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Review: Transcendent Man

A documentary explores the life and work of Ray Kurzweil.
February 22, 2011

At Ethan Kurzweil’s kind invitation, my wife, son and I attended a screening of Transcendent Man at the Tech Museum. This brilliant documentary chronicles some highlights from the life of futurist Ray Kurzweil, who was there with the film’s director Barry Ptolemy to answer questions. The film succeeds at several levels, and in ways that recursively support one another (reminiscent of Doxiadis’ LogiComix or Hofstadter’s fugue-ish essays on fugues).

The Science

On its surface, Transcendent Man explores the science behind Kurzweil’s prediction of a Singularity event, as Kurzweil authored in The Singularity Is Near. Kurzweil has observed that new technologies - ranging from the printing press to Google - themselves enable us to develop newer technologies even faster. So the pace of innovation is always accelerating, yielding an exponential curve of discovery. Kurzweil produces data that extends Moore’s Law to bits shipped, social connections made, and many other metrics of information technology. Extrapolating from historical trends, we will within two decades manufacture the powerful computers we carry today in sizes no larger than a blood cell.

Furthermore, as genomic sequencing transforms biology into an information science, we should see the same exponential pace of invention. Inevitably our machines would be so effective at fixing and augmenting our frail, limited bodies that we will incorporate them ever deeper into our lives. Memory prosthetics will feed our brains data, and nanobots in our blood will download the latest anti-virus software for fighting REAL viruses!

Kurzweil’s Singularity is a point in time three decades from now when we create machines so intelligent that human beings are no longer on the critical path to further innovation. Our inventions will themselves solve the intractable problems of aging and death - even reverse engineering cerebral architectures so that memories and personalities can be backed up and activated in alternative computing platforms.

The Singularity is obviously a provocative prediction, even more so than Kurzweil’s highly accurate prediction in the 1970’s that in 1995 a computer would become the world’s best chess player, which seemed a lot crazier back then. (Kurzweil also predicted that immediately afterward, chess would be dismissed as an invalid test of true AI.) But the Singularity violates no laws of physics, suggesting that it’s more likely a question of “When”, not “If”. Kurzweil presents the data transparently, challenging critics to assess the analysis rather than respond intuitively to the surprising conclusion.

The Inventor

At the same time, Transcendent Man recounts the life of an extraordinary scientist who was brilliant and crazy enough to doggedly tackle seemingly intractable problems. As a teenager in the 1960’s he built a computer to analyze and compose classical music. At MIT he started and sold his first computer software company, and after school he generalized optical character recognition (OCR) as Kurzweil Computer (the predecessor of today’s Nuance). More ventures followed: at Kurzweil Music Products, Ray invented the modern synthesizer, passing the musical equivalent of a Turing Test by generating sound indistinguishable from a grand piano. At Kurzweil Artificial Intelligence, Ray developed and commercialized the first large-vocabulary speech recognition software. Kurzweil Educational Systems developed text-to-speech software for the blind. Kurzweil Adaptive Technologies operated a hedge fund using AI techniques. And there were others - too many to expound.

When Ray was 35 he contracted diabetes, which had led to his own father’s death. Rather than capitulate to the limited science of the day, Ray resolved to learn the chemistry behind his condition and fix it. He studied the mechanisms behind diabetes and formulated a regmen of medical supplements that has, he claims, reversed the condition. He has since written two books on his medical research into staving off the ravages of age.

Now here’s a guy who knows how to get out of his comfort zone.

The Son

Beautifully woven into the documentary is a stream of Ray’s memories of his late father Fredric, a musical composer in Brooklyn. Intermingled with Ray’s discussion of the Singularity, we see the old photos and family mementos that haunt Ray’s consciousness. The audience develops an understanding of Ray’s profound sense of loss - his gratitude for Fredric’s support of Ray’s childhood tinkering, his appreciation of the music Fredric lovingly composed, his disappointment in the human physiological deficits that inflicted Fredric in his fifties, and his driving frustration that science failed to save his father.

Never one to fold, Ray embraced yet another bold ambition: not only will he work to escape his father’s fate, but he would do everything possible to preserve Fredric’s writings and DNA so that he might one day restore his father - or at least an AI replica - to life.

The Critics

Naturally, Kurzweil’s provocative science has attracted an impressive community of critics, several of whom were featured in the film. We see Kurzweil in a TV interview, his dignity wounded as a caller from Oak Ridge Labs labels him a crackpot. Two professors in particular - a Dr Hurlbut from Stanford and a French Comp Sci professor from a Chinese university - were interviewed at length, and took issue with the Singularity. And they did appear so much more grounded than Kurzweil.

But as they picked up the pace of their criticism through the film, the audience had to start wondering who the madman here was really. It became clear that the Frenchman’s primary beef with Kurzweil was that somehow Kurzweil was predicting and therefore endorsing the dominion of robots - by the end he was rambling on about his very clear vision of the world war that will inevitably ravage civilization over the issue of robotic rights. And by the end Dr Hurlbut exposed his own ignorance and bias, backing up his criticisms with the explanation that he himself is a Christian, and opposes Ray’s sacrilegious invasion of GOD’s turf. (Really, Stanford?)


So on its surface, the film foretells how Humanity will transcend our biological boundaries, breaking the boom-and-bust cycle that has characterized every other species of nature.

But it’s also the story of how Kurzweil himself has transcended his modest means, his illness, and his critics - striving still to transcend his own mortality. In a way, it’s a tragic story of a brilliant scientist who sees medical miracles around the corner, a tad too late to save him and his family. I found it comforting, though, to think that Ptolemy’s film did help Ray achieve his dream of bringing Fredric back to life.

The entire evening was particularly meaningful for me, as I watched my focus-deficient son on the edge of his seat throughout the film and during Kurzweil’s presentation. He inhaled the content, scouring the data on every slide to understand each graph and animation. “What’s a logarithmic scale? …Is that RNA collecting those proteins? …Why’s the event horizon expanding like that?” And finally: “Why’s it so important to him that everyone know what’s going to happen?” His wheels are turning, faster and faster.

Spoiler Alert

I had many favorite parts of this movie but my very favorite was the last line. Kurzweil had just shared his idea that once we’ve transcended our own biology, our colonization of the universe is inevitable… we will augment the human-Borg collective until we’ve incorporated all the matter at our disposal, bringing consciousness to the universe. “People ask if there’s a God. I say, not yet…”

David Cowan is a partner at Bessemer Venture Partners in Menlo Park, California. He blogs at Who Has Time for This.

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