Against a swirling montage of cosmic birth and destruction, and newsreel-style stills from his personal history, the celebrated inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil sits in silhouette, contemplating death. He broods over mortality's toll in waste and pain, and the hopelessness and loss that people must experience in their last moments of life. "It's such a profoundly sad, lonely feeling that I really can't bear it," he admits.
Then, cheerfully, he adds, "So I go back to thinking about how I'm not going to die."
That opening sequence of Transcendent Man, the new documentary by director Barry Ptolemy that profiles Kurzweil and his ideas, neatly distills the sometimes jarring predictions and preoccupations of its subject. The film is about Kurzweil's belief that within just a few decades technology will allow human beings to transcend the physical and intellectual limitations of their biology. It also paints Kurzweil as a brilliant man who has personally always risen above the skepticism and misunderstanding of his doubters.
Cleverly edited and entertaining, Transcendent Man is unfortunately also too starstruck and reverent toward Kurzweil for its own good. It wants in part to be a movie about ideas, but frustratingly, it refuses to truly challenge any of those it raises—whether supportive or critical of him. Given that the film's theme is the salvation or destruction of the human race, its lack of commitment to a perspective other than innocent wonder is unsatisfying.
Kurzweil has always been propelled by powerful ideas, as the film makes clear. A recipient of the National Medal of Technology, he has been a pioneer in optical character recognition, speech recognition and other technologies, starting with his invention of a computer that composed music when he was just 17. His study of innovation in the 1980s convinced him that what he calls a "law of accelerating returns" governs progress, meaning that technology advances at an exponentially increasing rate. (The doubling of transistors on computer chips every 18 months, widely known as Moore's law, is one example of such an increase.)
Kurzweil popularized the concept of accelerating returns in his books The Age of Intelligent Machines (MIT Press, 1990) and The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (Viking, 1999), in which he predicted what the consequences of that rate of progress would be in the decades to come. He revisited and doubled down on that thesis in 2005 with The Singularity Is Near (Viking), a manifesto arguing that by mid-century history would reach a "technological singularity": an inflection point when artificial and enhanced intelligences would take control of further progress and usher in a kind of earthly nirvana. Genetics, nanotechnology and robotics would put immortality, infinite resources and boundless intelligence at the disposal of humanity and its sentient creations.
Dizzying as this vision can be, Transcendent Man does a good job of introducing viewers to it through well-chosen visuals and sound bites. Director Barry Ptolemy says that when he read The Singularity Is Near, he was convinced that it was one of the most profound books ever written and that he had to make a film about it. With Kurzweil's cooperation, Ptolemy spent two years following the futurist across five continents as he went about his multiple businesses and preached the creed of exponential progress.