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November 6, 2009

FILM/EVENT REVIEW: TRANSCENDENT MAN debuts at AFI Fest; star Ray Kurzweil speaks at Q&A

by Don Rose

If you are a futurist, rush to see this film. If you are interested in futurist ideas, rush to see this film. If you are human, rush to see this film. It may just point the way to our transhuman-posthuman-metahuman future, a future that has already begun...

What is this movie, you ask? TRANSCENDENT MAN, which had its West Coast premiere October 5 at this year's AFI FEST. A packed house thoroughly enjoyed this provocative documentary; the free tickets may have helped sell out this and other AFI FEST films -- AFI made all films free this year -- but the real reason for the amazing turnout seemed to be a fascination with the bold ideas of the film's eternally optimistic star, inventor/futurist Ray Kurzweil.

Transcendent Man is, at its heart, a Kurzweil biopic. Many wonderful clips and photos of Ray's life and achievements are presented, one of the best being his appearance on an old Steve Allen gameshow called "I've Got A Secret" (Ray's secret: the young boy had composed music on a computer - and we're talking an old mainframe behemoth with computing power that, as Ray points out in the film, now resides in our pockets). The brainiac boy would go on to invent the Kurzweil synthesizer that Stevie Wonder, among others, made into one of the most popular electronic instruments in history. (This synth, and other groundbreaking inventions such as Kurzweil's reading machine for the blind, made the man a millionaire many times over.)

Many moving moments are spent talking about Ray's musical father, shedding light on Ray's upbringing while also leading us to realize that Ray hopes to bring him back one day. Creating an artificial version of his father, using future breakthroughs combined with the voluminous collection of paternal artifacts Ray has in storage, would be his ultimate invention. This seemingly fantastical goal shows that Ray's ideas are intertwined with an intensely personal quest. Kurzweil's predictions are not just hopeful theories for humanity in general but a set of ideas he hopes to incorporate into his own personal future.

While telling Ray's story, the film also serves as a wonderful primer on major futurist ideas, especially in the area of "GNR" (genetics - nanotechnology - robotics). Transcendent Man is a must-see compilation of some of the most profound issues of our near (as well as far) future, told with wonderful visual style. At the core of this intellectual survey are Kurzweil's heady predictions, such as the eventual creation of more-powerful-than-human artificial intelligences (AIs) and immortality in the next two decades or so. Of course, the future is inherently uncertain, especially as you go further and further out in time, and thus there is much room for debate. Not everyone agrees with Kurzweil's rosy view of the future, and to its credit, this Transcendent documentary provides other viewpoints, some counter to Kurzweil's views. These alternate opinions help give depth to the discourse, and serve as warnings worth thinking about. For example, could our future technological advances lead to a Brave New World, or even a Slave New World (in which humans become subservient to the AIs we create)? Ray and others in his camp say we will not have to rage against the machine in a "Terminator"-type dystopia, because we will eventually merge with these coming superintelligent AIs. Thus, we will gradually become a race of metahumans, making the "us" versus "them" scenario of Ray's naysayers irrelevant.

What about the ultimate superintelligence -- God? Religion is discussed at various points in the film, but my favorite point came, fittingly, at film's end, when Ray discusses how our ultimate future will see Intelligence spread everywhere, embedded in all corners of the Universe; this process will continue until the entire Universe "wakes up". This leads to the last line of the film where Kurzweil, commenting on whether God exists, says "not yet." The implication: God has yet to be created! Wouldn't it be the ultimate turn of events if God did not create mankind and the Universe we are in, but rather the Universe (with Man as its engine) will one day create God, in the form of a fully awake, aware, all-knowing Intelligent universe. God would thus be the ultimate crescendo of evolution. Heady stuff indeed!

Thank God people are still making movies like this! Movies that make you think, presenting vital future-thinking issues that inform while simultaneously inspiring further investigation. Kudos to filmmaker Barry Ptolemy for creating such a thought-provoking film. After the screening, I was overcome with the urge to start Googling all the concepts presented in Ptolemy's doc. Thankfully, I resisted that urge so I could listen to the post-screening Q and A, during which Ptolemy and Kurzweil took questions from an AFI moderator and then the audience. It seemed like half the audience had their hands up. The film clearly grabbed everyone's imaginations; we all wanted to know more. The film not only makes hard concepts understandable but inspires viewers to learn more about the future and the technologies shaping it. Time to start Googling.....

SUMMARY: TRANSCENDENT MAN made its west coast festival debut on November 5, 2009 at 4:00 p.m. at the American Film Institute's 2009 Film Festival at the Mann Chinese 6 Theatre in Hollywood. The feature-length documentary film by director Barry Ptolemy chronicles the life and controversial ideas of Ray Kurzweil, exploring the social and philosophical implications of the profound changes ahead and the potential threats they pose to human civilization, as well as the opportunities. The film has some elements reminiscent of "A Brief History of Time" and "An Inconvenient Truth" while incorporating many innovative ideas. Original music by Philip Glass. For more on Ray Kurzweil and AI, see www.KurzweilAI.net.