Whether it meant to or not, ethics is at the heart of Johnny Depp’s new film, Transcendence. This is the story of Will and Evelyn Caster, a husband and wife team of scientists who are working on the possibility of developing sentient computer systems that would effectively be ‘humanesque’ in nature, except that, as Depp’s character Will puts it, their “analytical power will be greater than the collective intelligence of every person in the history of the world”.

What is being suggested then is something with a capacity for the type of human experiences we have, such as self-reflection, empathy and even love, but without the usual limitations ordinary human beings are subject to. A computer with this range of power would not be too dissimilar to some basic Judeo-Christian notion of a God, infinite and all-knowing. Indeed, it is this worrying aspect which sets off events when Will is accused of attempting to “create a new God” by an anti-technology radical.

Before we know it, (spoilers warning) Will is shot with a lethal bullet coated with a poisonous substance that gives him mere weeks to live. In a desperate attempt to save whatever can be preserved of him, Evelyn and their close friend Max, decide to use Will’s research and upload his mind with all its memories, personality traits and thoughts onto a supercomputer.

Throughout the film, the idea of “transcendence” is being realised through Will who has been given another chance at existence as a disembodied consciousness. As his pool of knowledge grows so does his power and before we know it there is enough money and expertise to begin rapid development in such fields as stem cell research and nanotechnology, exploiting all their potential.

A secret underground facility is built to allow Will to continue his work with its original aim to “understand” the world better, but greater understanding necessarily brings increased possibilities which here include the capacity for healing people and the ecosystem. Naturally, news of this brings hundreds of misery-stricken individuals to seek Will’s help.

The parallel between this scenario and traditional religious accounts of a miracle-performing Being is unmistakable. But none of this matters to the reactionary anti-technology group who have been following Will’s activities this whole time. To them, he is nothing more than a highly evolved machine with the ability to use his power to recast the whole planet in his own image through the development of techno-organic ecosystems and humans with technologically-enhanced uber properties that make them potentially indestructible.

Here though, we stumble on an ethical dilemma. Will’s world is a world in which potentially everything can be healed, but where living organisms can be so altered that it becomes difficult to judge whether they are still the same species.

The reactionaries see his creations as “hybrids” because they are stronger, faster and capable of regeneration through their connection to Will. They believe them to be not fully human, but why so exactly? Arguably, because they think a quintessential portion of their humanity has been lost, but what portion is that?

In an age when nearly everything is questioned, evoking the idea of a Soul can seem immature. Science has made that concept redundant, and religion struggles to define it in a way that can be meaningful to a rational mind. And yet, the film’s implication is that once you take away a human’s natural vulnerability and finitude, very little of what is usually assumed as our humanity remains. These characteristics of our humanness are really the most theoretically neutral way through which any classical idea of a Soul can be reconciled, and plausibly remain the defining features through which purely organic and hybrid creations are distinguished.

The reactionaries have no qualms about killing one of Will’s men even though he pleads with them not to, precisely because they see him as now devoid of the most common elements of humanness and so incapable of possessing anything like a Soul.

Transcendence really is a film “built upon grand ideas” the most basic of which asks us to imagine a world quite different from ours, a world in which there is very little suffering because technology is at such a stage of evolution that it is possible to perform what could presently only be called miracles. It is also however a world presided by a new kind of “God”, perhaps much like Dr. Will Caster. And then the ultimate decision remaining will be, whether the benefits of such a world are worth losing our humanity over?

Right now, more than 35 million people worldwide have HIV/AIDS. There were 6,000 people in the UK between April 2012 and April 2013 waiting for a life-saving kidney transplant. Each year, there are about 8 million cancer deaths in the world. The last 24 years saw the world’s rainforests reduced by half due to deforestation and it is expected that by 2050 there will be no fish left in the sea because of overfishing. Appallingly, one-third of humans have inadequate access to clean water, with a potential rise to two-thirds by 2050.

Quite rightly, the ending leaves the ethics of Transcendence much of an open question. Though the reactionaries have won in their fight against Will, the idea of a world where humans and the environment can be healed is still a very appealing one.

Implicit in the film’s argument for stopping machines from becoming sentient, is the idea that this form of self-awareness can only ever be a perverse attempt to replicate the beauty of the human species. A machine can never be said to have existence in the traditional sense precisely because it lacks the basic characteristics of human organicity, such as fallibility and finitude. Though, when everything is taken into consideration, maybe this is not crucial or even desirable after all.

DISCLAIMER: The articles on our website are not endorsed by, or the opinions of Shout Out UK (SOUK), but exclusively the views of the author.