Could ‘Transcendence’ Actually Happen?

Senior Contributor
04.17.14 18 Comments

Tomorrow, we’ll get a look at Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, a movie that sounds suspiciously like The Lawnmower Man in the broad strokes. But of course, part of the fun is seeing whether the movie is scientifically possible. Here are the big ideas, and whether or not they’d actually work.

Uploading A Human Being Into A Computer

Possible?: Nope!

Why?: The problem here isn’t a matter of space or computer power, at least in theory. The problem is in the brain itself and how it’s constructed.

For example, in theory, the brain has only a few gigabytes of space, but how it’s constructed means that you’re really packing 2.5 petabytes in your noggin. And it’s that construction that’s the key problem.

Essentially, the most highly educated and experience neuroscientist in the world can’t tell you why we sleep, and why not sleeping will kill you. As for simulating what sleep is in a digital environment, forget it.

Even if we did know all that, we’d need to build a digital environment that functions exactly like our brains. Currently neural networks are impressive from a computing perspective, but laughably primitive compared to our own brains.

Essentially, uploading a human being’s brain to a computer is decades, possibly centuries away.

An Uploaded Human Would Quickly Go Insane

Possible?: Try “100% Guaranteed”, at least in the short term.

Why?: Essentially, the brain does not like being scooped out of the skull. Even if your consciousness was only “copied”, it would be as if your brain was cut off completely from your body. Loss of almost all sensation has never ended well in a lab environment, and it’s difficult to believe uploading a mind would be any different.

Nanotechnology Will Heal Us All!

Possible?: Kind of, although not necessarily to the degree you’d think.

Why?: This is already happening, to some degree. Nanomedicine, first of all, is a rapidly growing field, using nanoparticles to treat cancer patients, for example.

But what the movie proposes is molecular nanobots running wild in your body, fixing things and making you not just healthy again, but actually stronger. That’s a bit more questionable. First of all, nanotechnology can actually be dangerous to be around. Secondly, it’s not clear how these machines, which don’t exist yet, would get the raw material; it has to come from somewhere, after all.

Also, add in the risk of an immune reaction, and you’ve got a technology not ready for prime time.

We Can Be Controlled With Chips In Our Brains!

Possible?: Haaaaaa, NO.

Why?: First of all, brain implants are actually fairly commonplace. They’re used to treat Parkinson’s, stimulate the cortex, and so on. What they can’t do, however, is make you do things like a puppet on a string.

Brainwashing is a fun idea for movies, but the reality is, it doesn’t work and never has. The myth got started back during the Korean War, but when the military investigated it, it turns out that if you play on somebody’s emotions and insecurities, you can trick them into saying stuff. The soldiers weren’t mind-controlled, they were fooled: Big difference.

True, we’ve fitted bugs with mind control chips, but that was specifically because bugs have really simple brains that are easy to remove and replace with a few transistors. Hijacking a human brain is a much more complicated concept, and it’s unlikely we’ll be able to make it happen without replacing the brain completely.

So, basically, the movie can’t happen, scientifically. But hey, it can still make for a good story. Transcendence is out tomorrow.

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