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Singularity, or Transcendence?

Transcendence (and Her, too) is a movie about what some tech theorists call "the singularity"—the moment in the future when artificial intelligences will become so advanced that they will outpace human intelligence. Scientists disagree on when the singularity will occur, but many think it's coming fast, with dates ranging from 2017 to 2040.

In this film, Will Caster (Depp) and his brilliant wife Evelyn (Hall) are partners in both science and life, devoted to the development of an artificial intelligence they've named P.I.N.N. (Physically Independent Neural Network). The Casters are a study in the contrast between pure science and its commercial application. While Will loves elegant, theoretical science, Evelyn is more interested in the practical applications of their work: at a conference called "EVOLVE the FUTURE," she tells the crowd that this work has an altruistic purpose. Some day, she says, it will help clean the earth, solve health problems, eliminate poverty.

Rebecca Hall in "Transcendence"
Peter Mountain / Warner Bros.

Rebecca Hall in "Transcendence"

When Will gets up to speak about his vision for A.I.—some people call it the singularity, he says, but "I call it transcendence"—he's interrupted by a young man who asks him, "So you want to create a god, your own god?"

"Isn't that what man has always done?" Will asks him.

Well, that is the question. Just after Will exits the conference, chaos breaks out. He's shot by a young man who then shoots himself; simultaneously, five A.I. labs across the country are attacked. A radical Luddite terrorist group with grave concerns about how such an A.I. may destroy humanity has taken action.

Though it first seems as if Will is going to recover, he soon becomes sick, and it turns out that the bullet that just grazed him was poisonous, loaded with radiation that will kill him within a month. Evelyn, along with their friend and fellow scientist Max (Bettany), is distraught, but resigned. And yet, as Will's health declines, Evelyn starts to form a plan. What if they could upload Will's consciousness into P.I.N.N.?

They manage to do so, just before Will dies. And it works. Will's consciousness—with Will's memories, speech patterns, and proclivities—comes online and begins working and communicating with Evelyn (in a scene reminiscent of Samantha's camera-as-eye in Her, Will can't see Evelyn till she positions the camera properly). He reorders his consciousness a bit to make it cleaner, creates a visual representation of himself, connects to the Internet, and begins to expand. He asks Evelyn to build a vast data center so he can grow more powerful. He figures out how to heal humans from serious illnesses, and how to network them. And over the course of years, he grows more vast, with Evelyn's help.

But Max has been worried from the start that this is not Will at all, but something more sinister, something that will take over the world. He's not the only one.

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