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Natasha Vita-More Interviews Titus Nachbauer, Director of “Transhuman”

“After the premiere at the DeLaMar theatre in Amsterdam our documentary was received with applause and lots of people asking for a longer version” states the website of the film “TRANSHUMAN” by Titus Nachbauer, which features transhumanist Anders Sandberg, along with Arjen Kamhuis, Natasha Vita-More and Nick Bostrom. But it is Anders that leads the storyline, as the film’s narrative take us into his particular vision of the future.

This film started out as a documentary, an idea of its director Titus Nachbauer, who I met in Enschede, Netherlands in September of 2010, where I was giving a keynote at the GOGBOT Festival, well-known new media arts, music and technology.

The theme of the conference was “Technological Singularity” and my talk was “Human Enhancement – a hopeful proposition: Technological Singularity and Transhumanism”. I spent several hours with Titus and his film crew observing the exhibition and we met at a quaint theater where he performed his interview of me.

Nine months later, Titus Nachbauer’s film is exhibing, and once again we meet, but this time I have the pleasure of asking him questions:

Natasha Vita-More: I am delighted for you that your film is now out and available for the viewing audience. For our H+ readers, can you tell us about the scope of your film?

Titus Nachbauer: The TRANSHUMAN documentary project started out as a graduation project for film school the Netherlands Film and Television Academy, located in Amsterdam. It’s about Anders Sandberg’s view on the notion of whole brain emulation and the consequences of a big change like that. We were only allowed to make a short (23 min) documentary, but since I think the future of humanity is quite an important subject to keep discussing, I am not planning on leaving it at that. I really want to make this an ongoing Internet project, a self-improving film if you will. Just like software could become self-improving one day, I hope to make a longer version or series out of this film and get comments and discussions going. Therefore I’m looking for a producer who wants to make scientific and philosophical films. I am excited at the prospect of doing so.

Natasha Vita-More: What is the film’s narrative “hook” draws in the audience?

Titus Nachbauer: The hook of this film is the idea that one day something could be done about aging, illness and death. It would completely change the human condition. I simply ask the audience the question: “do you want to die?” If you would do anything to escape death, then you might well be a transhumanist. That’s simplifying things of course, but it draws in the audience in a way that is crucial to understanding the transhumanist ideas as something worth pondering and talking about. I want everyone to think for themselves about the future and about the changes that might be coming, however dangerous or fantastic they might be.

Natasha Vita-More: What was your aim in creating this project?

Titus Nachbauer: In the Netherlands where I live, but probably in other countries too, television is becoming ever more trivial. Game shows and trivial talk shows, reality TV and talent hunts are taking away a lot of attention from serious news. Specifically, scientific news is almost forgotten. The result is that there is an ever increasing gap between the reality as perceived by the audience and the everyday reality for technophiles and scientists who see important discoveries and technologies, such as artificial cells and 3D-printing develop before their very eyes. I want to close that gap by combining my background in information technology and my broad interests with my ability to make films that emotionally reach the audience. I want TRANSHUMAN to be included in the projects that are starting a new renaissance of philosophical and scientific filmmaking that engages the audience. I want it to make people think and look up the information they are interested in. I, for one, am interested in just about anything and keep reading up on new discoveries via the Internet.

Natasha Vita-More: From your first inclination to create this project, what were some of the challenges that you faced in setting up the script, location, and storyline, or was there something else that challenged you?

Titus Nachbauer: It proved quite hard to make the film, because in the artistic environment that our film school tries to create, the quest for factual knowledge is sometimes frowned upon as something of lower importance. It’s all about emotion and self expression. I tend to think that art and science should go hand in hand, but that science has to play a leading role in how we structure our societies. Art plays a very important role in how we explore future possibilities and how we process past experiences, but it cannot answer all questions we have. Artists tend to forget this and are often led by their creative inspirations and emotions. As a filmmaker I discovered that I often have to walk a thin line between ignoring my emotions and letting myself get carried away. I had to work together with people from both disciplines to make TRANSHUMAN and it turned out to be great fun to do so.

Natasha Vita-More: Where will the film be exhibited?

Titus Nachbauer: TRANSHUMAN just premiered in one of the largest theatres in the Netherlands, the De La Mar Theatre on 26 June 2011. After that it will be shown at the Keep an Eye Film Academy festival from 28 June through 1 July at the Markenplein 1 in Amsterdam. These viewings are open to the public. The film will also be the first film to be shown on the Internet with permission of the school, which is a big step for us and for the Academy. TRANSHUMAN will be shown on Dutch national television in novemberNovember and at the Dutch Film Festival in September. Of course we are also going to make a wide tour of film festivals to show the film to audiences abroad.

Natasha Vita-More: What is your background and how did your early research help in building your current focus?

Titus Nachbauer: Information science, physics. I started out studying physics, but switched to information technology soon. After I got my Bachelors degree I continued as a grant advisor. Soon I realized that I was able to generate large amounts of money for projects and I started thinking: “Hey, if I can pull this off for IT, I could probably do it for films, too.” I had always wanted to make films, but never dared to dream that I could. So I just started making films and after a few tries I got accepted as a director at the only film school in the Netherlands.

For TRANSHUMAN I did a lot of Internet research. I always love to watch the talks on TED.com and there I found the talk by Ray Kurzweil about his interpretation of the Singularity. That became an inspiration for further research and by chance I met him briefly at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam. Of course I found out that aspects of his ideas are controversial within the transhumanist community and I wanted to know more about the other transhumanists besides Kurzweil. In the end, our focus became the idea that predicting the future is really very hard and the only thing you can do about that is to spend some time to think about it. Be prepared for radical change and radical events and your chances of survival become a lot better. I really would love it if our film could help at least one or two people to improve their thinking about the future in a way that will help them.

Natasha Vita-More: What do you have in mind for your next project?

Titus Nachbauer: My films always revolve around magical aspects of reality and I’m not into pointing fingers or finding out “the truth” as much. I want to show the marvelous things we can experience in our very own reality. I have a lot of “next projects” waiting to be researched, but there are three that I’m already working on. I like to keep improving my own skills and therefore I do not want to make only one sort of film. Therefore I am writing a culinary drama and I am working on filming the life of a little dog in Amsterdam as an observational documentary.

I will keep making scientific films, too and the next project in that direction will probably be a film about psychoactive medication, its use and abuse. We have some pretty interesting research going on there and if people are willing to share their own experiences with mental health care, we’re more than interested in meeting them.

Natasha Vita-More: What has the film caused you to reflect upon that is your biggest concerns?

Titus Nachbauer: When I started the research and I heard about self-improving software and the Singularity I almost choked. Being someone with an IT background I immediately understood the vast implications of an idea like self-improving software and I saw the connection between software and the physical world that makes this idea so shocking. Many people react to an idea like this by shrugging and saying something like “But that never happened in the past, so it never will.” I now think that maybe the technological Singularity, as Kurzweil and others predict it, is not even the largest problem we face; it’s the human inability to think rationally about the future. Everyone seems to have their own priorities and their own foregone conclusions about the future, but in the mainstream there is little fact based discussion or even knowledge of the basic technologies that our lives depend on right now. We must see that as the biggest threat to our future. The fact that every day most of us use technology that we really fundamentally do not understand lends itself for exploitation by marketing and politics. People can be led to believe almost anything, just because they don’t know enough anymore about the physical reality they live in.

Natasha Vita-More: What is the philosophical view about the transhuman in Holland?

Titus Nachbauer: In my view the Netherlands are in a state of transition from a Christian tradition and world view towards an agnostic society. Here it often seems one’s opinion is more important than knowing the facts. The process of a discussion seems to be more important than the best possible outcome, which leads to the Dutch “polder” solutions, which are frowned upon abroad (like half-legalizing soft drugs). Transhumanists often do not fit in here, because transhumanists base their ideas to much on science and technological potential, and not enough on emotions. I have not met many people who embrace the new technologies without reservations. Interestingly, the people who do all seem to share some affinity towards the Buddhist way of life. It is not surprising therefore that the Buddhist broadcasting foundation sponsored TRANSHUMAN — while still letting us make the film we wanted to make.

During filming we met the Dutch psychologist Ad Bergsma whose research centers on happiness. He was quite outspoken about what he thought about the transhumanist ideas about improving happiness and getting rid of negative emotions or events. He says the best way to become unhappy is to be a perfectionist. If nothing is ever good enough for you, then you will never really be happy. I think that sums up the way the Dutch think about transhumanism quite well: “Don’t be too outspoken or enthusiastic, let’s all just try to stay normal.”

Natasha Vita-More: This is interesting because transhumanism and perfection are actually at opposite ends of the spectrum. Transhumanism concerns continuous evaluation and elevation of the human condition, based on critical thinking and innovative thinking. Perfection is a point of stasis where there is no change.

Titus Nachbauer: Yes, a lot of views on transhumanism are based on hearsay and lack of information. That’s another reason for making this film. We want the people to know more about transhumanism in general, engage in discussions about this subject and really think more about what this could mean for their lives.

Natasha Vita-More: Let’s move on to another topic. In your view what could be, or might be, missing from the varied opinions of the Singularity?

Titus Nachbauer: First of all, the Singularity seems to be largely just a vague concept. It requires a whole new field of science to make more sense of what Vinge and Kurzweil and others are proposing. Establishing research institutes like the Future of Humanity Institute, Humanity+, Singularity University and SIAI should probably be seen as only a first step in understanding the coming changes in our lifetimes. You need people who are very interdisciplinary in their knowledge and thinking to be able to even understand the ideas fully. It seems one can easily be distracted from pressing current affairs like the world food crisis and peak oil by saying: “That will all be solved by nanotechnology.” So people in the field should all broaden their view, just like the audience of TRANSHUMAN should broaden theirs.

Remember Pythagoras, who (according to legend) was killed by a soldier, just because he was too involved in his math to see there was a revolt going on. One should not lose track of reality and one should still live life to the fullest, while thinking about these fantastic new ideas.

For more information on the film, go to http://www.transhumandoc.com/

 

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