Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Welcome to the Machine: The Singularity is Nigh

It is like the Rapture for geeks.  The Singularity is the not so theoretical point at which artificial intelligence eclipses the old school human variety.  For some, it summons dystopian images of The Matrix.  Others anticipate a golden age of brain implants and downloaded consciousnesses.  It may well be the world filmmaker Avi Zev Weider’s newborn triplets inherit.  Weider explores the evolving relationship between man and technology on their behalf in Welcome to the Machine (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Brooklyn.

Delivered ten weeks premature, Weider’s daughter and two sons spend the first months of their lives connected to machines.  The products of in vitro fertilization, their lives are truly defined by technology.  Most of Welcome’s experts argue that is a good thing.  First and foremost is Ray Kurzweil, the developer of the famous synthesizer and the reading machine for the blind, who now serves as the leading evangelist for the Singularity.  Kurzweil argues the scary sounding turning point might even offer a means to pseudo-immortality.

Others are not so sure.  MIT technological ethicist Sherry Turkle is cautiously cautious about the implications of blurring the distinctions between humanity and technology.  Philosophy lecturer David Skrbina goes further, often citing the work of his notorious correspondent, Ted Kaczynski.  Skrbina suggests the Unabomber is something of a prophet regarding the dehumanizing effects of technology.  While undeniably learned in his field, the extent to which Skrbina adopts Kaczynski’s arguments is problematic.  Aside from the Unabomber’s lethal methods (largely unremarked upon in Welcome), it seems highly dubious that the pre-industrial serfs eking out a subsistence existence lived richer, more examined lives than the majority of those in the contemporary industrialized West, including the working class.

By periodically tracking the development of his triplets, Weider provides a pointed, if perhaps inadvertent rejoinder to the borderline Luddite premises of Skrbina and his pen pal.  Without the advancements of modern medicine, Weider’s three babies could never survive (and would not have been conceived in the first place).  Oddly enough, Welcome could be a big hit with the pro-life community.  According to the filmmaker, he and his wife were not so subtly encouraged to abort one of the triplets.  Although their first year is an exhausting struggle, it was clearly worth the effort for their parents.  Along the way, Weider also provides a behind the scenes look at the U.S. military’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle program, which certainly ought to interest the same audience.

Anyone who watches Welcome will wish all the best to Weider and his lovely children.  For the same reason, they will shake their heads in disbelief when he also attempts to correspond with Kaczynski.  This is not someone who ought to have your contact info.  Just ask the three people killed by his mail bombs.  Regardless, there is enough discussion of artificial intelligence, military drones, and robotics to keep the Wired magazine crowd consistently engaged.  At least one cut above a Discovery Channel special, Welcome to the Machine is worth considering should you happen to be in Brooklyn over the coming week.  It opens at the ReRun Gastropub this Friday (1/11).