Beyond Human: "Transcendence" and "Lucy"

Speculations regarding the next step in human evolution have abounded since the emergence of science fiction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As new advances in science and technology have appeared at an accelerating rate in the last fifty years, practitioners of each, as well as writers and philosophers and theologians, have pondered the effect of these advances on human evolution. Some, such as Ray Kurzweil, take this very seriously, treating it with a mixture of extrapolation, excitement, respect, and caution. (Also, see transhumanism.) Others simply approach the topic with entertainment in mind. Two recent movies, "Transcendence" (starring Johnny Depp) and "Lucy" (starring Scarlett Johansson), depict science and technology out of control. Like thousands of other stories, they depict the irresponsible use of power by scientists and technologists. (Hence, the tiresome stereotype of the "evil" scientist.) "Transcendence" focuses on an overworked theme: autonomous computer technology with god-like powers, not necessarily used for good, or what silly humans (!) might consider good. There are parallels to be found in the story of "Lucy." Here, a scientific advance in the field of biochemistry plays a role in accidentally super-charging the brain of an "unwilling volunteer." This person develops god-like powers, not necessarily for good.

In each movie, the main character is transformed into something superhuman, capable of manipulating matter and energy and even (in "Lucy") time. In one movie the superhuman is feared and silly humans attempt to control it. In the other movie, most witnesses are awestruck, and the ones seeking control want the culpable chemical compound for drug trafficking.

The plots of these movies are riddled with scientific and technical holes. For viewers, attaining and maintaining a "willing suspension of disbelief" is difficult. But holes are inevitable in stories like these, where science and technology are extrapolated so far. In "Transcendence," somehow we must map a brain a high level of detail, reverse engineer that mapping to recreate thoughts and memories, and connect the resulting model to the real world in a way that allows the model and the real world to modify each other. In "Lucy," we must accept the notion that we only use a fraction of our brainpower, that using more would be of benefit, that a chemical compound could open all that up, and that this increased brainpower would allow manipulation of one's environment in ways that defy the fundamental laws of physics.

Both stories raise questions of course. If a brain can be reverse-engineered and captured within a computer, would this not amount to a technological Tower of Babel? Let us build an intelligence, we might say, that will display superhuman powers, and we ourselves can become superhuman. And if supercharging a brain can give its owner the ability to manipulate anything at all, would the development of this also not be something from which we would be cast down by our Higher Power? The mind-brain-soul debates will rage into the future, but we might ask, if a brain is replicated electronically, and (by extension) the mind associated with this brain, what happens to the soul? And what effect would there be on the soul if the brain was capable of unlimited power?

In the end, while neither movie really broke new ground, I found both movies entertaining. But I enjoyed "Lucy" more, for the fast pace and suspense, and also because certain scenes reminded me of "2001: A Space Odyssey" -- one of my favorite movies -- as well as "Altered States," a suspenseful horror story about chemically-induced devolution (vs evolution).