Thursday, July 18, 2013

Will We Survive Our Technology?: Documentary by Doug Wolens on The Singularity

(Video source: PremierDevelopmentSource)

NASA AMES Research Center was the site for a showing of documentary filmmaker Doug Wolens' insightful film, The Singularity, an exploration of the challenges, pitfalls, and promises of the technological singularity. The event was particularly interesting as most of 100 plus in attendance were NASA employees, many of whom are deeply engaged (on professional and personal levels) with the scientific disciplines that coalesce within the Singularity.  Wolens artfully alternates interviews with noted scholars, technologists, philosophers, and entrepreneurs who are exploring the wide ranging issues we face in the 21st century as exponential technological growth transforms human experiences.

A Multitude of Definitions 
technological singularity: an "intelligence explosion", where superintelligences design successive generations of increasingly powerful minds, that might occur very quickly and might not stop until the agent's cognitive abilities greatly surpass that of any human.

singularity (countable and uncountable; plural singularities)
  1. the state of being singular, distinct, peculiar, uncommon or unusual
  2. a point where all parallel lines meet
  3. a point where a measured variable reaches unmeasurable or infinite value
  4. (mathematics) the value or range of values of a function for which a derivative does not exist
  5. (physics) a point or region in spacetime in which gravitational forces cause matter to have an infinite density; associated with black holes
  6. A proposed point in the technological future at which artificial intelligences become capable of augmenting and improving themselves, leading to an explosive growth in intelligence.
More fun with definitions can be found at this cool link with 17 Definitions of the Technological Singularity.

We all have intersting paths that have directed us toward the concepts of the Singularity. In a recent io9 interview, Wolens stated: 
"I first learned about the Singularity in 2000 while on the road self-distributing my last documentary, Butterfly. While flying to the New York City screenings of Butterfly, I read a three-line blurb by Ray Kurzweil in a magazine called Business 2.0. He wrote about the exponential growth of technology and that one day computers could be as smart as people. The idea fascinated me. As a kid growing up in the 60’s, I watched the Apollo flights and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon; I was taught that science could solve all our problems." 
The scientific legacy and social impact of NASA is massive, which made the showing at NASA AMES Headquarters particularly meaningful.

Finding Balance
Where Wolens shines is in the balanced presentation of multiple perspectives and theories. Rather than creating a love letter to the Singularity, Wolens weaves together the spectrum of ideas from the techno-evangelist to the techno-skeptic.

The film is intimate; composed of conversational interviews with key thinkers. The director invites the audience to engage on a personal level with the material. Writing for the Globe and Mail, Geoff Pevere, opined on the tenor of the narrative and audiences' film experiences: "We’re feeling as well as thinking, assessing the experience of absorbing information as well as processing the raw data."

Scope & Depth
The narrative has scope. While the film focuses on key voices, a total of 120 interviews were compiled over a 10 year span. The central voices in the narrative include a wide range of stakeholders: futurist Ray Kurzweil, longevity expert Aubrey de Grey, AI theorist Peter Norvig, psychologist Alison Gopnik, technology critic Bill McKibben, consciousness expert David Chalmers, roboticist Andy Clark, cyber-security guru Richard A. Clarke, and former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

The film is divided into four chapters:

  1. Artificial intelligence - the rise of AI, strong AI, the scientific challenges
  2. Becoming Machines - the melding of the organic and the mechanic and the inherent philosophical, moral, ethical, and technological challenges
  3. Techno Utopia - age of abundance, use of technology to improve quality of life and alleviate suffering
  4. Post-human - the horizon of human proactive evolutionary practice

In a lively Q&A session with NASA audience members, Wolens said that his own feelings about the Singularity changed during the experience of filming. "All these concepts discussed in the film are opportunities that might likely happen and the goal of the film" is to generate dialogue.

Filmmaker Doug Wolens
When asked in a recent interview about the direction technological advancements are headed, Wolens painted with cautious optimism:
"I’m an optimist to begin with. And despite my fears about some of these technologies coming to fruition and the harm they could cause to humanity, I do have hope for the future of humanity generally and I also hope that these technologies will be used for public good. I do believe it’s part of the government’s role to not only protect us from the negative consequences of these technologies but also to make sure that they ensure equality. And, going back to the reason why I made the film in the first place, I am optimistic that the next generations will be excited by science and technology and use them to help humanity."
Here is a solid addition to the growing body of documentaries on The Singularity. More information about the film can be found at The Singularity FilmThe next showing will be at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco on September 16, 2013.

Dig Deeper

San Francisco Bay Guardian / ‘The Singularity’ explores the ever-shrinking differences between computers and humansCheryl Eddy / March 6, 2013

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies / The best documentary on the Singularity to dateNikki Olson / March 1, 2013

Singularity Hub / Exclusive Interview With Doug Wolens, Director of “The Singularity”Peter Murray / January 20, 2013 / This Weekend, Check Out An Excellent Documentary On The Singularity
Alex Knapp / January 18, 2013 / Pondering Our Cyborg Future in a Documentary About the SingularityKasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg / January 8, 2013

H+ Magazine / Review: The Singularity Documentary on iTunesPeter Rothman / January 8, 2013

ieee Spectrum: / Will humans and machines merge?
Stephen Cass / November 2012

All image & video use posted here with permission from filmmaker. Not for resale or reprint.  

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