SkepticblogSkepticblog logo banner

top navigation:

The Immortalist

by Michael Shermer, Apr 19 2011

A Review of Transcendent Man: A Film About the Life and Ideas of Ray Kurzweil. Produced by Barry Ptolemy, Music by Philip Glass, inspired by the book The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil. Digital release March 1, DVD release May 25.


Beware the prophet who proclaims the end of the world, the apocalypse, doomsday, judgment day, the second coming, the resurrection, or the Biggest Thing to Happen to Humanity ever will happen in the prophet’s own lifetime. It is our natural inclination to assume that we are special and that our generation will witness the new dawn, but the Copernican Principle tells us that we are not special. Thus, the chances that even a science-based prophecy such as that proffered by the futurist, inventor, and scientistic visionary extraordinaire Ray Kurzweil—that by 2029 we will have the science and technology to live forever—is unlikely to be fulfilled.

Transcendent Man is Barry Ptolemy’s beautifully crafted and artfully edited documentary film about Kurzweil and his quest to save humanity. If you enjoy contemplating the Big Questions in Life from a scientific perspective, you will love this film. Accompanied by the eerily haunting music of Philip Glass who, appropriately enough, also scored Errol Morris’ film The Fog of War—about another bigger-than-life character who thought he could mold the world through data-driven decisions, Robert McNamara—Transcendent Man pulls viewers in through Kurzweil’s visage of a future in which we merge with our machines and vastly extend our longevity and intelligence to the point where even death will be defeated. This point is what Kurzweil calls the “singularity” (inspired by the physics term denoting the infinitely dense point at the center of a black hole), and he arrives at the 2029 date by extrapolating curves based on what he calls the “law of accelerating returns.” This is “Moore’s Law” (the doubling of computing power every year) on steroids, applied to every conceivable area of science, technology and economics.

Ptolemy’s portrayal of Kurzweil is unmistakably positive, but to his credit he includes several critics from both religion and science. From the former, a radio host named Chuck Missler, a born-again Christian who heads the Koinonia Institute (“dedicated to training and equipping the serious Christian to sojourn in today’s world”), proclaims: “We have a scenario laid out that the world is heading for an Armageddon and you and I are going to be the generation that’s alive that is going to see all this unfold.” He seems to be saying that Kurzweil is right about the second coming, but wrong about what it is that is coming. (Of course, Missler’s prognostication is the N+1 failed prophecy that began with Jesus himself, who told his followers (Mark 9:1): “Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.”) Another religiously-based admonition comes from the Stanford University neuroscientist William Huribut, who self-identifies as a “practicing Christian” who believes in immortality, but not in the way Kurzweil envisions it. “Death is conquered spiritually,” he pronounced.

On the science side of the ledger, Neil Gershenfeld, director of the Center for Bits and Atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sagely notes: “What Ray does consistently is to take a whole bunch of steps that everybody agrees on and take principles for extrapolating that everybody agrees on and show they lead to things that nobody agrees on.” Likewise, the estimable futurist Kevin Kelly, whose 2010 book What Technology Wants paints a much more realistic portrait of what our futures may (or may not) hold, asks rhetorically “What happens in 40 years from now and Ray dies and doesn’t have his father back? What does all this mean? Was he wrong? Well, he was right about some things. But in my observation the precursors of those technologies that would have to exist simply are not here. Ray’s longing for this, his expectation, is heartwarming, but it isn’t going to happen.” Kelly agrees that Kurzweil’s exponential growth curves are accurate but that the conclusions and especially the inspiration drawn from them are not. “He seems to have no doubts about it and in this sense I think he is a prophetic type figure who is completely sure and nothing can waiver his absolute certainty about this. So I would say he is a modern day prophet…that’s wrong.”

Transcendent Man is clearly meant to be an uplifting film celebrating all the ways science and technology have and are going to enrich our lives. I don’t know if it is the music or the cinematography or the subject himself, but I found Transcendent Man to be a sad film about a genius who has been in agony since the premature death of his father at age 58. Fredric Kurzweil was a professional musician who Ray’s mother says on camera was never around while his charge was growing up. Like father like son—Kurzweil’s own workaholic tendencies in his creation of over a dozen companies starting when he was 17 meant he never really knew his father. As the film portrays the tormented inventor, Kurzweil’s mission in life seems more focused on resurrecting his patriarch than rescuing humanity.

An especially lachrymose moment is when Kurzweil is rifling through his father’s journals and documents in a storage room dedicated to preserving his memory until the day that all this “data” (including Ray’s own fading memories) can be reconfigured into an A.I. simulacrum so that father and son can be reunited. Through heavy sighs and wistful looks Kurzweil comes off not as a proselytizer on a mission but as a man tormented. It is, in fact, the film’s leitmotif. In one scene Kurzweil is shown wiping away a tear at his father’s gravesite, in another he pauses over photographs and looks longingly at mementos, and in another cut at the beach Kurzweil recalls the day his father “uncharacteristically” phoned him just days before his death, as if he’d had a premonition. Although Kurzweil says he is optimistic and cheery about life, he can’t seem to stop talking about death: “It’s such a profoundly sad, lonely feeling that I really can’t bear it,” he admits. “So I go back to thinking about how I’m not going to die.” One wonders how much of life he is missing by over thinking death, or how burdensome it must surely be to imbibe over 200 supplement tables a day and have your blood tested and cleansed every couple of months, all in an effort to reprogram the body’s biochemistry.

There is something almost religious about Kurzweil’s scientism, an observation he himself makes in the film, noting the similarities between his goals and that of the world’s religions: “the idea of a profound transformation in the future, eternal life, bringing back the dead—but the fact that we’re applying technology to achieve the goals that have been talked about in all human philosophies is not accidental because it does reflect the goal of humanity.” Although the film never discloses Kurzweil’s religious beliefs (he was raised by Jewish parents as a Unitarian Universalist), in a (presumably) unintentionally humorous moment that ends the film Kurzweil reflects on the God question and answers it himself: “Does God exist? I would say, ‘Not yet.’” Cheeky.

17 Responses to “The Immortalist”

  1. Carl says:

    Michael, “visage” means “face”. Presumably you meant “vision”.

  2. peter says:

    Why is it that most religious people – and I count Kurzweil among those, having made a religion out of his understanding of science – are so afraid of death?

    I am 62, so yes, the thought of death and the how to – I hope without too much pain and suffering – is almost daily on my mind.
    Does that stifle my enjoyment of live? No, it just helps to focus the mind.
    I have done in life, and still doing what I like, raised two kids, still live with my first and only wife, hunt, fish, read, listen to music, etc.
    When the time comes – I am ready, having myself acquainted with the idea through thinking about it, several close calls in life and the loss of some good friends.
    I have no desire to live eternally, this thought actually scares me to death…

    • Peter, Who knows why, but at least the Buddha was clear. In his teachings on the Five Reminders, the third is: “I am of the nature to die; there is no escaping death.” And he too taught this to wake folk up from the complacency of living life in denial of this fact. Living with the acute awareness of death, we don’t take this life we have for granted….

  3. itzac says:

    Even if Kurzweil can upload his consciousness into a computer, can he really be said to have achieved immortality? Surely there will be a conscious object in the world thinking and calling itself Ray Kurzweil, with a continuous memory of its existence, but there will also be a creature who’s last memory is of uploading itelf into a computer before, presumably, dying. Or if it doesn’t die, there will be two creatures with identical continuous memories until they diverge into the copied and the copy.

    Will the real Ray Kurzweil please stand up?

    • Max says:

      You’re basically a conscious object in the world thinking and calling itself itzac, with a continuous memory of your existence, and the itzac of one moment ago has fortunately disappeared.

  4. Beelzebud says:

    Sounds like a bunch of Woo to me.

    • Pretty much so. At least Shermer used “scientism” and Kurzweil’s name in the same sentence. Given what he’d previously written, I wasn’t sure.

      OTOH, Shermer treats Moore’s Law as though it were a scientific law, like Kepler’s First Law of Motion or the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

      Hey, Michael – it ain’t so.

  5. Another fine example of the near-universal tendency of people to extrapolate too far from present conditions. I’ve lived my whole life in an expanding and improving civilization – surely it will just keep on improving until everything is unimaginably wonderful and eternal. I think I’ll put all my money into Intel and Google stocks.

    Few of us seem to understand that conditions can change radically and quickly, and have done so many times in the past. Human nature, though, seems remarkably constant. Just read your Thucydides.

  6. John Paradox says:

    itzac’s comment reminds me of the Saga Of Cuckoo (combined Farthest Star and Wall Around A Star), where a teleporter creates a duplicate of a person at a distant point. Both the original and the duplicate have the same memories up to the point of teleportation, but differ when they leave the machine.


  7. feralboy12 says:

    I think there may be a step in his equations that requires more rigor.

  8. Robo Sapien says:

    While Kurzweil might be a bit nutty and evangelical about it, I don’t find it unreasonable to think that homo sapiens will conquer death. The answers are all there in the genome, it is only a matter of time before we master it as we have so many other natural processes.

    But what is the meaning of death? It is entirely possible for an organism to endlessly replace expired cells (as long as the resources are available), so why do we have a gene that makes us grow old and die?


    Death is, in a sense, the most evolutionarily stable strategy. By dying, we make way for new generations and thus new mutations that may have what it takes to survive in the event that something kills us off. But if we codify the sum of all evolutionary wisdom, does it become more sound to preserve existing identities and stop reproducing?

    What I’m getting at is this: while the “singularity” may be a very real possibility, is it actually the best thing for humanity and for life in general? Do we forsake the creation of new consciousness to allow existing ones to continue accumulating knowledge?

    So many questions, and according to Ray, we’ve got less than a generation to find the answers.

    • Tosh on “conquering” death, IMO.

      I riff on the “Methuseleh” episode of the original Star Trek.

      Man will never attain that perfect, knife-edge balance between anabolism and katabolism.

  9. BillG says:

    Human consciousness and free will (or it’s illusion) has avoided inexactness in our comprehension. Unless we achieve a better understanding in the subatomic/quantum world, AI technology will be no more than the information we provide. The reductionism in physics and it’s constants may always be moving target – fluctuations and uncertainties giving it an evasion of it’s true nature. Reverse engineering of the human brain would be the equivalent to manufacturing consciousness and beyond some crude form, it’s possible this could remain science fiction.

    These statements should be phrased as questions, because utmost, I DON’T KNOW. Though to date, neither does Kurzweil, nor does anyone else.

  10. The Black Rabbit of Inlé says:

    Dear Mr Shermer

    The irony was just too much to bear when I discovered you source Thomas Blatt and his investigation paper “Soap From Human Fat – Evidence of a Nazi Crime—by Thomas Blatt” in “Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It?”

    Mr Blatt’s paper was edited by his wife Dena Blatt, who has written and lectured extensively on aliens from Sirius living amongst us.

  11. Ian says:

    “inspired by the physics term denoting the infinitely dense point at the center of a black hole”

    I’m pretty sure he cribbed it from Vernor Vinge.

  12. Phea says:

    This old cartoon explores some of the same problems that we might be faced with if Kurzweil’s vision of the future is correct.