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#25 – The Singularity Is Near

July 4, 2007

time to show the machines how we all breathe, let them inside to manage our dreamsI first learned about Ray Kurzweil back in 2000, when I was still listening to Our Lady Peace.  Their fourth album, Spiritual Machines, was inspired by Kurzweil’s 1999 book The Age of Spiritual Machines and included clips of him reading excerpts from the book between tracks.  Being the ardent Raine Maida devotee that I was, I tracked down Kurzweil’s book, and it kind of blew my mind.  Here’s this well-respected scientist and inventor, predicting the future of technology based on the exponential growth of computers to date.  His writing made me respect futurists as being good for something other than Internet robot nano-maids.

The Age of Spiritual Machines was kind of a philosophical book, talking about the nature of spirituality and how we will define humanity once computers are able to contain a person’s entire consciousness.  I mean, Kurzweil had science and facts to back up his theories, but the book was not nearly as scientific as The Singularity Is Near.  Now, Kurzweil is confident that the Singularity – the moment when artificial intelligence beging to exponentially surpass human intelligence – is inevitable, and is incredibly close.  In fact, he pegs the precise date as 2045, based on everything we know now and on predictable trends in technological improvements.  The world’s changed a lot in the last 40 years, but if Kurzweil is right, that’s going to be nothing compared to the next 40.

The Singularity is so named because things are going to change so rapidly and completely that it’s hard to make any predictions as to what’s actually going to happen after the event.  There’s nobody in a better position than Kurzweil to attempt it, though, and he shows through very convincing arguments the potential that the three fields of genetics, nanotechnology and robotics (essentially AI) offer in the days leading up to the Singularity, and beyond.  I’m no scientist, and most of the book’s descriptions of the current state of the technology went right over my head.  When talking about the physical capacity of the human brain, you’re dealing with trillions of bits of information, but assuming his numbers are correct we’re ridiculously close to building a computer with the ability to contain a person’s entire consciousness.  And just imagine what a computer that powerful will be able to design.

Ray Kurzweil has got to be about the most optimistic person I’ve ever read.  While every other person writing about the future is terrified about climate change, oil depletion, terrorism, and nuclear war, Kurzweil is confident that the three Singularitarian revolutions of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics will be able to solve all of these problems, and more.  This is the only book I’ve ever read that’s given me any reason to believe global warning won’t end up killing us all.  Kurzweil addresses the problems posed by self-replicating nanobots and human-level artifical intelligence, not to mention a US administration that is decidedly reluctant about science, with equal optimism and confidence.  This book ought to replace Chicken Soup for the Soul; it’s unbelievably uplifting.

I think that everyone ought to read The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.  It’s a very exciting look at what the days to come should potentially hold, and it leads me to believe that if we can just avoid turning society into The Day After Tomorrow, 1984, Mad Max, Jennifer Government, Brave New World, Gattaca, Soylent Green, 28 Days Later, or The Matrix for a few more years, everything might actually be alright.

EDIT:  Okay, now I’m conflicted.  The Singularity Is Near is very optimistic and well-researched and enlightening, but this related article from Cracked.com, “5 Recent Scientific Advances (And How They’ll Destroy Us All)” is much, much funnier than Kurzweil’s book.  I’m not sure who to trust now.

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8 comments

  1. You neglected both The Terminator and Battlestar Galactaca in your list of artistic examples of why the future will destroy us all. It’s pretty much EVERY SCIENCE FICTION CREATION EVER vs. Star Trek on that front. Outside of Trekdom, has there ever been a truly positive portrayal of artificial intelligence in the history of cinema?


  2. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was kind of, well, warily indifferent to AI, I guess. But you’re right, artificial intelligence is basically always shown as man’s folly invariably turning on him, from 2001 on up to I, Robot. I guess that’s what makes this book so interesting, Kurzweil is able to look past the worst-case scenarios to see the possibilities, and declares that ithe benefits outweigh the risks.

    Have you heard Arthur C. Clarke’s line, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”? At the rate it looks like the Singularity is going to be able to improve upon itself, we’re for all intents and purposes about to invent magic. Isn’t that worth taking the chance that you might be a battery one day?


  3. God how did I forget about 2001? Total dumbassity on my part


  4. Does Blade Runner (and its progenitor novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) count as a negative portrayal of AI? Yes, it’s damning of humans, human society and the future, but the androids themselves are remarkably compassionate (albeit flawed and occasionally homicidal).


  5. Interesting point, Gerry. I guess Blade Runner‘s main significance in regards to the future portrayed in The Singularity Is Near is that, even if AI is safe and effective, humans are unable to coexist with it through our own insecurity and paranoia. Kurzweil’s vision is of an intelligence which develops alongside “augmented humans”, which will blur the lines between human and machine. If we advance as he predicts, a Blade Runner situation would also be unlikely – humans and replicants will essentially be one and the same.

    While I’d like to live in Kurzweil’s world, I can see why they don’t make movies about it – there’s nothing more boring than idyllic technology that actually works.


  6. “Technology that actual works.” Maybe that tells the story. How often do actually get that?


  7. That’s true, vision usually does outpace function in technology. However, I’m still hopeful that as intelligence starts increasing exponentially, we’ll manage to stay on top of the problems that arise. I did just pick up a copy of George Monbiot’s global warming book Heat on Friday, though, so there’s a solid chance my newfound optimism will be replaced by good old pessimism any day now.


  8. I’m not sure that intelligence is enough. Compassion and wisdom are the qualities that temper our excesses, and historically, those qualities have rarely been able to keep pace with the rate of technological change.



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