Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Singularity Hits Hollywood: Transcendence and Chappie

Wally Pfister's Transcendence (2014) is a Frankenstein story--one that hews so closely to the plotline of Mary Shelley's book that there would have been some grounds for passing it off as a remake. The movie actually uses as a framing device the scientist who created the monster recounting the central course of events from after the disaster--a course which began with horror at the untimely death of someone close to him, and a desperate attempt to reverse it that initially seemed benign, but produced an intelligence that proved violent, and produced fear for the fate of the world.

If Transcendence treaded the familiar "Frankenstein complex" path--and did so in fairly solemn fashion--Neil Blomkamp's Chappie (2015) went in the direction of that great critic of the Frankenstein complex, Isaac Asimov. The story also revolves around the creation of an artificial intelligence--but one unconnected with the taboo about the line between life and death--and the result is no monster. Instead Chappie is a child--albeit a misunderstood child--just beginning to learn about the world, who inspires maternal feelings in the woman in whose care he winds up (just as in Asimov's "Lenny"). While saying very much more would mean more spoilers than I care to present in this post, consciousness uploading is not something monstrous here, but the happy ending to the tale.

I, for one, much preferred Chappie--in part because Asimov's outlook appeals to me much more than Shelley's, but also because the film itself is simply more intelligent and more entertaining. Those who follow AI research to any degree, or simply read a lot of science fiction about the subject, would be hard-pressed to point to a live-action Hollywood movie that is as open-minded about the subject, or as idea-packed in its treatment of it. And the truth is that the titular robot is a very engaging creation, whose misadventures manage to be thought-provoking, funny, and at times touching.

In fact, while less well received by the critics, I frankly preferred it to Blomkamp's prior films. Watching the Academy Award for Best Picture nominee District 9 and Elysium I got the impression that I was in each case watching two different films welded together. The first seemed to be the film Blomkamp really wanted to make--a film with big ideas and some human drama--which he attached to the second, an action movie that he made simply to give the project a chance in today's market, but which just didn't have the same inventiveness or vitality, as if Blomkap was only going through obligatory motions. In Chappie the science fiction drama and the action movie flowed together much more smoothly.

Still, different as their approaches were I couldn't help being struck by what Transcendence and Chappie also had in common in their being major, commercial Hollywood films dealing not just with the theme of artificial intelligence (counting these, and Her, and others, I think we haven't seen so much film about this since the '80s), but specifically the transhumanist and posthumanist possibilities the technology opens up (e.g. mind uploading), and that in the terms of contemporary discussion. Transcendence derives its title from Dr. Will Caster's preferred alternative term to "Singularity" (explicitly referenced in the movie), and while it ends up walking a very familiar path, the details reflect an attentiveness to the concept of an "intelligence explosion." And Chappie breaks with popular sf's usual horror story attitude in taking a more benign view of the possibility.

Does this suggestion that ideas about AI, intelligence explosion, Singularity, posthumanism and the rest are enjoying a greater popular currency say anything about the actual likelihood of these developments? The history of previous cinematic fascinations with technology would suggest this is unlikely. Certainly the '80s-era rush of AI-themed movies that gave us The Terminator (1984), Weird Science (1985) and Short Circuit (1986) was no proof that a breakthrough in strong AI (as was expected by some at the time) was imminent--and indeed it was not. (The history of efforts to produce a fifth generation computer at the time is today an obscure footnote.) But at the same time watching these films I was struck by their far greater sophistication in their treatment of their subject than the films of the '80s--perhaps hinting at our generally having a better handle on the issue. And that might be indicative of our moving in such a direction.

Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
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My Posts on Transhumanism, Posthumanism and the Singularity

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