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The Singularity Is Near

The Singularity Is Near by Ray Kurzweil

James Williams has a singularily good time.

Although promoted as science, Ray Kurzweil’s writing will appeal to readers of philosophy as well. The word ‘singularity’ was first applied to the transformative impact of technology by mathematician John von Neumann. In The Singularity is Near, Kurzweil defines the ‘Singularity’ as “a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed.” Kurzweil insists that once this Singularity arrives, the answers to the questions ‘What does it mean to be human?’ and ‘What are the limits of human knowledge?’ will be answered in ways as-yet-unimaginable. For instance, Kurzweil believes that we will eventually permeate the Universe with intelligence, causing the Universe itself to ‘awaken’. He writes, “That’s about as close to God as I can imagine.”

Kurzweil’s case for our extraordinary destiny across the Universe begins with an explanation of the book’s subtitle, When Humans Transcend Biology. To Kurzweil, technology should not be seen as incompatible with or opposed to nature: instead, it leads us to the end of evolution, and beyond.

How is this to happen? The ‘Law of Accelerating Returns’ says that the rate of growth of the capabilities of computers increases exponentially. Here Kuzweil plays the gritty realist, explaining the future in dollars and cents. Readers over fifty may recall at first envying those who could afford a VCR, and then buying one themselves; and we all have watched the cost of a HDTV fall to one fifteenth of its original price in ten years. Likewise, as RAM transistor capacity has risen, computer size has fallen; as supercomputer power and magnetic data storage have grown, their hardware has shrunk – and so has the cost. The number of technology patents increases, while the cost of production decreases. (And while costs steadily decline, the rich-poor divide of accessibility diminishes.) Where will all these trends lead? Could one build a computer the size of a golf ball with the power of one trillion Deep Blues?

Research is well under way. When we read about circuits built from carbon nanotubes (one nanometer = one billionth of one meter), molecular rings, or DNA switches, or photonic and quantum computers, the line between science and science fiction fades. One much anticipated breakthrough will be a three-dimensional circuit, working in parallel like the brain. Design seems limited only by the laws of physics, and cost is limited by energy loss through heat, which equates with inefficiency. Today’s ‘irreversible’ circuits generate heat. Tomorrow’s ‘reversible’ circuits will not.

We are urged to watch for a supercomputer with the capacity of a human brain. (In robotics “a machine intelligence whose capacity exceeds that of the human brain” is refered to as ‘strong AI’.) When will the tipping point come? Kurzweil looks to the year 2045, when, notwithstanding economic calamity, “Nonbiological intelligence created in that year will be one billion times more powerful than all human intelligence today.”

In order for this superintelligence to be achieved, scientists must reverse-engineer the human brain – that is, work out how it works. To do this they need more precise brain imaging, which may itself only be possible with billions of molecular nanobots mapping neurons. Nevertheless, it may not be possible to provide a scheme of how the brain works if, as Roger Penrose argues in The Emperor’s New Brain, the brain is non-algorithmic. Although Kurzweil concedes that consciousness has yet to be physically explained, he defines himself as “a pattern that persists in time.” And if Kurzweil’s optimism turns out to be correct, an Englishman, interfaced through the right technology, could avoid the tedium of a textbook and learn French in minutes, by downloading it from a Frenchman.

The technology to which humanity must adapt – Genetics, Nanotechnology, and Robotics, or GNR – will create what Kurzweil calls ‘overlapping revolutions’. He expects that bioengineering will solve world hunger, prevent degenerative diseases and reverse the aging process. Defective organs may be regenerated with cells from the patient’s own skin. For many over the age of fifty, these advances will buy them time until the nanotechnology revolution. Nanobots will then enable us to repair and reconstruct our bodies and our brains at the cellular level. They will kill pathogens and malignant cells in the bloodstream, remove toxins, repair tissue, correct DNA errors, and modify metabolic chemicals. Technology is already revolutionizing energy research and materials engineering, but by contrast, nanorobotics is still in its early research and development phase. Kurzweil predicts that nanorobotics will be used to build more powerful computers, which will be used to design more sophisticated nanobots. Considering what has been achieved since the 1960s through aerospace and military research, it seems that if all that happens, GNR will become synonymous with GDP.

Over The Horizon

So, how then will we be transformed after the Singularity arrives? Anyone with a PC and an imagination can imagine the impact that a technological sea-change might have on warfare and industry. Every part of the human body may be reengineered. Provided that consciousness can be successfully uploaded, as said, Kurzweil predicts that ultimately the Universe itself will become conscious and that we will have achieved nonbiological immortality.

Despite his optimism, Kurzweil is well aware of the risks inherent in such advances. For example, he acknowledges the destructive potential of out-of-control self-replicating nanobots: one nightmare scenario has bacteria-eating nanobots mutating to eat every type of cell and wiping out the biosphere in a matter of weeks. Kurzweil trusts in careful planning and preventive measures to make this sort of accidental disaster unlikely. Heavy-handed regulation would only lead to greater government secrecy, while private efforts would be driven underground. He hopes that nations and corporations will agree to forgo certain high risk fields, but history leaves us little reason for optimism here. Once Pandora’s Box is open, it is impossible to close. Like a good philosopher, he acknowledges no fewer than fourteen objections, ranging from the mathematical to the theological. His responses are interesting, if not always convincing.

Kurzweil is not, as some suggest, a cyber cult guru; but he does predict that our ‘we humans, them robots’ distinctions will soon be dispelled. He certainly seems to be onto something concerning the nature of technological progress; but the extent to which his predictions will be accurate depends on the accuracy of his assumptions. We are asked to accept much about the potential of artificial intelligence (AI), and to remember that chess grandmaster Gary Karparov scorned computer chess before facing the computer Deep Blue [Deep Blue won]. We are drawn in by writing which not only is engaging and accessible but which is supported with voluminous and authoritative notes.

Ray Kurzweil calls himself a Singularitarian, one who seriously considers the Singularity’s future importance for his own life. If he is right, the lives of our great grandchildren will be inconceivable to us, and they will hold The Singularity is Near in their consciousnesses as we hold the Torah in our hands.

© James W. Williams 2011

James W. Williams writes fiction, teaches Taijiquan and plays with his grandchildren in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil; Viking Press Inc, 2005, 672 pps, ISBN:978-0670033843.

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