Limitless, a Nootropics-Centered Movie

post by atucker · 2011-03-15T01:58:29.057Z · score: 7 (10 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 34 comments

Limitless is a movie coming out this Friday which includes nootropics as a major plot device. I think that the way they are portrayed in the movie, and the subsequent media discussion (if any) about nootropics would be of interest here, even if the movie isn't.

From what I can tell, the movie is about a guy who uses a drug to improve his mental capabilities, uses those to radically alter his life, who is then targeted because its just that genre of movie.

Just a heads up, if anyone is interested.

34 comments

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comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-03-15T02:43:20.752Z · score: 16 (18 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ugh, they repeat the 10% of your brain urban legend but can't even get that right saying 20%, In general, this seems to be of the common subgenre of scif where any new technology must have terrible costs, and when there aren't any plausible costs, the power of plot will provide them.

comment by AngryParsley · 2011-03-15T03:13:59.913Z · score: 16 (18 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

this seems to be of the common subgenre of scif where any new technology must have terrible costs, and when there aren't any plausible costs, the power of plot will provide them.

Yep. Something tells me this will be similar to caveman science fiction.

comment by atucker · 2011-03-20T02:28:51.274Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn't.

comment by DanielLC · 2011-03-16T05:29:48.648Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think this is more of the Anthropic Principle than a Space Whale Aesop. In other words, the guy's being chased so there'd be a plot, not because they think think nootropics are bad and show you via an unlikely scenario.

comment by JoshuaZ · 2011-03-16T05:31:47.907Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Warn before linking to TV Tropes! Does bad things when combined with akrasia!

comment by gwern · 2011-03-15T16:20:20.245Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Predictable, really. There's not much of a Hollywood movie story in 'guy takes a pill and becomes really really awesome. The End.'

comment by Broggly · 2011-03-15T16:38:24.980Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wait, so they're not making the Captain America movie now?

comment by NihilCredo · 2011-03-15T17:03:31.714Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In fairness, in the 1940s nootropics would have been hyped as the salvation of humanity (and any potential side effects carefully swept under the carpet).

comment by gwern · 2011-03-15T17:02:38.149Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Captain America isn't as cost-less as you think; to quote from the Marvel Wikia about the 'super-soldier serum' that makes a Captain America:

But the more powerful variants come with strange side-effects that may also include mental deficiencies.

(In one random comic - I have no idea which - that I read as a kid, S.H.I.E.L.D. had apparently put Captain America into cryogenic suspension specifically to stop the serum from killing the cap'n, in the hopes that the future could fix him. Quite a side-effect.)

comment by Raemon · 2011-03-15T06:21:37.525Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Cavemen science fiction is awesome.

comment by rysade · 2011-03-15T07:12:51.874Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Regardless, I think I will be watching this. It has something I like. Even if Hollywood doesn't understand it.

Thank you for the heads-up. It's been a while since I've seen a movie about anything I'm even remotely interested in.

comment by NihilCredo · 2011-03-15T17:11:26.780Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

they repeat the 10% of your brain urban legend but can't even get that right saying 20%

Isn't that like complaining that they put caimans instead of alligators in the New York sewers?

comment by atucker · 2011-03-20T02:28:31.816Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It actually wasn't at all.

In the movie, it was pretty clear that the guy who said that had no idea how it worked. Almost all of the terrible costs in the movie are incurred by people trying to do things to the guy because he has the drug, rather than because of the drug.

All of the issues with the drug are (ultimately) portrayed as surmountable, and just a technical issue. There's a bit of silly science, but it was mostly just to keep the plot going, and didn't particularly interfere with the major themes of the movie.

I was pretty impressed.

comment by Costanza · 2011-03-15T17:22:59.874Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Terrible costs don't matter, at least not for the target market.

Mephistopheles: Here is a [Faustian MacGuffin] which will make you rich and powerful, the envy of men and the desire of women! But after [time period], you will descend in to hell, to be tortured for all eternity! Muhaha!

Males 18-34: Booya! This totally rocks!

Mephistopheles: You heard the part about eternal torture, right?

Males 18-34: Yeah, whatever. Hot babes, here I come!

Mephistopheles: [Pause.] Did you want to negotiate, maybe?

Males 18-34: C'mon, c'mon, gimme the [Faustian MacGuffin] already!

Edit: Okay, I was exaggerating for effect. Really, terrible future costs are a factor even to young males. On the other hand, Hollywood marketers can count on the young male demographic as a whole to exhibit some characteristic kinds of akrasia. In descriptive economic terms, I'm thinking hyperbolic discounting and tolerance for risk. Evo-psych would approach the same analysis a different way. In the end, I submit, young males are unusually likely to use steroids, ride motorcycles, or attempt to adopt a "gangsta" lifestyle, than the rest of the population. If young males think that nootropics are dangerous in the long term but lead to high status in (at least) the short term, then young males will become interested in nootropics.

comment by atucker · 2011-03-16T00:50:05.618Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Judging from the trailer, the drug doesn't seem to have any side effects (except for maybe dependence).

comment by DanArmak · 2011-03-16T20:05:59.356Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Any good nootropic must produce dependence, because if you stop taking them, you become godshatter.

comment by jimrandomh · 2011-03-17T16:52:46.795Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

To rephrase that without the sci-fi jargon - if you start out crippled and a drug fixes it, but you go back to the way you were when you stop taking it, then you're dependent on that drug. Similarly, if you start out average and a drug makes you awesome, but you aren't willing to be merely average when you could be awesome instead, then again, that's dependency. People speak of "dependency" as though it's intrinsically bad, but it isn't; what's bad is when something (a) leaves you worse off than you started if you stop taking it (that is, it has withdrawal symptoms), and (b) there is a reason why you'll eventually have to stop taking it (such as a tolerance that builds up until it's providing no benefits other than avoiding withdrawal symptoms.) In many cases, one or both of these does not apply, so dependency is not a bad thing even if it happens.

comment by NihilCredo · 2011-03-17T03:17:20.932Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

godshatter

?

It was mentioned in an Eliezer post, and in the thread there was this comment:

Godshatter is the term he uses for a superintelligence ramming data and thought patterns into a human brain.

but I'm not seeing the connection here...?

comment by [deleted] · 2011-03-18T00:27:49.871Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your unaugmented brain wouldn't be able to process the memories and concepts formed while under the influence of the drug. So you would end up with a head full of incomprehensible data stuffed there by a superintelligent former-you.

comment by DanArmak · 2011-03-18T12:52:34.972Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

TheOtherDave is right. Eliezer borrowed the word but not the entire concept.

What I meant was, "you'll become more stupid/slow-thinking/... but have memories of when you were much smarter, and that is intolerable."

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-03-18T15:25:43.902Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This pretty much describes the first month after my stroke. It's no fun at all... but it isn't intolerable. People are pretty good at recalibrating.

That said, as has been said by others, the other piece of it is perhaps more problematic: your head will be stuffed with memories that you can no longer fully process. This is OK, as long as the corrupted versions of those memories that you end up creating in the course of trying to process them aren't dangerous.

By way of analogy, consider system A with a max string length of N chars trying to read a database file written by a system B with a max of 2n chars. It might be OK (the strings we care about happen to be <=N). It might be a relatively isolated failure (a few strings get truncated and some data gets lost). It might be catastrophic (the strings aren't terminated and overflow into adjacent registers and system A crashes).

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-03-17T15:05:30.783Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not that it helps alleviate your confusion, but I'll note that he's borrowing the term from Vernor Vinge in Fire Upon The Deep, where the "any sufficiently advanced intelligence is indistinguishable from a god" principle is applied liberally.

comment by atucker · 2011-03-15T02:56:27.395Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems to be in the latter category.

I would be seriously annoyed if it also made him evil.

comment by rysade · 2011-03-15T07:13:20.889Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Regardless, I think I will be watching this. It has something I like. Even if Hollywood doesn't understand it.

Thank you for the heads-up. It's been a while since I've seen a movie about anything I'm even remotely interested in.

comment by atucker · 2011-03-20T02:29:56.554Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Tell me when you watch it, I liked it.

comment by rysade · 2011-03-22T05:58:43.909Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

So, I went to see it with a friend. It was not a disappointment. It also did not fall into the trap I thought it would inevitably fall into, where the special power granted to the hero would eventually result in his downfall. I'll try to give a summary without any spoilers.

Eddie Morra is an akrasia-prone writer with an idea for a science-fiction novel about the human condition. His situation is fairly typical of any artist. It's likely a place that the scriptwriter has been before. After a chance encounter with his ex-wife's half brother (a drug dealer by trade) he finds himself in possession of a tablet of NZT-48. NZT-48 is a narrative device with the unique property being a genie that is too stupid to prevent you from wishing for more wishes. The effect of the drug is heightened awareness, access to all recorded experiences before taking the drug, savant-level capabilities in all areas of human achievement, and a tendency to create unlikely solutions to violent situations.

The movie's treatment of the subject of wonder-nootropics is fairly mature. The maturity is far above what I would have hoped for with a Hollywood movie, particularly with a double-whammy like intelligence enhancement paired with drug use as an incentive to do some moralizing.

If I had to say the movie was 'about' anything, I would say it is actually about intelligence being a good thing, and the more the better. Very early on in the movie, Eddie realizes that writing sci-fi novels, schmoozing at parties and driving fast cars is fine, but there is more to life than that. In a memorable scene that will be familiar to anyone who has read a transhumanist's life story, Eddie decides upon a long term plan which is carefully not elaborated upon in the movie.

Eddie makes some fairly foolish moves during the movie, and the plot thereby has a couple holes, but overall I recommend watching it.

Similar Characters to Eddie Morra: Adrian Veidt, Paul Atreides, Peter Wiggin.

comment by grendelkhan · 2011-03-16T19:17:25.503Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It looks like any major-movie adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story--a solid SFnal hook, filed down so far that it's just another inoffensive popcorn movie. It's the nature of the beast.

In one of those angels-on-a-pin discussions of hardness in SF, I proposed (though I'm sure someone else has done it first) that hard stories are hard because they play fair by their own rules, that they introduce a change and don't just use it as a clever metaphor or bit of snappy attire, but truly take it seriously. SF in movies is more like fantasy, where events are driven by the moral and plotwise needs of the story; Aslan asspulls "deep magic" because it's a story about resurrection, and I'm sure the protagonist of Limitless will learn humility and either return to his original life or a slightly shinier version thereof or die in a tragic self-sacrifice, rather than changing the world, because it's not a story about changing the world.

The annoying thing is that it's not inevitable in movies; it's just an attractor, a set of well-worn grooves that, absent a very strong countervailing force, the stories will regress to.

comment by MinibearRex · 2011-12-07T05:37:31.367Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I just discovered this thread. I don't know if you've seen the movie yet, but if you avoided seeing it for the reasons you mentioned here, I would recommend actually watching it. Especially this one:

I'm sure the protagonist of Limitless will learn humility and either return to his original life or a slightly shinier version thereof or die in a tragic self-sacrifice, rather than changing the world, because it's not a story about changing the world.

It's a bit more imaginative than that.

comment by grendelkhan · 2012-03-30T01:36:58.363Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I noticed--I was very surprised indeed. (I also appreciated the "I can't think my way out of a knife!" bit--the power of intelligence, indeed.) It's more unambiguously positive than the original ending, even--definitely not what I was expecting. This kind of story is inevitably going to end up being about someone who changes the whole world, and hey, that's what the movie fades out on. I'm impressed.

comment by CronoDAS · 2011-03-16T20:00:50.834Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Limitless doesn't appear to be based on a Philip K. Dick story; I think you're thinking of The Adjustment Bureau instead.

comment by grendelkhan · 2011-03-16T20:34:11.161Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I should have been clearer there; I didn't mean that it was an adaptation of a PKD story, just that it followed the same process, of taking a mind-bending bit of SF and squeezing it into a standard Hollywood box.

In this case, at least they didn't claim to be "adapting" anyone's work, like what happened with I, Robot.

comment by CronoDAS · 2011-03-16T22:00:36.321Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It actually is based on a novel, although the marketing for the film hasn't played up this fact.

comment by grendelkhan · 2011-03-22T17:53:38.665Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, egg on me; that's definitely the sort of thing I should have checked on first. Thanks for pointing it out.

I'll attempt to save face by claiming that "technothrillers" are pre-watered-down, in that they're written in a format which is conducive to world-changing stories, and include technology that would indeed be world-changing, but shy away from their conclusions the same way that mainstream movie adaptations shy away from the conclusions of their source material.

comment by Normal_Anomaly · 2011-03-16T01:32:40.239Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The bad urban legend and the similarity to Caveman Science Fiction are both bad signs regarding the movie's overall quality, although moviemakers are perfectly capable of making a cliched movie with quality cinematography and acting. On the other hand, the subject matter is interesting, and I enjoy movies/books with awesomely powered up characters for much the same reason I and others enjoy movies with big explosions. In a nutshell: it's probably a guilty pleasure, but I'd watch it.