The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology MP3 CD – May 4, 2011
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About the Author
George K. Wilson has narrated over one hundred fiction and nonfiction audiobook titles, from Thomas L. Friedman to Thomas Pynchon, and has won several AudioFile Earphones Awards.
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Anyone who has ever played around with the arithmetic of compounding and exponential growth knows how crazy the numbers get as growth feeds on itself. The phenomenon is quite real in the world, and it describes everything from viral epidemics to Warren Buffet's fortune. Kurzweil applies the exponential growth paradigm to the future of technology. He sees not only change itself accelerating, but the rate of change too, if you can go back to your high school calculus and wrap your mind around that stomach-churning concept. The math starts quickly approaching infinity, which is why it's so weird.
"Singularity" is a common term-of-art among theoretical physicists, who apply it to a variety of seemingly irrational constructs, such as an infinitely large mass compressed towards an infinitely small point. Kurzweil co-opts the term for his own purpose here to mean the point in time where artificial intelligence starts exceeding human intelligence. Thereafter, it takes over its own programming and, being so powerful, does a better and better job of it. Because things are already moving so fast today, the accelerating rate of change means that Kurzweil's Singularity is closer than even optimists might imagine - hence the book's title. He projects it to occur somewhere in the middle of this century. Afterwards, nothing will ever again be the same.
In physics, unimaginable things start happening at singularity points, like energy explosions within black holes. Following Kurzweil's Singularity, the most garish science fiction fantasies start becoming commonplace. The combination of genetics, nanotechnology and robotics - which he refers to collectively as GNR - will transform all aspects of human existence. He believes, for example, that nanobots released into a person's bloodstream, will facilitate a comprehensive (that is to say, 100%) map of that person, including genetic code and nervous system, that can be uploaded and downloaded at will onto new "substrates". In other words, robotic copies of human beings - body, mind, memories, and (one presumes) soul - can be made that will appear indistinguishable from the originals. And for that matter, those originals themselves can be re-shaped at will, giving us all the opportunity to become brilliant, strong, happy, and beautiful.
Kurzweil tells us that artificial circuits replicating themselves at a molecular level will merge with the biological circuits that constitute our nervous systems, giving rise an "enhanced" human super-intelligence. Once this starts happening, what we now call the Internet will in effect become telepathic, giving these enhanced humans instantaneous access to all available knowledge and information as they fashion their brave new world. You see how explosive this gets? And it's just the beginning.
Once the process gets underway, the evolving super-intelligence keeps expanding until it permeates the entire planet and, still accelerating, eventually the universe. Kurzweil suggests that movement though time-space "wormholes" should one day facilitate rapid travel beyond our own galaxy, taking the process literally everywhere.
I realize that my amateur's survey of Kurzweil's thinking here makes him sound like a crank. However, let there be no mistake: he is an accomplished scientist and a highly sophisticated thinker. MIT-trained, he's an expert in artificial intelligence and has put his ideas into practice as a successful tech entrepreneur. Most of this book is not even devoted to prognostications, but to an in-depth review of research currently underway that lays the practical groundwork for virtually everything he talks about (except maybe the wormhole business). While he makes numerous leaps of faith in taking us from here to there, none of his forecasts represent sheer fantasy. He is an extremely good writer, and while staying true to what is in fact pretty complex science, describes it all in a way that makes it reasonably clear to lay readers.
For all his hardcore materialism, Kurzweil also has a whimsical streak. Every 50 pages or so, he breaks up his text with imaginary light-hearted debates among himself (appearing as "Ray"), various historical figures - Darwin, Freud, etc. - and a person named "Molly", who seems to be a student. Molly is bright, curious, skeptical, and not in the least bit awed by Ray or the others. The thing about Molly is that she appears in two separate guises: Molly 2004 (the year this book was being written), and Molly 2104, which is of course well beyond the Singularity. One of Kurzweil's key forecasts is that future science will learn how to arrest and even reverse the aging process, allowing people more-or-less to live forever at whatever age they choose. So Molly has made it through the Singularity and returned as a still-young woman to speak about it from experience.
Kurzweil is fully aware of the potential downside to his vision. He devotes one long chapter to what he calls "The Deeply Intertwined Promise and Peril of GNR". He devotes another even longer chapter to responding to critics, who have attacked his ideas from every possible perspective. While he treats most criticisms respectfully, in the end he largely dismisses them all. One partial exception and the one specific fear he himself does seem to harbor is of self-replicating nanobots. He and other scientists who seriously debate such stuff even have a short-hand term for this specter: The Grey Goo Problem. Were self-replication somehow to spin out of control, Kurzweil explains to us that in a matter of days it could, in theory, consume the Earth's entire biomass and reduce it to "grey goo". This is indeed a troubling prospect, since this endangered biomass includes all of us.
Interestingly, the cluster of criticisms that he responds to most gently are those arising from a spiritualist perspective. In one of his imaginary debates with "Molly", she repeatedly asks "Ray" if he believes in God. Ray surprises by dodging the question every time rather than saying no. Badgered into a corner, he finally avers: "For the sake of your question, we can consider God to be the universe, and I said that I believe in the universe." This sounds suspiciously like a yes, albeit with a twist. He then goes on to explain how his entire vision can be described as a picture of the universe "waking up" as enhanced human intelligence pervades its many corners. Religious people of an unorthodox bent might be tempted to embrace this image as God's self-realization. Fundamentalists of every stripe, however, were they to take K's cosmology seriously at all, would view it with disgust as the self-realization of God's Opposite Number.
For me, the most unnerving question that this book triggers is who will control these accelerating technologies. Reading through many passages of the book, I found it hard not hard to be thinking about Nazi scientists beavering away at the design of their Master Race, or North Korean labs re-programming the neural patterns of citizens lacking enthusiasm for Kim Jong-Un. Kurzweil seems to trust in the pragmatic good will of the scientific community, buttressed by regulation. However, not all scientists have good will, and he says nothing about who he supposes will regulate the regulators. I also find it hard to see what joy or challenge there could be in a world where machines or enhanced humans dominate everything. People choosing not to become "enhanced" would either have it forced upon them or face life as a sub-species. The line between utopia and dystopia here is pretty fuzzy, and I find it a little scary that Kurzweil doesn't seem to care. Maybe I've seen too many science fiction movies.
All that aside, I highly recommend this book. Decades ago when I was in college I used to describe about every other book I read as "changing my life", as we said in the day. Nowadays, no book changes my life, although the best ones still move the needle for me. Whether I like it or not, this one has me looking at things a little differently than I did before.
The book does have a number of problems however that need to be pointed out. One is that his views on AI depend almost entirely on brain emulation and reverse engineering. He does not examine other ways AI may develop that do not parallel the human brain. A second problem is that he ignores the economic incentives that would drive human – machinery fusion. To him, the mere availability of the technology means it will be adopted. In this reviewer’s opinion the main driver will be economic competition a la zero sum game theory. In this reviewer’s opinion the real driver will be economic competition. If one’s competitor’s have chips that enable instant memory recall or interfacing with the internet (or a future version of it) one will not be able to compete. Like it or not, for one’s economic survival, one will have to follow the path of becoming a cyborg (or more like one).
A third problem is that there is little discussion on how technology will influence human institutions. It may be the case that technology will so undermine these or prevent new ones from emerging in which humans can interact with each other without destroying each other or even functioning effectively with each other. A fourth major problem with his book is that he views the human – machinery fusion that he is predicting in very glowing positive terms. Other authors, such as George Zarkadakis in his “in our image” believe this symbiosis will be what will eventually lead to humanity’s extinction. Another important weakness of the book is its very glowing view of the benefits of human “immortality” or, at the very least a vastly increased lifespan. He seems to forget that the increased lifespan of humanity will also lead to much longer lived Stalin or Maos. Imagine a world where degenerates like these can reign not 20 or 30 years but 100 or 200.
Last but not least the most important weakness of the book is the fact that it ignores the very important role that death plays in the evolution of human history through paradigm shifts. Changes in human institutions and popularity held beliefs (i.e., religions, nationalism, secularism, the scientific method, etc.) occur primarily because the young, eventually, replace the old. A vastly increased human lifespan, never mind immortality, would go very far in undermining this. Alfred Adler put it very eloquently in the following quote: "Death is really a great blessing for humanity, without it there could be no real progress. People who lived for ever would not only hamper and discourage the young, but they would themselves lack sufficient stimulus to be creative". Kurzweil believes that everlasting life will lead humanity to the Valhalla of Ancient Classical Greece or Northern Italy of the Renaissance reborn. He does not understand, like Adler, that it will instead lead humanity down the road of perpetual rot and stagnation.
Top international reviews
The extrapolation into the future starts to feel like the “culture” civilisation in an Iain M Banks Sci Fi novel. Difficult to know who got what ideas from who.
Don’t know whether to be optimistic or terrified about the future. I’m nearly 50 years old, so I’ll definitely be taking my Statins, vitamins and blood pressure pills in the hope that I can “live long enough to to live forever”
The author doesn't explore the implications of the singularity for anyone outside of the western world, and spends little time exploring the potential risks and downsides (war, exploitation, or perhaps just a 'Terminator' style end of the world!). In fact, outside of the US was quite rare.
The 'dialogues' between people from different times were so cringe-worthy that I had to flick past these also.
In summary, interesting ideas, probably available elsewhere in a less annoying format!
He has a brilliant grasp of his subject and i would imagine in person he is a tour de force as a speaker.For me however when he started to explain human 2.0 and 3.0 he lost some of his power. When the human organs have all been replaced bar the skin are we still human. The virtual reality sex model is hilarious and deeply troubling. If we can always have the object of our desires virtually,then Pandora'S box is well and truly open.How do real human relationships exist if both partners prefer a younger slimmer model in virtual reality.
I did enjoy the read but i am not a Luddite but very wary of technology which allows me to live to 200.
Lastly I wonder what will happen if when we start to get smarter and closer to the singularity if we will only find new and more troubling ways to hurt,cheat and murder one another?
I for one can't see why Kurzweil's main predictions are wrong.