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.

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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.

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