Some time in my 16th year, I was lying in bed late at night waiting for sleep to overtake me and listening to the radio when a song called “Darkness Darkness” by the Youngbloods came on. The song evokes a desire to be extinguished — to be covered in darkness so as not to have to face some nameless dread. Something about it kept me awake most of the night thinking. I remember deciding that the situation of being alive is unacceptable because one can die and because one has a vulnerable body that can be subjected to extreme types of suffering. Being alive, it seemed to me, was a trap. And on top of that, there was the fact that one is brought into this situation without a choice… and one also exits without a choice. The thought that there’s nothing I can do about it made me angry. (It’s perhaps worth mentioning that — having been raised by an atheist dad and agnostic mom — the possibility of a rewarding afterlife in eternity didn’t even enter into my thoughts.) All in all, I don’t think my insights were that unique — just your basic Adolescent Existentialism 1.0.
As best as I can recall, Transcendent Man doesn’t highlight a particular revelatory moment in Ray Kurzweil’s life when he decided that death — among other limitations imposed by biological existence — was unacceptable. But as an inventor growing up amidst the miracles of the 20th century (for example, capturing live activities in one part of the world and distributing them via airwaves to a small box in people’s living rooms), Ray would naturally view seemingly intractable problems as engineering challenges.
And so he would help the blind to read. And he would investigate a human’s ability to infuse external tools with aesthetic value by programming a computer to write music. And eventually, he would become the man who most popularizes the notion that humanity can beat its death sentence and overcome many… or perhaps all… of the restrictions and the harsher pains of biological existence that had motivated in me a sort of helpless rebellion against an implacable cosmic fate.
Of course, the idea that Kurzweil is popularizing is The Singularity, a time when human-made systems have become unfathomably more intelligent than our biological meat brains. And whether these machine intelligences are in us or outside of us, they will become the driving force in defining what we do and who we are. So it seems to me that my adolescent existential crisis remains fundamentally unresolved by the Kurzweilian schemata. The symptoms, death and the extremes of suffering, may be removed but the fundamental unease — a lack of choice — remains. I am still sentenced to whatever The Singularity brings.
Transcendent Man is not exactly a portrait of Ray Kurzweil, although there is some of that. And it’s not exactly an exploration of his ideas, although there is some of that too. It’s a portrait of a man on a mission — the person and the message inextricably linked together — and it leaves a viewer with the strong impression that the man is the mission. The film carries, over all, a rather somber ambiance, a feeling that is helped along by a disquieting original soundtrack by Philip Glass. There are lots of shots of Ray popping vitamin and nutrient pills; speaking in public, pontificating on his theories. All this is coupled with his — and his mother’s — memories about the death of his father, which seems to be a mission-defining trauma at the heart of his quest. And there are a fair number of talking heads supporting or criticizing Ray’s visions, including Kevin Kelly characterizing Ray as a prophet… “but wrong.” In a quiet moment, Ray appears to be deeply and sadly reflecting on something as he gazes out at the ocean. A voice off camera asks him what he’s thinking about. He hesitates for quite a few beats before saying (I’m paraphrasing) that he was thinking about the computational complexity of the natural world. A few seconds later, he says something that rings more true — that he always finds the ocean soothing. (So do I.)
The film will probably not leave most viewers with a visceral impression of an energized life full of joy and companionship — the one exception is toward the end of the film when Ray is part of a group that gets to experience zero gravity. We see an expression of pure happiness wash over Ray’s face and notice a real sense of bonhomie among all the participants. But on the whole, a cynic might see in this film a portrait of a life lived in pursuit of more life.
I am not that cynical. I think — given the existential circumstances — anyone who has a project that they can successfully throw themselves into headfirst and, in the process, earn supporters, friends, and a very comfortable livelihood — is singularly blessed.
And I think we’re lucky to have Ray Kurzweil. In this age of media amplified crises, our visions and imaginations can easily become bracketed by the relentless flow of very current events, and perhaps — to some extent — they should be. I plunked myself down to watch Transcendent Man after staring at news reports from the massive disaster in Japan, occasionally interrupted by the situations in Libya and Bahrain, and the plans of American politicians — Democrats and Republicans both — to remove any glimmer of mercy from those who are not economically or physiologically fortunate and whose basic lifelines come from the public sector. That’s a hell of a lot of suffering right there… and a fair amount of death.
But here is Ray Kurzweil entering ever deeper into the public arena (Time Magazine cover story, “Charlie Rose Show” etcetera) where he is talking to a lot of “newbies” about exponential change — tapping the power of the sun to satisfy our energy needs within a decade; machines that are way smarter than we are; immortality and so on. (H+ readers know the litany). Even in the direst circumstances — indeed, perhaps most of all in the direst circumstances — human culture needs to make space for philosophic or existential wild cards, particularly those that are broadly generous and expansive. For some of us here, Ray’s message of acceleration may be the usual, but as it penetrates deeper into the culture, it offers a useful context for people in the process of thinking about what we are experiencing now.
As for whether Kurzweil’s theories — if proven true — will ease the adolescent dread I experienced upon realizing that one is thrown into existence bracketed between the unlikelihood of anything existing in the first place and the definitive finality of individual death, I’ve moved on. Not dying seems to me to be only situationally desirable (this should be obvious to anyone who supports the rights of terminally ill people to choose to die), whereas not suffering — or at least not suffering intensely — seems to me to be desirable without exception. If The Singularity can accomplish both of those things, I’m betting that it’s worth the gamble.
No matter what happens though, I have long ago made peace with the fact that I’ve never had control over the fundamental options of existence — to be or not — and even if The Singularity widens my options (and that’s questionable), I will still be thrown into a situation where I’m playing within the limits of what is possible. And that’s ok. I’ve become a bit of a Taoist as far as that goes… the urge to control everything is not a healthy one. In fact, one of the few things that disturbs me about Kurzweil’s theories (and desires) is the notion that we should “illuminate” the entire universe with what we — or the minds that we create — presume to call intelligence. But I don’t worry much about it. I figure our smarters will decide that it’s a silly idea.
(Photo courtesy Kurzweil Technologies)