Docurama // 2009 // 84 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Byun (Retired) // May 25th, 2011
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." -- Arthur C. Clarke
"People ask if there's a God. I say: not yet." -- Ray Kurzweil
The "Transcendent Man" is Ray Kurzweil, the controversial futurist and author of The Singularity is Near, whose bold predictions of a near-future in which computers achieve sentience and humans become immortal cyborgs have led some to declare him a prophetic genius, and others to question his sanity.
Kurzweil's theory is that the pace of technological progress is increasing exponentially, and will accelerate to a point at which the evolution of society, culture, and our own bodies will be so drastic that we cannot even envision what the world will look like. That point is referred to as "The Singularity," and there are dramatically varying opinions among the experts as to when (or if) this will occur, whether it's something we should welcome, and whether we can do anything to stave it off.
Transcendent Man is a riveting documentary that -- through interviews with Kurzweil, his loved ones and colleagues, and his critics -- outlines his ideas and vision of the future and reveals much about the man himself.
You wake up in the morning with an alarm you hear only in your head, from a nano-computer wired directly into your brain. Before you get out of bed, you check your email, the pages floating in front of your face, projections fed into your optic nerves. You get out of bed, feeling energized and alert, thanks to nanobots coursing through your body, stimulating your neurons and filtering out any toxins in your blood.
As you brush your teeth, your breakfast and coffee are already preparing themselves, set in motion by your home A.I. and timed to be waiting for you when you sit down at the kitchen table. You eat your breakfast slowly, savoring each bite; you don't have to worry about being late for work, because you already are at work, chatting with your co-workers in a shared virtual space.
Also, you're 300 years old.
This is the future that's waiting for us, practically right around the corner, according to Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil is an engineer, futurist, inventor, and author, and one of the smartest people currently walking the earth. Among other things, he's credited with inventing the flatbed scanner, the first optical character recognition software, the modern synthesizer, and a device that recognizes and reads text for the blind. As a high school student in the 1960s, he wrote a software program that analyzed the works of classical composers and created compositions in their styles.
Kurzweil is best known these days, though, for his work as a futurist, predicting technological trends and making forecasts about where society is headed that are often eerily accurate. Some of his more remarkable predictions: the fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of the Internet, and that chess-playing computers would beat the best human players by 1998 (he made the prediction in the 1970s, and it actually happened in 1997). The major controversy that surrounds him, though, concerns his prediction of the Singularity, a massive explosion of technological advancement, occurring within the next few decades, culminating in the creation of an artificial intelligence by 2030. Depending on who you ask, he's either a visionary with uncanny foresight or a well-meaning crackpot who's selling pipe dreams of an unattainable utopian future.
Transcendent Man follows Kurzweil as he makes appearances at technology conferences, chats with William Shatner (the Transcendent Man meets The Transformed Man!), visits the doctor to have his blood tested, returns to his childhood home, and strolls on the beach, while explaining his ideas and talking about his upbringing -- particularly about his father, who died of a heart attack at 58. We also see interviews with friends and colleagues, including Dean Kamen (inventor of the Segway), Hugo de Garis, a professor in China attempting to build China's first artificial brain, and Kevin Warwick, the British cybernetics scientist best known for having a chip implanted into his arm, becoming the first "cyborg."
Lest it be dismissed as mere cheerleading for Kurzweil's theories, Transcendent Man gives (somewhat) equal time to his detractors, such as Dr. William Hurlbut, whose objections to the Singularity are largely philosophical -- even if humans can cheat death and live forever, should we? -- and Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly, a futurist himself who agrees that the Singularity is inevitable, but doesn't think it's coming nearly as quickly as Kurzweil believes. We also hear from a variety of observers who are more agnostic about the Singularity, expressing various degrees of hope and anxiety about a world dominated by superintelligent computers and transhuman hybrids.
Transcendent Man isn't so much an in-depth critical look at the Singularity theories and their philosophical implications, though, as a peek inside the mind of Ray Kurzweil, examining his ideas and motivations. Kurzweil is a bit of a character, the kind of eccentric "nutty professor" egghead you'd find in pulp science fiction stories. But the documentary makes it clear that behind the grand visions is a man who's driven by a fear, and hatred, of death -- a man who, still grieving for his beloved father, sees nothing poetic or spiritual about our mortality and longs for the day when death is eradicated altogether.
Of course, that fear of death becomes one of the more compelling criticisms of Kurzweil: that his vision of the Singularity places it conveniently within reach of his own lifespan and that his theories are undermined by his own obsession with death. This obsession extends not only to extending his own life, but also to actually "resurrecting" his dead father by recreating him with artificial intelligence and a storage room filled with his father's letters and papers. As a child, Kurzweil saw little of his father, a workaholic musician and composer, forming a friendship with him only after his health began to fail. Ray Kurzweil may be a brilliant engineer and predictor of future trends, but he's also a bereft son yearning for his absent father, and one does have to wonder how much this skews his analysis.
There's no denying, though, that Kurzweil has made some notable contributions to humanity, such as his work with the blind (Stevie Wonder was one of the first to use his text-to-speech device). It's pretty impressive to see how his invention has evolved in just a few decades, from a clunky appliance (basically a camera attached to a PDA) to a pocket-sized Nokia smartphone. Which is, of course, Kurzweil's point: computers have transformed with astounding speed from room-sized behemoths to the size of playing cards, while exponentially increasing in power and speed.
Docurama's DVD of Transcendent Man looks and sounds terrific, with a very sharp, detailed (maybe a little too detailed in some of its literally warts-and-all closeups of middle-aged nerds) and vivid image, and a bright, clear Dolby stereo track. Unfortunately, the disc offers no subtitles -- a disappointing omission for such a forward-thinking title.
A generous selection of extras includes a set of deleted scenes, a "Who Is Ray Kurzweil?" section of interviews with some familiar (Quincy Jones, Ed Begley Jr., Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock) and less familiar figures in Kurzweil's life, and footage from the post-screening Q&A at Transcendent Man's premiere. The latter features Kurzweil, director Barry Ptolemy, and Robert Krulwich from NPR's Radiolab. If your curiosity's been aroused by the documentary -- and it should be -- you'll want to check out this additional material, if only for the scene of Kurzweil being heckled by a mentally unstable nerd.
So, is Raymond Kurzweil a visionary prophet or self-deluded huckster? Transcendent Man doesn't pretend to be objective, but it does make a convincing case that some kind of Singularity is indeed coming, whether it happens in the next few decades, or centuries from now. Kurzweil may be biased in his projections, but his argument is pretty compelling. And his most skeptical critics, with their blanket dismissals and ominous dystopian hand-wringing, tend to sound like 19th century critics of railroads who feared that train passengers' hair would catch on fire from air friction.
True, there's no telling what the consequences of a Singularity would be, but it's interesting that the darker predictions tend to merely project our own worst qualities onto our creations. It's difficult, it seems, for we self-absorbed humans to envision creations that might be better than us. Given, though, that the people most likely to become obsolete in an age of hyperintelligent machines are the scientists and engineers, one has to wonder if Kurzweil's fear of death is merely matched on the other side by fear of irrelevance.
The court finds Transcendent Man not guilty of being financed by Cyberdyne Systems.
Review content copyright © 2011 Bryan Byun; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Extended Interviews
* Deleted Scenes
* Festival Q&A
* Official Site
* An Introduction to Singularity