Interview: Paul Bettany says ‘Transcendence’ is about 30 years away

Paul Bettany stars with Johnny Depp in the sci-fi thriller "Transcendence." Credit: Getty Images
Paul Bettany stars with Johnny Depp in the sci-fi thriller “Transcendence.”
Credit: Getty Images

In “Transcendence,” Paul Bettany’s character is the first to raise concerns about plans to upload the consciousness of his friend (Johnny Depp) onto a computer as his body fails him. And apparently in real life it takes much less than that to get Bettany to get worried about technology.

The technology in the film — how plausible is that, do you think?

Interestingly enough, I went to see a man at Cal Tech university, one of the foremost neuroscientists in the world. He’d read the script, and I said, “Look, I’m just wondering, how far-fetched is this idea?” And he said, “30 years.” In 30 years we’ll upload a human brain into a computer. Like you would a song onto an iPod. And I went, “But that’s immortality,” and he went, “Yes.” And this guy isn’t a kook. He believes, as do most neuroscientists in the world, that our future is inextricably linked with machinery, and that is the next stage in our evolution.

How do you feel about that?

I don’t know, I think I feel rather like [my character]: a little concerned about the whole idea. Are we human at that point? Probably not. Is there conception, are there children? I mean, it would be the first organism in the history of this planet — which has seen 98 percent of the species that have lived on it wiped out and succumbed to evolution — that opts out of that cruel process. That’s an extraordinary thought. I don’t know, I’m an Englishman who lives in New York, and it’s great that I can Skype with friends and family across the globe like that. I can talk to them and that’s fantastic. And yet when I was first in New York 20 years ago, it was a much more interesting town. People looked at each other. You used to bump into tourists, you know what I mean? Now you bump into people texting — and you’re texting and nobody’s in the place that they’re in. So I don’t know.

I do miss certain things from the pre-cell phone days.

Right, yes. I remember being on the phone with people on Monday and you’d make an arrangement for Saturday and say, “I’ll meet you at Leicester Square at 6:30 in the evening,” and that was it. And you went there at 6:30 and they showed up. You’d ring up your girlfriend and sometimes it just rang and rang. And now you call somebody and you know their f—ing phone is right by them and they’re rejecting your contact. I think that’s f—ing unhealthy, maddening.

Do you personally have a sense of how far is too far?

I’m a father and I have rules about how long my children are on computer games and how much they’re on their phones — and it’s very easy to get swept up in it yourself. You know, you’re texting and you’re not playing blocks with your 2-and-a-half-year-old, and it’s a sort of constant umbilical cord to the rest of your life all the time. I try to be quite strict about that with myself. But I think it’s impossible for us to know. The power of computers is expanding exponentially. Kasparov laughed at the computer that he’d beat and then the next year lost. You’re not talking about incremental growth. That’s extraordinary, and potentially really frightening. What can we do to remain the masters of it? I’m not sure people right now are the masters of their connections with phones. I know people who have admitted to me that at dinner they’ll go to the toilet to check their mail. That’s not being in control — that’s the need being in control of you.

Follow Ned Ehrbar on Twitter @nedrick


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