Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Transcendence: The clash of humanity and technology

Near the beginning of the 2014 thought-provoking science fiction film, Transcendence (directed by Wally Pfister2014), one of the main characters, Max Waters (Paul Bettany), walks into and through a deserted house into a little courtyard, bends down next to some sunflowers (the only healthy plants in the garden), thinking aloud to himself that “he” (his friend Will) had always said that he would find a way for himself and his beloved wife (Evelyn) to be together.

Max is a computer scientist who was a friend and colleague of the protagonist, Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), both artificial intelligence researchers, who are obviously no longer alive, and whom he perceives as transmogrified in the sunflowers.

As the narrative unfolds, perceiving them in the flowers seems quite ironic, in retrospect, however, because Will Caster turns out to be the embodiment of what Ray Kurzweil conceives of as the impending “singularity” (the fusion of humans and computers), which is what the title of the film denotes, namely “transcendence”. And “transcendence” in this sense turns out to be inimical to natural life as we know it, despite Will Caster’s intention, that it should prove to be a panacea for curing the ills besetting the planet, such as disease and pollution.

Judging by the opening scene-sequence of the film, which is set in an urban environment three years after the culmination of crucial events in narrated time, human society ain’t what it used to be. Everything seems rather run-down, and one is given a clue about the events leading up to this state of affairs when Max remarks to himself (something to the effect) that sooner or later it had to happen that humanity and technology would collide.

This is the question that animates the narrative: are technology and humanity on a collision course? It has been the subject of many a science fiction tale (in a certain sense of all genuine science fiction), and should be seen as a motif of critical reflection in the face of the largely unreflective, headlong global rush to develop ever-more powerful technologies, regardless of the questions that these pose for the humanity of people and for their inescapable dependence on nature.

How this collision might take place is the narrative substance of the film, taking viewers back to when eminent computer scientist, Dr Caster, and his team of AI researchers are seen as being on the verge of making the breakthrough to an unheard-of event in the history of computer technology development, namely the construction of a sentient quantum computer, which would actualise the “singularity” or “transcendence”.

That their work is not unchallenged is clear from the fact that Caster is heckled at a meeting where he addresses the public on their progress. At about the same time when the extremist anti-technology group, RIFT, or the Revolutionary Independence from Technology, launches synchronised countrywide attacks on AI laboratories, one of their members confronts Will and shoots him with a bullet laced with the radioactive element, polonium, leaving him with only about a month to live.

Beside herself with grief, Evelyn decides to fast-track the ultimate objective of the project by uploading Will’s consciousness to the quantum computer that the project has developed, despite Max’s opposition to this. Her attempt proves to be successful, and Will – now in virtual form – requests that his consciousness be linked to the internet to enable it (“him”) to grow exponentially in knowledge and performativity. Despite their friend Max’s objections, that it is no longer Will who desires this, Evelyn carries out Will’s wish by connecting him with the internet via satellite.

Max is abducted by RIFT and its leader, Bree (Kate Mara), manages to persuade him to support their efforts at curbing the “inhuman” events set in motion by Will’s merging with quantum computing and the Internet – which has in the meantime assumed the guise of Will and Evelyn creating a technological “paradise” near a remote desert town oxymoronically named “Brightwood”.

With Evelyn’s assistance the newly emerged “quantum Will” forges ahead with research and development of revolutionary technologies in medicine, biology, nanotechnology and energy, but when “he” reaches the point where he is able to employ nano-particles to reach and manipulate people’s minds, even Evelyn balks at further prospects of extending Will’s already vast new powers.

In the meantime the US government has reached similar conclusions to those of RIFT, and cynically intends using the latter to squash Will’s project, thus deflecting blame from itself.

To cut a long story short, when Will’s capability of “infecting” and controlling matter, including organic things, starts manifesting itself (in the process transforming living things into a kind of virtual matter) Max agrees to help RIFT with the creation of a computer virus capable of destroying Will’s source code, which would terminate “Will” too in the process.

This is where the stark choice facing humanity is foregrounded: either Will’s singularity is left to continue assimilating all of reality, including living beings – with the prospect of putting an end to all disease and pollution, and even of actualising human immortality – or a way of uploading the terminator virus must be found, with its consequence of concomitantly annihilating the technological civilisation we know.

Given the opening scene-sequence of the film, it should already be apparent that Max, Bree and Evelyn choose the latter course of action. Unexpectedly (and I won’t reveal how this happens), even the virtual Will has to make this choice, and persuaded by a mortally wounded Evelyn, “he” decides to sacrifice his dream of a fully actualized technological world. As “he” slowly fades into oblivion he assures Evelyn that what he did was motivated by her desire to “save” the planet from human depredations. Ironically, as conceived in the film, “saving the planet” entails transmuting life as we know it into something distinctly different, which is not even “alive” in the usual sense.

Love (specifically Will’s love for Evelyn) is the redeeming motif of the film, although its ambivalence is highlighted by its questionable, life-devastating consequences. Although not foregrounded, the film has a powerful ecological message – that, with the best intentions, technology might be harnessed to rescue life, only to destroy life as it exists in the process, leaving in its place a virtual, albeit materialized simulacrum of it.

Pfister’s Transcendence therefore chooses in favour of life and a more encompassing love, in the end: Will could have saved “Evelyn” by uploading her to the Internet too, to dwell there with him in everlasting virtual bliss, but he/they choose to let humanity and other life-forms live instead. I find this quite telling, and Transcendence is not exceptional in this respect.

All the science fiction I can think of (the Terminator movies, Battlestar Galactica, Robocop, Blade Runner, Never Let Me Go, among many others) makes the same choice, namely in favour of life and love. This alone should send an unmistakable message to those people, like Ray Kurweil, who seem to relish the prospect of a “singularity” that would “transcend” the limits of life as it exists, in favour of a mode of existence that would exhibit unheard-of intelligence and technological capabilities, but that would no longer be “life”. What value would such people put on the phenomena of life and love, and what price on technological development?

Anyone interested in a more sustained treatment of the theme concerning the inter-connectedness of life and love can read my paper, “Eros and love; Eros and life”, in Phronimon: Journal of the South African Society for Greek Philosophy and the Humanities, 12 (1), 2011, pp. 41-63.

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