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The Singularity, Will We Survive Our Technology?

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March 5, 2013 in Technology


“Doug Wolens is a Sundance-celebrated professional documentarian, and former New York City lawyer. He began working on his latest documentary, The Singularity 12 years ago, upon reading Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines. Wolens collected footage for the film beginning in 2005, video interviewing over 120 people in the process, and gathering hundreds of hours of footage. The Singularity is a large-scale achievement in its documentation of futurist and counter-futurist ideas, and in my opinion, is the best documentary on the Singularity to date.

The film addresses the hypothesis of a technological singularity, and more generally, the future of humanity in the context of advancing science and technology. Central topics include artificial intelligence, consciousness, nanotechnology, and enhancement. The subtitle of the film is “Will we survive our Technology?”, and survival is certainly one of the major themes. Wolens, however, is less interested in exploring the question of whether or not artificial intelligence might enslave or destroy future humans, or what we might do to prevent it. Rather, he focuses on a more philosophical notion of “existential risk”, and looks at whether or not we could lose important elements of our humanity as futurist visions unfold. Thus although the explicit topic of the film is by and large the prospect of the technological singularity, the general theme of the film is one of futurist existential philosophy. When questioned about the theme of the film, Wolens responds: “The film is about humanity, it’s not about machines. It’s about what it means to be human in an age where technology is becoming more and more pervasive, and will become more and more pervasive.”

The documentary is worth watching for a number of reasons. The film is both educational and entertaining, accessible to those unfamiliar with the field, while still valuable to those more familiar with it. The content is exclusive, and favors well-considered and mature perspectives of futurists, scientists, government officials, and philosophers. Featured interviews include familiar figures such as Ray Kurzweil, Christof Koch, Peter Voss, Eliezer Yudkowsky, David Chalmers, Cynthia Breazeal, Peter Norvig, Ben Goerztel, Andy Clark, Ralph Merkle, Bill McKibben, and many others. Of unique interest, particularly for those already familiar with the futurist domain, are interviews with U.S. former chief of counterterrorism advisor Richard A. Clarke, and former U.S. secretary of defense (and DCI), Leon Panetta, who do not usually participate in Transhumanist discourse.

Wolens spent 4 years editing the film, and the care taken certainly contributes to the film’s value as a documentary. Worth noting is how balanced the film is with regards to its sampling of perspectives, as well as how impartial it is in its vantage point. Wolens presents a wide range of distinct and opposing viewpoints, with none made to look irrelevant, particularly foolish, or out of place. The film is not biased towards a particular moral or philosophical standpoint, nor is it biased towards a particular school of singularity thought, or a particular futurist or anti-futurist perspective. For example, perspectives on timescales range anywhere from Ben Goertzel’s statement “Basically, the Singularity is near”, to Wolf Singer’s “For the moment, I think this is just a nice hypothesis, a futuristic dream”, with a number of other well-considered perspectives in between.

Wolens also worked in a very detailed manor in the editing process, having interwoven topics and ideas between the various interview clips in subtle and nuanced ways. There is often dissonance, congruence, and interlock between clips, and it’s enjoyable to experience the formation, rise and fall of ideas as the various segments, refer to, develop, echo back, and/or refute one another. For example, a philosopher may agree with a neuroscientist that consciousness is a material phenomenon, their definitions of it may mutually imply, complement or develop one another’s, but there may be dissonance between them on whether or not a non-biological machine could be conscious – only to be followed by an AI researcher with a distinct notion of consciousness who believes machine consciousness is an unimportant question. These kinds of mounting, partially symmetrical, and asymmetrical relationships comprise a large part of the film’s structure, and imparted by virtue of this editing style is appreciation for the complexity and irresolve of the field and its queries. How will advancing technologies change what it means to be human? Major ideas and concepts surrounding this central question are communicated gradually and tentatively over the course of the film, or as the official movie description puts it, participants “turn over the question like a Rubik’s Cube”

Aesthetically speaking, and overall, the film is professional, and tempered. The film presents the subject matter and field in a way that will likely make it more accessible (than other futurist documentaries) to those with conservative sensibilities or critical dispositions. For example, you won’t hear the phrases like “mind hacking” in this film, nor will you see Kurzweil discuss bringing his father back from the dead. Wolens also avoids presentation of contemptuous, condescending, over-zealous or aggressive attitudes (even Bill McKibben has toned down for this one), as well as omits presentation of ideas in the more “religious-like” narrative and vocabulary that futurists can sometimes put forth. Unlike films such as Transcendent Man, and Technocalyps, significant ideas and information are rarely offset or overshadowed by provocative language or controversial content.
There are several memorable points in the film. Ideas and arguments from David Chalmers and Christof Koch are exceptionally clear, and well put forth. Eliezer Yukowski is at his finest with a collection of concise, understated, slightly self-amused, casually delivered arguments, including a seemingly knock-down argument against converting the brain into computing cycles, a calculation upon which Kurzweil’s hypothesis meaningfully depends. Perhaps the most emotive high point is Cynthia Breazeal’s poignant reference to issues of opportunity cost and enhancement. Brazil discusses how appealing it might be to have a neural implant that enabled her to jump 50 ft in the air on robotic legs. However, she says, “If I loose the ability to sense what it’s like to walk on grass in bare feet, that might not be a trade off I want to make.” This comment contributes significantly to what will become one of the main take home points of the film, which is the importance in determining, as individuals, what it is we value, or is most worth striving to achieve, as well as preserve, given radical and transformative possibilities of genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence.

Given the breadth and accessibility of The Singularity, and the meticulously professional treatment of the subject matter, I highly recommend this film for anyone interested in futurist discourse. Over the past 12 years, Wolens has worked hard to provide an insightful snapshot into the most prominent minds in this field–and it shows. Don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy this film.”



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