Mike Cahill’s new film I Origins is technically science fiction. But the technology in it is firmly rooted in reality.
A mind-twister of the highest order, I Origins tells the story of a molecular biologist, Ian (played by Michael Pitt), who studies the iris of the eye, a part that is unique for every individual. His lab partner makes a startling discovery—that a young girl in India has the exact same iris pattern as someone Ian loved deeply. It’s a statistical impossibility that leads him to wonder: Could this be reincarnation?
Cahill got the first tingle of the idea for this film after hearing the story of National Geographic’s “Afghan Girl.” Seventeen years after her haunting green eyes appeared on the cover, the magazine found her again—and made sure they had the right woman by giving her an iris scan. “I found that story so compelling,” says Cahill. “Soon after hearing that, I was on an island in Europe where there were these Roman ruins on the water. Alongside them, there were rocks with dinosaur footprints on them … It occurred to me that we didn’t discover dinosaurs until way after their civilization had risen and fallen. I wondered: What are our dinosaur footprints? That’s when I started to think, ‘Maybe it’s the eye.’”
As he was writing I Origins, which opens in New York and Los Angeles today, July 18, and across the U.S. the week after, Cahill did intensive research on iris-based identity authentication—he read every book and paper on the topic that he could find. And then, in his Googling, he discovered a talk given at TEDxKC by Jeff Carter, the chief technology officer of EyeLock. This New York-based company specializes in biometric technology like iris recognition systems.
Carter explains in the talk, “Today, your identity can be determined from across the room while you’re at a full run—even if you’re wearing a mask, or a wig, or sunglasses—with a one-in-a-quadrillion certainty that you are who you say you are.” Yipes. “This could mean no more credit cards, no more driver’s license, no more passports, no more user IDs or passwords, no more paper documents like voter registration cards or medical records.”
The talk captured Cahill’s imagination. “I was taken with how passionate and articulate Jeff was,” he says. “And the technology was just insane.”
Cahill reached out to EyeLock to ask if he could use their iris-based recognition system in the film. At first, EyeLock hesitated—they’d been approached by other film productions in the past, and didn’t love the idea of leaving the presentation of their technology in someone else’s hands. But when they realized that Cahill truly wanted their input—even on the film’s script—they agreed.
Soon after, Carter and his EyeLock team invited Cahill and others from I Origins to their office. Cahill remembers, “Jeff was really kind. He showed us all their technology. I’d read so much on it, but it was the first opportunity I’d had just to play with the toy. We saw demonstrations. As you approach a door, the door is like, ‘Hello, Mike Cahill,’ and then opens. You’ve seen Minority Report? They’ve figured out how to do that today.”
This system makes a cameo in the film—it’s what Ian uses to enter his laboratory—and Cahill loved using real technology in this way. “It adds an extra level of authenticity,” says Cahill. “For me, grounding it in real, existing technology allows the audience to believe that the whole thing is true … For scientific narratives, when an audience believes them, that is exhilarating. It’s like there’s a special door inside our hearts; the visceral feeling is that much stronger.”
EyeLock very much appreciated this grounded approach.
“This isn’t your traditional sci-fi movie. Honestly, it’s a love story at the heart of it,” says Carter. “What was really exciting for us was that [Mike] wasn’t thinking about iris technology as part of a dystopian-type world, and he wasn’t thinking about it as all the glory that you see painted in some sci-fi either. He was thinking about it as just … a part of life.”
In the cut of the film that screened at the Sundance Film Festival—which won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize for an outstanding science or technology film—Carter’s TEDx talk appeared in the film, about two-thirds of the way in.
“It was originally in a scene where Ian is arriving in India. Jeff said, ‘Leonardo da Vinci believed that eyes are the window to the soul,’ and then goes into describing iris technology,” says Cahill. “I always loved that moment. But the problem was: it ended up being about two minutes’ worth of exposition in my third act. At that point, the audience knows what’s going on. You kind of want it to move along a little bit faster.”
While Carter’s talk no longer appears in the final cut of the film, you can watch part of the deleted scene above, courtesy of Fox Searchlight.
Iris biometrics sound futuristic, but the concept actually dates back quite far— Hippocrates even wrote about the uniqueness of the pattern of the iris. The first patent for iris recognition was issued in 1987, and the first algorithm to automate it was patented in 1991.
“They have [iris recognition] at some airports. I mean, it’s all over the place—a lot of people just don’t realize it,” says Cahill. “Seeing iris biometrics in the film may be an introduction to the technology for a lot of people.”
And while Carter is a little disappointed that his TEDx talk got cut from the final film, it’s this potential that has him really excited.
“I’ve been thinking about this for over 10 years, so for me, it’s really refreshing that it’s becoming so mainstream,” he says. “I feel pride that I was a small portion of Mike’s incredible vision. I feel a lot of pride that our technology is featured in the movie.”
As for where he hopes iris-based recognition systems will go from here, Carter sees wide-open possibilities—especially if people embrace the new technology.
“We are talking about embedding this into all manner of consumer electronic devices—in places you couldn’t even imagine,” says Carter. “An iris scan is really the ultimate in security. To give you an analogy—fingerprints would be the floppy disks; an iris scan is the solid-state hard drive.”