Saturday, 6 September 2014

Transcendence: That Damn Frankenstein Complex!

5th September, 2014.

Can I ask you a question … ?

Can I … ?

Have you ever read anything by the late Dr Isaac Asimov … ?

Yes, I know: I can’t actually hear you answer.

Let me just, then, take a minute to briefly explain the subtitle.   “That Damn Frankenstein Complex!” is a phrase used — repeatedly, sometimes — in the good doctor’s work: usually by characters of his who built robots.

And usually when those builders saw members of the public, unfamiliar with — and scared of — the robots they’d created.

Now …

I don’t know about you: but I feel Asimov hit a nerve, there.

Let’s face it: how many people do you know who are nervous around technology … ?


So the fact I can think of a few films that also be accused of suffering from it.

The Will Smith version of I, Robot, for example.

War Games, with Matthew Broderick.

And — arguably … ?

Arguably, I think we can also include the Wally Pfister directed film, Transcendence, in there.

Although, possibly, it’s a better film that I, Robot

6th September, 2014.

You know, you’ve possibly read that introduction: and possibly come away with all sorts of impressions, haven’t you … ?

Quite possibly what sort of impression, I dread to think.

At any rate … ?

At any rate, what I’m trying to tell you is I saw a film, last night: the 2014 release, Transcendence: directed by Wally Pfister, and starring Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany. as a trio of computer scientist working in various branches of computer technology.

Transcendence opens at a computer science conference: at which Dr Will Caster (Depp), his wife, Evelyn (Hall), and Caster’s old friend, Max Waters (Bettany) are due to speak on Artificial Intelligence.

During his speech, Caster explains that the the ever quickening of AI will lead to a technological singularity^.   In other words, human civilisation will be changed beyond recognition when AI’s become more intelligent than the humans that created them: something he calls Transcendence.

Something a colleague of Dr Caster’s has been working on, for some time: and has cracked in the only way he felt was possible.

By copying a monkey’s brain across to a very complex computer.

That procedure gets to be important.

As Caster is shot: with a polonium-laced bullet shot from a gun held by an anti-technology terrorist.
  • Shot … 
  • Surviving … 
  • Heavily injured … 
And given some four months to live, by his medical team, as the polonium poisoning kicks in.

Evelyn and Max realise there’s only one thing they can do, to help Will.

Dig up the electrodes, hook him to a purpose-built quantum computer …

And transfer him over, before the inevitable happens.

The trouble really starts, of course … 

When the being that’s now Dr Will Caster wants a lot more space.


Now … 

I said about that damn Frankenstein complex … ?

Now, I have to admit, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot over many years.   Indeed, it’s rare I’ve been without a copy.

And feel that, in the collection, Asimov does a few things: that can be boiled down to this.

He tells us a lot of entertaining short stories: that have a couple of overarching themes.   At least, obvious ones, that even I could spot.

The first … ?

Is quite simple.

We’re human.

And we never build a piece of technology — from something as simple as a knife, to something as complex as a car or a robot — without building in a safety feature … !

There’s another theme in there.

We’re human.

And we never see complicated technology, without getting slightly nervous.

So, in that sense … ?

Asimov called it the Frankenstein Complex: and specifically used the term — in his robot novels — in relation to people’s fear of humanoid robots.

I think, though … ?

I think, though, we can expand the term: to apply to a very human nervousness around — and fear of — technology.

I’m thinking, here, that films like — ironically — the Will Smith version of I, Robot, Matthew Broderick’s War Games, Splice, all have that as a central theme: that as a result of film-makers own nervousness about the technologies involved — robotics, computers, genetic engineering — we get films that turn the tech into monsters to be feared.

As opposed to tools — with any safety features, not just Asimov’s Three Laws — which is what most bits of technology actually are*.

The point I’m trying to make here … ?

Is that I think Transcendence is a very entertaining film.

But is another example of that Complex!


Actually … ?   There’s possibly more.

You see, I also think Transcendence isn’t a complete loss.

I think Mr Pfister† has come up with a competently done film.

One that suffers with a Frankenstein complex, but non-the-less, is competently done.

I also think there’s food for thought in there.

Early on, Depp’s character makes the very good point that we make our own gods.

And then … ?

Then, on his death, is transformed into something that — arguably — is kind of god-like.

At least, immensely powerful.

And one that, by the end, sacrifices himself in order to preserve/‘save’ humanity. And arguably, free it from the evil that is the internet.   In a way that’s — arguably — in a way that could be seen as  incredibly messianic.

Whether that’s a good thing … ?

Is a whole other argument: one I think I’ll leave to the theologians to argue.

Also mentioned … ?

Was the fact that Will manages to heal many of the townspeople in the small ghost town he and Evelyn use as a headquarters.   Of everything from blindness, to the injuries sustained after a serious assault.

The twist … ?

The twist, of course, is that he ALSO manages to connect each individual, over the internet: and come to (occasionally) possess them, as needed.

In a way I, as a Star Trek fan found very reminiscent of the Borg.

Not necessarily a bad thing.

But there’s an old saw that US science fiction is a metaphor for US fears about being invaded by Communism.

Which is possibly something I saw sneaking in as a theme: although I could well be wrong.


At ANY rate … ?

Did I enjoy Transcendence … ?

Yeees … 

With reservations.

I’m not stunned by its assumption: that technology can be a bad thing.   And one of these days, I think that a US film company will come up with an SF film that isn’t about the US getting invaded by those damn pinko, Commie subversives‡.

But … ?

But Transcendence is competently directed, written and acted: one that makes for entertaining viewing on an otherwise quiet Friday.

I’d take it as that, personally.

^        If I’ve understood the term, correctly, a technological singularity is caused by the creation of a piece of technology so profound, that — just like the singularity at the heart of a Black Hole — we have no idea what human society will be like, after we go through it.   I’d argue that’s already happened.   After all, would our ancestors have predicted the world we live in, after the taming of fire?   The creation of written or spoken language?   The wheel?   Art … ?   The lever … ?   Coming up with an artificial intelligence that can write poetry would be tame in comparison … 

*        Possibly the only film I’ve seen that shows a film’s central McGuffin as a tool, rather than a monster … ?   Is Natalie Woods’ last film, Brainstorm.

†        As far as I can tell, the name’s German in origin: one that loosely translates as ‘baker’.   The ‘P’ is silent.   I couldn’t get this out of my mind, though … 

‡        Probably on the day Dr Who stops using the Daleks as faux Nazis.

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