Thursday, July 19, 2007

Book: Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near

My latest read was "The Singularity Is Near" by Ray Kurzweil. A very interesting read. In this book the concept of the singularity, usually a point where mathematics and the laws of physics break down and are undefined, is applied to technological progression. Kurzweil suggests that as our technology becomes more advanced, growing exponentially, computers will eventually surpass humans in intelligence. These computers will then design better computers which will design better computers which will design better computer, ad infinitum until they reach god-like proportions. The technological progress will accelerate until humans will not be able to predict or even comprehend how it will progress. He doesn't believe that these god-like computers will take over the world - He sees human merging with their technology until the biological portion is gone. Humans will progressively incorporate more sophisticated devices in our bodies to cure disease and to enhance our capabilities. As the devices become more advanced they will replace more and more of the brain and body’s function until what is left is non-biological. The human personality, memories, experience, all that makes us who we are will live on in the machine. Not only live on but it will be enhanced by the speed and knowledge of the technology. This will be the next phase of human evolution. The human race will live both in reality in sophisticated artificial bodies or in unlimited virtual reality worlds. How does it end? A Universe-spanning (or even Multiverse-spanning) computer with all of us a part of it.

As I read this book I found the world it created fascinating and attractive on one hand - repulsive and disheartening on the other. As I read about the replacement of body parts, the Borg were not far from my thoughts. When I read about civilization living on in a virtual reality how could I not think about the Matrix. Every technology driven apocalypse was there.

In the earlier chapters Kurzweil attempts to explain to the skeptics how the singularity will come about explaining the fallacy of linear progression and the wonder of exponential growth. He goes into detail how the study of the human brain is progressing and how with just a little more study we will be able to reverse engineer the brain and duplicate the functions in a computer. He writes about each of the technological revolutions leading the way (He calls them Genetics – Nanotech – Robotics (GNR) meaning biotechnology, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence.). He discusses why he thinks we are alone in the Universe since we have not been overrun by super advanced civilizations that have already passed through the singularity (basically the Fermi Paradox). The last couple of chapters Kurzweil examines the critics who poo-poo the singularity. The last chapter he takes on each major area of criticism one at a time.

My main criticism is that Kurzweil approaches the singularity with unwavering optimism. His belief is almost a religious fervor. All his counter arguments to the critics are blue sky optimistic that disregards the critics as lacking vision. He acknowledges that many of these new technologies could also be used to destroy human civilization but thinks that good will always triumph over evil. Unfortunately that is not always the case. All you need in one out of control self replicating nanobot to turn the whole planet into gray goo. Only one artificial intelligence more advanced then humans deciding that humans are not needed to bring on the Terminator scenario. He is gambling that the sophisticated artificial intelligence will be a knight in shining armor arriving just in time to rescue us from destroying ourselves and whisk us to the Promised Land. I am concerned that once we achieve this perfect virtual world we will stagnate as there will be nothing we don’t already know. A world without learning and wonder is no world I want to live in.

Kurzweil seems to think that there will be no significant opposition to this technological transformation. Augustine's Second Law of Socioscience (and engineering) states:
"For every scientific (or engineering) action, there is an equal and opposite social reaction."
The opposition from religions alone should be hard to overcome. We live in a society that can hardly handle cloning. How will we handle transferring ourselves into a machine.

So, when will the singularity occur? Kurzweil thinks it will be around 2040. A mere 33 years from now. Many of us will be alive to see it. Do I think it will happen? I’m not sure. I am definitely not as optimistic as Kurzweil but I have such a fascination with technology that I want to believe in all the good that could come of this. I am just not an apostle … yet.

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