Ray Kurzweil believes that in about 25 years humans will be on the cusp of immortality. And now in his 60s with a congenital heart condition, he is bound and determined to make sure he sticks around long enough to dance on death's grave. Kurzweil takes over 250 pills a day, follows a rigorous diet, and has made backup plans with a cryonics company just in case he needs to stretch out the clock.
Is Kurzweil a crackpot? Opinions vary, but one thing everyone agrees on is that Ray Kurzweil is brilliant.
Kurzweil was a boy genius (as we see in an early clip of the 17 year old on an episode of "I've Got A Secret" with Steve Allen) who got into computer technology at MIT at about the same time MIT was getting into computer technology. Kurzweil developed the first flatbed scanner and a text to speech system that enable the blind to read. Both inventions (and a host of other patents) were precursors to his discovery of his true passion and, it is fair to say, obsession: artificial intelligence.
Kurzweil believes that the human race will merge with its machines to the point where the line between the two may become indistinguishable. He refers to this point in time as the "singularity" though the term, borrowed from mathematics, isn't quite appropriate. Nanotechnology will reconstruct our bodies from the cellular level, making us better, stronger, faster than before and, yes, perhaps even immortal. And if our mortal coils eventually shuffle off, we can still upload backups of our mental programming onto the cloud and live on virtually or perhaps in new bionic shells. Our brains will be hard-wired into the net and we will access information at speeds even our fastest computers today (which will be obsolete in a few months) can achieve.
And it's going to happen soon. Kurzweil is all about the "exponential," observing that the rate of the rate of technological changes increases so rapidly that levels of advancement that took millennia, then centuries, then decades will now take years, months, or even less, our reality reinventing itself at a speed we cannot hope to keep up with unless we shack up with our robot overlords. The singularity will be upon us no later than 2045.
Some might see his as a dystopian vision, but the outspoken futurist has high hopes for Humanity 2.0 (and beyond). In "Transcendent Man" (2010), director Barry Ptolemy marvels at Kurzweil's genius, but also digs deeper to find out what drives him. As the documentary unfolds, our hero is revealed to be a man who remains deeply wounded by the death of his father nearly 50 years ago. He wants not just to preserve his memory, but to bring him back to life virtually, perhaps by feeding his dad's memoirs and other elements of his legacy into a computer.
Death scares the living hell out of Ray Kurzweil. He scoffs at philosophies which rationalize it as a gift or part of an inevitable cycle. It is a tragedy, an enemy to be conquered, and he doesn't shy away from the hubris inherent in declaring himself a general in the war against death. A couple hundred pills per day is just the beginning. Though he is an inventor and a man of science, Kurzweil's missionary zeal has a spiritual element too, and his critics (and there are many) suggest that his cult following his just that, a cult. His numerous public speaking engagements certainly smack of evangelism, and his refusal to acknowledge the potential downside of this cybernetic revolution ("Skynet becomes self aware!") is downright dogmatic.
It's fair to ask whether Kurzweil's pathological fear of death and his need to envision a possible reunion with his father (in whatever form) has biased his predictions. There's also an inherent contradiction in emphasizing the exponential rate of change and still professing certainty in predictions about the end result of such a chaotic process. And the judgment of a man who shovels down 250 pills a day, approximately none of which have been proven to have any efficacy, is questionable. He also has nothing to say (at least in the documentary) about socio-economic factors. He's convinced we will be solar-powered in 20 years because the technology will be refined and affordable in short order, but what will Exxon and OPEC have to say about that?
Like most people, Ptolemy (the director, that is) doesn't know quite what to make up of Kurzweil's beautiful dreaming, and he hedges his bet by granting time to skeptics from various walks of life. On the other hand, William Shatner, who appears in the documentary, endorses Kurzweil, and that's good enough for me. Stylistically, the documentary relies heavily on the Errol Morris model, mixing interview with archival footage and animated "science-y" sequences, all mixed to a recycled Philip Glass score.
Your reaction to the documentary and to Ray Kurzweil's message will depend on your attitude towards technology and towards death. I have no fear of death, only the way that it finally catches me. Suffering, now that's frightening, but death? Your death has no meaning to you, you simply cease to be. Living forever as parasites to our technological hosts sounds like the true tragedy. And just imagine the transitional period when an older generation still preparing for death looks at their children or grandchildren, set to become immortals. For those who envy the idea of living forever or at least long enough to see the Cubs win a World Series, could there be any greater curse than to have been born just one generation too soon to benefit from humanity's ultimate evolution? And wouldn't these kids look back at their elders as inferior beings, best left behind quickly and unceremoniously to avoid emotional scars that would have to worn to eternity?
The film is presented in 1.78:1. The interlaced transfer is a solid effort, nothing remarkable to report either way.
The DVD offers a Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack. Once again, the audio transfer is solid but pretty straightforward so nothing much to say. The Philip Glass score is, as far as I can tell, stitched together from other films ("‘Qatsi," "Thin Blue Line," etc.) and not particularly prominent. No subtitles are offered.
"Who is Ray Kurzweil?" is a collection of eight short interviews (17 min. total) with celebrities and scientists talking about the futurist, Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder among them.
Twelve Deleted Scenes running 19 min. total are also included, as is a lengthy Q&A Panel (58 min.) from the film's premiere screening at The Tribeca Film Festival on Apr 28, 2009. A text-based Filmmaker Bio and the usual Docurama Trailers round things out.
The blurb on the back cover of the DVD asserts, "There is no question, however, that (Kurzweil) has predicted the future with more accuracy than anyone else in history." I'm sure that claim has been rigorously researched. Ray Kurzweil's supreme confidence in his predictions seems similarly hyperbolic, but there's no doubt that he talks a great game. Many predictions about the future have inherently limited utility because they can't be confirmed until they becomes the present, but Kurzweil's vision is a compelling one, and quite chilling though he doesn't intend it that way.
"Transcendent Man" is perhaps most moving as a portrait of a boy who lost his father, and has spent the rest of his life trying to get him back. If he had a favorite sled as a boy, it might have been called "Citizen Kurzweil." It's an intriguing documentary, even if it leaves you skeptical.