"Transcendence" and the transhumanist quest

There is a fascinating (and quietly frightening) article on the Daily Telegraph website at the moment that looks at the quest to

"greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities. That means everything from bionic limbs to uploading our entire brains on to memory sticks and carrying them around with us as back-up."

Upon reading the article I was immediately struck by the similarities with the plot of the new Wally Pfister/Johnny Depp movie, "Transcendence". The trailer mentions the idea of what transhumanists call a "singularity", that moment when technology driven by AI (Artificial Intelligence) will start to replicate itself and develop its own evolutionary process taking it beyond the horizon of maximum human intelligence; a moment beyond which the future of humanity becomes totally unpredictable.

This concept is simultaneously fascinating and terrifying, as can be seen in the success of AI-driven sci-fi film, tv and literature (Blade Runner, Terminator, The Matrix and Battlestar Galactica, to name but a few).

Is this simply an unavoidable consequence of the rapid technological progress we are living through? What is the primary motivation of companies like Google who are ploughing millions into cutting-edge tech research in this area? Is it ultimately the age old quest to achieve "eternal life" here on earth, immortality in a silicon chip?

Personally, I am surprised that such progress seems to be advancing without much of a public debate on whether this is a "good thing". It would seem, however, that our thirst for dystopian future tech sci-fi, together with a similar thirst for viral apocalypse zombie-driven sci-fi (at least in the younger generations) is a manifestation of our collective subconscious fear of annihilation previously focused on the Cold War Communist threat and the fear of alien invasion. The contemporary situation differs from the past in that the "enemy" is within in the form of either our own intellectual hubris at being able to match God and create self-evolving AI, or our physical vulnerability and openness to viral infection.

In each case the sci-fi scenarios often imagine an enforced hard reset for humanity, a return to a no technology existence where the few survivors have an opportunity to (re)discover how to begin society again and in the process discover what makes us truly human. The tension that lies therein, especially in series such as "The Walking Dead" is that these survivors have to behave at times like wild animals simply to continue surviving, and therefore risk losing touch altogether with the spark of humanity inside them.

As I am writing this I realise that we have of course been here before nearly 3,000 yrs. ago! Noah and his ark.... What else is this but a variation on the currently popular "end-of-the-world let's-start-again" scenarios? The success of Aronofsky's "Noah" movie seems to be tapping into this continued fascination with such an idea, the film succeeding in rendering an ancient creation story (that finds it's roots in the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic which predates the Old Testament) in such a way as to make it of relevance to today.

If only we could trust that AI would not develop past the humanity-serving model portrayed in the lovely "Robot and Frank" - with the great Frank Langella. But how can we be sure?

We can't.... and that's what I find worrying.

But at least films like "Transcendence" have the benefit of bringing the subject into the domain of public debate.


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