There were many moments of high irony before we Sonoma Film Festival attendees got to preview a somewhat unfinished version of The Singularity is Near: The Movie — based on the Ray Kurzweil book of the same name. The lights went down, the anticipation rose and we waited in the dark… and waited… with various people shouting mildly snarky comments. Mine was: "John Cage’s version of the Singularity." A computer crash was announced. While we worried about crashing cities full of uploaded minds after the singularity, Ray Kurzweil got back on stage (he had earlier introduced the film) and good-naturedly reassured us that the technology was getting better. A couple of minutes later, the movie started.
The Singularity Is Near: The Movie does exactly what Ray Kurzweil set out to do. It’s a movie version of the book, with two running through lines. In documentary style, we have Ray discussing his ideas about the Singularity, with commentators variously supporting or refuting or worrying about his ideas. With Bill McKibben in the role of the friendly flat out opponent; Bill Joy playing the reasonable but worried man; and Mitch Kapor doubting the technological possibilities — they are all worked into the weave to (at least) let us know that not everybody believes that a) The Singularity is Coming and b) It’s going to work out well. K. Eric Drexler, MIT roboticist Cynthia Breazeal, desktop manufacturing guru Neil Gershenfeld and many many more are woven in to support the idea — and the more hopeful potentials — of accelerating change leading to radical alterations in life (itself).
The value added here for those h+ types already familiar with this discourse includes the clarity and concise expression of the ideas presented in Ray’s doorstopper sized book, and lots of very groovy, trippy, and playful graphics (including an apparent parody of the opening of Fringe.)
And then there’s the integration of a fictional narrative into the whole thing.
The story revolves around Ramona, Kurzweil’s alter ego and virtual/AI persona. This is the same Ramona who is interviewed throughout The Singularity Is Near book, where her role is to tell us what life is like at various points in time in the future. To some extent, she plays that same role here, but she also supplies some drama. And while the acting here will not win any academy awards, Ramona is put into several perilous situations and — one of them, at least — is rather affecting. (I’m not going to give anything away, except to say that there’s a courtroom scene, and you’ll find yourself rooting for her.) There are some funny elements too, including a very direct nod at The Matrix.
Ultimately, like the book, The Singularity Is Near: The Movie is an advocacy/teaching film. I wouldn’t count on cinema critics to find in it a glorious work of art. But it’s a total blast to sit through (even with Tony Robbins and Alan Dershowitz) and it’s definitely going to get around and blow minds, spark debate, thought and study. Singularitarians will want to show this to friends and family, and even for those who don’t believe in the singularity but support transhumanist ideas, there’s a whole lot about nanotech, biotech and AI to tweak interest and excitement.
I can’t wait to see the final version.