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MindWalk

My friend Alfred Thompson (who is ACT 2, of an on-going 3 ACT series) recently asked in his blog about the topic of emerging machine intelligence, and whether it was scary, and he wasn't the first that week to bring it up. A few days earlier, the New York Times printed an article with the title, "Scientists Worry Machines May Outsmart Man", and it had inspired several people to ask about the topic. Did we believe that Verner Vinge's "Singularity", and the "end of the human era" as machines became more intelligent than us. My own reaction was to dismiss the article, especially its over-blown title.

In writing a couple of those replies, I suggested that our notion that computers and brains are the same sort of things was a fond conceit based on our current societal obsession with computers, an obsession that tailors much of our thinking about life, the universe and everything. As humans we get fascinated with a new idea or a new toy—not merely fascinated but obsessed. We tend to take our new discovery as a model for everything we see, like the man with a hammer to whom everything appears to be a nail.

This isn't our first such obsession, nor the only one that we are currently laboring with. It grows out of, elaborates and in many ways supplants an older obsession, that of the clockwork, which brings us—finally—to the actual subject of this page, the movie "MindWalk". Those who know my love of "trash" and genre fiction should be warned that while I highly recommend this film it is not for its action or plot. There is a some of that, but the essence of this film is a dialog—"tri-alog", actually—a philosophical, historical, scientific, political and artistic exploration of ideas and paradigms and how they shape our lives and the world. It is a movie about how we understand the world.

While there are a couple of walk-on parts, the main characters of the film are the three that can be seen in the box art in the upper right, Sam Waterston as the politician, Jack, Liv Ullmann as the scientist, Sonia, and John Heard as Tom, the artist. The film starts out slowly with Jack and Tom meeting in France, and catching up on each other's personal lives as they take a walking of Mont St. Michel in France. They meet Sonia as they their discussion, which has turned philosophical, touches on the social impact of machines like the huge clockwork in the church on St. Michel. Their first exchange with her really gets to the heart of the film and to the point that I was trying to make in my conversations regarding machine intelligence.

Tom: "... This thing has been functioning for hundreds... hundreds of years, since before the beginning of modern time."

Jack: "Yah, but this is different from the kind of time you were talking about before:  sunrise to sunset, sabbath to sabbath, isn't it? This is ah... this is mechanical time."

Tom: "You bet. You bet it is. You bet. I sometimes think that this clock, this machine is what constitutes humanity's first break from the world of nature. [Turning to Sonia, who is standing nearby,] Wouldn't you say so? Hello?"

Sonia: "The clock did much more than that. It became the model of cosmos. Then they mistook the model for the real thing. People got the idea that nature was just a giant clock, not a living organism, but a machine."

They discuss the philosophical, political and economic impact of the Newtonian and Cartesian thinking represented by the clock and by the machine, empowering man and liberating him from the natural cycles, and turn quickly to the limitations of the paradigms inherent in that view, and the need for holistic systems thinking in the modern day. Sonia explains many aspects of contemporary physics on the way that we can and need to look at the world. Jack, the pragmatic politician wants to know what immediate difference it makes, what the political, economic and normative impact is. Tom, the poet, explores the philosophical and ethical impacts and ends by reciting Neruda's poem "Enigmas".

Mindwalk at Google Video

For many, this film offers a 50,000 foot view of modern physics and systems theory. For those who are familiar with them, it does a nice job of framing their impact on philosophy and politics on our understanding of the world and o the economic, ecological and political crises of the day. I highly recommend it. And there's the rub. It's hard to find. The producers have never, to my knowledge, released it on DVD.

There is a Mindwalk VHS tape available and an online store called Vintage Video claims to have a Mindwalk DVD, but I'm not certain how kosher it is. Someone has posted a full length Mindwalk video on Google Video and linked to the site of the director, Bernt Capra. It's a rather low resolution and the sound quality is a little harsh, but it may well be legit, given the Capra link and is watchable. At least until I hear that it isn't legit, I'm including it here.

Your best chance for watching it is to catch it on cable. It comes around periodically on Flix, Starz and the like. You can use IMDB to watch for it showing up, or try a title or keyword search on your TiVo or other DVR.

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