Questioning consciousness in film ‘Transcendence’

Wally Pfister made it a point to emphasize to the audience that “Transcendence,” his directorial debut, was a sci-fi thriller meant as entertainment. The film, starring Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany, revolves around the possibility of uploading a human consciousness to a computer.

At an event April 9 hosted by SUPERB, Pfister and UC Berkeley professors Jose Carmena, Michel Maharbiz and Claire Tomlin of the electrical engineering and computer sciences department discussed the scientific underpinnings of the film.

“It was important to me to do something that had people leaving the theater asking questions and thinking,” said Pfister. “This is where the ‘fi’ in sci-fi comes in and allows us to ask these questions.”

Dr. Will Caster (Depp) is a researcher who has created PINN, a hyperintelligent machine that is even self-aware. After being shot by a terrorist from an extremist Luddite organization, Caster has a time stamp put on his life. Caster’s wife Evelyn (Hall) and best friend Max (Bettany) set about attempting to upload his brain into PINN before he passes away.

When Carmena and Maharbiz first read the script, they were immediately hooked. Carmena and Maharbiz were flown down to Los Angeles for a 10-hour technical consultation session on the film. “Consciousness is an issue in any setting, because we can’t define it, and we don’t know what it is,” said Carmena. “I hope this movie does for this generation what Skynet in ‘Terminator 2’ did for me.”

Many of the neural slides in the movie and mathematical scribblings on white boards were lifted directly from the professors’ labs. “It was a security blanket, having these guys nearby as we did the scariest material in the film,” said Pfister.

Pfister, who began his career as a cinematographer, worked extensively under director Christopher Nolan and won an Academy Award for cinematography for 2010’s “Inception.” His background in the visual department of filmmaking is evident in “Transcendence” — the movie, which begins in Berkeley and San Francisco, is beautifully shot and reminiscent of the visual work displayed in Nolan’s blockbusters.

For a sci-fi thriller, the film certainly has an edge-of-your-seat quality, but its fast-paced visual component is confounded by a fragmented storyline. Evelyn goes into hiding in the desert with Will as a sentient and powerful computer, while Max and the terrorist organization, along with the FBI and former researcher Joe (Morgan Freeman), attempt to hunt down the machine before it acquires too much power.

The film’s overtures warn of a frightening future in which technology has grown out of hand and beyond human control. Taken to extremes, a system of intelligence could develop to the point where it is more intelligent than its human creators but doesn’t have the biological limitations that humans do. The film calls this “transcendence,” but makes note of the contemporary term for this hypothetical moment: “the singularity.”

The crowd was highly engaged with the seemingly endless possibilities of biotechnology. When asked about the potential for an artificial intelligence system to develop sentience beyond what humans programmed it to do, Carmena replied “I don’t see why our tech would turn against us because we control it.”

Pfister similarly reminded the audience that his film has a human element to it and wasn’t simply about a machine taking over control. “It’s not really AI in theory, because it’s biological,” said Pfister. “It’s Johnny Depp! It’s Captain Jack Sparrow.”

Despite its biological roots, the self-aware system represented by the Caster-PINN combination isn’t a comforting one. Captain Jack Sparrow or not, “Transcendence” both frightens and thrills.

Contact Lynn Yu at [email protected].

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