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warren clements: on demand

As Ray Kurzweil sees it, humans will soon live forever by backing up their brains and will use an implanted computer chip the size of a blood cell to communicate with others just by thinking. These advances will arrive within 20 to 40 years, because the speed at which new technologies are born is increasing exponentially. Computers will be so much smarter than humans that humans will have to become cyborgs to keep up.

Kurzweil's futurism is the central theme of the documentary Transcendent Man (2009), directed by Barry Ptolemy, inspired by Kurzweil's book The Singularity Is Near and released this week on DVD. But the movie is really two films in one.

The first glories in Kurzweil's impressive credentials as a technological visionary. He is seen at the age of 17, in a clip from a 1965 episode of the quiz show I've Got a Secret, playing a piece for piano composed by a computer he designed. He has made millions by inventing keyboard synthesizers and a scanner that reads aloud the text being scanned, an incalculable boon for the blind. Stevie Wonder is among those who show up to sing his praises.

Now Kurzweil, who participates in the film to the point of letting the camera observe him at the bathroom sink, preaches the gospel of "singularity." He defines it as "a future period in which technological change will be so rapid and its impact so profound that every aspect of human life will be irreversibly transformed." His enthusiasm is exhilarating.

The second film within the film is more sober, and sadder. Other experts, while admiring Kurzweil and respecting his work, call him naive. Immortality won't come in our lifetime, says Wired magazine co-founder Kevin Kelly, describing Kurzweil as "more poet than mechanic." The basic problem with artificial intelligence, says a professor at China's Xiamen University, is that "the brain scientists haven't taught us yet what exactly intelligence is." And if machines can one day independently outthink us and themselves create even smarter machines, another professor says, they may see us as inferior creatures and wipe us out - the Terminator films made real.

The sadness is in the revelation that Kurzweil is obsessed with his late father, a musician who was rarely home. What father-son bonding there was came in the last year or two of the father's life, after he had been stricken by the heart problems that were to kill him at 58. Kurzweil keeps several dozen boxes filled with his father's letters, music and financial ledgers. He wants to bring his father back to life in some form, apparently with the help of DNA.

He dreams of seeing this through despite having had his own setbacks, including heart surgery and a brush with diabetes. He says he has "greatly improved my insulin sensitivity" by exercising and swallowing 200 pills a day - yes, 200. In a brief conversation with William Shatner, he mentions that he and a physician own a company that markets the health supplements he uses. Shatner is amused by the gentle sales pitch.

This whirligig of awe, keen intelligence, skepticism and dreams moves along briskly, helped by a score drawn from works by Philip Glass. The abiding moment comes not from Kurzweil but from his wife, Sonya, who proposes a toast. "Well, here's to living forever," she says, adding with a laugh, "That's not just a salutation in our family."