[Paleopsych] NYT: (Kurzweil) Will the Future Be a Trillion Times Better?
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Fri Oct 7 01:07:47 UTC 2005
Will the Future Be a Trillion Times Better?
New York Times Daily Book Review, 5.10.3
Books of the Times | 'The Singularity Is Near'
The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology
By Ray Kurzweil
652 pages. Viking. $29.95.
By JANET MASLIN
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
Qubits, foglets, gigaflops, haptic interfaces, probabilistic fractals:
Mr. 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
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 Mr.
Kurzweil's main idea: that mankind's technological knowledge 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, Mr. 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 1042
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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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. Mr.
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 underpinnings 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
Like string theory's concept of an 11-dimensional universe, Mr.
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
Mr. 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. Mr. 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 two
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
Mr. 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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