Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Transcendence [2014]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  ChicagoTribune (2 Stars) (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (C)  AARP () Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (M. Zoller Seitz) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Transcendnce [2014] (directed by Wally Pfister, screenplay by Jack Paglen) is a sci-fi-ish thriller set in the near future that explores the possibility (and some of the ramifications) of uploading a human mind onto a computer, in effect, digitizing it, making it (at least the digitized copy) as portable (and malleable...) as a computer virus or a jpeg file.

The concept and possibilities/dangers therefore will be fascinating to many, and yet also probably further in the future than the film's "near future" setting.  Why?  At minimum, a _functioning_ digitized copy of a brain from nature could not reside in just _any_ computer.  There are questions of brain architecture that would have to be resolved/simulated that would make the architecture of a computer fit for containing such a functioning digitized copy of a brain very different from the common-place computer or smart phone of today.  Hence said digitized copy of a brain couldn't just "swim across the internet" at will and "parking itself in just any given computer" at will ... So in the "real world" it would probably be PRETTY EASY to find where the digitized mind of AI-guru Dr Will Caster (played in the film by Johnny Depp) was residing.  And once one knew where said computer containing the digitized mind of AI-guru Will Caster was located, I'd be pretty certain that EVEN TODAY the good folks at the NSA (or even "Anonymous") would find a way to hack and destroy it without resorting to the (MILD SPOILER ALERT) rather Apocalyptic ending that the current story culminates in.

Still, I do find the possibilities / potential dangers raised by the very concept of "digitizing a human brain" fascinating: (1) If one could make a functioning digital copy of someone's brain, one could (obviously) make digital clones.  Yet those digital clones, from the very moment that they were created would necessarily begin to diverge from themselves.  (2) Could some law enforcement entity in the future do some kind of "MRI scan" of a captured "terrorist suspect's" brain and then "extract information" from the digitized copy of that prisoner's brain? (virtual "enhanced interrogation" /  or even virtual torture?).  (3) Could a future employer do said "MRI-like scan" of a potential employee's brain to make a digital copy "to run simulations with" to see what that potential employee would be capable of?  Could the employer then not hire the potential employee but keep the digital copy of the potential employee's "on file just in case" ... or even (unethically) use that digital copy of the potential employee's brain to do the employer's work without paying the potential employer for its services? (virtual slavery?)

Above, I've "played jazz" with basic concept behind the film, but the story-line of the film itself is not bad:  After AI-guru Dr. Will Caster is shot (and more importantly poisoned by a toxin-laced bullet) by a radical anti-technology terrorist group, his desperate wife and colleague Dr. Evelyn Caster (played by Rebecca Hall) decides to try to upload the contents of Will's brain into their computer before he dies (They were AI specialists working on advanced computers that were trying to mimic mammalian brain processes).   The radical anti-technology terrorist group tries to stop her, but ... well you guessed it ... she succeeds.

'Cept ... is the digital copy of Will's mind, really Will?  That's what Will and Evelyn's best friend and also colleague Dr. Max Waters (played by Paul Bethany) asks.  And the rest of the movie is about answering that question ... even as Will's "digital mind" becomes "bigger and bigger and bigger" (more and more capable) ... and hence, scarier and scarier ...

Now obviously _at best_ the digital copy of Will's mind IS A COPY (a CLONE).  On the other hand, since the original Dr. Will Caster died shortly after his mind was "uploaded" to the computer, "digital Will" could be (at least at the beginning) a _pretty good facsimile_.  And if "digital Will" changed/grew/evolved afterwards, well ... don't we all (change/grow/evolve) during the course of our lives?

Then theologically (metaphysically) speaking, there could be a question of whether one really could transfer the mind (and arguably the soul) of a person from a biological substrate to a digital one.  Then if one could make out of the digital copy thousands of other copies, would the soul copy/multiply/individuate as well?  The CNS/USCCB reviewer reminds readers that certainly the traditional Catholic/Christian metaphysical answer would be a rather emphatic no.  On the other hand, the book / film Cloud Atlas [2012] suggests that the final bastion of human prejudice will be against artificial sentient beings.

My own concern would be that even if becomes possible to upload a person's mind onto a computer, WHAT ELSE WOULD THE "GOOD PEOPLE" OFFERING SUCH A SERVICE "BUNDLE" WITH THE PROCESS ... Would the "digital you" suddenly become "incompatible" with all "name that brand" competitor products/services?  Or on the other hand could the "digital you" suddenly find itself _craving_ "name that brand" allied products/services?   Would the "Good People" who uploaded and would be storing one's digitized mind become "part owners" of its contents (our memories) and therefore be able to "sell" them?  Could some NSA-like agency be able then to get a search warrant to "scan through" our digitized mind's memories stored somewhere by the "Good People" offering us this "service" of "parking" our "digitized minds" with them?

As I wrote in my review of the recent film Her [2013] that raises similar questions, we can be thankful that whether we were created by chance OR (as we Catholic/Christians believe) BY A NOW CLEARLY, TRULY SURPRISINGLY BENEVOLENT CREATOR we do apparently truly have Free Will.  There have been no "Name that Service Ads" appearing in front of our minds' eyes or in our dreams.  In contrast, it's hard to imagine an "electronic companion" created by some for-profit corporation that would not have some kind of "adware" bundled inside that "e-friend" or accompanying our new digitized "virtual minds."   And then honestly how much "bundled adware" or other "non/post-human functionality" could there be added to a digitized human mind before its previous "human soul" would be altered beyond recognition/destroyed.  A mechanized "transformer" being only capable of using "name that brand" products/services would definitely not be a human any more (but rather some kind of weird cyber-slave) even if it was driven by an initially human brain "uploaded" to make the mechanized thing run.

But wow!   What kind of thoughts / concerns this film raises!  Several reviewers (including some I list above) have compared this film to the Frankenstein story where the lead character, Dr Will Caster plays the roles of both "mad scientist" and his "monstrous creation."  It's funny, but this may be the first time I've ever thought this (I turned fifty late last year): I'm happy that I'll probably be dead before most of what's portrayed as playing out in this film comes to pass ;-)

But still honestly, what a discussion piece!

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