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April 18, 2014

If you’ve spent any time in the geekier regions of the internet, you’ve heard of the Singularity. This is, roughly, the point at which ever-cheaper processing power reaches some critical threshold sufficient to support a “strong artificial intelligence”. That is, not just an expert system that’s good at translating natural language, or recognizing faces in pictures, or playing Jeopardy, but one that’s self-aware the same way humans — at least some of us — are. Singulatarians generally believe that once past this tipping point the AI will grow more powerful at an exponential rate, with various possible consequences.

I, personally, don’t put much stock in the more wild-eyed predictions, but there are some fascinating questions raised by the prospect of strong AI, especially in a massively-connected digital world like ours. Unfortunately, Transcendence connects meaningfully with none of these, preferring a doomsday scenario marrying those two most hated tropes by tech-illiterate Hollywood filmmakers: “computers are magic” and “computers are evil”.

We start on the cusp of a breakthrough in AI research. The most advanced expert system is the work of Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), both former students of Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman). They appear, along with Will’s colleague Max (Paul Bettany) at a TED-like talk, just before the neo-Luddite terrorist group RIFT executes a cluster of synchronized attacks strike AI labs across the country, and an attacker makes an attempt on Will’s life before turning the gun on himself.

Will is merely grazed, but it turns out the bullet was laced with polonium, giving Will a month or so to live. Like most Singularity true-believers, Evelyn is profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of death, and she tries to upload the pattern of Will’s brain into a computer. A RIFT cell leader (Kate Mara) tries to stop them, but “Will” gets online and magically infiltrates everywhere in the internet at once, making a fortune in high-frequency trading and starting to build a new physical data center in the desert southwest.

Max is less sanguine than Evelyn, and unsure that the AI “Will” is “really” the Will Caster that they knew. This is a deep and subtle point, which Jack Paglen’s script ignores in large part and mangles in the rest. Instead we get magical-evil-computer scaremongering, compounded with a low-grade nanotechnology “grey goo”/zombie scenario. Nanites didn’t work when they tried to remake The Day the Earth Stood Still, and they don’t work any better now.

Christopher Nolan’s long-time cinematographer Wally Pfister takes his first spin in the director’s chair, and I admit the pictures look as great as a Nolan film ever has. But he’s working from a deeply silly, technobabbly screenplay, and he’s not really a convincing storyteller.

On top of the ridiculous sci-fi tropes, the philosophical basis for RIFT’s opposition — you know, the side we’re supposed to agree with — shows a profound failure to grasp even the most basic ideas in AI research, points which were already clear in 1979 when Douglas Hofstadter published Gödel, Escher, Bach. Any AI, we’re told, is inherently cold and logical, and cannot possibly empathize with human intelligence. This stunningly flawed reading entirely undercuts the whole premise of the film’s neural-networks approach to AI: that small, deterministic and logical units like our neurons can assemble into patterns that give rise to all of our illogical, emotional personalities. The result may sound plausible to Hollywood technophobes, and maybe even to many in the audience, but anyone who’s ever thought much about AI and the Singularity will be sorely disappointed in this film that understands none of it.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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