The Singularity Is Near

Ray Kurzweil

Bill Gates observed, “Ray Kurzweil is the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence. His intriguing new book [TSIN] envisions a future in which information technologies have advanced so far and fast that they enable humanity to transcend its biological limitations – transforming our lives in ways we can’t yet imagine.” Kurzweil (RK) is an inventor and futurist with a 20-year record of accurate predictions, in five books, beginning with his Age of Intelligent Machines (1984). He has received 12 honorary doctorates, been dubbed “the restless genius” by The Wall Street Journal and “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes magazine, and has received awards from three U.S. presidents. His TSIN is his most far reaching yet, envisioning the most transforming and thrilling period in the history of the universe to date. He recalls Carl Sagan’s statement:

“Two billion years ago, our ancestors were microbes; 500 MYA, fish; 100 MYA, something akin to mice; 10 MYA, arboreal apes; 1 MYA, proto-humans…Our evolutionary lineage is marked by mastery of change… the pace of change is quickening.”

The history of homo sapiens, of course, covers only 100K years or so, and humans didn’t begin documenting events until the last 3,000 years or so, and not with significant reliability until Guttenberg invented the printing press in 1450. The most notable thing in our records is the rate at which change and progress have accelerated. This is most evident beginning with the Industrial Age in the 1800’s, but it becomes most obvious with emergence of the Information Age in about 1980. As Bill Gates noted in his Business at the Speed of Thought, in the coming years it is the speed at which information is obtained that will determine the winners. Kurzweil goes far beyond Gates’ predictions, in the area of machine or non-biological intelligence.

Kurzweil asserts that artificial/computer/machine intelligence (MI) will become indistinguishable from human by the middle of 21st Century. TSIN is the story of the destiny of the human-machine civilization, which he calls “the Singularity”. (A “singularity” is, of course, a unique event or thing, like a black hole.) Kurzweil maintains that, within a few decades, information technology (IT) will encompass all human knowledge, including problem solving plus the emotional and moral intelligence of the human brain itself. By the end of this Century, MI (also known as non-biological intelligence) will be trillions of times more powerful than unaided human intelligence. Robots will be our evolutionary heirs, the children of our minds with infinitely more knowledge, the ability to process data at exponential rates and even with human-emotional attributes. RK’s “Singularity” occurs when the rate of growth reaches an infinite speed, which RK predicts by 2045. Stephen Hawking (possibly the world’s greatest physicist since Einstein) recently predicted in an article that MI will surpass that of human’s “within a few decades” and he said that we “urgently need to develop direct connections between machine and human brains”, because we don’t want to “allow MI to be in opposition” to human intelligence. A mind like Hawking’s should never be ignored.

In his 500-pages, RK bounces lithely among pi, the speed of light, Planck’s Constant, Einstein’s Relativity Theories, Moore’s Law and countless other mind-benders, but he often neglects to give the layman enough of an explanation. His style of using different fonts, boxes, charts, graphics, etc. seemingly to add emphasis, generally detracts from the flow and gives the impression of a cluttered website with pop-up ads, reminiscent, say, of Times’ Square in NYC, where there are so many signs, billboards and flashing lights that one tends to ignore all but one or two. When everything is emphasized, nothing is emphasized. Then, too, much of the text offers ponderous data that most will not relish; he labors assiduously to prove that the human mind can be replicated, more or less, by a machine, and he leaps from physics to math to neurology to geometry etc., with arguments better advanced at conventions of scientists or neurologists, until the reader’s eyes blur.

All of his detailed medical discussions of the brain’s processes describe how the brain works but no where do they attempt to describe thought. While many thoughts come from experience and could, thus, be taught to machines; some are totally original or emotional, as what makes us love, laugh and cry? Can or will a machine ever do that without being programmed to do so on cue? The spontaneity of the human mind seems most difficult to define, much less to clone. This layman can’t envision a truly human-like MI. Still, RK is a genius and his core prediction, as Hawking agrees, seems likely to be substantially correct, whether it is in 2045, his chosen year, or 50 years thereafter. My bottom line, as to the book, is that it is neither well suited for experts or laymen; he aimed in the middle, hoping to catch all, and missed both targets. He’s too recondite for laymen and too shallow for experts. His key point is worth grasping and accepting: MI is fast overtaking human intelligence and will eventually be able to do infinitely more than any human mind and may even simulate many human characteristics. This point, however, could have been made as well in 100 pages as in 500.