The Movie Transcendence Takes On Consciousness and the Singularity

Transcendence Warner Bros

Imagine that on your deathbed you are given two options: Take your chances with an afterlife, or allow scientists to upload a copy of your brain to the Internet, where you will be free to surf forever, haunt your friends on Facebook and—presumably—watch whatever you want on HBO Go for free.

This digital you, of course, isn't exactly the same as the sentient meat version reading this article. It's a duplicate that lives in a computer. Which raises the question: Who (or what) is it? If we copy your brain, does your soul or consciousness come with it? And how far away are we from this possibility?

Transcendence, opening April 18, is about these and other questions related to the Singularity. Recently popularized by futurist Ray Kurzweil, the Singularity is the near-future moment when artificial intelligence, brain-computer interfaces, nanotechnology or some combination thereof create an entity smarter than any human. It's a premise previously explored in film with The Terminator's murderous Skynet and the red-or-blue-pill Descartian dualism of The Matrix (and more benignly in Spike Jonze's Her). In Transcendence, our A.I. overlord comes in the form of Johnny Depp.

Depp and Rebecca Hall star as scientists Will and Evelyn Caster, a couple at the forefront of neuroscience. When Will's earthly form is damaged beyond repair, Evelyn teams up with Max Waters (Paul Bettany) in a race to upload her husband's beautiful mind before a Luddite terrorist organization known as Revolutionary Independence From Technology (RIFT) can pull the plug. What happens next rifles through a catalog of ideas currently occupying the collective consciousness of the future-is-now crowd (and the entertainment-industrial complex), from nanotech tissue regeneration to high-frequency stock trading. But this isn't a comic book origin story. It's a prescient, grounded-in-theoretical-science love story.

"I wrote it for my wife," says screenwriter Jack Paglen. After reading about the Singularity, producer Annie Marter, a former studio executive, approached Paglen with the seed idea. "We wanted to make a movie out of this notion of man and computer merging in a way that's original, intelligent and emotional," says Marter. Paglen had in-house inspiration, using his wife, a computer programmer working in artificial intelligence, as both a model for the character of Evelyn and as an in-house science consultant, shouting questions to her as he wrote in the other room. Marter and Paglen's high-concept pitch quickly caught the attention of Wally Pfister, Christopher Nolan's longtime cinematographer, who soon signed on to make Transcendence his directorial debut.


The moviegoing public has seen some amazing images courtesy of Pfister, from Heath Ledger as the Joker leaning out of a police car window like a happy dog in The Dark Knight to the sharply etched Escheresque buildings morphing into each other in Inception. His visual mastery here takes on a new lyricism, his touch with actors is more human than Nolan's, and his influences are golden: Transcendence references 1970s-era deep-think sci-fi, from Cronenberg body horror to Michael Crichton techno-thrillers. Pfister was drawn to the project because of the contemporary subject matter in Paglen's original story.

"There was a human drama unfolding in Jack's original screenplay," says Pfister, "and also the notion of an entity more intelligent than we are. That immediately makes you stand up and pay attention. We've seen this in science fiction for 50 years, but now the fact that we're talking to Siri or using voice commands to access bank accounts, more and more, we're now communicating with various forms of artificial intelligence."

The twist: This intelligence is not completely artificial. Uploading a human is the key difference between the sinister squids of The Matrix and Depp's online avatar, which presents as a (sometimes pixilated, Max Headroom-esque) human.

"This is a biological, actual intelligence that gets copied and transferred to a machine," says Pfister, "so while everybody's talking about those two letters—A.I.—it's a replication of an actual person's intelligence, and, perhaps, consciousness."

When will this happen? For one thing, predicting technological advances is dicey. More important, we're not even sure what consciousness really is.

"The Singularity is the Rapture for nerds," says Christof Koch, who, as the chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, can likely be counted as one himself. Pfister consulted Koch, a neuroscientific pioneer in the field of consciousness, when researching the film.

Koch supports the theory of functionalism, which suggests that self-awareness—or what some would call the soul—is yet another feature of our brain's firmware. I asked him if science could duplicate human consciousness in a computer.

"If you take a system and you replicate all the functional relationships in a different medium, in principle you get all the properties associated with that system," says Koch. "So if you take a brain and somehow manage to make a gigantic computer model of the brain—all the nerve cells and neurotransmitters and synapses—then in principle everything that the real brain does, the simulated brain will also do, from speaking to being able to see and hear. And it should also be able to be conscious."

But what does it mean to be conscious?

Consciousness exists to help learn things and solve higher-level problems, like dealing with new and unexpected situations. "That's one of the main evolutionary drivers for brains like ours that are very conscious, as opposed to a dog, which has some consciousness," says Koch. "It has feelings, but it cannot contemplate tomorrow or life after death."

The first year of your life, or even as a teenager, you have limited consciousness, because the prefrontal cortex, which allows you to choose between taking off your pants in public and not doing things like that, has yet to fully develop. This is one of the reasons why courts are more lenient on juvenile offenders.

It's this cut of the brain that makes the meat sentient. Which also means that its relative health affects exactly how conscious we are: Koch suggests that a meditating Buddhist monk could have more consciousness than someone jet-lagged and hungover in a foreign hotel room: "You are dimly aware that you are aware and that you are alive, but it takes a minute to figure out where you are." And as a person ages, losing memory or a fixed sense of identity, what's commonly called consciousness can wax and wane on a daily or even hourly basis.


While anecdotally measurable, linking consciousness directly to brain activity remains elusive. So we can't be sure that a fully mapped brain inside a computer would choose to launch nuclear missiles directly at the moon to see what happens, or just take its virtual pants off in public.

"Functionalists say, 'Yes,'" says Koch. "A computer should be able to feel something akin to love." But he also points out that this is all purely theoretical, because we still can't even make a computer model of Caenorhabditis elegans, a roundworm the size of the letter L in the font you are currently reading. And C. elegans has only 302 nerve cells. Even so, this lowly creature might not be without some form of consciousness. "At this point, this is pure speculation," says Koch, "but it's widespread speculation."

And uploading a worm is the first step.

"I used to work for Thomas Casey.... When he uploaded that rhesus monkey, I was actually happy for him.... One night, he invites us all to the lab for the big unveiling. Gives a speech about history, hands out champagne. You know what the computer did when he first turned it on? It screamed. The machine that thought it was a monkey never took a breath, never ate or slept. At first, I didn't know what it meant. Pain, fear, rage. Then, I finally realized... it was begging us to stop. Of course, Casey thought I was crazy. Called it a success. But I knew we had crossed a line.... It changed me forever."

This gooseflesh-inducing monologue in the center of Transcendence, given by RIFT leader Bree (Kata Mara, late of House of Cards), explains the ethical quandary that we may eventually encounter.

So imagine you're on your deathbed again. You know for certain that science can upload your brain. They've been uploading worms for years now. They're ready for you. What do your loved ones do? Have you designated someone to manage the upload folder, to plunk your consciousness into dropbox? And is that person ready for whatever happens when you transmogrify into this being of bits and bytes? Do you just go on their Instagram and simply heart all their vacation snaps to Costa Rica, where they dump your ashes into the sea? Or perhaps digital-you just endlessly retweets Patton Oswalt and occasionally moves money from your daughter's checking to her savings account just to keep her on her toes. Are you, as functionalists suggest, just you being you (albeit in a more silicon-based manner)? Or are you now an incredibly dangerous experiment that should be guarded against, like replacing the gaps in a dinosaur gene sequence with frog DNA or getting into a transporter tube with a fly or are you just a creepy reality TV show like the aforementioned Max Headroom or (shudder) a Real Housewife who can never be turned off?

This is an important ontological question to consider. "We can upload his consciousness like a song or a movie," says Evelyn in the film, but the problem is, we (and the characters) have no idea what that movie or song will do once it's uploaded. "If you miss one thing, one childhood memory, how do you know what you will be dealing with?" Bettany's character replies.

And then they go and upload him.

While Kurzweil's predictions of brain-mapping by midcentury are off course, we can thank him for alerting us to the speed at which technology moves, sometimes unseen, integrating and ingratiating itself. It's this slippery relationship with our technology and how it affects our consciousness that we need to guard against. It creates a central question in Transcendence, as the audience must decide who is right: the Luddites or those who would be God?

I asked Paglen what he would do if confronted with this deathbed scenario.

"I dunno," he said. "I think I would have to talk to my wife."