you were a
thousand times smarter and lived for centuries, what would you do?
Finally write that novel burning inside you? Hitch a ride to the
stars? Assume godlike tasks? Subside into sybaritic debauch? All of
might be able to squeeze in all that and more if inventor and
futurist Ray Kurzweil is even half right. He doesn’t buy into
the dark worldview of movies like Blade
and similar easy future dystopias. He has immense faith that the
next half century or so will see our technologies spawn a new breed
of human. They will transcend us with symbiotic advances in GRN –
genetics, robotics and nanotechnology – creating "a
profound and disruptive transformation in human capability."
Singularity is Vernor Vinge’s term, though Kurzweil gives
little room to this fact, referring to Vinge as a San Diego
mathematician. Vernor introduced it in the 1980s, though I can
recall talking to him about such possibilities when we met in
graduate school at UC San Diego in the mid-1960s; he likes to mull
matters over. He supposes that up ahead our technologies will spur
us into a gauzy realm of uplifting life, plenty smart and nearly
immortal. Damien Broderick’s The
Vinge’s argument with intriguing speculations, especially on
advanced artificial intelligence and its links to us. Kurzweil
does quote and acknowledge his predecessors a bit, but to him the
past is mere prologue.
the Singular era, which Kurzweil thinks will begin around 2045, interlaced
technologies will merge with our minds and bodies, snowballing,
erasing the old us/machine barrier. We will download memory, a la
our computers, until “the nonbiological portion of our
intelligence will predominate.” This sounds like some people I
delves into these labyrinths with dizzying detail, a tale clearly
told while staggering in prospect. His “posthumans” will
comfortably wear their dazzling high intelligence, durability, swift
comprehension, exact memory—just the sort you don’t want
to spend relaxed time with, I’d judge. Maybe a bit edgy and
obsessive, but great fun at times..
Kurzweil, trends will accelerate as miniaturization and
computational power spread. He foresees a quick, interactive world.
Our cities will talk incessantly with our smart bodies, which sport
fetchingly fashioned smart clothes. Our minds will swim in a virtual
reality created by tiny computers in eyeglasses and clothing.
Cell-size devices will cruise our bloodstreams. These advances and
their far-reaching effects, he says, are driven by science fiction
and science alike. Already they sneak up on us in wild’n crazy
rides like Minority
Report and Being
mainlining the future.
impressive arguments, waving away Stephen
Jay Gould’s view that scientific revolutions reduce our
stature on the universal stage. Instead, Kutzweil thinks we’re
the Next Big Thing in the galaxy, when our brains and bodies really
reach their potential. To him, "when scientists become a
million times more intelligent and operate a million times faster,
an hour would result in a century of progress (in today's terms)."
course, these visions are as untested as they are seductive.
Predictions from his earlier books (The
Age of Spiritual Machines
and The Age of
have come somewhat true, but much of his thinking tends to the
classic techno-visionary. He spreads buoyant optimism, ignoring
darker aspects of progress. He is more eager to think about the
life-enhancing powers of nanotechnology than to wonder what happens
if cell-size computers within the human body run amok.
perspective, he conducts imaginary conversations with George 2048, a
mid-21st-century machine with a reassuring personality. He lets
bacteria from two billion years ago argue among themselves about the
wisdom of banding together into multicellular life-forms. These are
even poses for a crazed photo with a cardboard "The Singularity
Is Near" sign—a funny, defiant touch. He
deploys charts, quotations, playful Socratic dialogues and sidebars
against the admitted existential risks of exploding infotech,
biotech, and nanotech. At times the tone seems almost
evangelical--uplifting the Left Behind after the Rapture of the
this Rapture have to happen?
unending exponential growth runs afoul of saturations in both
technology and human adaptation. Take aviation, a hot technology
that took us from Kitty Hawk to the moon in a lifetime. Projecting
ahead, futurists might have concluded that by 2000 we would zip off
to Europe in our own planes. Bill Gates does, but not the majority.
Even he doesn’t vacation on Mars, or even in orbit.
some will simply reject being transformed,
out of aesthetic or religious tastes. Kurzweil argues with straw men
about this, but seems unaware that much of humanity may not share
his goals. Many, standing on the beach before such a vast, promising
ocean, will wonder who will truly voyage upon it?
already have problems defusing the growing, envy-driven anger in of
the world’s majority. Islamic terrorism springs from this, in
most popular recent Doomsday Scenarios are about Singularities gone
wrong. Artificial Intelligences or nanotechnology swarms turn on
their makers. Or humans characters who, becoming demigods, grow
smug and unlikable.
fictions express an innate inertia in us. It also emerges in the
increasing calls for an uplifting of our fellows, right now.
certainly need such material expansion, while minimizing the impact
of our growing numbers. The greatest agenda of this century could be
the expansion of human horizons by lifting the bulk of humanity to a
standard of living enjoyed by the advanced nations. That would
complete the promise begun 500 years ago by the first European
will need those informed minds, even if we have artificial ones. We
forget that most of humanity still labors in routine manual labor.
What potential Einsteins or Beethovens are walking behind a plow or
assembling in a factory, dreaming of a better life?
by expanding their conceptual horizons through a modicum of
prosperity can we liberate our species from drudgery. Technology can
help enormously, but don’t forget pathologically immoral
fun, trying to envision beings who may transcend us but remain
human, sort of. Singularities in physics give us problems, as in
trying to see beyond a black hole’s event horizon. A social
Singularity is similarly opaque, and brings fears of threats to
concepts of human nature and individuality. Kurzweil’s
discussions don’t resonate as well as science fiction can, but
they do artfully envision a breathtakingly better world.