It’s not surprising that AI replaced the biological form in the popular Frankenstein monster trope. In fact the smart-evil-machine scenario has been done so often this past decade or so that I’m more surprised any film writer or director can manage to give it some semblance of uniqueness that differs it from all the others.
Transcendence tries, tries very hard and almost makes it. But the brass ring remains out of reach. Still, it’s worth watching if you’re a scifi buff because, well, it’s scifi.* And even bad scifi is better than no scifi at all. Well, maybe not the Transformer franchise, but pretty much the rest of it.
More than that, while it doesn’t tread a lot of new ground, it does use a lot of nifty sets and special effects, even if the topic isn’t all that new.
The evil robot has been with us in film for a very long time. Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, Metropolis was the first to portray a sentient robot (the ‘Maschinenmensch’). That robot was created to “resurrect” the creator’s former lover. In Transcendence, the character of Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is similarly “resurrected” but in virtual space: inside a computer. And of course he/it evolves/develops within those confines to something more than human.
Angry non-techies storm the castle with pitchforks and burn the whole place down. Well, okay it’s an underground data centre in the desert and they use artillery, but it’s basically the same thing. It’s a monster movie with CGI lipstick. And better yet, it’s in the $8 bin (with both Blu-Ray and DVD editions in the case…) at Wal Mart. But be prepared to question the premise. And a lot more.
Spoiler alert: It’s about the digital recording of a man’s brain into a computer, that then becomes sentient. But unlike the monotone, unemotional Hal on 2001: A Space Odyssey, this AI looks and sounds just like Johnny Depp playing a monotone, unemotional scientist. Well, there’s a bit more in his voice than in Hal’s, but not much. Emotion is a chemical thing, after all. Yeah, they explain that in the film, in case you didn’t know it. But the question we are expected to ponder is: “Is that now-sentient AI actually Dr. Will Caster or just a computer facsimile mimicking him?”
Okay your first question ought to be: how does a recording become sentient? What’s the mechanism to turn an image into a brain? When I play Beatles’ music, my stereo doesn’t start talking to me in a Liverpudlian accent. Why should Caster’s recording, even if infinitely more complex than Love Me Do, become self-aware? We never know and never learn. It’s magic. And magic does play a part in the film, as you’ll read. Not full-on Harry Potter, but magic nonetheless.
You know what the Turning Test is, right? Basically it’s a test to see if a computer chat program can fool people into thinking it’s a person answering and not a machine. Well. as influential as that test has been on the development of AI, I can’t help but think of these computer programs as Tinker Toys (Young Frankenstein reference). I think the Turing Test is misleading, too. You can fool a lot of the people a lot of the time (just look at the results of our last municipal election…)
What is intelligence? We can’t actually define it to the general satisfaction of biologists, let alone philosophers. Can we even recognize the difference between actual and imitated intelligence? In his book, “Are We Smart Enough to know How Smart Animals Are?” Frans de Waal argues that we can’t even recognize the intelligence of our fellow animals on this planet. How can we thus tell if a machine is actually smart or just following the coding? Are we smart enough to even take the Turning Test?
Sure, we now have computer programs that can beat the best chess and go masters (the latter is even more astounding because of the complexity of go). We have computer programs that can write stories, fly airplanes, drive cars, navigate, design houses, play and write music… but that’s all they can do. Even the most impressive go program can’t also fly a plane or drive a car. Yet there are many people who can do all of that and a lot more, sometimes simultaneously. And we’re not talking about merely walking while chewing gum: humans can process a huge array of information while doing a lot of cognitive tasks simultaneously (well, not our local council who often struggle at mono-tasking, but most people can…)
Even the most impressive robots (and if you haven’t seen Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot dog, be prepared to be awed…) can’t also play chess or converse about Those Leafs in Last Night’s Game (okay, to be fair, humans who converse about Last Night’s Game are equally unlikely to also play chess, but you get the drift…).
Computers can do marvellous things. But so far they are Tinker Toys compared to the human brain. So that big bad, self-aware AI is still a long way off. There’s no Skynet or Terminator in the immediate future, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates notwithstanding. The current state of computer technology is still at the Lego level compared to the kind of storage and processing power that can emulate a fruit fly’s brain, let alone a human’s.
But okay, it’s fiction: we need suspension of belief. So we’ll grant them some technological wizardry that lets Will Caster come to consciousness in the machine. And we’ll grant them licence to a lot of notions and ideas so we can explore them and their interactions.
We cannot, however, accept all of the premises so easily. Sure, the virtual doctor is able to go online and manipulate the stock market to create a ready supply of cash for the building of a new home – a superscale, underground facility with labs, living quarters and a massive data centre… but wouldn’t it cost hundreds of millions,even billions of dollars? Where’d the rest of the cash come from?
Wait a sec. I know this is the future and satellite upload speeds may be faster than we have today. But to stuff gigabytes of data into the Net in what seems a few seconds? Come on…
And you build this giant complex and no one thought of building a fence around it? Hire a few guards? My veterinarian’s office has better security than this megacomplex. People can just walk in. Or tunnel in. Just the possibilities for terrorism and data breach are tremendous. Yet no one, apparently, worries about them.
Then there’s the remade Dr. Will back in the flesh. But is it really flesh? And how did the machine animate it and transfer its consciousness to the body? Is it really him or just another simalcrum?
You can save your wounded wife or upload her, but not do both? Didn’t your upload take weeks? You’re a surgeon now, too? And why does it require more power than you have (it sure looked like only a few of your solar panels were damaged – and don’t you have battery backup?)
But for all the uber-Maschinenmensch Dr. Will appears, we don’t get a sense of any omniscience or even raw power. A few parlour tricks controlling his minions, sure, yet he frets neurotically over his wife’s well-being. And he can’t effectively stop the loonies from invading his place. Twice! Worse, he doesn’t even seem to know about their existence until they attack. What kind of superpower is that?
Then there’s that climactic scene with the nano-tech particles rising to the sky as the shells fall… why? How? And why do they stop to rebuild solar panels on the way? How does Caster control them? And how did they get to infiltrate all the land? It’s trespassing into Harry Potter domains, at this point.
Finally – the ending. A repeat of the beginning, actually (the end was given away far too soon…), then a cryptic shot of flowers and water dripping. Huh? Are we supposed to draw from that some conclusion that they’re still alive in the rain? And why did the world collapse just because the computer brain died (or transcended…)? Surely he wasn’t also in the Internet of Things everywhere, too… and if he was, why wasn’t he curing world hunger instead of skulking about in his underground castle?
Okay. Lots of unanswered questions and a few gaffes. The film throws a lot of ideas and questions of its own, many worthy of consideration, but you never really have a chance to bite into them. As the review in Forbes Magazine noted:
The picture asks interesting questions about the nature of consciousness, and its strongest moment comes when one of the terrorists explains the horror felt by a monkey who was inserted into a computer, since said monkey of course lacked the awareness to understand what had happened to him.
All said and done, it’s a gloriously produced B-flick that runs for two hours, probably 30 minutes longer than necessary. The acting is fair at best, with a few cardboard cutouts and stereotypes. The dialogue… meh. Nothing brilliant; and the “deep” moments are really just more cut-n-paste stereotypes about AI and machine sentience (despite the early comment about creating god, the rest of the film neatly sidesteps any religious or philosophical questions about a soul or deity…).
I mentioned it shared some elements of the Frankenstein trope. Caster is similarly (but weakly) portrayed as the unappreciated monster with a heart. Just misunderstood. If only people would just put down their pitchforks and talk to him… I should also have said it has some of the Bride of Frankenstein in it, too, with the gender reversal of creator and createe.
But is it worth watching? Well, yes if you’re a scifi buff, but also yes if you want to weigh yourself down with the inevitable after-movie questions like “What does it all mean?”, “Are there possibilities shown here? Could any of it actually happen?” and “What is intelligence and can it be replicated outside our own brains?” And a few others that kept me awake for hours.
I suppose that any film that engages my grey matter long after the TV is turned off, has some merit beyond its mere production values. As a box-office film it may have been a flop, but it’s a hit in the $8 bin.
* Not to be confused with the risibly-named TV channel Syfy, which is pronounced “Siffy” to distinguish it from science fiction.