Building Gods (2008)

Title: Building Gods
Director: Ken Gumbs

A rough cut of a documentary posted (back in the day) to Google Videos that interviews a number of people about technological developments. Many of the people interviewed here crop up in transhumanist media and literature.

Some links to H+ reviews of the documentary include:

I, Robot (2004)

Title: I, Robot
Movie_poster_i_robot.jpgRelease date: July 15, 2004
Director: Alex Proyas
Producer: Laurence Mark; John Davis; Topher Dow; Wyck Godfrey
Jeff Vintar (based on Isaac Asimov’s book of the same name)
Starring: Will Smith; Bridget Moynahan; Bruce Greenwood; James Cromwell; Chi McBride; Alan Tudyk
Production company: Davis Entertainment; Laurence Mark Productions; Overbrook Films
Running time: 115 mins

As a boy I grew up with reading and rereading Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot” (1950), a collection of short stories about robots and the human protagonist, Susan Calvin. At some point, I also purchased the successors to that book including “The Naked Sun”, “The Robots of Dawn”, and “Robots and Empire” – a progression of lessening enjoyment as they went on.

Asimov’s book is the one responsible for giving popular culture, and in some ways wider culture through popular culture, the ‘Three Laws of Robotics‘:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm;
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law;
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Elements of this, with some refinement, can still be found in other examples of robotics in popular culture such as Aliens, Robocop and the recent TV series Almost Human and Humans. Many of these examples, as well as Asimov’s own stories, focus upon what happens when the rules are kept absolutely or when they are transgressed. The three laws have also inspired the Three Laws of Transhumanism in Zoltan Istvan’s novel “The Transhumanist Wager” (2013) which are stated as:

  1. A transhumanist must safeguard one’s own existence above all else.
  2. A transhumanist must strive to achieve omnipotence as expediently as possible—so long as one’s actions do not conflict with the First Law.
  3. A transhumanist must safeguard value in the universe—so long as one’s actions do not conflict with the First and Second Laws.

Getting back to the movie, though, the plot of the movie draws upon a variety of elements from Asimov’s collection of short stories and weaves them together into a narrative of a detective action movies with some interesting reflections on ethics, the boundaries between the human and the technological, and good old-fashioned human self-interest. Will Smith carries the film well, as do the special effects with the robots, with the ending leaving space for an unfulfilled sequel and one the might be a little bit more positive than the ending of The Machine.

In terms of transhumanist themes there are plenty to think about – from robotics, to the creation of human-like (with our flaws) artificial intelligence, aspects of a singularity and human therapy/enhancement through the use of robotic prosthetics. For me the film highlighted two aspects, in particular. Firstly, that while we might not be able to definitively state that a particular technological creation is intelligent or conscious, we will act towards them (both positively and negatively) as if they are ‘persons’. This parallels transhumanist, Ray Kurzweil, when he says:

Sometime early in the next century, the intelligence of machines will exceed that of humans. Within several decades, machines will exhibit the full range of human intellect, emotions and skills, ranging from musical and other creative aptitudes to physical movement. They will claim to have feelings and, unlike today’s virtual personalities, will be very convincing when they tell us so. (Kurzweil: 1999, 56).

The second aspect that comes to mind reflects that of theological and computer scientist, Anne Forst, who contends that who we thing about robots and engaging with them tells us more about ourselves that it does about them (Foerst: ). Moreover, she would assert it tells us theologically about ourselves, God, our creations, and the relationships between them. Even if we can create something that mimics a human being, would our definition of it being human have to stretch that far? Foerst appears to be in the camp that allows for the possibility. Responding in an interview to the question of whether she might want at some point to ‘christen’ or baptize a robot she answers,

I think I would baptize it. This is the whole issue: that we are created in the image of God does not mean that God gave us intelligence and all this kind of stuff. Like I have said above, very soon we will be able to rebuild all of these features classically identified with the image of God. Therefore, AI teaches us that the Imago Dei should not be equalized with “intelligence,” “rationality,” or “reason.” In my opinion, “Imago Dei” means that God, in creating us, started a relationship with us, and separated us from the rest of creation by starting and maintaining this relationship with us but this separation is not because of some features we have. It is not empirical but means trust and love between God and us. If the Imago Dei is relational in that sense, then I have no trouble thinking that Cog [a robot] might have a relationship to God, too, at some point. If it develops the way it does, then Cog will ask at some point, “Where do I come from?” and “What is the meaning of my life?” (Palmer: 1997, 19-20).

Moreover, how the robots are treated is also reflects upon how we treat others whom we deem ‘less’ human than ourselves, leading to their oppression and marginalization. For robots in this film, you could substitute refugees, people of different faiths, different cultures and ethnicities, different genders, and/or sexual orientation.

Overall, I really like this film. Good pacing, good effects and good stuff to think about (and Will Smith!).

[Aside: Asimov’s work is also the source material for The Bicentennial Man (1999) featuring Robin Williams – a film we will come to later.]




Ultraviolet (2006)

Title:Ultraviolet.jpg Ultraviolet
Release date: March 3, 2006
Director: Kurt Wimmer
Producer: John Baldecchi; Lucas Foster; Tony Mark; Pauline Chan; John Giwa-Amu
Writer: Kurt Wimmer
Starring: Milla Jovovich
Production company: Ultravi Productions
Running time: 87 minutes

In short, this film is a mess. It has the potential to be something interesting with the biotechnological spin on lycanthropy or vampirism, but the way the film has been plotted and cut together doesn’t work at all. Apparently, there’s a longer cut out there that has about 30 mins more than the theatrical/DVD version (and a slightly extended Blu-ray version in Japan), which has more background narrative that gives context to the wider story but that isn’t here. It feels like an endless series of Gun Fu (or Gun Kata).

So, transhumanist elements around biological ‘enhancement’ of the human species, but not really a thought-provoking example of it. The kind of film that makes sense at 30,000ft on a long-haul flight in the middle of the night.


The Machine (2013)

201509102334.jpgTitle: The Machine
Release date: April 20, 2013
Director: Caradog W. James
Producer: John Giwa-Amu
Writer: Caradog W. James
Starring: Caity Lotz; Sam Hazeldine; Toby Stephens; Pooneh Hajimohammadi; Denis Lawson
Production company: Red & Black Films
Running time: 91 minutes

The Machine is a relatively low budget film set in a near future where the UK is locked in a cold war with China. The film is set primarily in a secret research institutions developing prosthetics, robotics, and artificial intelligence in order to create a ‘super soldier’. In achieving artificial consciousness, presented in the artificial life form referred to as ‘the machine,’ the film draws upon a number of transhumanist themes. This include the idea of the singularity, notions of information patterns being the essence of human identity, and replication through simulation of the human brain as a place to locate a copy of those information.

The movie is a good example of Katherine Hayles four features of post- or transhumanism (Hayles: 1999: 2-3):

  1. A privilege given to information over material reality, with the implication that embodiment in a biological substrate is seen as transient accident of history rather than an inevitability of life;
  2. Consciousness is seen as an epiphenomenon, or side effect, of human existence rather than the seat of human identity;
  3. The view that the body is merely a prosthesis that we learn to manipulate, and that should we choose, we could extend or replace it with other suitable prostheses;
  4. This extension or replacement will be, in part, achieved by the seamless melding of human and intelligent machines

The Machine doesn’t have some of the big budget effects of larger Hollywood productions but does a good job of exploring these ideas using the a minimalist and dark environment. The film ends with the sense that humanity’s time will now be drawing to a close – at least in material form – something which is left hanging as to whether that might be for the best.


Getting started…

Over the next few months I’m going to be watching a heap of films and television series connected with transhumanist (and posthuman) themes and values with a particular focus on religious, spiritual and philosophical ideas and concepts present in them.

Some of these texts will be driven by an overt transhumanist agenda, others as thought experiments, and others as a way of using these concepts to tell stories about this world (or all of the above). Science fiction serves as the primary genre for these kinds of explorations, for as Stephen May notes ‘[s]uch invention can either suggest a universe as strange as possible (with equally strange creatures inhabiting it), or one like ours – except for one vital difference.’ (May, 1998:15)

Moreover, these contemporary narratives highlight what Lelia Green calls ‘the widespread fascination with the interface of biology and technology, and the potential for fusion between the two’ (Green: 2002: 167). It is in these types of stories that society explores the boundaries of what it means to be human and tries to distil the essence of humanness. Questions about how to live and how to be human are addressed, as well as the hopes and fears of people who are increasingly dependent on technology and the cultures it creates. There is, she asserts, almost an enthrallment with the question of how much technology compromises the essentially human.

In addition, Green notes that popular culture is “that subsection of mass media which are appropriated by people in their daily lives and remodeled as the raw material through which they communicate their values and enthusiasms, and through which they connect to others” (Green: 156).

So, I’ll be looking at not only the themes and values present, but the way in which those create new way of looking at the world and of orienting people in the world by offering hermeneutical (interpretative) keys for doing that.