Transcendent Man

de Robert Barry Ptolemy


Those who thought that “artificial intelligence” was just a thing of fiction now have this successful documentary revolving around Ray Kurzweil. Nicknamed “the restless genius” by The Wall Street Journal, here you have the greatest futurist in our world.


Between reality and (science) fictionBy Antonio José Navarro

The concept of “artificial intelligence!” took shape in the summer of 1956, during the now mythical Darthmouth Conference. Held in the Dartmouth College facilities in Hanover, New Hampshire, (USA), its organizer was the mathematician and computer specialist John McCarthy, and it was proposed by McCarthy himself, and Marvin L. Minsky (Harvard University), Nathaniel Rochester (I.B.M. Corporation) and Claude E. Shannon (Bell Telephone Laboratories). During two months, Dartmouth welcomed a select group of researchers who defined the guidelines and future courses of action in the AI field, taking as a work hypothesis the conjecture that: "Every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it". This hypothesis would later be known as the Physical Symbol System Hypothesis.

In addition, at the Dartmouth Conference they laid the foundations for an approach to the human being that, contrary to psychology and philosophy, focuses its study on pure intelligence. According to John McCarthy, intelligence is the “human being’s ability to efficiently adapt to a change in circumstances through the use of information about these changes”. From this premise, different AI ideas have been developed: 1) the art to create machines capable of carrying out functions that require intelligence when carried out; 2) the study of how to make computers carry out tasks that, for now, humans do better; 3) the branch of computer science in charge of the automation of intelligent behavior; 4) it is the field of study that focuses on the explanation and emulation of intelligent behavior according to computational processes.

However, before the Dartmouth Conference, science fiction literature and cinema had already outlined a great deal of these theoretical-practical concepts. Beyond the robot figure’s anthropomorphism, its state of serf or slave of man, is its progressive transformation into “intelligent”  beings capable of developing complex feelings, of feeling human

So the greatness of AI: Artificial Intelligence (01), by Steven Spielberg, full of marvelous and provocative visual ideas, is in the requirement that drives us to project our feelings on a character that, after all, is a machine. What responsibility do humans have when faced with a robot that loves us? The question, raised by British writer Brian Aldiss in his story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” (69), is summed up in a narrative idea that’s as simple as it is disturbing: David (Haley Joel Osment) is an advanced cybernetic boy-mechanism whose owners, his “parents”, abandon in the woods; a boy-mechanism created to love and make up for the lack of affection for those who are infertile or alone … An excuse to speak about our emotional deficiencies, about the philosophical errors of the robotization of society, about the decadence of predatory family values, of the conversion of the individual into a commercial product… On the other hand, in his movie Spielberg examines in detail the subject of emotional intelligence as a way of interacting with the world that takes feelings into account, and encompasses skills like controlling impulses, self-awareness, enthusiasm, perseverance, empathy, mental agility, etc. They make up character traits like self-discipline, compassion or altruism. AI Artificial Intelligence is daring, technically brilliant, difficult. And, almost certainly, very different from the project that Stanley Kubrick started to develop in the seventies, marked his customary expository coldness.

An expository coldness that’s tangible in Transcendent Man (09), by Robert Barry Ptolemy. The future Artificial Intelligence, the nanobots, the intelligent war machines, the immortality of technological ingenuity, among other things, articulate this exciting and terrifying documentary, by the way it transcends, without realizing it, its own human condition through technology. Its main human character, Raymond Kurzweil (Massachusetts, February 12th, 1948) musician, businessman, writer and scientist specializing in Computational Sciences and Artificial Intelligence, predicts that between now and 2050, technology will become so advanced that the progresses in medicine will allow people to radically extend their life expectancy and quality of life. In principle, aging processes will be able to be slowed down, later stopped and finally reversed when these new medical technologies are available. Kurzweil maintains that a good part of this will be the result of the advances in medical nanotechnology, which will allow for microscopic machines to travel up and down our bodies repairing all kinds of cellular damage. As suggested in Richard Fleischer’s film Fantastic Voyage (66)? Likewise, according to Kurzweil, the technological advances in the computer world will give rise to increasingly more powerful, more numerous and less expensive machines. Kurzweil predicts that a computer will pass the Turing test around 2029, demonstrating that it has intelligence, awareness of itself, emotional richness … indistinguishable from a human being.

Less transcendental cognitively, but fascinating as a cinematic spectacle not extent of philosophical and artistic values, we have Westworld,(73), by Michael Crichton, and WarGames (83), by John Badham, both already cult movies. The first deals with the cliché of “the machine rebellion” from a new viewpoint: the robots at an adult theme park, with everything that implies (Ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, the Far West), rebel and start to kill the customers … An opportunity for a digression on the artifice of the Hollywood genre cinema myths, and more concretely, on the simulation of life … A subject that Crichton, better known for his facet as a writer than as a filmmaker, would culminate with “Jurassic Park” (90), a kind of scientific prolongation of de Westworld. On the other hand, John Badham, in WarGames, aptly combines teen-film and science fiction movie: a young hacker, David (Matthew Broderick), manages to contact the W.O.P.R. (War Operation Plan Response) system, the central computer at NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) to play “war”, setting off a real nuclear response against the USSR. A film that’s as funny as it is informative, as it announced the hair-raising conclusions of the strategic program MAD, acronym for Mutual Assured Destruction–ironically, mad also means “crazy”–, a military doctrine also known as “1+1=0”. Conceived by the American mathematician of Hungarian descent John von Neumann in 1968, it assured that, in any warlike conflict with nuclear weapons, the final result would be, inevitably, the complete destruction of both (attacker and defender).


Robert Barry Ptolemy

Technical information

Edition: 2011
Section: Sitges Clàssics
Original language: English