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Even “bad” sci-fi movies can teach us something about emerging technologies!

The film Transcendence, is not a great movie. Yet this futuristic thriller, which stars Johnny Depp as a genius scientist who mind-melds with a supercomputer, provides surprising and sometimes startling insights into how future technologies are unfolding, and the moral and ethical challenges they potentially raise.

In my new book Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies, there are a handful of critically “un-acclaimed” movies that I suspect will raise an eyebrow or two. As it turns out though, even “bad” sci-fi movies can teach us something about emerging tech!

Here I must confess that, despite the bashing it received from critics, I have a soft spot for Transcendence. In the film, Dr. Will Caster (played by Depp), is an AI scientist who fervently believes that artificial intelligence is poised to “transcend” humans. As he tells a rapt audience, “a sentient machine will quickly overcome the limitations of biology, and in a short time, its analytical power will be greater than the collective intelligence of every person born in the history of the world”.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as excited as Will about this AI-dominated future, and he becomes the target of a violent group of techno-terrorists. Following his speech, he’s shot using a lethal radioactive polonium 210-laced bullet, and his health starts to rapidly decline.

Before he passes away though, Caster’s mind is uploaded into a supercomputer, and super-intelligent cyber-Will is born.

Beyond the Singularity

Transcendence draws heavily on the work of author and Google’s Director of Engineering Ray Kurzweil, along with the futurist and engineer Erik Drexler, who is perhaps best known for his 1986 book Engines of Creation. Together, their visions paint a future dominated by “superintelligent” machines, and self-replicating “nanobots” which can make near enough anything out of the atoms and molecules around them.

Intriguing as these ideas are (and both Kurzweil and Drexler are pin-sharp), they do stretch scientific credulity. This shouldn’t be an issue when incorporating them into a film like Transcendence—it is, after all science fiction. But ultimately, the technological make-believe and a muddled script (along with a less-than-charismatic performance from Depp) led to the movie bombing with critics.

And yet, underneath it’s “badness”, this is a film that provides a salient lesson in the dangers of ignoring reality when trying to predict the future, and of taking speculative science too seriously.

To be clear, I don’t buy into the depictions of AI and nanotechnology that Transcendence promotes. These are based on an over-simplistic view of the world that all-too-easily ditches scientific realities for wishful thinking. Yet it’s the very absurdity of the movie that makes it useful for exploring real-world trends, and the dangers of naïve speculation.

Illustrating this, there’s a scene in Transcendence where nanobots, created by the now all-powerful cyber-Will, restore sight to a man who was born blind. Putting aside the sheer improbability that an AI could create machines that understand how to reconstruct biological systems that are so stupendously complex we don’t even know what we don’t know yet, there’s no way the subject’s brain could instantly cope with the resulting deluge of new optical impulses.

Beware exponential extrapolations of future trends

This failure to understand the role of the brain in making visual sense of our surroundings illustrates a naïve ignorance of how the natural world works in Transcendence; as does the use of self-replicating nanobots that transcend well-established laws of nature. Both are indicative of the over-enthusiastic use of exponential extrapolation in the film.

This, though, is where Transcendence comes into its own as an object lesson in sifting technological fantasy from reality. Exponential extrapolation is what lies behind real-world predictions of self-replicating nanobots, superintelligence, and the (allegedly) forthcoming technological singularity. It’s a seductive way of seeing the world. But if not used with care, it can also be deeply misleading

It’s easy, for instance, to look at advances in computing power over the past several decades, and predict that in a few years we’ll be able to simulate a human brain, and even upload someone’s mind into a supercomputer. It’s thinking like this that drives fears over the emergence of superintelligent machines that threaten humanity, or dreams of a future where people transcend their biological origins.

Yet exponential extrapolation is deeply unreliable. Minute errors in projected trends can lead to predictions being out by thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of years. And they often ignore the limitations imposed by natural laws. Just because people are able to travel faster now than they could 100 years ago for example, it doesn’t follow we’ll be exceeding the speed of light anytime soon.

Here, perhaps the most egregious error that exponential extrapolation leads to is an assumption that the past predicts the future. At some point, all exponential trends stop, as resources run out, or they simply hit the hard wall of physical reality.

This is where Transcendence serves as an important lesson in thinking more critically about technology innovation. But also stands as a sobering reminder of the dangers of buying into the projected consequences of exponential trends in the here-and-now.

The Dangers of Buying into Technological Myths

In 2011, a group calling itself Individuals Tending Toward Savagery (ITS) attempted to murder a Mexican nanotechnologist by sending him a bomb though the mail. He escaped unharmed, but a colleague was seriously injured in the resulting blast.

ITS was working off the deeply misguided premise that nanotechnology would lead to an out-of-control “gray goo” of self-replicating nanobots which would destroy life as we know it. And they concluded that the only logical response was to kill the scientists involved.

It’s a real-world plot that has echoes of the fictitious techno-terrorist group RIFT in Transcendence. Except that, in this case, fallacious fears spurred on by speculation from experts led to real harm.

ITS based their actions in part on an article published in 2000 by Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy. Joy was profoundly concerned by the future being painted by people like Drexler and Kurzweil, and cautioned against the unthinking development of potentially catastrophic technologies.

Ironically, although he absolutely denounced violent action, Joy cited one of the more well-known techno-terrorists of recent times and another inspiration for ITS: Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber.

In Transcendence, RIFT was driven by (unfounded, as it turns out) fears that emerging technologies would obliterate humankind. Similarly, the actions of ITS were motivated by fantastical ideas of the future that were fueled by exponential thinking, and framed by an immoral logic that short-term crimes justify long-term gains. It’s a parallel that illustrates the dangers of getting too caught up in deeply speculative imagined technological futures.

This is, of course, not to say that we shouldn’t take the risks of powerful technologies gone wrong seriously—far from it. Yet when viewed in the light of real-world trends, Transcendence is a sobering reminder of how careful we need to be in thinking about emerging technologies, and the potential risks and benefits they bring.

Films from the Future

This is why Transcendence made its way into my new book Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies. Despite not being critically acclaimed, it reveals a surprising amount about the landscape surrounding emerging technologies and the complex relationships we have with them.

The same can be said for other critically ambiguous films in the book, including Inferno (which opens up a whole Pandora’s box around weaponized viruses and unilateral action against global challenges); Elysium (which challenges viewers to think deeply about who benefits from new technologies, and who ends up suffering as a result); and The Day After Tomorrow (which, for all its confusing messaging about climate change, provides a starting point for exploring environmental resiliency and life in the “Anthropocene”).

These and other movies can, with the right frame, help us better map out the social dangers—and opportunities—that science and tech present for our future.

This doesn’t necessarily make the bad movies good. But it can make them useful.


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