Serious science fiction is a demanding cinematic genre; that’s why you see so little of it! Most of what passes for science fiction is out-and-out comic fantasy. In the last year only three marginally serious science fiction films made it to wide release: Catching Fire, Divergent and Transcendence. Sadly, they’re all pretty awful and Transcendence is the biggest letdown of the three. Here’s why.
Transcendence is another riff on real AI. Even though we live in a world of talking cell phones and computer Jeopardy champions a sizeable cohort of AI deniers claim machines will never think. The best answer I’ve heard to this came from a young woman who noted that, “I am a machine and I think.” Well I am thinking machine too and until there are serious scientific or mathematical arguments demonstrating that minds cannot, even in principle, be simulated by computations, assuming intelligence is algorithmic remains our best working hypothesis. Transcendence gets all this right. None of the characters in Transcendence go on about whether real AI is possible. Even the fearful anti-AI faction takes it as a given; it’s what they are afraid of.
If intelligence is algorithmic then it follows that we are nothing more than programs trapped in messy hardware. Separating hardware and software is one of the glories of our age. We take it for granted that if we change the software we change the machine. The other day I killed off my old WinXP laptop and then resurrected it as a Mint Linux device. The hardware is the same but the machine is very different. We cannot do this with brains — yet. The software that makes you, you, is regrettably entwined with the hardware that runs you. Nature has evolved better intellectual property protection than a division of parasitic IP lawyers. One of the great challenges of our age is breaking down nature’s intellectual property protection and reading out the software in brains. Transcendence also gets all this right. The best part of the film involves uploading a dying Will Caster, (Johnny Depp), into a bank of quantum computers.1
Up until Will goes live on his quantum cores Transcendence is a fine film. I kept pinching myself thinking: they’re not screwing it up or dumbing it down. This might be great. Then my hopes were crushed. Before Will went all quantum supercomputery he gave a TED’ish talk pointing out that when real AI arrives it will have more raw intellectual capacity than all human brains combined. When transcendent beings emerge in stories the plot often goes straight to pot. This is not a new artistic problem. It’s so common in science fiction that I even have a name for it: the superior being problem.
Depicting superior beings poses fundamental problems for feeble brained naked ape authors. Look at what a moron God is in the first few books of the Bible. Scores of fine science fiction novels have been trashed by trying to imagine what truly superior beings would think and do. The only approach that works is oblique. You can suggest the workings of superior minds. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a classic example of doing this right, but for reasons that escape me, many authors take on the inner life of superior minds only to show their own rather mediocre ones. Transcendence didn’t even make an honest effort to deal with the superior being problem: what a disappointment. Instead of enjoying new ideas I spent the rest of Transcendence wondering why our transcendent protagonist was such a dolt. Not really the transcendent experience I was looking for.
1. The jury is out on the feasibility of practical quantum computers. If quantum computers can be made to work they will solve certain classes of problems faster than conventional machines but, and this is a big but, they will not expand the notion of what’s computable. It’s rather amazing that what’s computable has not expanded since Turning’s great theorems of the 1930’s.↩︎