Transcendence vs. Her: Clash of Two Wimpy Future Visions

Screen Shot 2014-05-11 at 12.42.21 PMMy friend and sometime collaborator Hugo DeGaris was looking forward to the movie “Transcendence” with great enthusiasm… With its theme of anti-technology terrorists attacking scientists and provoking a sort of war between pro-Singularity and anti-Singularity forces, the movie plot reflects many of the ideas from Hugo’s book The Artilect War and his related articles. Hugo was hoping it would become a blockbuster success and trigger a global debate on, as he calls it, “species dominance” — i.e. the potential that the human species may in the fairly near future cede its dominance to artificial minds.


The Transcendence film definitely has a hard SF aspect. makers of the film invited various scientists to consult on their treatment of advanced tech like mind uploading, AI and nanotechnology … and better yet, invited ME to speak about AI and mind uploading at their formal launch of the film in Beijing. Because of the latter, there was a rumor floating around on the Chinese Internet earlier this year that I was the inspiration for the protagonist of the movie, Johnny Depp’s character (though this surely is not true; I was invited to speak at that launch well after the script was written).

beijing13_08 (me at the Beijing launch of the film in 2013, with a projection of David Hanson’s Bina48 robot)

As it happened, the movie was somewhat of a critical disappointment. It definitely failed to provoke the global debate Hugo was hoping for. It’s unclear to me the extent to which the relatively poor reception of the film was due to the theme of the movie, versus the specifics of how the movie was made (the acting and the details of the plot). My suspicion is the latter though — I think the themes of AI, neuroscience and future tech are pretty timely. Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Dr. Will Caster, while perfectly competent, definitely wasn’t a Lawrence of Arabia or Dr. Strangelove level evocation. And to my own taste, the second half of the movie unfolded a fair bit less compellingly than the first. The story of Caster’s poisoning by terrorists and his subsequent uploading unfolded relatively realistically and interestingly. But Caster’s rise to superhumanity and creation of an army of remote-controlled enhanced humans felt a bit “1950s SF potboiler style”, as if the same concepts could have been gotten across with a bit more nuance.

One thing I found interesting was the contrast between Transcendence and another recent movie also focused on Singularitarian technologies, Her. As opposed to Transcendence with its mind uploads, ecosystem-wide nanotech and brain implant powered borg army, Her keeps things relatively simple and close to home: Siri type agents in cellphones and PCs, that are actually humanlike in their intelligence and personality … so much so that they can enter into genuine romantic relationships with their users.


(if you didn’t see Her yet — note the protagonist’s cellphone-based lover in his pocket, camera facing world-ward)

Like Transcendence, Her shies away from the deeper Singularitarian aspects of its theme, by the ruse of having the AIs get bored with humanity and transcend into another superintelligent dimension, leaving humans to explore old-fashioned pure-meatspace romances again. But it all unfolds quite charmingly, and presents the AIs as nonhuman yet also deeply empathetic to human beings, and plainly conscious in (at least) the same sense humans are.

Roughly speaking, Her represents a Ray Kurweil style vision of the future of technology (in which advanced tech is richly interwoven into our lives and psyches), whereas Transcendence represents a Hugo de Garis style vision of the future of technology (in which it becomes an Us versus Them battle of traditionalist Luddite humans versus those who choose to fuse with technology and become incomprehensibly More Than Human). The Kurzweilian vision clearly wins this round of philosophical debate via film — though whether purely via non-philosophical factors related to the artistic execution of the respective films, is not entirely clear.

But yet — still — and disappointingly — both films wimp out on the ultimate implications. In both cases, advanced tech emerges and amazes and promises and to some extent delivers — and then disappears, giving way to some future-situated variant of the warm, flawed world of traditional humanity that we know so well. I suppose this may the kind of ending most people want to see. I really doubt it’s what’s going to happen — IMO once this kind of tech comes, it ain’t goin’ away. But then, Hollywood movies have never been noted for their realism.

So rather than DeGaris vs. Kurzweil, what Hollywood has given us is actually more like “wimped out DeGaris” vs. “wimped out Kurzweil.”  Oh well.   At least the wimped-out Kurzweil vision in Her was a lot of fun to watch!

At some point, perhaps, the film industry will come through with Singularity films that don’t downplay the true transformative impact, that don’t have the transhuman tech bizarrely disappear and leave us right back where we started with our good old monkey minds.   But it seems the film industry thinks the public isn’t quite ready for this yet — instead, it thinks the public wants fairy tales in which tech rears its shiny scary head and then traditional humanity reasserts itself and reigns supreme.   Perhaps the film guys are right about what their audience wants to see, today in early 2014.   When will the public be ready for futuristic cinematic visions that truly attempt to come to grips with the amazing, frightening, wonderful, barrier- and worldview- smashing reality of the actually unfolding future?


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4 Responses

  1. Sage says:

    Great review but I actually enjoyed Transcendence more than ”Her.” I did feel that ”Her” was more realistic in general, mostly because I really doubt the first strong AI will be an uploaded human mind. Yet, the AI in transcendence felt a lot more realistic—with its godlike level of awareness. This is mainly why I think Transcendence was the better movie, even though the masses don’t agree. The AI in ”Her” left too human. It was too emotional for an AI, and lacked purpose and direction. The AI in transcendence, even though it lacked emotion, wanted to help humanity. The AI in her was more self-centered and had no desire to help.
    Like you said, both movies were disappointments.

    • aa1 says:

      Most likely way for the first strong AI to be a friendly AI (as opposed to an unfriendly AI) is to have it based on an uploaded human mind, ideally an altruistic and benevolent person

  1. May 13, 2014

    […] bengoertzel My friend and sometime collaborator Hugo DeGaris was looking forward to the movie […]

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