In The Singularity Is Near, the
inventor and prognosticator Ray Kurzweil postulates that we are fast approaching a time when humankind melds with technology to produce mind-boggling advances in intelligence. We will be able to play quidditch as Harry Potter does. We will control the aging process. We will be smarter by a factor of trillions. We will be so smart that we understand what Ray Kurzweil is talking about.
Qubits, foglets, gigaflops, haptic interfaces, probabilistic fractals: Kurzweil is not writing science for sissies. He is envisioning precise details about how and when the Singularity -- a fusion of symbiotic advances in genetics, robotics and nanotechnology that creates "a profound and disruptive transformation in human capability" -- will be upon us. Mark the calendar for big doings in 2045 in case he's right.
Most science books at this level of sophistication leave the armchair quantum-mechanics buff in the dust. But The Singularity Is Near works simultaneously on
different levels. Anyone can grasp Kurzweil's main idea: that mankind's technological know-ledge has been snowballing, with dizzying prospects for the future. The basics are clearly expressed. But for those more knowledgeable and inquisitive, the author argues his case in fascinating detail.
As evidence that the concept of Singularity is as grandiose as it is controversial, Kurzweil deals almost offhandedly with prospects like "a cool, zero-energy-consuming computer with a memory of about a thousand trillion trillion bits and a processing capacity of 1,042 operations a second, which is abut 10 trillion times more powerful than all human brains on Earth." And all he's talking about is reconfiguring the atomic structure of a rock. The book gets much headier when it looks at the reverse engineering and replication of the human brain.
Where Kurzweil's thinking turns quidditch-wizardly is with
concepts like virtual reality created by tiny computers in eyeglasses and clothing, or cell-size devices that can operate within the bloodstream. These innovations and their far-reaching effects, he says, exist not only within the province of science fiction (they sneak into audacious roller-coaster rides like Minority Report and Being John Malkovich) but are also already in the works.
Others (most recently Joel Garreau in Radical Evolution) have argued about the Singularity's imminence and consequences. But Kurzweil approaches the subject with the glee of a businessman-inventor as well as the expertise of a scientist. The fact that a dollar bought one transistor in 1968 and about 10 million transistors in 2002 has not escaped his notice.
The Singularity Is Near is
startling in scope and bravado. Kurzweil envisions breathtakingly exponential progress, and he is merely extrapolating from
established data. To his way of thinking, "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)." The under-pinnings of this logic go beyond the familiar to suggest that the pace of evolution (he has no doubts about Darwin) is logarithmic -- another indication that the future is almost here.
Like string theory's concept of an 11-dimensional universe, Kurzweil's projections are as abstract and largely untested as they are alluring. Predictions from his earlier books (including The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Age of Intelligent Machines) have been borne out, but much of his thinking tends to be pie in the sky. He promotes buoyant optimism more readily than he contemplates the 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.
In the last part of the book, he engages in one-sided batting
practice with his critics. He introduces each complaint only to swat it into oblivion. By and large he is a blinkered optimist, disinclined to contemplate the dangers of what he imagines. The Manhattan Project model of pure science without ethical constraints still looms over the Singularity and its would-be miracles.
"What if not everyone wants to go along with this?" a straw man asks Kurzweil. For purposes of simulated debate, the book drums up an assortment of colorful naysayers. This voice is that of Ned Ludd, the opponent of technological advances who gave Luddites their name, but Charles Darwin and Timothy Leary also chime in. Kurzweil also gives a speaking part to George 2048, a mid-21st-century machine with a reassuring personality. His boldest move is to let bacteria from 2 billion years ago argue among themselves about the wisdom of banding together to form multicellular life-forms.
If the author is right, Singularity-phobes will look no less shortsighted when the dividing line between humans and machines erodes. "This is not because humans will have become what we think of as machines today," he writes, "but rather machines will have progressed to be like humans and beyond." In other words, "technology will be the metaphorical opposable thumb that enables our next step in evolution."
Kurzweil ultimately describes himself as a Singularitarian in a religious sense. Not for him the "deathist rationalization" (that is, "rationalizing the tragedy of death as a good thing") of traditional religion: his own vision of eternal life is expressed in these pages. He underscores his conviction by putting on a cardboard,"The Singularity Is Near" sign and posing for a crazy-man photo. He won't look crazy if the Singularity arrives on cue.
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