I first learned about the Singularity concept in 2000 while on the road self-distributing my last documentary BUTTERFLY (about the young woman who sat in an ancient redwood tree for two years preventing it from being cut down). Kurzweil’s argument that the rate of technology advances exponentially sounded reasonable. As I read more about the science involved I was pretty impressed with the arguments, especially having grown up in an age when we were taught that science could solve all problems. I drank the Kool-Aid and thought that the singularity would make an interesting documentary. But when I discussed this idea with my colleagues and many people in the film community, pretty much across the board everyone laughed saying this was sci-fi, not a subject for a serious doc. In 2000 no one I spoke with had even heard of nanotechnology.
Since that time I continued researching the underlying science and began to talk with many people in the small future science community. The past 12 years have 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. Three years ago, the 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.
Seven years ago, despite a lack of funding, and with the help of my dear friend and cinematographer Mark Woloschuk, I decided to move ahead with the project and just start shooting interviews. I met with Ray Kurzweil, (The Singularity is Near, 2003) and was so impressed with his forecast of “spiritual machines,” amplified and augmented intelligence, and living forever on a silicone substrate. I was introduced to leaders in the fields of artificial intelligence and nanotechnology. Though not just around the corner, these technologies were clearly real and would someday be part of our lives. Computers are getting faster and would someday be more capable than our brains (in some way they already were), and advances in neuro-engineering were well on a path toward merging these technologies with the human body.
I ate it up and talked with anyone who would sit down with me. I supported the handful of future science organizations and attended singularity conferences. I was in awe of the promise that science could really solve humanity’s shortfalls; who wouldn’t want a better life for the future?
As I dove deeper into the science involved with creating greater-than-human intelligence and augmenting our own intelligence, I wasn’t clear how the leap would be made to go from intelligent machines to conscious machines, and so I decided to talk with some experts in the science of the brain and consciousness. But my inquiry into the science of consciousness raised more questions than the answers I had original sought. And while great strides have been made in the study of consciousness, there is in fact very little known as to what consciousness is and how it works. And what are we as humans if not conscious? Perhaps that’s one of the most important aspects of being human: Our ability to be present and experience.
Singularity advocates argue that consciousness is just another problem to solve or that it will just happen when a system is sufficiently advanced. But I was not too sure. The promise of this new future began to lose its luster. I started to see holes in some of the arguments and I began questioning the philosophical and moral implications. 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.
I continued my research, met with some government leaders and philosophers and inquired as to how we as a society were preparing for these technological breakthroughs (I was so psyched to get an interview with Leon Panetta and Richard A. Clarke). It was scary to learn that for the most part, these technologies were unregulated and that the government was actually capable of only minimal oversight. And even if these technologies didn’t destroy the planet, the one question that kept arising was: what role do we have in creating this future?
With new questions raised and notions 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 I remained unsure of their certainty.
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. Instead I wanted 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.
In order to help show the story and complement the various interviews I decided to use animation as much of these technologies were truly in the future and not yet a reality. Also, I was hesitant to simply show state-of-the-art technologies as they clearly would be antiquated in just a couple of years. I found Little Fluffy Clouds (a local animation team) that was able to simplify these complex ideas in a visual way. These animations build upon our notions of the future and the promises of technology. They are sometimes fun and silly so as to balance the tone of film’s subject matter, giving the viewer an ability to sit with, rise and fall with the storyline, and digest these profound issues.
I also knew that I didn’t want to score the film with heavy-handed music and sound cues. Three years ago I met Chrizzy Lancaster, a composer and cellist who was working with Bill T. Jones Dance group. The sounds that Chrizzy created with his cello resonated to my core (similar to my feelings about the film) and I knew he’d create a score that reflected my sensibilities and aesthetics. Chrizzy and I sat together in my apartment for just two days and with his one cello, two amps, many pedals and switches that he operated with his feet as he bowed, plucked and banged on his cello, we recorded a score that supports the film and helps lead the viewer without overpowering the interviews.
Over the last year I tweaked the film with the support of friends and colleagues. There is so much to tell about the singularity and the promises (and perils) of these radical future technologies. I know that I could not tell it all. Not only would that be impossible, it was not my goal. But I did find a balance between being comprehensive, entertaining, and being palatable for most viewers.
My goal for this film is to excite people that have an interest in deep questions regarding what it means to be human, their place in the world, and about future technology generally. Sci-fi buffs will undoubtedly feel at home with many of the conversations within the various storylines. But beyond sci-fi, The Singularity is also intended to reach science and technology professionals and raise the bar as it regards scientific inquiry, as well as once again excite young adults with the promise of science that I was raised with as a kid.
While it is clear that we cannot be certain of what our future brings, it is nonetheless important to understand that the great strides being made in technologies (such as nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and molecular biology) may in fact radically alter what it means to be human and that is up to us to decide what kind of humans we want to become.