Rx for the Singularity.

Saw Limitless the other day, the first evening I’ve been out on the town since Fleshfest laid me low. I liked it. It’s one of those interstitial movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: an exploration of the ramifications of new technology (hence Sfnal by definition), but close enough to reality to pose as mainstream (in fact, given the number of academics already using brain-boosters of one sort or another, maybe it’s not just posing). There are no visual effects beyond some mildly hallucinogenic sound and camera work used to convey a sense of heightened awareness, and a kick-ass opening title sequence that’s worth about a third the price of admission on its own (think of a turbocharged trip up Broadway after nightfall, followed by a sudden left turn into the folds of a cerebral cortex and a freefall from low Earth orbit, all rendered a la the light trip at the end of 2001).

What there is, in place of FX, is a question: what happens when (not if) somebody cooks up a little clear pill that boosts your brainpower?

It’s a modest miracle at best. It doesn’t turn Mike Huckabee into Stephen Hawking, doesn’t boost intelligence per sé at all. It just gives you instant, context-sensitive access to all the memories you thought you’d forgotten (by elevating receptivity and synaptic sharing between the hippocampus, the amygdale and the striatum, among other things; (the faux-website pushing this drug is a thing of beauty). What do you do you with that?

Well, it helps if you’re smart to begin with. If you’re a small-time loan shark who’s a few nerves short of a nose, you may move up to silver suits and import-export hustles. If you’re an aspiring novelist plagued by writer’s block, you write a masterpiece in four days, find yourself getting as much sex as you ever dreamed about, and then — suddenly hyperaware that only losers sit around writing novels — you quit the whole fiction thing entirely and make a killing in the stock market.

It’s as though the whole damn movie was mocking me. Except it was written by a writer. It’s almost meta.

Limitless has its limits. I’m getting tired of shows that start in the middle and then jump back to the beginning — as if the screenwriter doesn’t trust herself to keep us interested during the set-up, so she shoehorns a taste of the Upcoming Good Stuff to keep us from walking out — and in this case, she should have had more confidence in her own craft. I found the set-up plenty interesting without the Coming Attractions (although granted, I may be anomalously fond of stories about pathetic losers trying to write novels and failing miserably).

There are a few glitches in the plot. I’ve never taken so much as a single tab of NZT, and I can still tell you that the first task I’d be applying my augmented faculties to would be to figure out how to get more of the stuff; it’s an insight that takes surprisingly long to dawn on Eddie Mora. And I’m dubious that the extremes to which our hero goes to get that one last boost during the climax would actually work; no spoilers, but the idea is sufficiently clever in an over-the-top kinda way that I’m willing to give it a pass for sheer audacity. Limitless is not a brilliant movie — Eternal Sunshine kicks its ass — but it’s a smart one, and it plays capably with its ideas. On a landscape dominated by shapeshifting cars and blue cat people who talk like extras from The Lone Ranger, it’s a breath of fresh air.

It hasn’t been wowing the critics a whole lot. Some like it. Some say it could have been smarter, which is true. But I get the sense that the haters out there aren’t reacting to the movie’s moves so much as its message. Because we’re still fighting a War on Drugs, don’tcha know; and dadburn it, Martha, all this synaptic mumbo-jumbo just ain’t natural. A movie that actually comes down in favor of mind-altering drugs? A movie that suggests that such things could make the world a better place? Why, that would be like showing a teenage girl having sex and not ending up pregnant and diseased. It’s not the kind of message everyone wants to hear.

As for me, I’m fine with it. I’m just worried that when the time comes, I won’t be able to get a prescription for the Singularity.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Monday March 28 2011at 05:03 pm , filed under ink on art . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

32 Responses to “Rx for the Singularity.”

  1. That sounds fairly good. I was wondering if it was worthwhile. Thanks.

  2. Hey Peter, did you ever see “Primer”? Super low budget (~$6000) time travel movie written, directed and starred-in by an engineer. It hurt my brain, but in a good way. Confusing, totally geeky and with poor sound, but If you can get a copy, I recommend it.

    Good luck with the leg and thanks for posting those horrifying photos!

  3. Ahh, the Great and Holy WOD. Where would we be without it? What possible alternative use could we have for all those billions of dollars, those tens of thousands of law enforcement operatives, all those prison cells?

    Well, never mind.

    Thanks for the head’s up. I’ll take a look at this one when it comes out down here, Down Under.

  4. Love the fine print on the website: “We are not responsible if you die”.

  5. Weird. I haven’t seen it yet, but the plot points (person takes mind-improving drugs, takes more and more) you mention remind me a lot of a story I read a while ago… Could have been in comic form? Maybe by Warren Ellis? Maybe Grant Morrison? Hm. I should go look for that.

  6. My first reaction was: this reminds me of the Ted Chiang story I just read (Understand), but the differences seem bigger than the similarities. Actually the first I have heard about the film, I’ll keep an eye out for it now.

  7. @Peter: Good to see you out and about. Bipedalism strikes again! (Or are you still hopping?)

    @Dirk: It’s playing now in the City of the Bridge , but be quick.

    Dunno if I’d enjoy this one; I’d be too busy looking for all the genre references: (John Brunner, Daniel Keyes, Ted Chiang (thanks Joris))…

  8. The movie sounds interesting – but I’ve seen the poster lately and the thing they did with Polish title is just… weird. “Jestem Bogiem”. ‘I am God’. (not even ‘I am a god’, mind you). I think the distributor is striving for free advertisement for being ‘offensive’. (Not to mention it sounds quite similar to that ‘I am number four’ flick…) Sweet.

    Also – advance booking of Polish edition of ‘Starfish’ just started. No complains here – translation seems solid and cover art’s nice. Shame it’s only about fifty of us living here in Poland – it seems more but it’s just us – changing clothes all the time.

  9. Now that we’re talking films, I wonder if you’ve ever seen Gattaca. IMDB provides the following short synopsis: “A genetically inferior man assumes the identity of a superior one in order to pursue his lifelong dream of space travel.”

    If you’ve seen it, would you care to share your thoughts on it? (That goes not just for Peter, but for everyone here on the ‘crawl.

  10. Glad to hear you’ve finally gotten to get out of the house.

    As for the film, this one slipped under my radar. Might seek it out. But I read a similar Ted Chiang story (not at his best, in fact the weakest in the collection) years ago, and I’m struck by how this story sounds like the enhanced folks focus in on earning lots of money, when in the Chiang story they had larger goals in mind . . .

    @Waldheri As for Gattaca, I wasn’t particularly inspired, although that may be more due to the look and feel and cruddy acting than anything else. In terms of ideas, I imagine any way highly placed members of society find to construct an underclass to mistreat, they will . . . *sigh* This is admittedly based on a dim memory of seeing it on VHS or DVD shortly after it came out.

  11. @ Waldheri – I saw Gattaca, and thought of it as stealth sci fi – beautifully shot with pretty people to lure the rubes in, and then, hey, is this a story about the direction genetics might be heading and what it’ll mean? Oh, hey, look isn’t Ethan Hawke gorgeous?

    It’s also kind of a Shakespearean tragedy, in that every main character is young and impulsive, love strikes without warning and with no remedy but to follow it no matter the consequences.

    Possible spoilers****
    At the end, where we see two characters gaining their bliss via fire, and the camera focusses on Law’s face, I cried a little. It was like a good Shakespearean release- about how a life well lived is in some senses, tragedy.

    What was Gore Vidal doing in it, the old devil. It was kind of jolting. I took it to mean either, the producer was a friend of his, or it was to add to the metaphor – he was once young and beautiful and followed his bliss no matter where it led, and now is old and watches the younger generations as they repeat the pattern. Kind of where the characters in the story might be headed, if they can live through it?

  12. Wasn’t too pulled in by the trailers but today I see two blog posts about it, first one going in depth into that awesome opening sequence you describe, and now you, so I guess it’s worth giving a chance.

  13. The fact that it furthers the “humans only use 20% of their brain” myth was enough to make me never want to see the movie. Maybe I’ll have to reconsider. Maybe.

  14. Gregorio: Loved Primer. As I recall they had a cool 2-for-1 promotional gimmick for their theatrical release, which played off the complexity of the plot: pay for one showing, see it again later for free.

    Waldheri: Loved Gattaca when I saw it (incidentally, they had a similar faux-Pharma ad campaign: full-page ads in the local newspapers advertising “designer babies” and giving a 1-800 number to call to place an order). I regarded it as a movie that deserved a second viewing. And yet, I’ve never seen it again; not in the theater, not on DVD, not even bittorrent. Whenever the opportunity arose I just wasn’t in the mood. Take that for what it’s worth.

    Nick: I don’t think it does further that myth. It shows someone saying “you know you only use 20% of your brain”, but after all, people say stuff like that all the time. I don’t think the movie was advocating a myth so much as using a common misconception as a touchpoint.

  15. “humans only use 20% of their brain”

    That’s such a myth, the truth is: border guards have only 20% of the brain capacity that normal people have. 🙂

    Sounds like a cool movie though, trailer was semi-interesting. Sounds like a reverse Brave New World. Was thinking about this a lot a few years back while pondering my own (I feel rather lacking) memory. I did a short investigation into brain stimulating drugs to see if I could read books while on it to remember more of them (I wanted to recall everything in Jared Diamond’s epic trilogy of books for sake of debating environmentalism and conservation with “let’s plunder and rape this bitch dry!” folks…), but found no dugs without side-effect, (obviously). Hence, nothing came of it, not sure that I would if it had.

    Anyways, good to hear you’re getting out ever so often, sir! Great news.

  16. @Marek Krysiak, “changing clothes all the time.

    It’s the only way to get the time machine to work.

    @Waldheri, “I wonder if you’ve ever seen Gattaca

    I saw bits of it, but it failed to run a current through my nipple clamps.

  17. I think a 5-for-1 deal would have been more appropriate for Primer. How about Inception? Much prettier, but a similar idea. How about a Primer remake by Christopher Nolan? And surely he’d be the one to direct Blindsight?

    Primer timeline, I think I’ll print this out and watch it again: http://neuwanstein.fw.hu/primer_timeline.html

  18. @Branco Collin, “It’s the only way to get the time machine to work.”

    Don’t even get me started on damn time machines. I still remember that one time when some guy looking like Guy Pearce came out of my closet screaming something about ‘more locks’. I’ve always thought one lock is more than enough for a closet…

  19. Joris and Val mentioned a Ted Chiang story. Hormone K was also the first thing to come to my mind. The story is “Understand”, and it appears here: http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/stories/under.htm . It’s my favorite Chiang story, and well worth a read.

  20. Thanks for the review, Peter; I look forward to seeing the movie. On the subject of Gattaca, I reckon it’s got one of the best lines in all of cinema: “I won because I saved nothing for the way back.” Gets me every time. Also, it has the smartest title for a major reease film that I’ve ever heard.

  21. Am I the only one who didn’t think Gattaca was exactly a dystopic?
    That widespread and sane use of eugenics would make sense? Especially these days when automation is making employing the not-so-bright harder and harder. Especially in places that don’t have rock bottom wages.

    Not that it’ll ever be put into practice, though. By the time it’ll be understood enough(mid 21st century?) people are probably going to be busy wiring artificial neural networks into their brains and using technology to make up for deficient genes.

    Is there some sf that takes on the problem of what’s going to happen with all the people who won’t be employable when manual labour and low-skilled jobs are easier to fill with humanoids robots built in China running IBM software on what today would be a miniaturised water-cooled supercomputer?

  22. Am I the only one [who thinks] That widespread and sane use of eugenics would make sense?

    The Klan is onboard with that idea, so no need to feel alone.

    On the off chance that you aren’t trolling here – and the hope springs eternal in the human breast – I would like to gently point out the inherent dangers of “purifying” the human race.

    1. Many traits are not bad or good, but just adapted to an environment which currently exists or doesn’t. E.g., fat people are adapted for low-carb environments which don’t exist right now. If we scrub that from the gene pool, and there is long-term famine, we don’t have that genetic reserve of people who can survive it.

    2. Even with great hoopla about machines replacing people, when it comes to certain types of services, people prefer human interaction, and as it becomes rarer, will pay more to get it. Personal service will become more valuable, human-crafted items will become more toney.
    It’s already happening – you can get a machine stitched quilt for 100 bucks, or a completely hand-stitched one from the Amish for 700. So you see rich folks buying the hand-worked ones, and the middle class going to JCPenney for the machine-stitched.

    Just a thought, mind you.

  23. I’ve always thought one lock is more than enough for a closet.

    We live and learn.

    sane use of eugenics

    As opposed to the insane use of eugenics?

  24. @Hjol… never mind

    Eugenics doesn’t mean ‘purifying’. It simply means well-born and although the word has very unpleasant connotations due to Nazi and other misuse* it doesn’t have to be either about sterilizing or killing the retarded or undesirable minorities but by people volunteering to have their progeny altered.

    As opposed to the insane use of eugenics?
    Does Aktion-T4 mean anything to you? That was called ‘eugenics’ too.

    If we scrub that from the gene pool, and there is long-term famine, we don’t have that genetic reserve of people who can survive it.

    Surviving famine isn’t about being fat, it’s about having food. People with suppressed guns, night vision goggles, deep freezers and good covert butchering skills certainly won’t go hungry.
    Besides, barring a rapid spread of some multi-species pathogen that’d wipe out most agriculture there’s no flipping chance of dire famine. That is one where people actually don’t have anything to eat. In industrialized countries at least. And I’m not planning to live anywhere else.

    No one suggested completely removing certain genes. Though I can see how the gluttonous would be tempted to do so.

    Personal service will become more valuable, human-crafted items will become more toney.

    And you think this craft nonsense is gonna soak up all the superfluous workforce?

  25. I took the NZT Intelligence Test. Apparently, I’m using only 12% of my brain. Which isn’t that surprising really. After all, I’m just a dumbass, Luddite woodworker, who uses Iron Age hand tools, and nineteenth century machinery to work in a material that is becoming more and more rare. What really worries me though, is that now I won’t qualify for the Dr. Watts Science Badge and secret decoder ring.
    By the way, I finished reading Legion, and I have to say, that was the most exhausting book I’ve ever read. It has more action than all the Richard K. Morgan novels combined. Your black humour and science were the definite high points. Now, I’m re-reading all your novels just to get a real fix.

  26. I never said eugenics couldn’t be done without killing people, just eugenics is a bad dea because

    – you can’t tell how certain traits are linked to other useful traits and
    – you can’t tell what traits will be useful in the future.

    Famine and fat people is just an example of traits that were very adaptive in the past, not so much now.

    Eugenics is unwise because the underlying idea is to narrow the gene pool according to some rule or aesthetic. Because monocultures have proven such a good idea?

    there’s no flipping chance of dire famine.

    There is always a chance of famine; it’s the rule, not the exception, that populations wax and wane according to predation, plague, famine, water shortage, and in the case of mankind, war. Unless you’re a proponent of human exceptionalism.

  27. – you can’t tell what traits will be useful in the future.

    Being able to drink milk had been such a “new” evolutionary feature (about 7500 years old). Made it possible to eat the cow at least twice …


    There is always a chance of famine; it’s the rule, not the exception, that populations wax and wane according to predation, plague, famine, water shortage, and in the case of mankind, war. Unless you’re a proponent of human exceptionalism.

    Or — from individual point of view — simply getting ill. Have you heard about the obesity paradoxon?


  28. – you can’t tell how certain traits are linked to other useful traits and
    – you can’t tell what traits will be useful in the future.

    How’s that different to the greenpeace position that nuclear power is *baaad* mmkay and we shouldn’t mess with it because our puny ape brains just aren’t good enough to handle the tech?

    Or saying that if God intended us to fly he’d have given us wings.

    And one trait everyone fucking agrees is adaptable is general intelligence. Contrary to what some people believe it has a major portion that’s inheritable.

    And you can even see in Jews the effects of crudely performed intelligence enhancement. Ashkenazis got about 30% of all Nobel prizes( or just those for physics) and reportedly have average IQ’s of 115. Coincidentally they do suffer from many genetic disease that are thought to be connected to their higher intelligence. (and of course said enhancement was most likely the result of medieval restrictions on Jews.. they couldn’t farm in most of Europe but only trade and that meant canny traders could have large families while the stupid ones couldn’t)

    As to not being able to tell what will be useful in the future… that’s bunk. Same as saying we shouldn’t develop any technology because we don’t know what we’re gonna need.

    Increasing human genetic diversity by tinkering with the genome can only increase human abilities. Or even that’s not exactly needed. Suppose we knew how to clone humans safely. Would it be a crime to clone Feynman twenty times hoping that at least a few of the clones grow up to be that brilliant? Sure it’d decrease genetic diversity but as long as it wasn’t widespread (and it wouldn’t be cause it’d be expensive most likely) the overall effect on diversity would be negligible.
    And don’t tell me there’s a surplus of top level physicists or engineers.

  29. Or — from individual point of view — simply getting ill. Have you heard about the obesity paradoxon?

    That is some weird stuff! Thanks for the information. I had read somewhere that after a certain age, an extra 20 pounds or so predicted more remaining years of life, but I was unaware that wasting diseases, heart diseases or renal dialysis killed more slowly in the pudgy. Really interesting.

    Aussenseiter is just trolling now, so I think I’ll let his “counterpoints” pass on by.

  30. All I know of Limited (ha.) is a review that states that in one scene, the main character uses the increased power of his mind to throw something at someone…oh, and that the movie was beaten to the big brain idear by a CG cartoon called, I think, ‘Max Power.’ So, throwing something at someone…not even worth a download. But that’s what I think if Hollywood these days-so utterly shitty, that 99% of the movies made aint even worth a download. Some of the trailers I don’t bother watching all the way through. Source Code? Yeah, Groundhog Day for the sci fi set-ye gods, but I hates movies what return to the same scene again and again.

    Primer though, that one was cool.

  31. Kick-ass, I found that the authors of a report on the ethics and risks of autonomous robots also publishes other reports, one of which is on the ethics of human enhancement.

    It’s in a pdf linked on the page of the Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group @ Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.

    (I had meant to post a link to that group in a comment in the crawl related to to the Legion book, but it got losted. but it fits here too)

    Haven’t seen the movie yet. It’s showing near me though. I’m way behind on movie watching.

  32. Interesting papers, thanks.