It’s a good thing summer is over, because Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology is anything but a beach book.
One of the most important thinkers of our time, Kurzweil has followed up his earlier works most notably The Age of Spiritual Machines with a work of startling breadth and audacious scope.
I obtained an advance copy of the book, so this may be the first published review of The Singularity Is Near. In it, Kurzweil explores such subjects as artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, human longevity, reengineering the digestive system, wormholes, extraterrestrial life, manipulation of the genome and, above all, the idea that we are fast approaching the day when human beings and machines will merge into a human-machine civilization with an intelligence trillions of times more powerful than the diminutive clump of grey matter we rely on today.
I briefly met Kurzweil in October 2002 at the PopTech conference in Camden, Maine, where I took the photo of him above, and where he showed off a 25-year-old singer/avatar named Ramona, an early demonstration of virtual reality posing as alter ego.
At PopTech, and less so when I next saw him in April 2004 via videoconference at a UC Berkeley session on Technology and the Quest for Human Mastery, where Howard Rheingold tried to educate him about the entertainment industry’s assault on the commons Kurzweil expounded on his trademark Big Idea: that technology is speeding up so quickly that the changes being wrought are occurring at an exponential pace.
Futurists make the mistake of basing their forecasts on today’s rate of progress, which is itself five times greater than the average rate of change we saw in the 20th century. “But because we’re doubling the rate of progress every decade, we’ll see the equivalent of a century of progress at today’s rate in only twenty-five calendar years.” Thus, drugs forecast to hit the market in 50 years will likely be available in 10 years, he argues.
Thursday’s London Register carried this story: CPUs smarter than ‘every human brain combined’ by 2060. No doubt Kurzweil would scoff at this claim, arguing it will happen well before then.
Because of the law of accelerating returns, we are hurtling headlong toward a future few of us can fathom. He writes in Chapter 1:
What, then, is the Singularity? It’s 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. Although neither utopian nor dystopian, this epoch will transform the concepts that we rely on to give meaning to our lives, from our business models to the cycle of human life, including death itself.
Kurzweil is undoubtedly right about this: We have scarcely begun to appreciate the implications of the impact that exponential technological growth will have on our future. What’s less certain is whether the second part of his thesis man and machine merging, literally, into a sort of higher consciousness will come to pass. He writes:
The Singularity will allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains. We will gain power over our fates. Our mortality will be in our own hands. We will be able to live as long as we want (a subtly different statement from saying we will live forever). We will fully understand human thinking and will vastly extend and expand its reach. By the end of this century, the nonbiological portion of our intelligence will be trillions of trillions of times more powerful than unaided human intelligence. …
There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine, nor between physical and virtual reality.
Before the Singularity occurs, Kurzweil predicts that current stock prices will triple in value over the next generation or so (under an exponential model rather than the conventional linear outlook). A machine in your pocket will crush the top human chessmaster in the world; don’t bother watching, it won’t be pretty.
By the end of the 2020s, he says, we will achieve a genuine synthesis of the strengths of human and machine intelligence: pattern recognition and inference on the human side, large memory with instant recall and easy data-sharing on the machine side. Nanotechnological implants will be used to augment human brains. Profound diseases and disabilities will be overcome. Soon after that, pollution will end. World hunger and poverty will be solved.
The Singularity itself will occur not in some distant Buck Rogers century but in the year 2045. That’s right during our lifetimes (if you’re 50 or younger). By then, he writes, “We will transcend biology but not our humanity.” He estimates that the nonbiological intelligence created in that year will be one billion times more powerful than all human intelligence today.
If you like your books light and frothy, be warned, this 635-page tome can be dense as a black hole at times, brimming with graphs and mathematical formulas only an SAT overachiever could love. Kurzweil, who has approximately the same brainpower as the entire populace of Capitol Hill, does try to lighten the book’s prose by sprinkling in fanciful dialogues between people like Bill Gates, Sigmund Freud, Timothy Leary, and Molly from the year 2104.
The best course is to skip the heavy-slogging stuff and go to the material that intrigues you. I was fascinated by the frightening scenario that a small number of self-replicating nanobots could multiply itself a thousand trillionfold and, under the right circumstances, destroy the earth in only 90 minutes.
Fascinating, too, was Kurzweil’s cold mathematical formulation that throws cold water on the claims of those, like the late Carl Sagan, who believe the universe is teeming with intelligent life. (Sagan estimated the Milky Way contains a million radio-broadcasting civilizations.) In a section on “Why We Are Probably Alone in the Universe,” Kurzweil tells us why we haven’t heard from anyone Out There. Are they really that shy?
The Drake equation, a favorite formulation of ET lovers, posits that 50 percent of the stars have planets, that each of these stars has an average of two planets that can sustain life, that on half of these planets life has actually evolved, that half of these planets has evolved intelligent life, that half of these are radio-capable, and that the average radio-capable civilization has been broadcasting for one million years. If true, there would be 1.25 million radio-capable civilizations in our galaxy.
But the estimates above are arguably very high, Kurzweil notes. If, instead, we assume that half of the stars have planets, that only one tenth of these stars has a planet able to sustain life, that on one percent of these planets life has actually evolved, that five percent of these life-evolving planets has evolved intelligent life, that half of these are radio-capable, and that the average radio-capable civilization has been broadcasting for 10,000 years, then the results are very different: there would be 1.25 radio-capable civilization in the Milky Way. “And we already know of one.”
“The Singularity Is Near” hits bookstores Sept. 26. Check it out if you want to exercise that clump of grey matter before it goes out of style.
Note: Kurzweil will make two appearances in the San Francisco Bay Area soon:
• Thursday, Sept. 22, at 6 pm: An SDForum event with a book signing afterward at 8:30 pm at SAP America, Building D, 3410 Hillview Ave., Palo Alto.
• Friday, Sept. 23, at 7 pm: Stewart Brand will introduce Kurzweil at the next Long Now event, at the Herbst Theater Veterans Building, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Info here.
Additional articles and information:
JD Lasica, who reviewed books (among many other things) as an editor with the Sacramento Bee, is the author of Darknet: Hollywood’s War Against the Digital Generation.