The Singularity is Near: A True Story About the Future (2010)


USA. 2010.


Director – Anthony Waller, Co-Director/Screenplay – Ray Kurzweil, Interviews Directed by Toshi Hoo, Based on the Book by Ray Kurzweil, Producers – Ehren Koepf, Toshi Hoo & Ray Kurzweil, Music – Doug DeAngelis, Animation Directors – Lou CasaBianca & Lou Tones. Production Company – Terasem Motion Infoculture/ Ant Productions/Cometstone Pictures


Cynthia Breazeal, Richard A. Clarke, David Dalrymple, Aubrey De Grey, Alan M. Dershowitz, Eric Drexler, Robert A. Freitas Jr., James Gashel, Neil Gershenfeld, J. Storris Hall, Bill Joy, Mitch Kapor, Vinod Khosla, Bill McKibben, Marvin Minsky, Martine Rothblatt, Alvin Toffler, Sherry Turkle, Eliezer Yudkowsky


Pauley Perrette (Ramona), Ray Kurzweil (Himself), Lillian Askew (Samantha), Alan M. Dershowitz (Himself), Tony Robbins (Himself), Rod Loomis (Judge), Matt Silverman (Captain Smith), Jessiqa Pace (Prosecutor), Daron Jennings (Joel)


In the year 2045, Ramona, an artificial intelligence created by author and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil, explores the internet. Rejected by humans in the virtual life communities, she creates a companion Samantha. Coming across what she deduces to be a nanobot attack, she attempts to defeat it, only to be arrested by Homeland Security. She is placed on trial where she is defended by Alan Dershowitz who argues that she is a sentient entity and has the right to exist rather than be turned off. The only means for Ramona to prove herself is by taking a Turing Test where she is required to show she is able to respond emotionally rather than as a programmed machine.

The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (2006) is a non-fiction work by Ray Kuzweil. A graduate of MIT and currently an employee of Google, Kurzweil has been a strong advocate of robotics and computer science and one of the most prominent voices of the modern futurist movement. As a researcher, Kurzweil has made major developments in the fields of optical pattern and voice recognition systems for computers. In not just The Singularity is Near but half-a-dozen other books, Kurzweil has put forward the idea that our technology is undergoing an exponential growth in computational capacity. At around the year 2045, he claims, technology will reach The Singularity (not a term invented by Kurzweil but by science-fiction writer Vernor Vinge) where it will have evolved the ability to design itself and will be creating machines so advanced they are beyond human understanding. Added to this, Kurzweil argues that advances in the field of genetic engineering, nanotechnology, robotics, mind upload, gerontology and medicine will extend the human lifespan and dissolve the dividing line between the brain and computer, vastly expanding the power of the human mind, and will in turn lead to the ability to transform the Earth and eventually the rest of the solar system and universe.

The vision of Kurzweil and others who believe in The Singularity is an extraordinarily utopian one. To say that it has been it has been questioned as a credible one may be an understatement. Some have doubted Kurzweil’s use of statistics; others in his belief that machines come with some kind of evolutionary imperative. Perhaps the most objective means by which we should regard Kurzweil as a prophet would be to have a look at the predictions that he has made in the past – there is an interesting list at this Wikipedia page Predictions Made by Ray Kurzweil. Looking back on these from the perspective of the future ie. 2017 (one-two decades after they were made), you have to give Kurzweil a 60/40 success rate in prediction. He has been extraordinarily on the ball in seeing the advent of personal assistants such as Siri, Google Glasses, driverless cars, the e-reader and voice-to-text language translation services. Less on the ball have been predictions like wearable computers, automated classrooms, the obsolescence of paper products, advances in nanotechnology and genetic engineering, while I’d still have to give him a “let’s wait and see” on things like progress in augmented and Virtual Reality.

The Singularity is Near: A True Story About the Future is essentially an illustrated film based on Ray Kurzweil’s book. It is an uneasy beast that sits in the margins of definition somewhere between being a documentary and a work of fiction. Like a documentary, it gets in interviews with an impressive line-up of talking heads, ranging all the way from O.J. lawyer Alan M. Dershowitz, renowned futurist Alvin Toffler and leading names in the cyberneticist movement like Eric Drexler, who came up with the concept of nanotechnology, and A.I. advocate Marvin Minsky, even Bush government counter-terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke. Unlike a documentary, a good half of the film also acts as a work of science-fiction set around the A.I. Ramona (Pauley Perrette) and her adventures in cyberspace and battle to be legally recognised as a living entity. These scenes exist more to illustrate the various theses the film is making elsewhere – when the film is talking about the Second Life community, Ramona visits there; when there is discussion about nanobot attacks, she encounters one and so on. These scenes also blur the line between documentary and fiction by having contemporary real-life figures – Alan Dershowitz, Tony Robbins – turning up as themselves in the fictional, future-set storyline.

Ray Kurzweil offers a spellbinding vision of the future – of being able to extend one’s life, of people living life more in augmented reality than the real world through neural extensions, of processors to do computational mental work for us, even casual mentions Pauley Perette makes of being able to back-up one’s memories. The criticism I would make is that the social development of the contemporary world that we have had in the twenty or so years of the publicly available internet has shown a very different picture to the unbridled excitement Kurzweil and his associates have about possible changes. When you have half of the political arm of the US (the Republican Party) intent on dismantling Obamacare and despising any notion of healthcare for those unable to afford basic insurance, how can you talk in such glowingly optimistic terms about the human race being able to extend their lifespan beyond a hundred years? Would the pharmaceutical and medical research vultures not immediately pounce on any such process and sell it only to those able to afford it and deny it to those who cannot? Or put it another way – what would be the financial advantage of distributing such a process for free? This leads to the other issue that dogs the notion of so much technological evolution – proprietary copyright on software. Kurzweil’s vision of technological evolution seems to assume the machines evolve all on their own. Are the software giants really going to allow machines to evolve so rapidly without embedding any kind of backdoor that makes them incompatible with a rival’s product another or limited in use without people paying for something.

Or consider – in a world where the NSA randomly scoops up every e-communications and Facebook spits on the privacy of individuals, how truly free would such an electronic frontier as the internet be? Would not the fanatical obsession with cyber-security and mining personal data for advertising instead turn the idea of neural implants into something totalitarian where even the thought processes of netizens could be monitored? In a world where we have politicians riding a wave of popularity against dismantling any notion of gay marriage and banning people of different religion from the US, would it really be so easy recognising the rights of an artificial intelligence? Or like gay marriage and abortion, would A.I rights only exist until the next frothing populist leapt upon them as a cause to stir the sentiment/resentment of the disenfranchised public up against? What of the people who don’t want to be cyber-enhanced or even those who live without connection to the internet – 60% of the current world population at current count? Kurzweil’s vision is one that seems to not even recognise that more than half the world exists in this regard.

The Singularity is Near: A True Story About the Future is a film that seems to exist as both an enormously utopian vision of the possibilities of the future and one curiously unconvincing at the same time. I liked it in terms of being a film of big ideas; I liked it less in terms of its presentation of them. I think I would have liked the story of Ramona if it had served as a work of standalone science-fiction rather than simply to illustrate the particular points the documentary section want to make. Also, in that Ray Kurzweil not only co-directs but also writes, produces, appears as both an interviewer and an interview subject, the film does seem to sit just a tad on the side of being a self-congratulatory puff-piece. It would have helped the film no end if Ramona were something that was made up for the production rather than based on the A.I. that Kurzweil wanted to create as a boy and finally did premiere in 2001 (she currently exists as a bot you can converse with Chat with Ramona. We get brief flashback scenes of him constructing a marionette and then leap forward to it as a fully-formed A.I.. This is fine – you can’t help but think by this point that Ramona is a large wish fulfilment – but when it comes to scenes of Ramona being coached for her Turing Test by Tony Robbins and suddenly realising a flood of emotions and love for Ray, the film collapses into the ridiculously precious.

Ray Kurzweil co-directs The Singularity is Near with British director Anthony Waller. Waller has an interesting career and is a frequent genre dabbler. He made an impressive debut with the snuff movie thriller Mute Witness (1995) and went on to the likes of An American Werewolf in Paris (1997), the non-genre thriller The Guilty (1999) and Nine Miles Down (2009) about a mineshaft that may have drilled all the way down to Hell. Around the same time as The Singularity is Near: A True Story About the Future came out, Kurzweil’s ideas were also used as the basis of the documentary Transcendent Man (2009).

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