Transcendence or why AI ends badly

With a movie like Transcendence, I struggle to write a review free of spoilers. All the action and situations wrap around the core idea and they don’t make so much sense without it. More than a sci-fi production about AI, this 2014 film talks about a major ethical issue. 

Scientist Evelyn Carter faces her husband turned into AI. Click the image for the YouTube trailer.

The year Transcendence was released, Stephen Hawking warned on the dangers of AI. According to BBC News, the scientist said:

The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.

Other voices from the world of STEM express similar concerns. In 2017, Forbes compiled a series of quotes on the matter of AI, and many perceive it as a real threat. Let us read, for example, what Nick Bilton, the tech columnist of New York Times said:

The upheavals [of artificial intelligence] can escalate quickly and become scarier and even cataclysmic. Imagine how a medical robot, originally programmed to rid cancer, could conclude that the best way to obliterate cancer is to exterminate humans who are genetically prone to the disease.

I don’t know about you, but to me such prospects sound horrifying. By comparison to the popular theme of a zombie epidemic, the AI perspective seems a much more realistic threat to the future of our race. In this respect, the name movie debates the most delicate aspects of the ethical issue.  If anything, it risks to loose part of the audience with the deeply philosophical approach.

The movie, however, does not lack in action, tension or changes of situation. It introduces us to a world devoid of any networking technology, in a post digital apocalypse era. Then we get transported back to how the end of the world as we know it started.

No surprises: the human turned AI controls the internet

Top researcher Will Caster (Johnny Depp) advances in his efforts to develop human-like AI – one endowed with emotions and the capacity to distinguish between good and bad. But not everybody appreciates his achievements. A radical group aims to destroy all research in the field. Falling victim to a terrorist attack enacted by these people, the scientist will die as there is no cure to the poison infesting his body. At this point, Caster’s wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), convinces him to upload his brain, his memories, his emotions to the server used in his research. What started as a last hope and an experiment succeeds beyond dreams. Soon, the now digital researcher controls the whole internet.

Nothing surprises in the story line for the first part of the movie. The anti-tech extremists play the role of the villains, they try to kill Evelyn and destroy the new digital entity of Dr. Caster. They even kidnap his friend and colleague Max Waters (Paul Buchanan), who helped turn the researcher into an AI. Meanwhile, we all wait for Caster himself to turn into a danger greater than these terrorists: a conscienceless intelligence using the whole world for its own gratification.

Not your usual robot thriller

While events progress towards a catastrophic outcome, Transcendence steps away from a predictable resolve. Unlike the woman shaped robot in recent Ex Machina, or the machines of the future in the classical Terminator, the AI version of Dr. Caster means no harm. His benevolent intentions are not always clear, and you expect to see him rule the world in tyranny.

Digital Carter fixes human beings more than required for good health.

The story keeps on the verge of a thriller. After couple of years of conducting experiments in biology, chemistry and medicine in an underground facility, digital Dr. Carter starts to improve humans without their consent. He doesn’t wipe away their own human personality, but imprints AI control into their brains and can speak or act through their bodies at any time. Such a development reminds of the borg, and here lies the ethical depth of the story. Just like the borg, Carter’s digital personality means only to perfect, to improve, to change the world into a better version of itself.

Artificial Intelligence proves incapable to respect people’s free will. It lacks capacity to develop a moral compass and there is no otherness to balance it. Even when he invades his wife’s privacy, computer brain Carter only tries to understand and respond better to her needs. The ethical dilemma leaves no room for a happy end: AI harms without being malevolent, and it needs to be destroyed. It simply possesses too much power for everybody’s safety.


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