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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Flawed Masterpiece
Although not a perfect book, "The Age of Spiritual Machines" is destined (IMO) to become one of the more important books of the late 20th Century.
Kurzweil begins all the way back at the Big Bang, clearly unable to limit his scope to something more appropriate. He starts with an outdated summary of creation physics, then contrasts the slowing timeline...
Published on 26 Jan 1999

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Science-fictional rewriting of the Bible
It is interesting to read this older book after the more recent ones. It reveals some of the ideological axioms and methodological traits and mistakes that he started from. And unluckily it is necessary to go back to basics at times when you are dealing with a bestselling author in a field where it is easy to predict the future, even the future of the world, the field of...
Published on 11 May 2012 by Jacques COULARDEAU

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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Flawed Masterpiece, 26 Jan 1999
By A Customer
Although not a perfect book, "The Age of Spiritual Machines" is destined (IMO) to become one of the more important books of the late 20th Century.
Kurzweil begins all the way back at the Big Bang, clearly unable to limit his scope to something more appropriate. He starts with an outdated summary of creation physics, then contrasts the slowing timeline of phase changes in the universe with the speeding up of the evolution of life -- as if the two are somehow related. He puts forth the curious idea that technology is "inevitable" wherever life evolves. Both these arguments exemplify the homocentric hubris that the universe was created for the emergence of mankind.
Nevermind. Skip the first chapter (as Kurzweil himself suggests in the prefatory note) and you'll quickly get into the good stuff. His chapters on the evolution of intelligence and the growth of computing power are well founded.
Where he really hits his stride however is in the second section, "Preparing the Present," where he puts forth cogent arguments for quantum computing based on DNA, mentality-enhancing neural implants, and "downloading your mind to your personal computer." He then goes on to discuss nanotechnology and life-extending technologies. This section alone is worth the price of the book.
After the past and the present, he gives quick snapshots of where he thinks we may be in 10, 20, 30, and 100 years. These too are well thought out and insightful. He is generally conservative, foreseeing no large "phase changes" which could radically affect current trends. It'll be interesting to check back to see how his predictions held up.
Other pluses: an excellent "further reading" list, extensive web links, and far-ranging footnotes.
Minuses: he takes Roger Penrose seriously, he fails to mention Racter in the discussion of computer authors, and he spends just a wee bit too much time tooting his own horn (Kurzweil Computer Products, Kurzweil Reading Machine, Kurzweil Data Entry Machine, Kurzweil Music Systems, Kurzweil Applied Intelligence, Kurzweil Education Systems, Ray Kurzweil Cybernetic Poet...) But to be fair, he HAS pioneered in all these areas, so perhaps he has earned his immodesty.
Overall, a fascinating, thought-provoking book which is not afraid to make concrete predictions. Given Kurzweil's track record, he may just prove to be 100% right.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A very good book, but..., 19 April 1999
By A Customer
I enjoyed this book very much; there is no doubt Kurzweil is an engaging, convincing, and even daring author with an impressive track record for his predictions. However, I do have a couple of issues with one of his predictions.
Kurzweil predicts that machine intelligences will exceed humans by the year 2020. I have two issues with this. Although Kurzweil does discuss the complexity of the brain, I believe he has oversimplified the problem. By this time Kurzweil maintains that most brain areas will have been scanned and reverse-engineered.
Perhaps... but as I said, he has underestimated the complexity of the problem. For example, the human brain has about 15,000 major and minor brain centers, and after 100 years of research, not a single central neural code for a single brain center has ever been deciphered. So if Kurzweil's prediction relies on our figuring out the actual 'wetware,' good luck. Of course, machine intelligence of respectable power may become possible without our understanding how the brain does it, but in my opinion, these machine intelligences will not have the generality of their human counterparts, although they may be able to beat humans in certain specialist areas (such as chess and spectrology).
I have another issue. Let's consider the difference between a human brain and a modern CPU in terms of the number of computing elements. Current microchips only have a few million transisters. A human brain has over 60 trillion neurons. Even if we start packing that many transistors on a chip, that's only part of the problem. Each neuron has between 10,000 and 100,000 different connections with other neurons (the figure Kurzweil quotes is too low). This means that the total number of connections in a human brain is greater than the number of atoms in the known universe. Or to put it another way, you could add up all the computer chips on earth and they probably wouldn't equal one human brain in terms of the total synaptic connectivity. This doesn't mean it won't happen, but this gives you some idea of the complexity of the organ Kurzweil is predicting a machine will soon exceed.
To give another analogy, a human liver can catalyze about 2000 different biochemical reactions. The most sophisticated chemical factory in the world can't do even a small fraction of that. A human brain is orders of magnitude more complex, just in terms of the 'hardware.' This means that current computers will have to be thousands, perhaps, millions of times, more complex to emulate a human on this level. And we haven't even gotten to the issue of the 'software' or 'wetware,' of which, as I said, hardly anything is known. Perhaps machine intelligence will do it another way without all the hardware-level complexity a human brain has. Certainly they are faster than we are, by many orders of magnitude, but speed is not the same as power. We shall see...
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Science-fictional rewriting of the Bible, 11 May 2012
This review is from: The Age of Spiritual Machines (Paperback)
It is interesting to read this older book after the more recent ones. It reveals some of the ideological axioms and methodological traits and mistakes that he started from. And unluckily it is necessary to go back to basics at times when you are dealing with a bestselling author in a field where it is easy to predict the future, even the future of the world, the field of technology and what's more information technology.

Ray Kurzweil with more recent books took us into the clouds of his cloud computing and appeared on these clouds like some Messiah who was the rainmaker of the apocalypse, that time when humans will be taken over by another world entirely dominated by a non-human intelligence, even if created originally by man himself. He tries to be the prophet of the future of a world created by evolution stated as intelligent (whose intelligence?) and later by man's intelligence, and then destroyed for plain humans by the machines created by this human intelligence. The vision is a mixture of Terminator 1-2-3-4, Matrix 1-2-3, The Stand, and The Book of Revelation. He even gives at the end of this here book the four Horses of the Apocalypse page 256: Red War ("the species may destroy itself before achieving this step"), White Political Power ("a malfunction," hence a problem in the system whose constitution is not clear cut), the Black Justice or Commerce and their scales ("a software virus" introduced by the badly designed software or by a pirate or hacker) and the Pale Green Pestilence (a "real biological virus" devised and accidentally, on purpose from the machine or on purpose from a malevolent human with reference to the example of "HIV")

But this enormous metaphor, always present in this book, is quite often expressed when speaking of the beginning of the world, the creation of the Universe, the Big Bang, the end of the world, the end of the Universe, the Big Crunch or the Whimper, the beginning of time and the end of time, etc, the total domination with the alpha and the omega, that basic biblical, Jewish, Christian and Islamic concept that time has a first instant and will have a last instant and both were decided by some God. He even manages to present the God's spot of some epileptic god-fearing patients who see God in their trances, and that vision is identified in one spot in their brain in such a way that we may believe it is true for everyman on earth, hence that God is in every single one of our brains.

This is clandestine and yet widely open religious ideology directly borrowed from the basic sacred books of the three Semitic religions. He could have quoted easily the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Qumran Dead Sea Scrolls and the Koran. But he kept his quotations secret. Too bad. When one is speaking religion it is important that this one says so and give the references not to be accused of plagiarism.

Let's start with time. Time does not exist in reality, in the real world. Only duration does and time was invented by human beings as soon as they tried to measure that duration. So it is absurd to speak of an acceleration of time or of a deceleration of time. We may speak of the speed of a phenomenon, but not of the speed of time. Time is a human concept and as such it is absolutely objective and has to remain so, like any measurement invented by human beings. Then he speaks a lot about the subjective impression we have according to various psychological states we may be in. That implies that we feel a certain amount of time as having a short or long duration but duration is not time. A star does not know time, nor duration as for that, but for two different reasons, because time is a human invention and because a star has no consciousness or awareness of duration, or anything else as for that. Kurzweil when speaking of time or using the concept of time is in fact juggling around with colored balls and he wants us to believe he is not a juggler but the balls and their dancing in the air are objective descriptions of the Universe.

If he had been prudent with time he would have been realistic with scientific and technological what's more models. All our knowledge is nothing but a complex set of models built by our mind on the basis of our sensations transformed into perceptions in our brain by our mind.

But Kurzweil never discusses the concept of mind and hardly refers to it. He refers to the brain which would in a way or another contain our intelligence and our knowledge. He uses most of the time a computing metaphor and the brain is a hard disk and intelligence is the software or the programming, knowledge being the memory or the data bank of the hard disk. That metaphor is primitive and it is a shortcut if not a mental short circuit.

What is the mind? The mind is a construct of man's brain built from all the individual has accumulated as for sensations, transformed into perceptions and articulated one on top, or whatever, of the other into a complex architecture from the very first moment of conception. The Pro-life or Pro-abortion debate has no value here. The fetus starts feeling and accumulating things, sensations, as soon as it is a fetus, hence just after conception; That fetus will have a heart of its own around the fourth week and from one beating (its mother's heart) it will shift to two beatings (his mother's and his own hearts) and these two will coordinate from one moment to the next and the fetus experiences from the first day and then from the fourth week the beating of one heart and then of two and the coordination of both. Stress in the mother, pleasure in the mother, fear in the mother change the beating of her heart and the fetus knows it. We mustn't forget that the fetus will eventually develop mirror neurons that will multiply the empathy he is living from the very first day. All that is ignored by Kurzweil.

Worse even he ignores that the child from the twentieth or twenty-fourth week of gestation will be able to clearly hear all that the mother says and all that is said within one yard and a half around the mother, and by the way not only said but all noises or music or whatever sound. Before that audition the fetus could feel the vibrations of the mother's body while she was speaking. Now he can hear the very clusters of sounds she produces, and those are associated to the vibrations, and those that are produced in her direction. At birth the new-born will be able to react to the clusters of sounds that had been common with the mother and experiments were done with the names of the siblings of the new-born and the baby reacted to these clusters one hour after birth. All that is ignored and of course language is ignored in its hierarchical articulated nature.

But there is more. The birth itself is never taken into account and the trauma it brings with discontinuous feeding, with breathing, with hunger and thirst, and the first cry of the baby. It will not take the baby very long to understand that when it cries some adult is going to come to take care of its needs, wants, discomforts and desires. That creates a basic MATRIX of hierarchized functions centering on a relation. The functions are theme and location, source and goal, agent and theme. These functions are the basic functions of any human syntax and the relations, static (of the "be" type or of the "have" type) or active (of the transitive, intransitive, transferring or positioning types, not to speak of the particular transfers of "give" and "take"). All that is learned from experience by the new-born child and built in his mind as a model that will inform the language when words become possible.

Yes the child listens and yes the child will babble and discover that the lip movements of sucking or rejecting the tit of his mother or the bottle-tit can be articulated on the flow of air coming from his larynx and when that larynx starts lowering the child will be able to pronounce "ma", "pa", "da", "ta", "ka". As soon as the larynx is low enough to control the flow of air and as soon as the articulatory power of the mouth, jaws, tongue, glottis becomes more developed the child will be able to produce and articulate more sounds, and he will start associating the clusters of sound with the referential elements around him, on the basis of and into the basic MATRIX he will have by then vastly developed in his mind through and from experience.

But the main mistake of Kurzweil is methodological. He does not seems to understand, actually he can't, that the mind being a construct will change its construction constantly every single time a new element of knowledge appears. That connection between the knowledge and the architecture of the mind is not seen by Kurzweil and the evolutionary nature of that relation is not seen either, especially not in its dual carriageway dialectic: a given state of the mind enables a child to learn a certain item of knowledge but that item of knowledge reacting on the mind changes it and restructures it and then the mind is able to learn some new item of knowledge he could not learn before. And that process is never finished, except with death, that can be mental before being physical, but that's not the point here.

So the main methodological defect appears then.

He states what he calls laws, particularly the Law of Accelerating Returns. But he does not seem to know this law is a mental model constructed by his mind of what might be a natural phenomenon. But his law contains a very old defect generally identified as the paradox of Ulysses and the Hare. If Man's mental development is slower than the machine's development then sooner or later the machine will step beyond man. But he forgets the basic principle of man's development. It is mental, hence in the mind, hence a construct, a model, hence every step of it develops the mind itself and every development of what this mind produces develops the mind itself, which means we cannot in anyway consider the mind (and Kurzweil only considers the brain) as in anyway static in power and extension. The brain is hardly overused by the mind. Isn't it said that Einstein used something like 12 or 13 % of his brain? The brain is far from being fully used and the mind has quite a lot of brain reserve to develop more and more models of reality.

The last point I would like to make here is the social hierarchy that is behind that thinking.

At the top you have "the software-based humans who vastly exceed those still using native neuron-cell-based computation." No matter how vast this class is, it is a dominant class. We are in pure science fiction where these superior beings are purely virtual living in virtual bodies in a virtual reality and that they can eventually descend into a nano-engineered physical body. That reminds me of Hubbard's "theta" and "MEST"

The population this superior class dominates is to be seen as composed of several layers.

First the middle human class that uses "neural implant technology to reach an enormous augmentation of human perceptual and cognitive abilities." Note the mind is still absent since, according to Bertrand Russell, the body and its senses can only increase the quality of the sensations, and it is the mind that will build the perceptions. That's the short cut of the presentation which is a short circuit: without a mind the way I defined it, along with Bertrand Russell and all cognitive linguists, we blow the system because the mind is the fuse of it.

At the bottom the lower class is composed of the humans who do not utilize the afore-mentioned implants and are unable to meaningfully participate in dialogues with those who are using them.

This society is an echo of Brave New World and it amounts to real apartheid based not on race, not even on culture and education, but on the use or not of neural implant technology. There is not choice whatsoever in this social vision. Under the virtual dominant class that may condescend to get into a nano-engineered physical body to deal with real humans, the choice, if it is a choice, is to accept neural implants or not. On one hand you can participate in the society. On the other hand you cannot and I guess you will be sent to some reservation if not a simple extermination plant. And this does not answer the question of who will decide and through what procedure, and with what appeal route, that this physical body will be entrusted to the virtual dominant individuals to be able to intervene in the real world. Who will decide who is going to be the vessel of these virtual dominant beings? We are this time in Supernatural. So we can ask who is Lucifer and who is Michael.

To conclude, and I will spend a lot more time to discuss Kurzweil's books (all of them) in another arena, this ideology justifies deistic visions without hardly referring to God. This ideology is socially segregative. This ideology negates the developmental role of the mind by negating the mind itself. This ideology does not understand the developmental role of language among humans. This ideology ignores all the research done on pre-natal existence and cognitive process, procedures and power.

And surprisingly enough some of its conclusions are extremely close to Hubbard's, particularly in the science-fiction of it. Hubbard was more on retrospective science fiction, inheritance from the very distant past. Kurzweil is more on a prospective science fiction, the production of a future that will transcend us. But both base their visions of man and human society on a selection according to some kind of science-fictional elaboration that takes the form of some pseudo-psychiatric form in Hubbard, and that last "elaboration" word is an understatement.

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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A manual for the fading MOSH, 19 Feb 2006
Stephen A. Haines (Ottawa, Ontario Canada) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Age of Spiritual Machines (Paperback)
Kurzweil has added a volume to the growing library of studies on the impact of technology on humanity's future. Like some others in the field, his technical background leads him to focus on the amazing gains made in computing in recent years. The background doesn't obscure his ability to formulate and present his forecast of where these gains will lead us in a few years. He's lucid, strongly convincing and precise in why he believes what he does.
He opens by comparing the evolutionary rates of biological and computational change. From this contrast, he sees computers as achieving human mind processing levels in but a few years. Unlike most writers in this genre, Kurzweil bravely sets down a detailed time line of benchmarks indicating when we should expect each advance with its likely impact. In order to help readers comprehend his portentous scenarios, he provides reader/writer dialogs at the end of each chapter. An innovative step, these exchanges state likely questions readers are considering while reflecting on his ideas. These FAQ sessions offset some of the technical descriptions. Those of you with children should look carefully at his proposals while wondering where your offspring will fit into his scenarios. It is, after all, the reason the book's been written.
The focus is the human mind. How does it process and store information? The mind uses parallel processing and is slower than the high speed serial algorithm method computers use. With even faster processing, coupled with enhanced interactivity, computers will easily match the human brain. Then what? Kurzweil sees the mind and the computer subtly merging until what is computer and what is human becomes blurred. Physical events, for example, are reflected in our memories. Experience is what the mind remembers of it and can be recalled, imitated or created at will. In Kurzweil's predictions, even at long distance.
In another context, this would be considered speculative fiction. Here, it's done with sound technical assessment, carrying extra validity thereby. There's little to fault in Kurzweil's presentation of future progress in computing or even whether there's likely to be a merging of computers and minds. What is lacking here is breadth of outlook. Kurzweil would have done better to collaborate with a biologist or social thinker. The future he outlines is purely the product of the technical world. While the future scenarios he conceives are perfectly valid for those able to implement them, the number of likely affected people is drastically smaller than his book conveys. While changes in perception of art, music, poetry, even prose writing are, as he states, already taking place, they will not be universal. A large part of the planet will be bypassed in this transformation. In his future scenarios he considers what changes will occur in the prosecution of war. Who will the enemy be? In all likelihood, those who've been left out of the changes.
What will the changes be in human character? His discussion of the technological Luddites is comprehensive, an often overlooked aspect of considering these changes. Yet even they are an integral part of this society, not those left outside its sphere. He suggests the human body as we know it will become superfluous. That will be true only for those willing or able to undertake the change. The rest of us, today's people, will become Mostly Original Substrate Humans [MOSH]. This suggests a divided society, humans and merges. Is this division likely to result in new species? Kurzweil doesn't address this question, but it's one requiring serious discussion. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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3.0 out of 5 stars A good introduction to Ray Kurzweil work, 24 Feb 2014
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This review is from: The Age of Spiritual Machines (Paperback)
I had been discussing with a friend about computer design and he suggested I read this mans work.
It is fascinating and definitely worth reading if you are interested in the progress and future possibilities that computers hold. Possibly a little out of date now but a great introduction to the subject matter.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Smart, insightful, flawed., 23 Aug 2009
Mr. G. Carroll (LDN | HKG | SZX) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Age of Spiritual Machines (Paperback)
Ray Kurzweil is a technological rock star, responsible for great music synthesisers and much of the developments around optical character recognition and speech recognition. This is what makes him a good futurist. The fact that he has had his hands dirty.

The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence is a book of two parts. In the first part, Kurzweil outlines how technology has progressed since the dawn of computing with Charles Babbage' difference engine. Kurzweil uses this trip down computer memory lane to demonstrated that computing power has been increasing exponentially since the dawn of time rather than just the dawn of Intel with Moore's Law on the doubling of transistors. Even though silicon transistors may top out computing power will keep on trucking (though Kurzweil doesn't necessarily have the answer of what is the next technology).

The second part of the book is likely future scenarios; and this is where things get interesting. Kurzweil is setting himself up for a FAIL. Bill Gates and Nathan Myhrvold missed the internet in the first edition of The Road Ahead when it was first published in 1995 and Kurzweil sets himself up for a potentially bigger fall in the scope of his book. Even if Kurzweil has his timing a bit wrong or doesn't get everything right his book is still a great thought experiment in how intelligent computers would impact humanity.
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3 of 15 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Misguided extrapolations of current information science., 21 Mar 1999
By A Customer
The "one-line" summary above is beautifully developed in a comprehensive, tough-thinking review of this book by John Searle (Professor of Philosophy at UCal Berkeley) in the most recent New York Review of Books, Vol.XLVI, No. 6, April 8, 1999. This review is must reading for all those who philosophize on future implications of our remarkable progress in information sciences and technology. In a nutshell, the review cogently and dispassionately analyzes the basic differences between "animal intelligence" (including humans) and man-made AI--artificial intelligence.
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The Age of Spiritual Machines
The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil (Paperback - Jan 2000)
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