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4.0 out of 5 stars A film biography of futurist Ray Kurzweil, 20 July 2013
This review is from: Transcendent Man [DVD] [2009] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] (DVD)
I'm somewhat familiar with the work of futurist Ray Kurzweil having read and reviewed his book The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (1999). He has since written several other books. He's won a lot of prizes and several honorary doctorates. He's a brilliant and original man.

As this documentary film makes clear, he is also a man afraid of dying and a man who very much misses his father and dreams of somehow bringing his father back to "life." Yes, quotation marks around "life." Kurzweil thinks that it will someday be possible to down load our brains onto some kind of software and in such form we will live forever.

I probably should read some more Kurzweil because I am sure he has an answer to my main critique of this fantastic idea, which can be illustrated by this consideration:

Suppose your brain is downloaded. Which of you is you? The one in the software whose experiences are virtual or the one in the flesh and blood whose experiences are very human-like with all the ups and downs? The lives that can be downloaded onto software will be interesting, incredible really, but only to other people.

Another thing to ask when thinking about this is "How do you program a computer to feel pain? Or joy for that matter. Human beings are evolved beings that are subject to pleasure and pain. Software and AI machines not only don't feel any pain, they couldn't even if they wanted to. They can be programmed to act as though they feel pain but that is all. It is not even clear how animals came to develop the pleasure/pain reward/punishment system. What came first the mechanism to deliver pain or the ability to recognize the experience as pain? Nobody knows.

I wonder if Kurzweil realizes that death is part of life. Without death biological creatures such as us would experience an unbearable stasis and would of course die anyway eventually through accident, suicide, nearby supernova, etc. And as machines without biological urgings we would have no reason to go on living unless the urge is programmed into us by biological creatures. Machines don't care whether they are "alive" or dead. They are not afraid of the plug being pulled.

Naturally he has his critics other than me. And in this film director Robert Barry Ptolemy introduces a few and lets them have their say. The give and take is interesting. But what I think most people who are familiar with Kurzweil's work will find interesting is the portrait of the very human man himself.

The film begins with Kurzweil's appearance on TV's "I've Got a Secret" when he was 17-years-old and ends with his latest invention, a device that reads text aloud for the blind, and his ideas for new inventions using nanobots. In between we learn of his open heart surgery and his overriding idea that the singularity is near and that we will be able to comprehend the world of the singularity only if we are augmented with artificial intelligence. In other words we will become cyborgs, part biological creatures and part machine.

In this last prediction I think Kurzweil is right. We will meld with our machines--that is, if we don't send ourselves back to the Stone Age first.

Kurzweil gets the last say. He asks "Does God exist?" His very clever answer: "I would say not yet."

--Dennis Littrell, author of "The World Is Not as We Think It Is"
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