L: How is the futuristic view on the idea of intelligence explored in the films Limitless by Neil Burger and Transcendence by Wally Pfister?


           According to the Oxford Dictionary: “intelligence is the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills”. Everything we do in our life is based on our mental capacity, that is what either limits us or helps us succeed. If the main goal of our life is self-development, we all desire to be erudite and wise, therefore what we always look for is an enlightening experience. People spend considerable amounts of time in schools and universities, to get educated, hence to increase their knowledge, but after all some are still more successful than others, because of their greater intelligence. The reason why brain science and cognitive research are so popular nowadays is because we always want more than we have: humans are no longer satisfied with the brain activity they were naturally given. Scientists are seeking for progress, they are working on ways of increasing our mental capacity and also on creating machines that would naturally be much more sagacious than people. The film Transcendence by Wally Pfister presents an idea of what artificial intelligence is and what are the consequences of its presence in today’s reality. Neil Burger in his movie Limitless demonstrates the changes in life of the protagonist after he experiences intelligence enhancement by using nootropics, smart drugs called NZT. Both movies consider the relevant question of the intelligence evolvement and give us a chance of a mental experience, that can either prevent us from making mistakes in the future or prepare us for the dawn of a more advanced age. This paper will analyze, compare and contrast the futuristic view on the idea of intelligence explored in the films. Firstly, it will give some background about Transcendence and discuss the advantages and the disadvantages of PINN. Secondly, it will focus on Limitless and explain the benefits of NZT. Thirdly, this research will explore the ethical and religious aspects of the ideas presented in each film. Finally, it will provide a critical view on the possibility of PINN and NZT to exist in the future.

               Transcendence presents a fascinating story about the scientist Will, played by Johnny Depp, who has dedicated his life to investigating the concept of artificial intelligence — “The theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages” (Oxford Dictionary, web) — and about his main invention – the PINN(a Physically Independent Neural Network)  — “one of those supermachines with sleek surfaces, blinking lights and pulsating menace” (Dargis, p. 1). In the movie there is a group of people that are against the technological progress called “Revolutionary Independence From Technology — RIFT”. They claim that “Artificial intelligence is an unnatural abomination and a threat to humanity” (Transcendence, film). One of their members  shot Will with a bullet that have been laced with isotope called polonium, which cause a radiation poisoning. The only way for the scientist’s wife Evelyn, played by Rebecca Hall, to keep her husband somehow present in her life was to risk and experiment – to solve the dilemma – the impossibility to program a PINN machine to be self-aware, distinguish between right and wrong and to demonstrate loyalty — by using an existing mind, by uploading Will’s consciousness into it. She managed to do that, but all their colleagues and afterwards, everyone involved in creating PINN began to fear its endless power forgetting about the benefits it could offer to the society.

               The PINN has many advantages. The computer shown to us in Transcendence could create miracles: “Intelligent machines will soon allow us… to conquer our most intractable challenges. Not merely to cure disease, but to end poverty and hunger. To heal the planet. And build a better future for all of us” (Transcendence, film). There is still a lot that could be improved in our world: yet we do not know how to cure cancer, HIV, how to become immortal, how to prevent natural disasters, etc. It will take us a lot of time to find out, but the solutions to these problems will finally be found and  at the cost of time, many lives will be lost. PINN does not need that much time it just needs internet connection.  Its main advantage is the speed with which it could find the cure-all. It has the abilities to improve the ecosystem, stimulate forests regrowth and pureness of water with the produced particles that join the air currents building themselves out of pollutants. In a short amount of time it can save the world from all the problems we previously had including the scarcity of the resources and global warning. It can cure all the diseases with the help of nanotechnology that targets the damaged cells, repairs and regenerates them. It can quickly provide us with everything we might dream of.

          Despite of all the assets it has, PINN has its biggest disadvantage: it needs to grow, at the beginning it settles in the place where it is safe from outside threats and where its massive appetite for power can be met, further on the survival is not enough anymore. As we see in the progression of the film, it expands, evolves and influences the entire world. There is one capability of PINN that scared people in the movie so much that they destroyed the machine, not fearing to create a condition hardly possible for living – it is able not only to enhance people, but also to modify and network them. Like this, they remain autonomous, but they can also act in unison, have a collective mind. The machine can control and rule people, it can kill them or revive them to live. Moreover, it can  detect all our thoughts and feelings, except for those human emotions that contain illogical conflict.

            In Limitless we witness a story of a writer Eddie Morra, played by Bradley Cooper, who’s life changes completely after he discovers smart drugs called NZT. This nootropics allow him to enhance his intelligence, to finish the book he is writing and to easily earn money. This story is not only about intelligence, but it is also about the power. Eddie, who feels like he is completely powerless and useless in the world, becomes the epitome of success. With the help of NZT he turns out to be a perfect version of himself.

          The advantage of NZT is its effect on the brain activity. It makes you discover a greater clarity of mind, helps you concentrate on difficult material and understand it more easily. “You start seeing connections that eluded you before. Your mind is able to recall facts, names, and concepts just when you need them. You are able to sprinkle your conversation with witty remarks and poignant anecdotes. Your experiences seem more vivid. When you listen to music you perceive layers of structure and a kind of musical logic to which you were previously oblivious…” – You become a super human, almost a robot, there is no more happiness in completing a task, it is now just an automatic action. However, you still live in the same world, you still have all the same habits — “…You continue to find the gossip magazines you used to read amusing, albeit in a different way than before; but you discover that you can get more out of reading Proust and Nature. You begin to treasure almost every moment of life; you go about your business with zest; and you feel a deeper warmth and affection for those you love, but you can still be upset and even angry on occasions where upset or anger is truly justified” (More, Max, and Natasha Vita-More, p. 5) .

            Besides the positive elements that they have, both ideas of artificial intelligence and cognitive enhancement have their own dangers and side-effects, though unlike in Transcendence they are not shown in Limitless: “What we call a “problem” is likely to expand to follow these new expectations. For example, new expectations for human productivity might one day mean that it is now a problem that it takes me three years instead of three months to write a book, or that I cannot remember everything that I read, or that I have to “waste” eight hours a day sleeping. By removing all the warnings, films like Limitless encourage viewers to keep pressing on biotechnology to give them, finally, the edge they deserve. As the Canadian philosopher George Grant observed, when technology solves one problem, it creates another, which it is then obliged to turn to technology to solve, and so on. This story of ever-increasing expectations for biotechnology is, perhaps, the only thing that is certain to be limitless” (Michaelmas, web). In other words, it is very dangerous to eliminate the fact that pills like NZT usually cause addiction, which leads not only to the reliability on the drug, but to the unhappiness with the reality. Even though in the film Eddie finds a harmless substitution for NZT and his brain activity still maintains the same enhanced level, in the reality it would not happen that way: when an individual would stop taking NZT it would prevent him from being perfect and probably affect his health and his intelligence abilities in a very negative way. How awful should it be suddenly to stop being perfected, how stupid must you feel when you cannot remember even half of the information you knew, when you where taking the drug. – This is what we should be aware of imagining the possibility of a future with that kind of pills.

         One obvious weakness of artificial intelligence, and particularly PINN is that it would stop working without internet, whereas the effect of pills does not depend on wifi. From this perspective NZT is much better as it gives humans the ability to gain knowledge in infinite amounts from anywhere. However, PINN has a positive influence on the society and the world, whereas NZT only benefits the individual that is taking it.

               Nevertheless, it is very hard to terminate the machine with intelligence or to stop taking pills that cause an addiction. We see in the film what happens after PINN is destroyed: “Once the virus executes, it wipes out anything with the machine’s code on it. This affects every computer connected to the Internet. So the power grids, the banks, the stock markets. Everything goes dark” (Transcendence, film). — It is almost an end of the world, we would not want this to happen in the reality.

            There are some ethical and religious aspects of the ideas presented in both films. There should be a reason why human brains work as they do, why we do not use their full potential. NZT could give people a chance to become perfect, so a very well-known phrase that is so anchored in our cultures “No one is perfect” will not exist anymore. This would be a society where everyone would be an ideal version of themselves, but as we know from our history, one can hardly exist without a balance: rich vs poor, strong vs weak, smart vs stupid…  One of the issues that Transcendence raises is either creating or becoming a God. However, neither of these ideas could ever be appreciated by the religious people since they believe that there already is a God. “While many transhumanists concede that there may be upper limits to cognitive enhancement, or side effects to certain drugs, they never consider the deleterious effects that the desire to be all onall the time might have on people. The effect of this desire is a metaphysical issue, not a scientific one, an issue that St. Augustine noticed back in 397AD: soul should thank God for its limits, because the limits teach that what  soul really desires is God himself. God is the only limitless being. What people want more than God is a god-like existence. Power is made perfect in weakness, people will go on aiming to be stronger, smarter, and limitless. We will continue to have the attitude—and results—that F. Scott Fitzgerald noticed nearly one hundred years ago:

“It eluded us then, but that is no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning — So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (Michaelmas, web).

        There is evidence that some ideas about the intelligence evolution that are discussed in this paper may soon become real. “There are drugs like this already. Provigil and Adderall and others. NZT is like that times a thousand. It is completely turbocharged” (Interview: Neil Burger). The situation with artificial intelligence is much more complicated – we still do not know how our consciousness works, therefore it is hard to invent a machine which will be self-aware, except by uploading an existing mind into it like in the film. The main difficulty with that would be choosing whose consciousness to upload. As examined previously, the machine cannot only improve our ecological situation, cure all the diseases and create a perfect world, but also it can connect people to the network and control them, therefore create an army. So the decisions that would be made by the machine would be affected by the character of  a person that was uploaded into it. It is very risky to give someone such a pervasive power and the ability to do absolutely everything.

           A very important factor in the discussion of the possible ways in which the idea of intelligence may evolve in the future is the consideration that all the great innovations that changed human history were discovered by humans — the most intelligent species on the planet of Earth. There were times when there was no electricity, planes, cars, computers, no mobile phones, radios or tvs. Everything was created by humans, therefore we have no reason to be unhappy with our intellectual abilities. If the world of our future is the world populated with human beings, we must know that: “The danger is a future where doctors are technicians, not physicians. Machines are meant to aid the human mind, not supplant it” (Transcendence, film). We cannot create anything greater than ourselves, otherwise that will end our own existence. Therefore, the invention of PINN by a human being seems impossible, however the intelligence enhancement pills are possible to create. Though “the biggest problem with the idea of cognitive enhancement may not be in the technology itself, but in its promise. In overvaluing speed, energy, productivity, and perception, it devalues the quotidian and banal reality we have to live with every day, regardless of what drugs we may take or gadgets we may use” (Michaelmas, web). As the time goes by, we have to decide if we want to save our human qualities and if we want to communicate with each other and keep any type of relations between people, if we want to progress remaining in the societal structure we are used to or if we want to become super humans or robot-like and have the ability to do anything we would want to, without any limits and, consequently, without any purposes.

Thank you for your attention,

Viola Syutkina

The metamorphose of your life: a) If you were not yet aware of the possible future with the artificial intelligence — now you are! b) If you watched the films Limitless and Transcendence this essay allowed you to find out more about these movies and see how they can be compared. c) If you did not see these films — now you can either supplement your impression with watching them or just be aware of some of the contemporary popular movies, knowing that your taste is quite the contrary to these two .

Works cited:

«Artificial Intelligence.» : Definition of in Oxford Dictionary (American English) (US). N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2014.

Dargis, Manohla. «I Am My Own Monster (Technology Rules!).» n.d.: n. pag. The New York Times. The New York Times, 17 Apr. 2014. Web. 21 Nov. 2014.

Gergen, Kenneth J.. Social Construction in Context. London, GBR: SAGE Publications Ltd. (UK), 2001. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 30 November 2014.

«Intelligence.» : Definition of in Oxford Dictionary (British & World English). N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.

«Interview: Neil Burger.» Shave Magazine. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2014. 

Impossible: Neil Burger’s Limitless.» Reaching for the Impossible: Neil Burger’s Limitless. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.

Michaelmas 2011 (Vol LXXV, No. 1, Pp 25-29). Christina Bieber Lake. «Reaching for the Impossible: Neil Burger’s Limitless.» Reaching for the Impossible: Neil Burger’s Limitless. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2014.

More, Max, and Natasha Vita-More. The Transhumanist Reader Classical and Contemporary Essays on the Science, Technology, and Philosophy of the Human Future. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Print.

Transcendence. Dir. Wally Pfister. Perf. Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman. 2014. DVD.

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