Ray Kurzweil: “The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence”

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Celebrated futurist Ray Kurzweil’s second book of predictions, published in 1999, charts a narrative of exponential technological change from 1900 to 2099. The author here elaborates his theory of “accelerating returns,” derived from his more encompassing “law of time and chaos,” which states, “In a process, the time interval between salient events (i.e., events that change the nature of the process, or significantly affect the future of the process) expands or contracts along with the amount of chaos.” (26) On a universal scale, time is slowing down as the system becomes more chaotic. On an evolutionary scale, time is speeding up as humans and their technology becomes more precisely ordered. Kurzweil further claims that “technology is evolution by other means;” that is, that technology is a logical (actually, necessary) element of evolution: evolution as a process generates ever-more complex lifeforms, until it produces organisms that can create technology, which is then used to create more technology, and ever more advanced lifeforms, etc. Thus evolution is proceeding at an exponential rate: the billions of years necessary to produce the first multicellular organisms has now been reduced to a mere year to double the computing capacity of our machines. At this rate, by 2020 computers will have the storage capacity and processing speed of the human brain, and will thereafter rapidly surpass it. The key to Kurzweil’s thinking (and thus his predictions) is that technology increases exponentially, not linearly, and since just about everything can potentially fall under the domain of technological improvement (including the human mind and body), evolution, including social forms, are now being driven by logarithmic growth curves. Such curves are amply illustrated throughout The Age of Spiritual Machines.

Kurzweil is a techno-enthusiast, but also a utopianist: he believes that the world’s problems can all be solved through technological advancement. Again, this is a function of nonlinear growth patterns: we use each successive innovation to produce ever greater innovations. The result will be greatly enhanced human cognition, machines that will be able to think and feel just like us (which is to say, will be able to greatly outthink us until we are enhanced), nanotechnology that will allows us to have complete control over matter, and thus be able to eliminate all human material needs and inequality, and, to top it all off, transcendence from our material bodies. Thus immortality is just around the corner.

Kurzweil’s brand of techno-optimism thus encourages us to place complete trust in the free market and entrepreneurs, along with a seemingly autonomous technological advancement, to produce a better society. Kurzweil never asks whether the free market will actually produce technologies that will be beneficial to society as opposed to harmful (he seems to ignore our current track record); he merely encourages us to teach entrepreneurship and free market idealism to a great extent in our schools. He is what he describes as a “patternist,” which means that he believes that consciousness and meaning are reducible to patterns of information divorced from any material instantiation. This is what leads him to predict that we will be able to “change substrates” and maintain our current sense of self. This uncritical belief that we can be abstracted from our physical bodies has long roots in Western religious belief, of course (Kurzweil is a Unitarian). This updated technological version of the soul has been roundly critiqued by N. Katherine Hayles and others.

Ultimately, Kurzweil’s predictions serve to remove human agency from the grand narrative of technological progress. In this narrative, technology is an autonomous force, and its progress can be described by invariable “laws” (Kurzweil notes that even huge human events such as the world wars had no effect on his plotted growth curves). This has the effect of leaving us off the hook for massively polluting the earth, producing weapons capable of destroying all life on the planet (nuclear weapons, potentially nanotechnology), and failing to alter our lifestyles in the face of gross asymmetry, inequality, and scarcity of resources. In Kurzweil’s version of (future) history, there will be no scarcity, and technology will heal the environment and protect us from the specters of annihilation and contamination. Further, because his narrative takes the form of prediction, all choices and decisions are offloaded to the future; there is effectively nothing we can or should do now, except promote the free market and teach our kids to be entrepreneurs.

See the book at Amazon.

-ZH

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