Film Review: The Singularity

Will humans and machines merge?


Will technology so radically alter human existence that it is literally impossible to imagine what life will be like in the 22nd century? Ray Kurzweil and a contingent of like-minded thinkers believe so, and that beyond the so-called singularity lie advances in nanotechnology and biotechnology that will reengineer our environment and ourselves at a fundamental level, and perhaps even eliminate death.

Then there are those who believe that this vision is little more than wish fulfillment. Doug Wolens’s latest documentary, released 1 November, captures the argument between the two sides. The Singularity takes the form of a series of intercut interviews, with animations illustrating various points (intentionally or not, they’re a little reminiscent of how entries in the fictional Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy were depicted in the classic BBC television adaptation).

Wolens’s subjects include, unsurprisingly, people like Kurzweil himself, roboticist Cynthia Breazeal, and gerontologist Aubrey de Grey. But Wolens also interviews people not normally associated with the speculative edge of artificial intelligence and biomolecular engineering, such as Richard A. Clarke, the former chief counterterrorism advisor to the U.S. National Security Council, and the current U.S. secretary of defense, Leon Panetta. 

Kurzweil’s core argument is that the exponential development of information technologies will reach a critical inflection point within the next few decades, blurring the distinction between machine and human intelligences. His opponents accuse him of glossing over significant issues—such as the complexity of the brain—that limit both the value of an exponential model of progress and the desirability of the technologies Kurzweil espouses.

These skeptics include IEEE Spectrum’s own executive editor, Glenn Zorpette, who makes a couple of brief appearances in the film, but it is environmentalist Bill McKibben who emerges as the most forceful critic. His frustration with Kurzweil’s counterargument—that some people just don’t get exponential growth—is palpable. 

While The Singularity doesn’t cover a great deal of ground that’s new to anyone already familiar with the concept, it does provide crisp snapshots of the current state of the debate and many of the main players. What also becomes obvious is that the players shown, on both sides of the divide, appear to be exclusively white. I don’t believe this is racial bias on Wolens’s part—when compiling our own June 2008 special issue on the singularity, Spectrum’s editors noticed a similar demographic dominance. It does, however, raise a question: Why is an issue so potentially critical for the entire human race of interest only to such a narrow group of people, globally speaking? Is the pursuit of such speculative lines of query an issue of privilege? Or is the singularity a concept that non-Western cultures don’t find engaging? 

While this question will have to be answered another day, The Singularity remains a lively introduction to an extreme vision of our technological destiny.

The Singularity. 76 minutes. Directed by Doug Wolens. DVD and Blu-ray available from Downloadable edition available from iTunes on 15 November.