Pondering Our Cyborg Future in a Documentary About the Singularity

Doug Wolens's recent documentary takes on the complex, abstract concept of the singularity, which predicts a moment when technology will give rise to intelligence beyond the scope of human imagination. It sounds like sci-fi but, Wolens and others argue, there's no denying the sweeping impact of technology on human existence and the implications are worth thinking about. In the trailer for the film, below, scientists, futurists, and other experts describe what the singularity might have in store. 

How will we get there? Advancements in neurotechnology and the rise of brain-machine interfaces might contribute, according to the short excerpt of the film, below. "In some ways we're doing that today," the futurist Ray Kurzweil says, holding up a mobile phone. "The fact that I can take this out of my pocket and access all of human knowledge is an extension of my brian, even if this isn't quite inside my brain yet." In an interview below, Wolens describes the long process of putting this documentary together and some of the challenges along the way. 

The Atlantic: Why did you decide to do a documentary about the singularity?

Doug Wolens: I first learned about the singularity in 2000 while on the road self-distributing my last documentary Butterfly (a documentary about the young woman who sat in an ancient redwood tree for two years preventing it from being cut down). For over a year I traveled from town to town with my film, and while flying to the New York City screenings I read a three-line blurb by Kurzweil in an Internet business magazine. Kurzweil’s argument that the rate of technology advances exponentially sounded reasonable, and sure, one day computers could be as smart as people.

I got off the plane, went directly to St. Marks Book Store and bought Kurzweil’s latest book at the time, The Age of Spiritual Machines. I ate up. I was pretty impressed with the arguments, especially having grown up in the ‘60s with the Apollo flights and Armstrong’s walk on the moon. As a kid, I was taught that science could solve all our problems. I drank the Kool-Aid and thought that the singularity would make an interesting documentary. 

What were some of the challenges of covering this topic? What was the production process like?

When I first discussed this idea with my documentary colleagues and other people in the film community, pretty much across the board everyone laughed saying the idea of the singularity was sci-fi, not a subject for a serious doc. In 2000 no one I spoke with had even heard of nanotechnology.

Without funding I couldn’t afford to make the film, but I didn’t want to let go. 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. Seven years ago Stanford University hosted the first Singularity Summit, bringing together the world’s leading experts on future technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology. A few short 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 a lack of funding, I decided to move ahead with the project and just start shooting interviews. With the advent of pro-sumer digital camera gear, the cost of shooting interviews was no longer cost prohibitive (as was shooting film like my previous documentary). With the help of my dear friend and cinematographer Mark Woloschuk, we interviewed Kurzweil, then Christine Peterson (who co-founded the Foresight Institute with Eric Drexler). I was introduced to artificial intelligence coders and theorists. I attended lectures and read everything that was on-line. In 2005, 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. This idea of the singularity becoming mainstream was just around the corner and I was in the thick of it.

I ate it up and talked with anyone who would sit down with me to listen. 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?

However, as I interviewed these scientists and technological leaders, I started to see holes in some of the arguments. 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 to 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.

One of my biggest challenges in telling the story was figuring out what to show. I had hundreds of hours of interviews. But I didn’t shoot much in the way of B-roll (things that show what’s going on). I could have gotten quirky angled shots of my interviewees working at their desks, or shots of them walking in front of their research/office building, but these shots didn’t really say much to the viewer and they certainly didn’t show radical future technologies. And while there is a lot happening in the labs, today’s state-of-the-art technologies would be dated in just a couple of years.

After a few years of struggling with what to show, I decided to use animation to depict these technologies. I recognized that animation, as an art form in itself, could not only depict the science, but also capture our notion of the future and the promises of technology. We also decided to make the animations fun and silly to balance the tone of the film’s subject matter.

Just as importantly, however, I was challenged with the desire to let the viewer sit with the interviewees and see who they are, how they speak, how they react. All too often I see films where we hear a person speak and see all sorts of fun stuff, but I never get the feeling that I am with the person speaking. Instead their comments were edited so much that they were used just to make the filmmaker’s point (rather than to support the interviewee’s point). I challenged myself to give the viewer a sense of their being with Kurzweil or sitting with Bill McKibben. They are part of a conversation and help viewer digest these profound issues and come to their own conclusions.

What's next for you?

At this time I have a lot on my plate self-distributing the film. In the past I followed the old film distribution model of going to festivals, then theatrical, then TV, then schools, universities and conferences and finally “home use.” With this film however I decided to go directly to my audience and offer the film digitally through iTunes and with DVD and Blu-ray disc sales through my web site. This method of getting the film to viewers directly, rather than through a third party distributor, not only gets the film in front of viewers’ eyes sooner than the traditional model. But more importantly, most film distributors look at the films they represent as just another product. I believe in this film and I have a vision for getting it out in the world. Self-distribution is a tremendous amount of work. I spend my days trying to get more Facebook “likes.” I am constantly emailing and following-up with bloggers and science writers. I am in touch with futurist organizations and conference organizers. I am promoting my film 24/7. But it’s good work because I believe in this project.

That said, I do have dreams of making another film. Over the past couple of years I have been researching a documentary on aesthetics. Yes, aesthetics is a broad subject that includes heady notions of design, art, taste, appreciation, and the nature of beauty. Much of the pleasure that I get out of being a documentary filmmaker is that I get to learn along the way, so here I get to mix the pleasure of learning with the pleasure of pleasure. Getting to make a documentary on aesthetics would be pretty cool! It would be my 4th feature documentary and advance my search for understanding our place in the world. 

For more information about the film, visit http://thesingularityfilm.com/.

Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg joined The Atlantic in 2011 to launch its video channel and, in 2013, create its in-house video production department. She leads the development and production of original documentaries, interviews, and other video content for The Atlantic. Previously, she worked as a producer at Al Gore’s Current TV and as a content strategist and documentary producer in San Francisco. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University.

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