Our technologies are becoming more powerful with each passing year — and with an eerie regularity. This has led some to believe that we're hurtling towards a sort of nexus point, the so-called Singularity. Looking to explore this possibility, director Doug Wolens recently put together a fascinating documentary on the subject. We spoke to him to learn more about his new film — and what the Singularity could bring.
For the documentary, Wolens recorded the insights of over 20 different experts from various fields — an impressive roster that included 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 even former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
Each expert was asked to consider the key issues involved, including the rise of more powerful AI, machine consciousness, biotechnology, and nanotechnology. The end result is a thorough and highly provocative look at what the future may hold.
I spoke to Doug Wolens to learn more about his documentary, "The Singularity: Will We Survive Our Technology?"
How did the project come about what and motivated you to do it?
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.
I got off the plane, went directly to St. Marks Book Store in the East Village and bought Kurzweil’s latest book at the time, The Age of Spiritual Machines. I drank the Kool-Aid and thought that the singularity would be my next film. My goal was to get people as excited with science and technology as I was.
When I first started telling people that I wanted to make a documentary about the singularity my colleagues and other people in the film community all laughed, saying the idea of the singularity was science fiction, and certainly not a subject that could be taken seriously. In 2000, most people hadn’t even heard the term "nanotech."
Without film grants I couldn’t afford to make the film, but I didn’t give up. I continued to research the underlying science and began to talk with many people in the small future science community. Since that time, 13 years ago, we’ve seen radical future technologies moving from marginal concepts toward mainstream technologies. The community itself has grown from a handful of individuals to hundreds of organizations and associations involving leading members of the scientific community. In 2006, Stanford University hosted the first Singularity Summit, bringing together the world’s leading experts on future technologies such as robotics, Artificial Intelligence and nanotechnology. Just a few years later, Singularity University (supported by Google and Microsoft) opened its doors at NASA Ames in Silicon Valley. Roadmaps to these future technologies were being created and the building blocks put in place.
Despite lack of funding, I just started shooting interviews using affordable higher-end consumer video gear. With the help of my close friend and cinematographer Mark Woloschuk, we shot most of our interviews in the bay area where we live, but we definitely traveled across the country on our own dime many times, just to get the interview. I was in awe of the promise that science could really solve humanity’s limitations and I wanted to showing us getting there.
But as I interviewed these scientists and technological leaders, I began questioning the philosophical and moral implications. The promise of this new future began to lose its luster. If smarter than human computers were created, how would they treat their human creators? Would everyone have the means to augment their intelligence or just the rich? What would happen if something went wrong with these super powerful technologies and destroyed everything on the planet? Or if these powerful technologies got in the wrong hands and were maliciously used? Maybe the singularity wasn’t such a good idea.
It was a challenge for me to address these moral issues. I had to personally come to terms with my own notions about humanity as we move forward in this new technological age. Genetic engineering and molecular biology are way cool for sure, but they raise the greater possibility of a dystopic future. I went back to many of my original interviewees and discussed these possibilities. Once again I was buoyed by the lofty goals and promises of science but the uncertain future remained a challenge to me as I started to put together story.
I began editing four years ago with more than 100 hours of interviews and an unclear picture of the future. As with each of my previous feature documentaries, my goal was not tell the viewer what to think. I was challenged to guide the viewer through the sophisticated concepts in a way that most people could understand, without dumbing it down or condescending to the lowest common denominator. And I certainly didn’t want to simply sensationalize the ideas and create a film that lacked my moral and philosophical underpinnings.
As I did with my previous feature documentaries, I decided to proffer the arguments through interviews and leave the viewer to make his or her own determination as to whether these technological advances are good or bad for humanity. And rather than just hear the discussion, the viewer gets to sit with each interviewee, not just take in what they say, but who they are as experts and as people. Just as in real life, the viewer brings his or her own picture of the world to the film and draws their own conclusions about the goals of each interviewee. It’s as if the viewer gets to meet each person in the film and sit with them as individuals, not just characters in a story.
Everyone's got their own different take on the Singularity; after speaking to the experts, and conducting your research, what is your own personal definition of this thing, The Singularity?
I like Vernor Vinge’s idea of the singularity, the idea that we can’t define post singularity because we would have to have greater-than-human knowledge to understand it. Like not seeing past a black hole or event horizon. And so from there I go with the idea that the singularity is greater-than-human intelligence in a computer, which by definition would not be recognizable or understandable by humans.
Did making the documentary make you more or less optimistic about the future?
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.
What are some of the best points made by the skeptics? The believers?
There are many points of criticism in the film, and because the singularity is a time in the future, it’s all fodder for discussion. And to tell you the truth, that’s one of the cool things about making the film: That regardless of right or wrong, it’s so far out in the future, that for now it’s just conjecture anyway.
Personally, I do think that it’s oversimplifying the problem to suggest that all we need to do is replicate x number of calculations per second to be on par with the brain and thus create consciousness. Unless consciousness results from number of calculations alone, then I don’t think that issue is at all addressed by Kurzweil or anyone else at this time. We are very far off from understanding how consciousness works and how to recreate consciousness in a machine. I really enjoyed looking at consciousness in the film and recognizing its part of who we are as people.
Another important point of criticism that we see in the film is not just what could happen if this all goes wrong or gets into the wrong hands, but more importantly, how do we protect ourselves if it all goes right. Can these technologies destroy humanity? It may be great to live forever on a silicone substrate but if we lose who we are as people then what have we actually gained? It’s essential that we not lose sight of who we are and what life is really about.
What was the coolest thing about making the film?
I got to meet a lot of great thinkers and discussed some pretty cool advances in technology. Our understanding of science has in fact changed so much and technology has definitely given us many tools to help us on both small and grand scales.
The coolest thing I got to see while making the film, what amazed me the most, was last year watching my wife give birth to our son and seeing how he’s now figuring out his way in the world. Biology and evolution blow me away. I am in awe of how it all works and that my baby is a human, like me. If we can do something down the road that’s bigger than evolution, that that would truly be fantastic. Until then though, I can’t minimize the level of awe of I found in seeing my baby born.
How are you getting the film out?
When I started making films 18 years ago the model for film distribution was screening at film festivals, then theatrical, then TV, then educational and finally “home use” years down the road. That model reflects a top down approach to film distribution where only a few wealthy companies had the means to promote and show a film (the cost of advertising and having prints made for theatrical release were quite high and practically cost prohibitive for the do-it-yourself filmmaker). Today, with the tools we to make films, to shoot, edit and now release, in combination with outlets such as iTunes, Amazon, or the stream via the web generally, that old model doesn’t really apply the same way anymore.
I want my audience to see my film now, not three years down the road after it has finally make it to home use. And if you think about it, the younger generations are watching their films and TV on their laptop, not in the theatres. Why not go straight to my audience! So I made the film immediately available on iTunes and have DVDs and Blu-ray disc for sale through my website if people choose to own a disk rather than an electronic file.
It’s a brave new world for do-it-yourself filmmaking!
All images courtesy Doug Wolens.