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UC Berkeley Neuroengineers consultants on movie 'Transcendence' with Johnny Depp

In an April 18, 2014, UC Berkeley press release, "Neuroengineers bring science cred, Berkeley feel to ‘Transcendence’ film" Sally Yang tells how and why Berkeley’s top research scientists became technical consultants for the new film, “Transcendence” which opened in theaters on Friday, April 18, and stars Johnny Depp in the role of the scientist, Will Caster.

UC Berkeley Neuroscientists work on movie Transcendence
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Director Wally Pfister, who won an Oscar for cinematography for the movie “Inception” and a production team met with UC Berkeley engineering professors in December 2012.

They approached the assistant dean and director of information technology at the College of Engineering, Eric Fraser and were shown the key engineering buildings on campus as well as research facilities like the Marvell Nanofabrication Laboratory at Sutardja Dai Hall for an upcoming sci-fi thriller about a brilliant artificial intelligence scientist whose brain is uploaded to a quantum computer.

Frazer introduced Pfister to Michel Maharbiz co-director of the Berkeley Sensor and Actuator Center and the UC Berkeley Swarm Lab, which explores the fusion of synthetic and living organisms, (such as in his projects to create cyborg insects whose movements can be controlled remotely) and fellow colleague Jose Carmena, who has a joint appointment at the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, and is one of the world’s leading experts on brain-machine interfaces. Carmena’s lab is known for seminal contributions to understanding neural plasticity, and how brain and machines can co-adapt to improve the learning and control of neuroprosthetic devices.

The researchers were attracted to the project because of the “unresolved ethical and philosophical questions raised by the movie.”

“The ethical issues go well beyond the field of artificial intelligence,” said Maharbiz. “We delve into the question of how much mixing of humans and machines is acceptable.”

“What is consciousness?” asked Carmena at the campus screening. “We actually don’t really know what it is, or how to define it. We cannot measure it. All we can do is to describe our own subjective experience.”

Are emotions and feelings the key? If so, should science and technology strive to recreate those qualities in the march toward singularity, a point when artificial intelligence surpasses that of humans?

Moreover, when a biological system is being integrated into a computer network, how does one distinguish “what is natural and what is artificial?” Pfister asked.

The researchers examined the script in detail and were flown to Los Angeles to be on set in order to point out errors and flag the more fictional representations of their scientific research.

“I wanted these guys to flag anything that looked really stupid,” said Pfister. “To have them there [on set] was really magical for us. It was like having a security blanket.”

In the movie Johnny Depp plays the role of the scientist, Will Caster who is a 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 also make him the prime target of anti-technology extremists who will do whatever it takes to stop him. For his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and best friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany), both fellow researchers, the question is not if they can...but if they should stop him. Their worst fears are realized as Will's thirst for knowledge evolves into a seemingly omnipresent quest for power.

The movie, “Transcendence,” opened in theaters on Friday, April 18.

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