The Age of Spiritual Machines: How We Will Live, Work, and Think in the New Age of Intelligent Machines. Hardcover – 6 Oct 2001
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How much do we humans enjoy our current status as the most intelligent beings on earth? Enough to try to stop our own inventions from surpassing us in smarts? If so, we'd better pull the plug right now, because if Ray Kurzweil is right, we've only got until about 2020 before computers outpace the human brain in computational power. Kurzweil, artificial intelligence expert and author of The Age of Intelligent Machines, shows that technological evolution moves at an exponential pace. Further, he asserts, in a sort of swirling postulate, time speeds up as order increases, and vice versa. He calls this the "Law of Time and Chaos," and it means that although entropy is slowing the stream of time down for the universe overall, and thus vastly increasing the amount of time between major events, in the eddy of technological evolution the exact opposite is happening and events will soon be coming faster and more furiously. This means that we'd better figure out how to deal with conscious machines as soon as possible--they'll soon not only be able to beat us at chess, they'll likely demand civil rights, and they may at last realise the very human dream of immortality.
The Age of Spiritual Machines is compelling and accessible, and not necessarily best read from front to back--it's less heavily historical if you jump around (Kurzweil encourages this). Much of the content of the book lays the groundwork to justify Kurzweil's timeline, providing an engaging primer on the philosophical and technological ideas behind the study of consciousness. Instead of being a gee-whiz futurist manifesto, Spiritual Machines reads like a history of the future, without too much science fiction dystopianism. Instead, Kurzweil shows us the logical outgrowths of current trends, with all their attendant possibilities. This is the book we'll turn to when our computers first say "hello." --Therese Littleton, Amazon.com --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Ray Kruzweil is a legend in artificial intelligence. -- The Times Higher Education Supplement, July 16, 1999
The scope of the ideas is breath-taking, and anyone who intends to spend some time in the next millennium ought to read it. -- Frontiers, April, 1999
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If yes, and you're wondering what you might be doing in 2015, read this 1999 classic - the one future book you really should read.
OK, you may hate 'SciFi', you may not buy Kurzweil's grand Laws, or his post-2030 stuff, and Kurzweil's style isn't to everyone's taste, but the surprising thing is that the IT industry seems to agree with his central conclusions for the next fifteen years or so. And that alone is sufficient for us to be living in a world where androids are cleverer than us. That'll change the way you work: most of us will have to respond to our competitors who might be using androids in a competitive situation. Scary stuff for me and most of us, I would think. But why should we take K's particular set of future visions seriously?
Well underlying the whole analysis is Moore's Law, which says that the amount of computing power (memory, processing power, communication speeds etc.) that you can buy for $1000 doubles every two years, and we all know that it has held roughly true for at least the last forty years (K argues for 100 years, but we don't have to agree with him to continue the logic). Current 2003 computers have the processing power of a reptile's brain, and the IT industry apparently agrees with Kurzweil that mainframe computers will equal a human's processing power some time around 2015, with this coming into laptops (or their equivalent) in the following 5-10 years. No serious chip manufacturer or IT player seems to dispute that Moore's Law will hold for another 15 years and that the underlying technologies to achieve this fundamental technological shift exist (3D chips etc).
And that's all that's needed: Moore's Law for another 15 years plus the kind of global economic conditions we now have, and intelligent androids will be here. And if computers are in some important senses equal to us in 2015 then you can bet your entire pension that they will be cleverer than us by 2020. How old will you be then, and what will you be doing? K's predictions don't have to be out by many years for us all to have to think hard about what we will do in a world where androids first evolve separately from us, and then, horrifyingly start to physically merge and evolve with us.
Scared? I was. But I'm coming round to the idea. Think: intelligent assets are already here: a 2003 car already has around 60 components with programmable logic in them; each is upgradeable so that when you take your car in for a service the software can be upgraded. Mobile phones are now so much more than a telephone. Can you think of a seriously good reason why 'intelligent' heart valves, knee joints, or contact lenses will NOT be invented by 2015? And after that?
What shocks me is that when I reflect I realise that the world economy's current competitive forces will compel these 'good' inventions to be created. Then we will have to think about how any ruling Saddam Husseins might develop such machines. I don't see the faintest signs of serious debate, but we're talking about the future of humanity here.
In sum, short of asteroids or human disasters wiping us off the face of the planet, I cannot see how we won't be living in a world populated with androids by at least 2020. Fundamentalist Presidents and Ayatollahs may spout until they're blue, but they won't be able to stop this trend unless they break up the current global economic system, and define, and strictly-enforce, some limits on what computers and Programmeable Logic Circuits are allowed to do in their own countries. And then they might delay things by ten years at most in their own country (think of the Soviet bloc's experiences trying to resist computers and photocopiers). I certainly didn't have the view that intelligent androids are inevitable until I read this book and started asking questions in the IT community about the first fifteen years of K's visions, when I found that it was pretty well taken as read and agreed. Read it yourself and see, five years out, how well on track we are for his 2009 predictions. Then think: what do I want to do in such a world? More importantly, as a race, what do we all want to do?
But more interesting than the general theme are the implications. Kurzweil writes, "Improving our lives through neural implants on the mental level, and nanotechnology-enhanced bodies on the physical level, will be popular and compelling." (This is sometime after machines have gotten a lot smarter than we are and can help us with these tasks.) Kurzweil adds, "It is another one of those slippery slopes--there is no obvious place to stop this progression until the human race has largely replaced the brains and bodies that evolution first provided." (pp. 140-141)
What Kurzweil is getting at might be expressed with these words, "Au revoir, carbon-based, humanoid bipeds!" In effect, he is saying that we will go the way of the dodo.
It has long been a staple of science fiction that humans will be replaced by artificial intelligence, what Kurzweil calls "spiritual machines." We are toast, it's just a matter of when. What we didn't know was how and how soon. Kurzweil has the answer. We will replace ourselves with the artifacts of our technology, and we'll do it sooner rather than later. He believes there will no longer be "any clear distinction between humans and computers" by the year 2099. At the same time "Most conscious entities" will "not have a permanent physical presence." (p. 280) We will have become "software." Incidentally there will be no pain or sense of death along the way. It will happen as gradually and as imperceptibly (to us) as grass growing. To paraphrase T. S. Eliot: This is the way our world ends. Not with a bang, not even with a whimper.
One of the striking things about Kurzweil's perception is that our children may live to see such a day, our grandchildren almost for sure. Wow. The implications of this spiritual transformation (to conjure up some perhaps apt New Age terminology) are beyond mind-boggling, they are mind-deleting!
Yes, get ready to have your mind deleted. But it will be no big deal. This will happen some time after it is downloaded into a secure and long-lived spiritual machine. You won't care. The old biological you will transpire and the new happy you will live a long, long time. Or, another scenario is that you will be replaced so gradually that at no time will you realize that you are being replaced. The incremental changes will all seem positive and life-enhancing. As Kurzweil reminds us, the atoms in our bodies are replaced again and again as we pass through the events of our lives and at no time do we have any sense of dying.
It may seem a bit astonishing but I think Kurzweil is on to something here. And I'm not the only one. Futurists around the world are very excited about the prospects that Kurzweil discusses in this book. For an example of the implications of these ideas and others, you might want to check out the "singularitywatch" web site. Site master John Smart believes that the rapidly accelerating pace of technological change is so explosive that as early as the year 2040 our technology will be so far in advance of today's that it will constitute from our viewpoint a "singularity." We cannot see across the event horizon from this side, but even if we could, we would not be able to comprehend what we saw. In effect, the future is invisible but can be discerned by the implications of our present technology and by an appreciation of what Kurzweil calls the "Law of Accelerating Returns."
I've always been one for fantastic ideas. I love the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics mainly because of the wondrous way it frees the mind. To imagine that a new universe is created with every quantum event is about as fantastic as it gets. The implication of such a mind expansion is that the reality of existence is vastly greater than anything we can imagine, and--guess what?--it is.
For this reason alone I consider this a wonderful book, and I will not quibble about Kurzweil's many predictions, nor will I point out that the "Law of Accelerating Returns," which he derives from his more fundamental "Law of Time and Chaos" are laws in the same sense that Moore's Law is a law; that is, not in a scientific sense but in an observational and logical sense. They are predictions made from limited observations, and like all such predictions are subject to conditions and influences we know nothing about.
What is absolutely fascinating about the ideas presented in this book is the way they make us think about what it means to be alive and have consciousness. The Eastern idea that we don't die and that our ego is an illusion fits very comfortably into a scenario that includes the gradual transformation of ourselves from carbon-based beings to software, or put another way, our gradual transformation to pure information. For a rationalist, being pure information may be what is meant by being spiritual.
In short, what Kurzweil is postulating is nothing less than the end of life as we know it. For those who imagine that we are the immutable handiwork of a supernatural being, this is a heresy. For others who see humans as part of a larger process on the way to becoming, this book is something akin to an important sutra.
However, his enthusiasm and accessibility of his writing tend to gloss over the fact that he uses a rather eccentric interpretation of physics and biology to justify why his futurology is based on solid science, rather than wild speculation.
After you begin to realise that the theories on which the book is founded are flawed, you begin to mistrust the rest of Kurzweil's ideas. For instance, the author suggests that evolution is a bad programmer because there are repeated or apparently extraneous strings of code in our DNA. Surely he must be aware of the AI experiment where the scientists successfully created a functioning neural net and took out the paths which were unused. The net failed to function without the 'unnecessary' elements. Surely, we simply don't know enough about our own DNA to make the assumption that portions are unnecessary?
Despite misgivings over the hard science, I like Kurzweil's optimism and the philosophical questions he posed about the nature of identity. So I can recommend this book, even though Bill Gates has endorsed it!
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