‘Transcendence’ plumbs the depths of consciousness

“Transcendence” (2014). Cast: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Kate Mara, Clifton Collins Jr. Director: Wally Pfister. Screenplay: Jack Paglen. Web site. Trailer.

What makes a human human? Is it our brain and physical self? Or is it our mind, our consciousness, the cosmic software that drives us as sentient beings? And is that consciousness innately restricted to the physical self, or are other configurations possible? Those are just some of the intriguing questions raised in the new science fiction thriller, “Transcendence.”

Artificial intelligence researchers Drs. Will and Evelyn Caster (Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall) are on the verge of some astounding breakthroughs in cutting edge computer technology. The professional and life partners are committed to their work and to one another, and they approach both aspects of their lives with heartfelt devotion. They seem to have everything going for them. But then events take an unexpected turn that upends their – and everyone else’s – world.

Shortly after giving a presentation on the astounding potential of artificial intelligence, Will is shot by an anti-technology terrorist at point blank range. As shocking as the incident is, the bullet only grazes him, inflicting injuries that are not considered life threatening. However, in the wake of this attack, Will and Evelyn learn that artificial intelligence labs across the country have been hit by a simultaneous series of incidents in which most of the researchers have been killed and their work wiped out. In fact, the only experts who have apparently survived unscathed are Will’s colleagues Dr. Max Waters (Paul Bettany) and Dr. Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman).

The attacks immediately prompt a high-level investigation led by FBI Agent Donald Buchanan (Cillian Murphy), who consults with Will, Evelyn, Max and Joseph on how to proceed, given that they are among the few AI scientists left alive whose work has not been compromised. Not long after the investigation begins, however, Will suddenly falls seriously ill, a surprise given the presumed nature of his gunshot wounds. Upon further inquiry, though, physicians discover that the bullet that struck Will had been contaminated with polonium, and, given that the substance made contact with his bloodstream, he was exposed to a lethal dose of radioactivity. Will is given only weeks to live.

With certain death looming, Will contemplates how to spend his remaining time. He feels compelled to continue with his work, but he’s so weak that it becomes impossible. And so, at Max’s urging, Will decides to shelve his research in favor of spending quality time with Evelyn. But, given the deflating nature of this forced resignation, he’s restless and ill at ease. So, with his days dwindling, the duo devises a plan where Will can both continue his work and spend time with Evelyn: They explore the possibility of creating a computer interface that will allow Will’s consciousness to be uploaded into cyberspace, enabling his mind’s continued existence even in the absence of his corporeal self, in many ways the ultimate embodiment of the concept of artificial intelligence.

With Max’s aid, Will and Evelyn successfully pull off their plan. But, when word of their exploits reaches the terrorists, the insurgents close in on the researchers to try and prevent Will’s consciousness from being launched onto the Internet, a move that would allow it to have unrestricted access to all of the resources of web – and making it virtually impossible to contain once released. Will and Evelyn move too fast for their would-be attackers, however, and Will’s consciousness successfully makes its transition into cyberspace. And now, with unlimited computing power at Will’s disposal, his consciousness is free to explore possibilities never before dreamed of.

What Will and Evelyn subsequently do with such unprecedented power pushes the envelope of human accomplishment, not to mention the very nature of human evolution. But with such tremendous power also comes a corresponding level of accountability. Can Will and Evelyn effectively manage that newfound responsibility? Will they be able to successfully maneuver the minefield of new ethical dilemmas that such circumstances spawn? Or are they fundamentally incapable of managing such an unimaginable task? After all, suddenly having access to heretofore-unavailable resources may be too much to handle, especially if it gives rise to the temptation to play God. How everything plays out ultimately carries implications not only for Will and Evelyn, but also for the entire planet.

The narrative in “Transcendence” begs the question, what, exactly, is the nature of consciousness? Is it something limited to our biological selves? Or can it be exported onto other platforms, such as the computer technology depicted in the film? And what happens when it’s placed onto an operating system different from what we’re accustomed to? Also, what’s to become of our emotional, feeling-based self when merged with a logic-driven environment with unlimited computational powers? What are the ethics of this? What can we manifest with such power? And what should we manifest (or not manifest) under such conditions?

These are all crucial issues to consider. And, with the advancement of technology that makes such realities possible – something that could happen much sooner than many of us think – we have a host of thorny new questions to contemplate. The transhumanism movement, inspired by the works and philosophies of inventors like Ray Kurzweil, may be upon as sooner rather than later, and we had better start addressing these concerns before the genie is out of the bottle rather than after it’s made its escape.

This is not to suggest that technology is an intrinsic evil (as the terrorists in the film insist). Nor is this film necessarily proposing (as many of its detractors have asserted) that a Luddite approach to life is inherently preferable. However, the picture is nudging us to examine these issues, not only from the standpoint of technology, but also from the perspective of human consciousness and, by extension, the conscious creation process.

The implications in this are potentially staggering. As conscious creators are well aware, the power of our consciousness alone can work miracles, or wreak havoc, on a tremendous scale. But imagine what reality would be like if either of those possibilities is amplified by technology that our consciousness creates. Suddenly, our minds might be able to operate as if they were on steroids. The possibility for change, either positively or negatively, could be almost inconceivable. Indeed, as is even cautioned in the Bible, “in the twinkling of an eye … we will be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52). In light of that, regardless of one’s religious leanings, perhaps we should do our metaphysical homework in advance to assess what beliefs and intents we hold that are capable of invoking such radical transformations – for better or worse and before there’s no going back.

“Transcendence” has been trounced by movie critics and audiences alike for a variety of reasons. Yes, I’ll admit there are plenty of plot holes in the narrative. Yes, I’ll concede the picture has some pacing issues. And, yes, Johnny Depp comes across as so disinterested that he could have phoned in his performance. However, the aforementioned themes this film raises are far more important than any of these flaws, and its examination of those issues is what make this picture worth seeing, even if the production’s overall execution is far from perfect.

Consciousness is something not to be taken lightly, regardless of whether or not it’s enhanced by the power of technology. “Transcendence” draws that notion into sharp focus, a concern we’d all be wise to consider before we unleash it in the creation of whatever reality we manifest.

Copyright © 2014, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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