.

Kurzweil’s interest in humanity’s cyborganic destiny began about 1980 largely as a practical matter. He needed a way to predict and keep track of the pace of technological progress.  Introduce a product too soon, and it fails because the world isn’t ready for it.  Introduce it too late, and it’s over before it begins.  “Even at that time, technology was moving quickly enough that the world was going to be different by the time you finished a project,” he says. “So it’s like skeet shooting — you can’t shoot at the target.”

Moore’s law until recently was a common yardstick for estimating the advance of technology.  It  states that the number of transistors you can put on a microchip doubles about every two years – but we’ve since hit the lower limit.  Once you get down to a few atoms, you can’t go any lower!  Just the same, it’s been a surprisingly reliable rule of thumb.   Kurzweil, though, realized that measuring computing power based on a single criterion might not work over the long haul.  Physics does have its limits, after all – so he plotted the change over time in the amount of computing power, measured in MIPS (millions of instructions per second), that one could buy for $1,000.

Kurzweil’s curve looked a lot like Moore’s, with computing power doubling every couple of years. This worked backwards, too,  even extending the curve backwards through the decades to 1900.

Here’s what the exponential curves told him. We will successfully reverse-engineer the human brain by the mid-2020s. By the end of that decade, computers will be capable of human-level intelligence. Kurzweil puts the date of the Singularity — never say he’s not conservative — at 2045. In that year, he estimates, given the vast increases in computing power and the vast reductions in the cost of same, the quantity of artificial intelligence created will be about a billion times the sum of all the human intelligence that exists today.

He predicts that by 2045, we’ll be able to upload our entire minds to a cybernetic host – including our consciousness.  But that will be a copy.  It won’t be us.  The original will still exist, creating a moral and ethical conundrum the likes of which humanity has never dealt with before.

Transcendence explores that conundrum.  It’s sensationalistic, and depicts a worst case scenario. This likely won’t happen – but something will happen.  In the meantime, this looks like good cinema.  It debuts in the United States on April 18, 2014.
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