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Johnny Depp experiments with artificial intelligence in 'Transcendence'

Johnny Depp
Johnny Depp
Warner Bros. Pictures

In the sci-fi thriller “Transcendence,” Dr. Will Caster (played by Johnny Depp) is the foremost researcher in the field of Artificial Intelligence, working to create a sentient machine that combines the collective intelligence of everything ever known with the full range of human emotions. His highly controversial experiments have made him famous, but they have also made him the prime target of anti-technology extremists ((in a group called RIFT) who will do whatever it takes to stop him. However, in their attempt to destroy Will, they inadvertently become the catalyst for him to succeed—to be a participant in his own transcendence, , as his intelligence is uploaded to a supercomputer he helped created called PINN.

Johnny Depp at the Los Angeles premiere of "Transcendence"
Getty Images

For his wife Evelyn (played by Rebecca Hall) and best friend Max Waters (played by Paul Bettany), both fellow researchers, the question is not if they can … but if they should. Their worst fears are realized as Will’s thirst for knowledge evolves into a seemingly omnipresent quest for power, to what end is unknown. The only thing that is becoming terrifyingly clear is there may be no way to stop him. "Transcendence" co-stars Depp, Hall, Bettany, Morgan Freeman and Kate Mara sat down with "Transcendence" director Wally Pfister and "Transcendence" screenwriter Jack Paglen for a press conference in Los Angeles. Here is what they said.

Johnny, when your character Will Caster becomes an image on a TV screen, did you think of the ‘80s TV icon Max Headroom?

Depp: I did feel a little bit like Max Headroom. I guess the worst part is I liked it. I liked being in my little dark room, and they were on the other side. We couldn’t find each other sometimes. It’s all done through videotape and sound. I think this film is essentially about a man chosen by God to grow a long beard, grab a few insects, a couple of animals and know the rest of the world will be slaughtered, but the animals will come to him and follow through.

Pfister: That was Noah.

Depp: That’s Noah? Oh, Noah! Sorry, I was in that one as well. I played Russell Crowe. That beard was a bitch too, seriously.

Your Will Caster character seems to age backwards after he becomes uploaded.

Depp: That’s "[The Curious Case of] Benjamin Button." I was in that one too, as Brad Pitt.

What are your thoughts on artificial intelligence?

Depp: Well, having no intelligence, I’m looking forward to gaining some, whether artificial, superficial or super-duper. I thought there was something very beautiful to Wally’s idea of the disintegration of the character, and to watch him slowly go out. It was well-researched by Wally. Essentially, once he’s inside PINN, he could become anything. Hopefully, one of the things that came across is that he became a little bit brighter and more of a younger version of Will. He became the version of Will that Evelyn wants to see, as opposed to the version that can’t button his shirt correctly.

Will Caster might remind people of Dr. Frankenstein and the Frankenstein monster. Did you take any inspiration from "Frankenstein" for "Transcendence"?

Depp: I didn’t. I wish I had because it would really have been a brilliant thing to say, but I didn’t give it any thought, at all. But in about an hour and a half, it will have been the whole basis, so thanks for that.

Pfister: I think the comparisons were there and were made. It certainly wasn’t part of what I was doing, in making the film. I would throw it to Jack to see whether, as you were crafting the screenplay, f it was in your mind?

Paglen: Frankenstein, as an archetype, was absolutely there. We were very aware of that and stories like that. There are many stories and myths and stuff like that. I looked at and reread all of them.

Jack, how does it feel to have "Transcendence" as your first produced screenplay?

Paglen: Unbelievably cool.

Wally, how does it feel to direct "Transcendence" as a first-time director?

Pfister: Unbelievably cool. It’s thrilling.

Johnny, did you see Will Caster as a bad guy?

Depp: When we did the film, we very closely mapped it out, just to make sure everything came together in the right order, especially for Will. It should be a little vague, as to whether he’s losing it. Is it like any of us? You could make an analogy to a security guard who, three weeks prior, was mowing lawns for a living. The second he puts a uniform on and that badge, he’s a man.

I imagine the majority of us have felt the wrath of the over-zealous security guard guy. Is there something lying dormant in the man, that’s waiting to be pumped up with that kind of power? I don’t know. Does it reveal him? I don’t know. Does it change him? I don’t know.

When Will is in the computer, as he’s growing along with the computer, at this rapid pace, and growing up through PINN, does any bad person think they’re doing bad things? Historically, they all thought they had a pretty decent cause. A few were off by quite a lot, and they were dumb. But I think Will is dedicated to the cause.

Essentially, you're God. There ain’t nothing on Earth more powerful than him. You can do anything you want. You can transfer every cent from the Bank of England into an account in Syria. You can do anything he wants. I think Will was just so focused on the cause, in a way, like Che Guevara. You get too far into it.

Kate, what is your take on technology?

Mara: Well, I’ve been without my phone for the past three hours and I’m sitting here thinking about it right now. I didn’t think I was that reliant on technology, so I can understand a little bit where Bree’s ideas come from in RIFT. I think I'm like a lot of other people, in that I rely a little bit too much on technology, but I fall somewhere in between. I understand the ideas of RIFT but I also understand the opposite as well.

Rebecca, what is your take on technology?

Hall: It’s an interesting topic that the film raises. Technology is arguably the thing that’s going to get us out of a lot of problems. It’s probably our greatest hope in terms of solving everything that’s problematic now in terms of our environment, disease and the rest of it. But equally it’s likely to throw up a whole world of problems that we have no perception or even imagination to anticipate what they could possibly be at this point. It’s complicated but, whether we like it or not, we’re becoming more and more closely integrated with them, so we have to deal with these problems.

Evelyn does everything she can to save Will. Do you think you should do anything for someone you love, or do you think is there a line you shouldn’t cross?

Hall: There probably is a line. I’d like to think that, were I in Evelyn’s shoes, I would think about the moral ramifications of deciding to maintain my husband in cyberspace. But those decisions come out of a place of high emotion, denial and grief, so who knows? The line is a bit difficult to draw in that respect.

Depp: Wally has spoken to a lot of high-up, hoity-toity scientists and scholars, these incredible people. A great bit of the technology is active, is actually happening. The technology we’re talking about in terms of uploading a human consciousness is probably not all that far away, to be honest.

Hall: It’s probably going to happen whether or not we think there are lines or not. They’re all agreed about it happening; they just argue about when it’s going to happen.

Depp: Indeed, it will happen. It’s pretty close.

Paul, you talked to some experts too, right?

Bettany: I spoke to a professor at Cal Tech who is gratifyingly enough called Professor Christoph Koch. He’s a brilliant man. And when I walked into the room. he was also gratifyingly enough looking at a slice of the human brain whilst listening to Wagner. I kid you not.

I said, “Professor Koch?” And he put his hand up like this to finish the aria. I said, “Listen, I’m a blonde actor. I’m not a science guy. I deal with trying to make the unreal things seem real, so what is the truth of this? How far-fetched is this?”

And he said, “Thirty years.” I said, "being able to upload a human consciousness, thoughts, feelings, history in infinitesimal detail?" He said, "Yes."

I said, "But you're talking about immortality." And he said, "Yes." It was all I could remember from the meeting.

I essentially went because when you're an actor playing somebody much brighter than yourself, you're faced with wearing glasses and looking around the room a lot, and furrow your brows and such. I wanted to feel that at least some way I had been diligent.

But it was a terrifying thought that they unified in the opinion that we have always been on a collision course with technology. The next stage of our evolution will involve machinery. And that’s a hell of a thought.

Pfister: One of the questions that I asked the professors, in speaking to them at the different universities, is, “If we were able to do this and take a human consciousness and human mind, and upload it to a super-computer, would it contain emotions, soul and sentients?” And overwhelmingly, they said, “Yes.” If you’re taking every neuron and every synapse from those neurons, and you’re transferring it from this hard drive to this hard drive, over here, in theory, it should contain those.

One of the things that I found most fascinating was that at least one of them also said, “But there is interpretation.” Whoever is doing the actual program and doing the upload, is going to have some affect, as to how that information goes from one machine to another. That gives us some of the gray area in this film to play with.

Bettany: You can presume there can be some deletions.

Pfister: Absolutely! It opens up a lot of fascinating questions. What we hope to do with this movie is create ambiguity, as to whether, if you’re able to do this, is this machine malevolent or benevolent.

Depp: As Rebecca was saying earlier, obviously, technology is moving and reshaping itself, radically, every day. If her character was in that situation, and if the intelligence and technology existed right this second, and she's given the split-second moment, we’re all capable of answering that question within ourselves. Would you do it for the person that you love? Would you be married to a hard drive, essentially?

Hall: This was a thing about how far do you become integrated with machines before you lose what makes us human? Or equally, is becoming integrated with machines the next step, and therefore, by definition, entirely human?

Depp: And just think about because technology is moving so rapidly, things become obsolete very, very quickly. So essentially, in 15 years time, Will Caster is probably going to be in some weird room in Vegas where people are plugging quarters into him. Who has a mini-disc or a laser disc player? It’s over!

Freeman: That was the question of chemistry of life itself that seemed to not be considered in this whole equation. They talk about looking into the eyes of a beautiful woman and falling in love. What happens if you're uploaded? You no longer have the chemistry of life. You have something else. What do you have? Anybody can answer that for me.

Pfister: That leads to desperation, and in each character, there’s a point of desperation. In Evelyn, there’s desperation to have some part of her husband, who’s dying, remain. That’s the desperation that drives her, along with the science and medical applications, to do what she does.

And there’s a point where there’s desperation with Will and the machine, where he’s trying to do anything he can to connect to her. We don’t know whether this machine is sentient or not, but he measures her hormones, which he thinks is making some kind of connection. But to us, as an audience, certainly to Evelyn, that’s quite a desperate level to reach. And that’s what changes the course of her character’s direction. So there are a lot of things to think about, in the question as to whether this machine is sentient or not.

For more info: "Transcendence" website