Johnny Depp Is Starring in a Movie About the Singularity

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Dec. 20 2013 3:32 PM

Johnny Depp Is Starring in a Movie About the Singularity

Johnny Depp in Transcendence movie
Johnny Depp takes a break from playing a man made of alcohol to play a man made of code.

Screenshot / YouTube

Ray Kurzweil is convinced the technological singularity is nigh. So is Johnny Depp's character, it seems, in a Hollywood flick that's due out in April. 

This may be the singularity's mainstream moment. Popularized by sci-fi author Vernor Vinge, the term refers to a theoretical point at which machines eclipse humans in intelligence, and beyond which pretty much everything changes. Kurzweil is its preeminent latter-day apostle, and he was recently hired as an engineer by Google to work on hastening its arrival by teaching computers to understand English. Now we've got Captain Jack Sparrow explaining it in a voiceover.

Advertisement

Yet tech geeks' enthusiasm for the flick might be tempered by the ample early evidence that its take on artificial intelligence will be rather loosely tethered to reality. (Then again, some of Kurzweil's critics would say the same about him.) "The combined intellect of the neuroscientists, engineers, mathematicians pales in comparison to even the most basic A.I.," Depp's character explains in the teaser trailer. Um, Dr. Caster? I hate to tell you this, but today's most advanced A.I. pales in comparison to the intellect of even the most basic humans, except in constrained settings like chess or Jeopardy!. The most sentient machines we've seen so far hit the limit of their intelligence when they learned to make out images of cats on YouTube.

But OK, let's give the film a break and assume it's set sometime in the future. The key to the concept of the singularity, after all, is that technological progress is exponential. "What happens when artificial intelligence becomes self-aware?" asks Morgan Freeman's voice quite seriously in a second trailer for the film. "Is it the key to immortality, or is it the path towards annihilation?" 

I'll take "annihilation" for $200, Morgan! Sounds fun, though, right? Maybe?

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

The Ludicrous Claims You’ll Hear at This Company’s “Egg Freezing Parties”

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM Going Private To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Oct. 1 2014 10:32 AM The Corpse-Lined Hallways of the Capuchin Monastery Catacombs
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 10:44 AM Everyone’s Favorite Bob’s Burgers Character Gets a Remix You Can Dance to
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 10:27 AM 3,000 French Scientists Are Marching to Demand More Research Funding
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 1 2014 7:30 AM Say Hello to Our Quasi-Moon, 2014 OL339
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.