5 Movies that Explain the Concept of Singularity

The concept of technological singularity is inevitably linked to the world of science fiction. In fact, the term itself was created by one of the most important mathematicians in modern history, John Von Neuman (recognized as one of the fathers of cybernetics), when it was popularized by the science-fiction writer Vernor Vinge. Singularity is today much more than a likely scenario from novels and movies. The possibility that thanks to artificial intelligence, machines will one day be capable of self-improvement and spawn a generation of computers far superior to human intelligence, is now feasible thanks to the development of exponential technologies.

The date when singularity will become our constant companion depends on which expert or futurologist you listen to. However, one thing all the predictions agree on is that it will be sooner rather than later, and certainly in the 21st century, making it perhaps be the most important century in the history of our existence: the time when humanity transcends its biological nature thanks to the development of technology.

Image: Ray (Raymond) Kurzweil /Credit: Bill Wadman

Image: Ray (Raymond) Kurzweil /Credit: Bill Wadman

One of the most important voices in the universe of singularity is that of Ray Kurzweil, also known as the “Google futurologist”, because of the position he occupies in the company. It is not only his job description that endorses him as a technological reference, but also the 18 honoris causa doctorates he has accumulated, the recognized honors from three US presidents, and a long list of awards, grants, patents, and the companies he has founded, including the Singularity University. What does Raymond Kurzweil think?

This engineer, musician, inventor and entrepreneur has a sufficiently wide-ranging background on which to base his predictions about the world we will be living in tomorrow. Some of the ideas he mooted in the 1990s have already b been corroborated (voice assistants, exoskeletons, augmented reality glasses …), although he also ventures into much more futuristic territory, such as the possibility of connecting our brains to the cloud through nanorobots (2030), or potential resurrection using artificial intelligence.

But Kurzweil is not the only one to make predictions about the future. In the movies, and in science fiction in all its formats (novels, comics and more), numerous theories have also been developed on the scenarios in which we might find ourselves living tomorrow. Here we choose five movies in which singularity poses different challenges to human beings in their coexistence with machines.

Transcendence (2014), Wally Pfister

 “We’re not gonna fight them. We’re gonna transcend them.”, Will Caster .

Will Caster, an expert in IA (Johnny Depp), is developing an ambitious project to create a computer capable of self-supplying (a “transcendence”, in his own words), when he is murdered. His wife and his best friend are aware of his plans and continue with Will’s legacy. The boundaries between life and death and control and chaos become blurred and the main characters find themselves facing serious ethical debates. Where to set the limit to singularity before it turns against us?

Her (2013), Spike Jonze

 “The heart is not like a box that gets filled up; it expands in size the more you love. I’m different from you. This doesn’t make me love you any less. It actually makes me love you more.”, Samantha.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is a loner and an avid videogamer who decides to buy “the first artificially intelligent operating system” (OS). Samantha, the voice of OS, captivates Theodore and plunges him into a labyrinth of conflicting and challenging decisions –since no one has ever before been confronted with the dilemma of falling in love with an operating system. Will singularity one day lead us to discover machines’ ability to generate feelings?

The Final Cut (2004), Omar Naim

 “My job is to let people remember what they want to remember, Fletcher. It fulfilled a human need. I didn’t invent the technology.”, Alan Hakman .

The chip Zoë is a memory implant embedded in the brains of newborns to record everything that happens throughout their lives so that when they die, the material can be edited like a movie. This fact radically changes society’s behavior and values, now conditioned by the all-seeing eye of the recorders. Alan Hakman (Robin Williams) is the best memory editor around, but his natural gifts lead him into conflict with bitter moral debates about his own life. How far will machines affect our own system of values and beliefs?

Automata (2014), Gabe Ibáñez

 “Jacq, dying is a part of the natural human cycle. Your life is just a span in time.”, Blue Robot.

A population decimated by solar storms inhabits Planet Earth in 2044. The survivors have built some “pilgrim” robots, designed to help them rebuild the world in the most hostile environments. These robots are guided by two main rules: they must survive and they cannot alter themselves. Jacq (Antonio Banderas) is an insurance agent from the company that manufactures the robots (ROC) who is investigating the case of a police officer who shot one of the machines, claiming that it was altering itself. How far can singularity push back the boundaries of the rights and responsibilities of humans and machines?

Ex Machina (2015),  Alex Garland

 “One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.” Nathan

Caleb is working as a computer programmer for a large multinational when he has a surprising experience: he spends a few days at the palatial home of his boss, who is fanatical about artificial intelligence technologies. There he meets Ava, a robot created by the magnate with the aim of becoming the perfect intelligence. Caleb will be faced with profound reflections in his relationship with Ava, such as what is the difference between human beings and machines if both have consciousness? 

Dory Gascueña for OpenMind