SAN FRANCISCO — Inventor Ray Kurzweil has become the foremost proponent of a future in which humans and machines merge, thus transcending biological evolution.
A technical genius with a flair for showmanship, Kurzweil believes human consciousness will one day be uploaded into electronic systems, allowing people to achieve a form of virtual immortality. His epic-length 2005 book, “The Singularity is Near,” won him a small coterie of fans and critics in global technology circles. Now a forthcoming documentary, “Transcendent Man,” showcases this complex man and his heady notions in an 85-minute biography accessible to a broader audience.
The documentary, which will debut at New York's Tribeca Film Festival in April, was directed by Los Angeles filmmaker Barry Ptolomey. His crew spent two years following the 61-year-old Kurzweil around the world. The result: A sympathetic, but not uncritical, depiction of Kurzweil's theory that scientific advances will result in a human-machine fusion within mere decades. As a technology reporter who has long followed Kurzweil's career, I appear briefly in the documentary to suggest that, like him or not, Kurzweil's track record as an inventor and futurist demand attention.
Kurzweil first achieved fame in 1976 when he hooked an optical scanner to a voice synthesizer, creating a device that could read text aloud to the blind. The first Kurzweil Reading Machine was the size of a washing machine and cost $50,000. It made a splash on television when then-CBS newscaster Walter Cronkite used it to read aloud his famous sign-off line, “And that's the way it was.”
Ever since, Kurzweil — who has been likened to a modern Thomas Edison — has focused on gadgets with some prosthetic purpose. Among his recent inventions is a $1,600 software program that can be loaded onto a camera-equipped Nokia cell phone. The device, called the kReader Mobile, allows users to snap pictures of printed documents and hear an audio playback — it's a handheld version of his original reader.
Kurzweil's gift has been his mastery of pattern recognition: writing programs that imitate the way the human brain makes sense of the world.
Beginning in 1990, he started devoting his skills toward anticipating the future. In a series of books that have been translated into several languages, Kurzweil tells the global technology community that the brain is not the end of evolution. Rather, he says, it's a step toward the synthesis of biological and machine intelligence into something trans-human.
Ptolemy says the title of the documentary, “Transcendent Man” is a play on words — it is meant to describe the human-machine constructs Kurzweil envisions, as well as his efforts to live out his own views. For instance, Kurzweil takes more than 100 nutritional supplements each day, as he hopes to live long enough to benefit from artificial life extension technologies.
Kurzweil, who travels around the world, is an accomplished lecturer and his audiences are largely self-selecting enthusiasts.
But Ptolemy said the inventor got a strong push-back from audiences in Brazil, where his arguments that falling prices would democratize the availability of life-extending technologies were met by skepticism. Critics said such advances, if possible, would simply open up a gaping chasm between the few who could afford technology-aided immortality and the far more numerous have-nots, he said.
Ptolemy, who has been tracking downloads of a film trailer of “Transcendent Man” on the Internet, said it is getting hits from South Africa, eastern Europe, Latin America and Asia, in addition to the predominant centers of interest in North America and Europe.
“At a grassroots level people seem to be interested in these idea worldwide,” he said.
They should be. Technology and science are the engines of the future. But most people don't know how these engines work or where they may be taking us. Kurzweil is one of the few who looks down the road. Another is Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, whose essay, “Why the future doesn't need us,” offers an alarmist view of the potentially uncontrollable power of artificial intelligence, biotechnology and nanotechnology. Kurzweil is more optimistic, arguing that humans could master these perils by adopting the old adage, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
Whether the balance tilts toward promise or peril, “Transcendent Man” affords us a telescopic view of a world just over the horizon that we can't afford to ignore.
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