Could Transcendence Really Happen?

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1Photo: Courtesy of Warner Brothers.

At first glance — or a quick viewing of the trailer — it's easy to assume Transcendence is about artificial intelligence. AI, as we science nerds call it, is pretty much everywhere these days: TV, movies, and even sort of on our smartphones (hey, Siri!). It's certainly not a new phenomenon. But, what's going down in Johnny Depp's new action flick is something a little different — and a whole lot scarier.

In scientific terms, it's known as the Singularity. According to scientist Ray Kurzweil, it’s "the union of human and machine, in which the knowledge and skills embedded in our brains will be combined with the vastly greater capacity, speed, and knowledge-sharing ability of our own creations."

In layman's terms, Johnny Depp loads his entire consciousness onto a hard drive and transforms into a not-quite-human supercomputer who’s smarter than pretty much anything, ever.

Let’s slow down a minute and give you some background on the flick: Depp and costar Rebecca Hall play Will and Evelyn Caster, married scientists who are at the forefront of the AI revolution. They've created a sentient machine (read: a computer that has thoughts and feelings) called PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network), and it's getting on the, ahem, nerves of a lot of people.

A radical anti-AI group decides to take down the operation, and Will ends up with a radioactive bullet in his side. As the physical Will starts to deteriorate, Evelyn and another scientist upload his every thought and memory onto a computer similar to PINN. With a lot of fiddling and, frankly, some good luck, Will's likeness is able to come to life onscreen. But, naturally, nothing goes as planned (darn you, technology), and Will/The Computer soon becomes more intelligent for its, or anyone's, own good. It (he?) alters the stock market, changes the political landscape, and even starts building an army of supercomputer warriors.

This revolt is clearly dramatized for the sake of making a riveting film — and to illustrate the moral gray area we're entering with technology — but that doesn't mean everything in Transcendence is made up. Our first reaction after screening the flick was Holy crap, could that really happen? And, it appears that we're not alone. As Rebecca Hall told us, the movie's pressing and relevant subject matter was one of the reasons she decided to take the part in the first place.

Paul Bettany, who plays the Casters' lab partner Max Waters, decided to look into the science behind the script before he started filming. He spoke to a professor at Cal Tech, and shared the conversation with us at a recent Transcendence press conference. "I said listen, how far-fetched is this, and he said 30 years," said Bettany. "And, I said, but you mean being able to upload a human consciousness — thoughts, details, infinitesimal history — and he said yes. It was sort of a terrifying thought that scientists are unified in the opinion that we've always been on a collision course of technology, and that our next stage will be immortality."
2Photo: Courtesy of Warner Brothers.

Director Wally Pfister did his similar research after he first read the screenplay. "One of the questions that I asked professors was if we were able to do this, to take a human mind and upload it to a supercomputer, would it contain emotions and a soul," said Pfister at the press conference. "Ultimately, they said yes. If you're taking every neuron and transferring it from one hard drive to another, in theory it should contain those [emotions]. But, there's interpretation — whoever's doing the upload is going to have an affect on the transferring. It opens up a lot of very fascinating questions, and that's what we hope to do in this movie is create ambiguity — in the end you want to find out if this machine is malevolent or benevolent."

That same sentiment is echoed with Ray Kurzweil's study of the Singularity — it's not a matter of if artificial intelligence will become a reality, but when. More importantly, how will we handle it, and how will we choose to let it affect our lives? As he writes, the very nature of what it means to be human will change one day.

Morgan Freeman is particularly concerned, especially when it comes to the way in which Evelyn and Will try to keep their marriage alive even after one of them is no longer, well, alive. "To me, the question is that the chemistry of life itself seems not to be considered in this whole equation," he told reporters. "You talk about looking into the eyes of a beautiful woman and falling in love — what happens if you're uploaded? If you no longer have the chemistry of life, what do you have?"

While we came away from the Transcendence press conference convinced the movie's technology is a very real (and very confusing) possibility, we were still perplexed about whether that reality is a good thing or a bad thing. Transcendence's plot comes to a very clean ending (no spoilers here!), but the story's morality is very much up in the air. Is Will Caster an inherently evil man for overexerting his powers, or was he overtaken by a technology that took on a life of its own?

According to Depp, that's the whole point: “It should be a little vague as to whether or not he's losing it. Is there something lying dormant in the man that's waiting to be pumped up with that kind of power? Don't know. Does any bad person think they're doing bad things? Historically, they all thought they had a pretty decent cause. When you realize that you're essentially God, and there ain't nothing on Earth more powerful that you, you get too far into it."