The Singularity Is Near

Ray Kurzweil is a self-proclaimed superoptimist about technological progress. According to some of his critics, he is unrealistically confident about the future of artificial intelligence (AI), but according to such supporters as Marvin Minsky and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Kurzweil is insightfully extending scientifically observed trends of the twentieth century into the future. In such earlier books as The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990) and The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (1999), Kurzweil develops themes and makes predictions that he develops even more extensively in The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.

Moore’s Law, a central theme of Kurzweil’s earlier books, is also at the center of this new one. Computer engineer Gordon Moore noticed early in his career that the number of transistors on a single integrated circuit (IC) was doubling every year, a trend that has continued and has become known as Moore’s Law. A consequence of this law has been the phenomenal growth of computer power, with a concomitant reduction in costs. Kurzweil believes that not only computers but all information-related technologies will experience similar exponential growth. He has codified his belief in a theory he has called “the law of accelerating returns,” which explains how salient events in the evolution of technology occur at increasingly shorter time intervals.

What is novel in Kurzweil’s twenty-first century publications is his emphasis on a future period during which the ceaselessly accelerating augmentation of machine intelligence will irreversibly transform not only human life but also human nature. This periodwhen Homo sapiens breaks the bonds of its genetic past and ascends to unimaginable heights of health, intelligence, even immortalityKurzweil calls the Singularity. Shortly before the appearance of The Singularity Is Near, Kurzweil published, with Terry Grossman, a doctor interested in life extension, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever (2004), in which the two argue that new discoveries in genomics, biotechnology, and nanotechnology will allow humans to overcome bodily diseases and organ decline and to live in good health indefinitely. Kurzweil, who takes 250 supplement pills every day, hopes to preserve his good health until biotechnologists have learned how to conquer aging.

Throughout The Singularity Is Near, Kurzweil sprinkles autobiographical clues that help to explain his optimism. For example, as a child growing up in Queens, New York, he read Tom Swift stories, which imbued him with the unshakable conviction that humans have the power to solve whatever problems they encounter. When he was fifteen, he invented a teaching machine based on pattern recognition, and his correspondence with Minsky at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology led to his attending that school, where he studied computer science. His education reinforced his veneration for human creativity and his certitude that ideas can change the world. In 1974 he founded Kurzweil Computer Products, whose chief goal was to construct a machine that could read printed texts. He then invented a “Reading Machine for the Blind,” of which blind musician Stevie Wonder purchased the first model. The friendship that arose between Kurzweil and Wonder led to the founding of Kurzweil Music Systems, which made music synthesizers that accurately mimicked the sounds of many traditional instruments.

The Singularity Is Near, which draws on the author’s experiences as an inventor and maker of pattern-recognizing machines, is structured in nine chapters, prefaced by a prologue and concluding with an epilogue. Periodically interspersed in these chapters are Socratic dialogues in which historical, modern-day, and futuristic characters lightheartedly discuss the weighty analyses preceding them. Kurzweil even imagines a debate between bacteria during the early stages of life on Earth about the wisdom of their joining together, as this might lead to the evolution of such problematic life-forms as Homo sapiens.

Early in this book, Kurzweil introduces the reader to his visionary theory of technological evolution as a process of creating patterns of increasing complexity and order. He strongly disagrees with previous forecasters of future technological development who relied on an “intuitive linear view of history,” whereas he favors an exponential view. He divides the trajectory of evolution into six epochs, the first four of which refer to the past and present. His Epochs Five and Six are concerned with speculative future developments. In Epoch One atoms and molecules made their appearance. Epoch Two was a period during which life and the precise digital mechanisms for reproducing it appeared. In Epoch Three, early animals’ capacity to recognize patterns became highly sophisticated because of their complex brains, which eventually allowed humans to understand the world through abstract models. In Epoch Four, Kurzweil analyzes the evolution of human-created technologies, from simple machines to advanced computers capable of sensing, storing, and evaluating elaborate patterns of information.

Central to the book’s thesis is Epoch Five, during which, Kurzweil conjectures, the biological intelligence of human brains will be initially augmented and then transcended by nonbiological intelligence (this is the Singularity). During the...

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