Top positive review
The End Of Life As We Know It
February 10, 2015
I remember several years ago telling people I had just subjected myself to the scariest book of my life after reading one about the supposedly inevitable nuclear implosion of Pakistan. Well, now I've found something that tops it, even though author Ray Kurzweil seems to imagine his book as a bolt of optimism.
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.