A Bio-Technological Prophet

With all the talk surrounding Harold Camping, the failure of his March 21st rapture prediction, and his new sure-to-fail October 21st prediction, now is the perfect time to watch Transcendent Man, a documentary about futurist, inventor, and prophet, Raymond Kurzweil.

Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, founded his first company at the age of 18. He has since gone on to hold over 24 patents. Upon graduating from MIT, he told his friends that he wanted to devote his life to pursuing inventions that would help the blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame walk. He has, in part, contributed to these modern miracles and has been responsible for the creation of, among other things, the flat bed scanner and a mobile device that helps blind people read. His greatest contributions, however, might be his thoughts on the future of humanity, or at least its bio-technological potential. Contrary to Camping’s (and many Christians’) beliefs in and hopes for the future of life here on earth, Kurzweil’s are extremely optimistic. That they are devoid of any theological or religious underpinnings will no doubt unnerve members of the aforementioned religious camps. Kurzweil reflects on our biological and technological advancements in recent centuries and extrapolates out from them implications for our further progress. If, in the past 40 years, for example, computing power has decreased from building size to pocket size, in the next 25 years, it will likely go from pocket size to cellular size…as in our bloodstream. So Kurzweil believes that we will be able to implement nanotechnology to fight off illness and disease and to prolong life…indefinitely. Immortality, he argues, is within our grasp…or will soon be. These advancements will also impact the way we learn and consume entertainment (we’ll be able to Google just by thinking about it or download an entire language and speak it in minutes if not seconds).

The documentary also traces several of his fellow thinkers, inventors, and scientists and the work they are doing in similar fields including Hugo De Garis, Peter Diamandis, William Hurlbut, and Kevin Kelly. Many of them express support of Kurzweil’s vision, some of whom even employ it in their work and research. For example, we see glimpses of his vision in scientists’ and designers’ work with prosthetics and robotics. Even though some of his colleagues agree with his vision, many of them believe that Kurzweil is too optimistic, specifically that the changes of which he speaks are further away from us than just a couple of decades. At the same time, some colleagues, perhaps just as seemingly fantastical as Kurzweil himself, claim that these advancements can and will have destructive tendencies (think Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines). Still others believe that he is simply just wrong and that we won’t be able to accomplish these feats (though it’s difficult to see how their skepticism is warranted in the face of the rapid advancements we have made over the past three centuries and are making now). One of his more even-handed critics, Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor of Wired magazine, calls Kurzweil a modern day prophet who just happens to be wrong. In other words, he encourages us to improve life here on earth, but the avenues through which he encourages this improvement might be misguided.

Were Transcendent Man simply an overview of Kurzweil’s work and his place in his field, the documentary would be fascinating enough. However, director Robert Barry Ptolemy also focuses on Kurzweil’s personal life, specifically his relationship with his father, his (in)ability to process his father’s death, and his own approach to mortality. From the documentary, it seems as if all of this motivates Kurzweil’s work and has become something of an obsession for him. He works vigorously on re-programming his own biology and genetics, working to find “undesirable genes” and root them out. A sign of his obsession? He takes over 200 pills a day to combat poor health and aging. There is a sense of the pathetic here, however. For all of his genius, Kurzweil does not factor in the ambiguity of life, tragedy, or all of those things that make us scratch our head with frustration due to our inability to explain or research them away.

The documentary concludes with Kurzweil saying, “Does God exist? Not yet.” This conclusion only heightens the theological and religious, not to mention sociological, implications that run throughout the film. Kurzweil’s beliefs are fascinating, but I imagine, or at least hope, that the via media between his thoughts and those of his detractors are more likely where we’re headed as a species. All sorts of questions arise: who or what is, or will be, God in the future? Can all of this technology and accompanying advancements help usher in the kingdom of God on earth? What does it mean to be human? What role will religion play in the future?

A vision of nanotechnology.

I take great joy in the technological possibilities to which Kurzweil and his colleagues point. Perhaps religion will be best suited to be both shepherd and critic. It should force us to ask ourselves to what ends we will use technology or embrace technological and biological advancements. Will they be agents of greed or benevolence? At the same time, I am highly skeptical of Kurzweil’s reflections on death. Is it always good and desirable to attempt to live forever? If a different type of existence is possible now or in the near future, why can we not accept the possibility of death as a new or next type of existence? For all of his commitment to science and technology, Kurzweil seems to be motivated by deeply spiritual and emotional factors, to which he does not devote enough attention himself as he dismisses more traditional reactions to matters of life and death.

Transcendent Man is a must watch for anyone interested in science, religion, technology, theology, medicine, or the future of these fields. Ptolemy does a fantastic job of blending all of these with Kurzweil’s personal, spiritual, and emotional experiences. In a way, the film reminds me of a particularly interesting episode of NOVA entitled “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives” that follows Mark Everett’s (lead singer of The Eels) efforts to learn more about his father, Hugh, a renowned, yet radical, quantum physicist, with whom he had a rocky relationship. The drawback to Transcendent Man, unfortunately, it its homogeneity. It begs for a greater diversity of voices (read more non-white males), as well as more religious voices (read more than just one white, conservative Christian male). Aside from this glaring absence, the film is perfect for individuals and groups caught up in questions about the future. At the same time, it is a prophetic call and encouragement for us to use technology (or think about using it) to improve life here on earth rather than waiting for some vengeful deity to come along and violently end it all.

Transcendent Man (83 mins.) is available on DVD and streaming through Netflix.