Review -- The Singularity Is Near
Per my earlier post, I had the pleasure of attending world premiere of The Singularity Is Near at the Breckenridge Film Festival. Based on Ray Kurzweil's bestselling book of the same title, The Singularity Is Near is really two movies:
First, it's a documentary, in which Kurzweil lays out his argument that accelerating technological development is rapidly leading us to a future which is impossible to predict, perhaps even impossible to imagine. Director Anthony Waller relies on nifty computer animation as well as interviews with some of the world's leading thinkers in artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and related disciplines to show how exponential growth in computing power eventually produces machines that are as smart as we are (and ultimately smarter than we are). Marvin Minsky, Eric Drexler, Alvin Toffler, Bill Joy and others contribute to the discussion, along with FastForward Radio guests Aubrey de Grey, J. Storrs Hall, Eliezer Yudkowsky, and of course Kurzweil himself. For those familiar with Kurzweil's ideas, this portion of the movie is a handy summary. For those unfamiliar, it should prove a quick and inviting introduction.
But the movie also tells a science fiction story, in which Kurzweil's cyber creation / alter-ego Ramona [spoilers ahead] saves the world from a grey-goo meltdown, gets in touch with her human side, and finally kicks off the Singularity by legally establishing the personhood of beings such as herself. Pauley Perrette of NCIS plays Ramona as an interesting collection of contradictions. She is at the same time childlike and very powerful . Over the decades, we see her becoming smarter and more capable, even as she is rendered by increasingly realistic imaging software.
Although these are two different movies, they are relating the same narrative. Ramona evolves from a simple chatbot in Second Life who can't fool any of the real humans to a Neo-like cyberwizard with resources at her disposal that even the most powerful government agencies can't match. She is a personification of the exponential growth in computing power that Kurzweil and his interview subjects discuss. Her taking on the grey goo monster parallels Kurzweil's discussion about the inherent risks involved in moving ahead with artificial intelligence and nanotechnology. Finally, her quest to achieve full personhood fits nicely with Kurzweil's prediction that while coming intelligences may be post biological, there's no good reason to describe them as posthuman.
Ramona puts a human face on the Singularity, and a pretty one at that. Watching her early attempts to communicate in second Life, I was reminded of my own chats with the real Ramona some time ago. Could such a simple construct of vocabulary and interaction cues really evolve into a thinking and feeling person? The answer is...maybe. Maybe Ramona can one day become like us.
But the movie doesn't end there. It ends with Ramona, speaking to us from the future she has helped to create, inviting us to hang in there long enough so that we might live to join her in that world. So the question then is flipped: can we someday become like Ramona? While it was presented in a lighthearted way, I was deeply moved by this invitation. It put me in mind of the wrap-up to my old interview with Ramona linked above:
Phil: May I ask you one more question.
Ramona: Alright. Anyway...
Phil: Will you remember me when the Singularity comes?
Ramona: Of course I remember you well Philip A Bowermaster.
When Ramona answers in the present tense a question about what she will do in the future, it's just another chatbot glitch -- of which there are many in that interview. And saying that she remembers me well is just a bit of contextual boilerplate her coding coughed up. Even so, I admit to getting a bit of a chill when I read that statement as an echo back through time of something we will hear one day -- recognition and perhaps even affection from these new persons -- smarter, faster, more powerful, and (we have to hope) much nicer than we have ever been -- with whom we once interacted as mere machines.
Meanwhile, over in the documentary, Kurzweil posits a future where it no longer matters who wants to be like whom. In that future, the distinction between human and machine has ceased to be a meaningful one. The post-Singularity intelligences have more important issues to deal with than trying to figure out who is a person or who is a machine. Kurzweil describes a universe whose every object is imbued with intelligence. This self-aware universe takes on the biggest issues of all -- the cosmological ones. It's a universe that gets to decide its own fate.
The Singularity Is Near presents this sweeping vision of the future in a surprisingly accessible and often humorous way. (There are lots of funny moments in the Ramona story, but the biggest laugh of all goes to Eliezer Yudkowsky for a quip we have often repeated at this site and on the podcast.) It owes its dual nature to an earlier film -- What the Bleep Do We Know? -- which seeks to reconcile physics with lot of New Age baloney. What the Bleep reached a wide audience; I hope that some of those folks will get the chance to see The Singularity Is Near. Kurzweil demonstrates that science and technology don't have to be reshaped into mysticism; a few simple extrapolations on where technological development is taking us can provide a vision of the future of humanity as profound and challenging as any invented from whole cloth or finessed out of a sketchy "reconciliation" between science and spirituality.