Transcendent Man – The Messiah as Terminator?
June 11, 2011 at 1:28 pm, by Timna Burston
The year is 2029. Human evolution has caught up with the limits of human imagination. On the horizon, dawn breaks on a new world – one where technology has allowed us to eradicate disease, hunger, poverty. Where death has no meaning, because our memories and thoughts can be uploaded to the internet and shared with others, living forever in cyberspace. Where our biological bodies are mere shells for the robotic nanotechnology that pulses through our bloodstream, healing us from within, making us superhuman, Godlike.
This sounds like the makings of the next summer sci-fi movie, a big-budget smash hit with 3D images of giant robot aliens blowing up Mt. Rushmore, perhaps featuring Ben Affleck as the brave, but tormented, scientist, who predicts Armageddon, only to battle whatever evil forces we have created ourselves.
However, this blogpost is not about a blockbuster hit, but rather a documentary focusing on a very real (if indeed tortured and brave)
scientist – “Transcendent Man” follows futurist Ray Kurzweil as he attempts to describe the future as he predicts it to the world.
The picture of a wandering New York Jew in his receding hairline and edgy glasses, Ray Kurzweil rolls his little wheely suitcase onto stages worldwide: gaming enthusiasts; evangelists; the suitcase filled with prophetic books, PowerPoint presentations and graphs, even finds an audience with Colin Powell. The scripture that Kurzweil is hawking is the stuff of our most coveted hopes and dreams, but also predicts dramatic change for humanity, maybe to the point of making the current form of humanity irrelevant.
He calls it the “Singularity” –
a term borrowed from the black holes of Physics, it seeks to explain the moment
when the technology we have created supersedes the creator – when artificial
intelligence will be able to reinvent and redesign itself, creating exponential
growth in technology the likes of which our own limited brains cannot begin to
grasp. Simply put, it will be the day when our technology can imagine what we
cannot, and grows independent of our own human limitations.
Kurzweil’s predictions extrapolate from the current world
into the world that tomorrow might bring, using the argument that science has
begun to grow exponentially. Among the arguments he makes, are that once
neuroscientists understand the human brain, they will be able to “upload” all
thought to the internet, and “download” or share all knowledge from one psyche
to the next.
This will effectively allow human consciousness to live forever in cyberspace. Kurzweil even predicts a sort of Techiat Hametim (Rising of the Dead) – a time when one could bring the dead back to life by using information collected during the person’s lifetime and imbuing some form of artificial intelligence with the characteristics of the loved one you have lost. Kurzweil also predicts that we will be able to end aging and disease to conquer death on a biological level, as nanotechnology will allow us to create robotics as small as a cell of blood, that would live in our bloodstream and cure all our ailments.
Indeed, the image of man would come very near to the image of God, as described in the song of praise of Haazinu, in Deuteronomy 32:39: ““See now that I myself am he! There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand.” It would make real the fantastic image described by Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones, as these bones took on life once more: “I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to
you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life.” (Ezekiel 37: 5-6)
So are we destined for the End of Days, possibly in our own lifetime? Some of the scientists interviewed in the documentary are convinced by Kurzweil’s theory, and say he is merely predicting what he believes to be the natural outcome of today’s burst of technology. Some of them argue that Kurzweil has made many accurate predictions in the past, regarding scientific breakthroughs no one thought were possible. Indeed, Kurzweil has also devoted his life to inventing new technologies that would create a better world, effectively using handheld audio readers to allow blind men to “see” and pointing to the new use of robotics in conjunction with our own nervous system to allow the lame to walk again.
But some of the scientists interviewed in the
movie are more skeptical – one neuroscientist argues that while the idea of the
Singularity is possible, Kurzweil does not understand biology well enough to
realize that it would take much longer than he thinks for us to be able to make
these kinds of miraculous advances in our own physique and brain-function. Another
scientist echoes the idea that Kurzweil’s predictions may be spot on, but his
timeframe seems unlikely – 2029 is too soon for this kind of advance.
Hugo De Garis, who actually works for a Chinese university trying to create “artificial brains”, says that Kurzweil’s image of the world after the creation of effective AI is too utopic – why, argues De Garis, would the AIs we create allow us to master them – these superhuman beings with superhuman abilities and intelligences will view us as nasty, insignificant pests, much as we react to insects. De Garis believes that one day, war would break out between those who advocate for creating superhuman, Godlike AIs and those who feel these should never be created. Then a battle the likes of which the world has never seen would begin and the victors will steer the course of human evolution. One cannot help but think of the war of Gog and Magog – a final battle among nations leading up to the prophesied end of times.
It is interesting to note two things about the criticism against Kurzweil – one having to do with his own biases, the second with those
of those who doubt him. The first, is that throughout the documentary, Kurzweil battles a personal ghost – that of his dead father. A marginally successful musician, Kurzweil’s father spent most of the boy’s life busy composing, and barely managed to make ends meet. He finally succumbed to heart disease at an early age. Indeed, Kurzweil himself was diagnosed with type-two diabetes. Fearing that he will come to the same early end as his father, Kurzweil devised a drug regiment consisting of some 200 pills a day, which he claims has eliminated his diabetes and slowed down his aging process. But during filming, Kurzweil had to undergo open heart surgery for a congenital heart problem.
It is clear that Kurzweil has a vested interest in the idea that humanity would
defy death – and the sooner, the better. What’s more, Kurzweil feverishly collects every scrap of information on his father’s life, in the hopes that one day he could reclaim this shadowy figure and give his dry bones mechanical
flesh and blood.
The second comment I have concerns not only Kurzweil, but also De Garis and others who attempt to predict the future. It is notable that I have managed to find biblical quotes that prophesize the very same hopes and dreams, and also the very same disastrous outcomes, at the end of days. Indeed, the idea that one day, Man (or Messiah) would make the dead live once more, would alleviate all human suffering, and that this might come at the cost of a war among all the nations of the world, has been around for millennia.
It is interesting to note that while man’s technology has evolved, his hopes, aspirations and fears remain virtually unchanged. Throughout history, there have been prophets who claim not only that an End of Days would come, but that it would come Bimherah Beyamenu – fast, and in our own days. Do you believe Kurtzweil’s prediction is correct? I guess this comes down to the question – are you a true believer?