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on 2 February 2004
Well, will you be alive in 2015? If you don't plan to be, pass on and read something else.
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?
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 15 September 2004
While Kurzweil makes it clear that he believes it is "inevitable" that machine intelligence will exceed human intelligence--see especially page 253--he adds some clarifying "Failure Modes" on page 256. The most significant one is the possibility that "the entire evolutionary process" will be destroyed (think: a supernova in the neighborhood); but there is also the possibility that humans "together with...[our] technology may destroy" ourselves before we get there (think: replicating Osama Bin Ladens, perhaps as nanobots).
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.
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on 9 September 1999
While reading the Age of Spiritual Machines, I was won over by the vision of the exponential progress of Artificial Intelligence and related technologies. Kurzweil communicates his vision in an engaging and enthusiastic style.
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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on 19 January 2001
Unlike so many writers about the future, Kurzweil's views are well grounded and drawn from current trends in technology, genetics and neuroscience. You can be certain that Hollywood screenplay writers are mining his book for ideas. He brings the future into a current reality that reads like fiction. His vision of what is and what will be is mind bending and thought provoking. After reading this book you'll find yourself desperately looking for others who have read the book to validate your own theories generated while reading the book. His view on technologies ability speed up evolution in an ever-ascending positive trend is scientifically flawed but easily over looked. This book replaces Future Shock as the quintessential book on the future.
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on 11 April 2000
I bought the book after attending a symposium organised by Doug Hofstadter at Stanford and featuring Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec (among others.) It really is a best seller in the US - at least in tech book terms - WAKE UP Britian! The central theme of this book (and Moravec's Mind Children and Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind and Paul & Cox's Beyond Humanity), is that we are approaching the crossover ie we are roughly 20 years away from when machine intelligence will overtake human intelligence. And that once this happens, machine intelligence will accelerate into uncharted waters. I think that a convincing case is built that we are on track to do this within approximately this time span.
It's quite possible to nit-pick over much of what Kurzweil says - but that's not the point. The point is the general vision of where we are headed. Kurzweil's view is that there is a 50% plus chance that humanity will make it through this transitory phase (ie the next century), that we will successfully combat the comming threats of self replicating biotech pathogens, software pathogens and self replicating nanopathogens, to complete the process of integration with our technology - and abandonment of our biological roots that we are now in the early/final stages of. Early because we are currently only fractionally fused with our technology (language, books, machines etc). Final because the maybe 40,000 year process is, because of the exponential acceleration of technological development, perhaps only 50-100 years or so away from completion.
I guess this is likely to seem utterly far fetched to 99.9% of the public - just as would mobile phones, the internet and robotic jet travel have seemed beyond belief to a 1900 audience. My belief is that these guys are very much on the right track. Though I'm not sure I'd put our chances of making it through quite as high.
Of course, if they are, it throws up a myriad of philosophical and practical issues which have yet to be satisfactorily explored (at least to my limited knowledge).
To my mind the most interesting of these is what evolutionary process will drive forward the development of knowledge that Kurzweil in common with the others assumes almost as a given, once knowledge seeking is completely delinked from biological survival? Today only a tiny fraction of available (largely biological) computing power is engaged in the quest for knowledge - the majority being used to enhance the immediate(ish)survival and reproductive imperatives of our genes(or to address the psychological mechanisms which have evolved to enhance their reproductive success).
Of course a stream of knowledge seeking activity has evolved and has proved phenomenally successful in terms of impact on the world, if not instantiation. But the successful evolution of this knowledge base has been underwritten by its usefulness in the competition for resources by biological agents. Kurzweil doesn't really focus on how knowledge will evolve once this link is eroded except for the general proposition that good quality knowledge will always be helpful in a competition for scarce resouces. It would be interesting to see how his ideas fitted in with those exploring the memetic theme.
In any event, it would be kind of disappointing if the ultimate fate of intelligence on this planet was an infinately looped orgasmatron or game of Who wants to be a millionaire? But one only has to look at the mass content of the net to see that this is not a trivial concern.
Bottom line - If you are interested in how this century might pan out, this is as good a place to start as any.
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on 30 December 2001
It's easy to be carried away by Kurweils enthusiasm for technological advance, and for the first half of the book I have to admit I was too. However, his reasoning is not universally sound. He follows up his review of the predictions he made in his previous treatment of this subject (Age of Intelligent Machines) with further predictions for the future. It all kind of falls apart as soon as we reach 2009. I write this at the dawn of 2002 and have to say Ray, great art will be on canvas or carved from stone for the forseeable future (certainly beyong 7 years), and not displayed on computer screens to change as the mood suits. To say such a thing is to label art as transient. Books will still be paper. Its cheap, and you get to own something physical (Why didn't everyone throw away their CD collections with the advent of digital radio and the promise of music on demand?). Warfare will still be undertaken by men in machines. We have had the technology to fight wars remotely using GPS or INS guided missiles since at least the early 1960's yet we still put men in our aircraft. A budgie sized unmanned aircraft may be useful for espionage, but spying isn't war.
Whilst I enjoyed the book immensely, and many of Ray's proposals and predictions are indeed fascinating, the nagging thought remained with me throughout... Why? Where is the point here? Technology is driven by need. Many of the technologies Kurzweil outlines are just simply unneccesary 'nice to have but pointless' things. For this reason, 'accelerating returns' with no end point is flawed. People will never pay for what they dont want.
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on 3 November 2013
This book is intellectual masturbation, written by a very clever but delusional man who needs to be kept on a tight leash to protect mankind from a bunch of crazies!
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