“Singularity or Bust” — award-winning documentary now released online

MV5BMTUzMTkxNDU3N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDIxMDEwMDE@._V1._SX640_SY853_See the movie here!

Read some shameless self-promotion — er, interesting commentary and discussion — below …

In 2009, I was still living in the US, but I spent much of the summer in Xiamen and Hong Kong — giving some conference talks, helping run the First AGI Summer School, and doing AI research with my good friend Hugo DeGaris and his students at Xiamen University.   I was accompanied on this Journey to the East by Raj Dye, a friend from LA who had some experience with AGI development and shared my interest in futurist and Singularitarian matters generally.

But Raj wasn’t just along for the fun and the education, he was collecting footage for a documentary film on the work Hugo and I and our colleagues were doing, trying to build human-level and ultimately transhuman AGI and create the Singularity.   Originally Raj was thinking of titling the film “Ten Years to a Positive Singularity – If We Really, Really Try”, after a talk I gave with that title at the Transvision 2006 conference.   But somewhere during the filming, the phrase “Singularity or Bust” came out of my mouth, and that eventually turned into the title of the short documentary film he produced.

“Singularity or Bust” is a better title anyway – especially since Raj never fully believed my hypothesis that a Singularity could be created in 10 years with dramatic concerted effort.   I, on the other hand, still believe that quite strongly  myself – but I must note that now, 4 years after the film was shot, that dramatic concerted effort still has not happened.   My colleagues and I are doing our best to push OpenCog toward Singularity-enabling AGI, and a few other teams around the world are doing similarly with their own approaches.  But the world is not yet focusing on AGI the way it is focusing on, say, cancer research, or the production of integrated circuits, or the design of ever-sexier lingerie.

Singularity or Bust has been screened in various theaters around the world, and in 2012 it won the Best Documentary award at the LA Cinema Festival of Hollywood.   I’ve been waiting a while for it to get placed online for wider viewing, and this week Raj finally made the move: the film is viewable online here.

I’m not really the right guy to review the film, since I play a major role in it – so I’ll leave that task to others, should any wish to take it.   I have to say I do like the movie though – I think it’s an interesting evocation of the feel of what Hugo and I were doing that summer, and some of the thoughts and conversations that were bouncing around in our community of transnational proto-transhuman techno-nerds as we did our work….

Unlike a more traditional documentary like the excellent Kurzweil biopic Transcendent Man, Singularity or Bust isn’t particularly expository for the viewer unfamiliar with transhumanism, AI and related memes.   But for the viewer who’s been around the futurist community for a while, or who has read a lot of SF – or who just likes novel, challenging ideas — it provides an up-close real-life look at some actual situations and real people at the forefront of modern international AI and robotics development and futurist thinking.

For me – and probably most viewers — the funniest scenes of the film are the ones involving conversations with the Nao robot.   The Nao we were working with at Xiamen University, at that time, had its “brain” powered by a complex chat-bot system that was designed by a collaboration of yours truly, Brazilian AI uber-programmer Murilo Queiroz (who was working for my AI company Novamente at the time), and computational linguist Ruiting Lian.  That chat-bot combined multiple sources of input, including

  • some AIML-based chat rules
  • some statistically-generated responses produced by Jason Hutchens’ brilliant MegaHal bot (written when he and I were both at the University of Western Australia in the mid-1990s, at it happens), trained on the writings of Ray Kurzweil and other futurist texts
  • some simple OpenCog-based dialogue, incorporating awareness of the robot’s physical situation.

It certainly wasn’t an AGI system, but occasionally it could come up with some conversational gems.

Turning the tables a bit, when I set out to write this article, I decided I would interview Raj and ask him a few questions about the movie.    So I’ll give Raj the last word(s):



First off — why did you make the movie?


I guess I could simply say “Why does anybody create anything?”  I was seized by the desire to create, which cannot be explained.

But let me just tell you about my background and what I was doing at the time, and let’s see if that leads to a more interesting answer.

I made a documentary once before in the late 90’s, called Radio Active Legacy which aired on cable access television in the Midwest. So I was familiar with the process of documentary filmmaking.  Around 2006, I read Ray Kurzweil’s book “The Singularity Is Near” which was very influential to me — as well as your book “The Hidden Pattern: A Patternist Philosophy of Mind”.  I remember carrying a dog-eared purple paperback copy of The Hidden Pattern around with me for several months.  I think this was the only book that when I finished reading it, I turned to page one and re-read it front to back.

Then I met you at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre during the Singularity Summit in San Francisco in 2007.  Our brief conversation as well as your talk entitled “Nine Years to a Positive Singularity, if We Really, Really Try.” was very influential to me and probably the core inspiration for the film.  In fact the original concept for the film was kind of a scripted version of that talk, shot in a kind of a cinematic style.

Then in 2008 I joined an Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) research project led by Peter Voss here in Los Angeles. I worked with Natural Language Processing, integrating an off-the-shelf speech recognition library with Peter’s experimental cognitive architecture.  My involvement in that very demanding project was coming to an end in 2009 and I was looking to take a break from coding and do something completely different.

It was about this time that you and Hugo announced you were taking application to a summer school on AGI which would be held in the Xiamen China.  This is when I knew that I had to do the film.  I have always felt that the best documentary films come from insiders.  This was my chance.  I now had experience working on an AGI research project. I was an insider in the field of AGI.  I had the time and just barely enough money to make a film on the subject. So I went for it!


What impact do you think the movie will have?


I have no idea what impact the film will have.  I call it a “film” even though the physical substrate used was not film.  I guess it is the same thing as H+ Magazine still calling itself a “magazine” even though, as far as I know,  no trees were actually killed to print this issue.  It expresses a hope that the authors have regarding how the audience with receive the work.

So I call my 48 minute video a “film”.  I guess I call it that because I regard the process of creating it as art and I hope that it is received as an art form.  I hope it rises to the level of art in the sense that William S. Burroughs describes with the following quote:

“One very important aspect of art is that it makes people aware of what they know and don’t know that they know. “

In their guts most people know that technology will radically transform all of human society within their lifetimes.  The readers of this magazine understand that technology will transform even what it means to be human. But it seems as though there is no mechanism by which people can integrate this knowledge into their daily lives.  Most of us still live as though such changes will not occur.

So in the sense that Burroughs discusses, we have knowledge of something, but that knowledge has not been fully integrated with our awareness.  This is the role of the artist to bring about a permanent expansion of awareness.  So it is my hope that the film might begin to have such an effect.


What are the biggest lessons you learned while making the movie?


I used to think of technology as a force, in and of itself. Now I think of technology as simply an expression of human desire.  Our techne amplifies and focuses this desire.  All technological artifacts, including intelligent machines, are just the physical manifestation of this.


Hmmm….  The next question being, I guess, what is human desire a manifestation of?

But that would become a long conversation!   More to the point — any lessons about movie-making itself?


A good editor makes all the difference.  Thanks Alex MacKenzie for turning water into wine.


Anything else you’d like to add?  Any thoughts about AGI, or about the Artilect War, the Singularity, and so forth?


I thank Hugo de Garis for appearing in the film.  I have the utmost respect for his views and his work on AGI and his work as a science fiction author.  I have to say though that the choice he presents in the film is a false choice.

Let me explain.  Hugo speculates about two future political/military factions. One being the Cosmists, the other being the Terrans.  In the film he states “You have to choose one … either you build them [artilects] or you don’t.  ” This is the false choice.  You may have to watch the film to understand this, but let me just say that the name of the game is human machine co-evolution.


Ah, so in Hugo’s terms, perhaps you are a cyborgist!   He has presented some arguments against cyborgists explicitly, as you probably know.   But I guess we can leave the readers to make up their own minds.



And just one more thing – the film is screening in London as part of the Lift Off Film Festival next month.


13 Responses

  1. Tom says:

    I fear that a positive Singularity is far less likely than a negative one, so it should be considered harmful to work towards it.

    • Ben Goertzel says:

      Tom, what is the reasoning underlying your belief on this point?

      • Tom says:

        The singularity is a unique event outside the scope of what humans can plan to get right. There are far more ways in which human values can be distorted or lost in the transmission to AI control than there are ways to preserve them. (And not all human values are good enough that decent people should want them in a very powerful AI!)

        The current relative stability of human civilization with our post-Enlightenment values is historically unique and highly idiosyncratic. It is probably quite fragile. The possible landscape of nonhuman intelligent systems contains more alien values than all of scifi aliens and AIs combined. If we shoot randomly at designs in that landscape and a singularity happens as a result, humans will go the way of the Dodo.

        Plus a singularity makes simple software bugs far more deadly than they ever were, and some of them have already been pretty deadly. 🙂

  2. Brad Arnold says:

    It is best to construct a software architecture that could take advantage of proprietary algorithms (object oriented program, where the algorithms are the functions). Then we can use the new quantum computers to maximize the algorithms (given the proper questions). Instead, linking together expert subprograms will only get you so far. The Singularity is coming, and SAI is the bridge.

  3. Henrik Rohde says:

    For those of us who wanna see it, though not via the resources heavy Vimeo and on an offline media center, will it be possible to download an SD quality version at any point?

  4. Andy says:

    Just watched the first half of the film this morning, and realised Ben you are a Psychist too. 😀

  5. Maurice says:

    Ben you owe me a poem for donating to your robots!!!

  6. Calum says:

    Great stuff. Maybe not enough is being spent to make a Singularity happen in a decade, but a lot more is being spent now than back in 2009. Markram’s HBP, Obama’s BRAIN, Paul Allen and Google, to name but a few of the big ones.

    But we haven’t got much closer to figuring out to ensure that the first AGI is safe, have we? Let’s hope that de Garis is wrong, and that it’s not simply impossible!

  1. October 31, 2013

    […] bengoertzel …read more Visit the original article here: H+ […]

  2. November 6, 2013

    […] “Singularity or Bust” — award-winning documentary now released online The Nao we were working with at Xiamen University, at that time, had its “brain” powered by a complex chat-bot system that was designed by a collaboration of yours truly, Brazilian AI uber-programmer Murilo Queiroz (who was working for my AI company … Read more on h+ Magazine […]

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