We saw a film last night, “Transcendence” with Johnny Depp. It was a thought provoking film, at least it was for me, although I’m not sure what thoughts it might provoke in others. This article contains information that may be considered “spoilers,” but I will not give anything but my interpretations away.
The film tells the story of a human consciousness loaded into a computer. Not a laptop, or even a Cray, but a massive computer using thousands of “quantum processors”, the size of a building. In the story, Depp’s character, “William”, is developing an artificial intelligence program along with several other researchers, all of them approaching the problem from different angles. An anti-technology terrorist group attacks the various facilities, killing several scientists and mortally wounding William. One of the scientists had successfully loaded a monkey’s consciousness into a computer, and Williams wife believes she can keep William alive by uploading his consciousness.
The plot takes several turns, and is open to a variety of interpretations, but one central question is “Is the consciousness expressed by the computer really William?” The answer to that question requires knowledge of who William truly is, and the extrapolation of what that person would do in the given situation. There are hints for either a positive or negative answer.
Meanwhile, in the real world, the viewers have lives of their own, and they might consider what they might do were they William. In my life, I am in the midst of a conversation about the the appropriate care for loved ones. Perhaps that colors my interpretation of the film.
Sometimes we have to make difficult choices. The choices are not difficult if viewed through a simple filter, as a machine might view the choice. What makes the decisions difficult is because as humans, we do not have the opportunity to view the world through a single filter. Every decision we make has multiple effects and consequences, and what may be right from one point of view is wrong from another. We have to balance the reality of today, the debts of the past, and the uncertainty of the future. What is the best thing we can do for a loved one, considering that a major factor is the totally unknown influence of unknown events of the future? The truth is, we have no idea what we’re doing and can only do what feels best right now.
We can only hope our loved ones know we have the best of intentions and are doing what we believe is in their best interests. We trust them to trust us. At one point the consciousness says to William’s wife “you’ve changed.” The irony of measuring change by the reaction to one’s own changes was striking.
One aspect of the film which makes it difficult to determine if the computer consciousness is William is that William was a human being, with skin and blood and a brain limited by the boundaries of human intelligence. The computer is capable of seeing a much bigger picture, analyzing literally all the data in the world. If the person that was William was suddenly capable of doing the things the computer could, would it still really be William? Are we the same people we were twenty years ago? Any change in circumstance affects the way in which we make decisions.
In the end, we are like the loved ones for whom we make decisions. We determine, from our own prejudiced position, if the end result was William’s plan, or the effect of William’s foes plans. Was this massive intelligence benevolent, or self serving? Was the change that took place an improvement for mankind? I think it was.
The assistance we give to others is not always accepted with a smile. I am of the “Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime, give a man a fish, and he eats for one day” school. So again, my personal prejudices may have tinted my interpretation of the film, mine was certainly different than my wife’s, because at the end of the film, I felt William had been a good caregiver, providing for the survival of a species, whether they liked it or not.
I hope I have piqued your interest in this film, I would like to see it become a landmark in our cultural literacy, but the message may be too dark for those that are happy to just know where their next fish is coming from. But then, I suppose that is the point I saw in the film.