Kurzweil, Ray, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Viking, 2005, 672 pp.
[cross-posted on Albion’s Seedlings]
Every twelve to eighteen months, according to the common interpretation of Moore’s Law, the performance of our computers (measured against a fixed cost) doubles. It has done so for decades, and shows every indication of continuing for decades more. In the early 90s, chess grandmaster Kasparov disparaged computer chess programs. Yet a few years later, in 1997, Deep Blue (a fearsomely specialized computer built by IBM, running 256 customized modules) beat Kasparov. Five years later, Deep Fritz (running on eight ordinary networked personal computers) reached a draw with the then reigning grandmaster, Vladimir Kramnik. Sometime within the next few years, software running on ordinary PCs will reach a chess ranking of “2800,” and effectively pass all human players for good. For decades, during the early development of computers, the dream of a chess-playing program was seen as a fantasy or delusion. But the people watching the development of such programs, in tandem with the changes in information technology and material science, were actually watching two different curves and predicting two different futures.
On the left, the linear progress of chess programs appeared pathetic for decades, but then suddenly the machines began beating novice and then mid-level players. As the “knee” of the development curve was reached, progress shifted from pathetic to awesome in a relative eye blink. Mapping development on a logarithmic plot during those bleak decades, however, such progress was both predictable and apparently inevitable. Computing pioneer Ray Kurzweil has spent the last four decades thinking about the implications of such logarithmic curves across the fields of computation, science, and economic development and developed a general Law of Accelerating Returns. Readers of Jim Bennett’s Anglosphere Challenge will recognize the significance of exponential development on the Anglosphere’s relative advantage in coping with rapid change. Kurzweil has now created a comprehensive presentation of the Singularity concept that is revolutionary in its implications and central to thinking about the Anglosphere.
Ray Kurweil has been working for many decades in the fields of artificial intelligence and more specialized applications such as speech recognition. An author of earlier controversial books such as Age of Intelligent Machines (1990), and Age of Spiritual Machines (2000), he has gained a reputation for thinking vigourously about the implications of technology.
In his most recent book, he builds his discussion around the concept of the Singularity: “a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed.” Kurzweil proposes understanding cosmic history in a framework of six epochs of intelligence — from the earliest epochs of planetary physics and chemistry, through the appearance of biological matter, brains, human technology, the emergence of machine intelligence, and finally the conversion of much of the universe’s matter to intelligence. In other words, Kurzweil addresses the biggest of big pictures.
In a writing style that is clear, relentless, well-organized but not always easy for non-scientists, the author outlines the trends in scientific and technological development. If those trends are stable (and Kurzweil makes a careful and compelling argument that they are), then the implications for the development of increasingly powerful machine intelligence are substantial. Through genetics, nanotechnology (ultra-small machines), and robotics (machine intelligence) [GNR], the constraints of supply and demand for all kinds of resources are tipped on their heads. As an example we all understand, the evolution of computing equipment counter-intuitively consumes proportionally less energy and less material as it increases its computation power.
In tandem with the evolution of computer hardware and software is an ever-accelerating pace of scientific discovery in the material and biological sciences: highlighted most clearly to the general public over the last five years by work on the human genome – DNA. This work, leveraging powerful IT developments, now offers the ability to understand, for the first time, how living systems work. No more “black box” approximations that have been the hallmark of natural philosophy and science for millennia. Suddenly, our own physiology and our own consciousness is being exposed to the same current of progress which once held sway over metallurgy and plastics.
More significant still, our understanding of human cognition, of how the human brain works at the molecular and neuronal level, is hitting that “knee” in the linear curve — we are, Kurzweil suggests, just at the tip of discoveries about the human brain that will be as dramatic as that in genetics. The resolution and image creation speeds of non-invasive brain-scanning equipment is progressing at exponential rates, doubling annually. This means that finer and finer-grained images of the human brain can be created, monitored at higher speeds for finer and finer-grained understanding of not only what happens in the brain but in what sequence. A moment’s thought will uncover just how significant such discoveries will be for ethics, philosophy, politics, and culture. The Anglosphere, by any calculation, will be at the forefront of such challenges to the status quo.
We can expect a cascade of information about mental illness, genetic disease, the structure of human emotion, human creativity, and human decision-making.
Kurzweil’s argument leads from an introduction of the six epochs of evolution, through an excellent theory of technology evolution (making extensive use of S-curves and logarithmic charts) to a chapter on “achieving the computational capacity of the human brain.” By using scientific notation to track the cycles per second (CPS) and data/memory storage requirements (bits) of biological nervous systems, Kurzweil is able to map some likely milestones in machine intelligence’s convergence with the capacities of biological systems. By his estimate, in 2020, $1,000 of computing power will provide the functional equivalent of the human brain. Another ten years will allow the discrete neuron-by-neuron simulation of a human brain. By 2050, computer power will be able to duplicate the mental computation of all humans on the planet. Heady stuff, if you’ll pardon the pun.
By Kurzweil’s calculations, 2045 will mark the point at which the non-biological intelligence manufactured will be one billion times more powerful than all human intelligence today.
These prognostications triggered traditional responses. Computation isn’t intelligence, despite the fact that electronic circuits are one million times faster than the electrochemical signals of neurons. Kurzweil answers the challenge by moving into a chapter on the “achieving the software of human intelligence.” He points out that much of the human body is geared to accomplishing tasks with the suboptimal options offering by biological solutions. A first step in working with the body, as we see today, is the replacement of complex biological systems with simpler mechanical solutions driven with IT (insulin pumps, titanium joints, pacemakers, neuro-stimulators). As the cascade of scientific understanding increases, however, it will become possible to duplicate neuronal and cellular structure with nanotechnological devices. There will be two major strategies in duplicating human intelligence — working from the bottom (molecules/cells) up and from the top (function, memory, analytical capacities) down. At the point at which nanotechnology allows the direct interaction between device and neuron, humans will have the ability to alter their consciousness directly — supplementing it as needed with machine-like capacities or moderating it as desired with familiar emotional states. Revolutionary is an appropriate word.
It’s worth pausing for a moment to consider that all of this sounds like science fiction. However Kurzweil’s arguments are mapped directly onto his logarithmic curves showing what is already happening. He is extrapolating conservatively from trends which have substantial histories and which are sustained by news we can read every day. By consulting his websites (AIKurweil.net and singularity.com), readers can monitor the very same leaps in scientific insight and refinement which he predicts in his book.
Flowing from a credible argument on the mapping and duplication of human intelligence in machine form by mid-century, Kurzweil turns to the three converging areas of genetics, nanotechnology and robotics to demonstrate that these areas share the exponential development pattern seen in computation and neuroscience. It is the engagement of these three fields (as they approach the “knee” of the linear progress curve) that will offer some of the biggest surprises to the general public in coming years. All three will draw from and feed back into the progress in computation and artificial intelligence. Nanotechnology will provide both medical and intellectual breakthroughs. Kurzweil leaves little doubt that he thinks that the race for baby boomers is to stay alive long enough to benefit from Singularity breakthroughs that make very, very long life not only possible but inevitable.
What will be the impact of the Singularity on different fields? Kurzweil devotes a substantial chapter on current and prospective changes in play for the human body and human brain, for human longevity, for warfare, work and play. He is upfront about his views on intelligence in the universe and why, through calculation and observation, he believes we’re the “first past the post” in our galaxy on the evolutionary move to machine intelligence. His cosmological comments are as intriguing and challenging as any relating to our everyday existence.
Kurzweil follows up his chapter on the impact of the Singularity with a discussion of what the Singularity will mean to individuals: to their personal considerations of consciousness, the definition of who am I? What am I? What is a meaningful life? If the modern world is stressing people over just those questions, the Singularity will bring the issues into stark contrast. Is the Singularity a religious Transcendence of the old sort? For Kurzweil, who proposes that most religious belief addresses individual death, a culture in which individual human death effectively stops, will have profound philosophy issues to consider.
What about the perils of such technology? On this subject, Kurzweil has had many years of writing and thinking. As he points out, many of the current Cassandras (e.g. Bill Joy’s very famous WIRED article “The Future Doesn’t Need Us”) were informed about the issues by his articles and concerns in years past. So while he is no Pollyanna on the subject of “the deeply intertwined promise and peril of GNR” [genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics] he is optimistic that the challenges can be overcome. More to the point, and of interest to the Anglosphere, he cannot imagine any effective social response to the relentless changes predicted by his logarithmic plots that would not risk totalitarianism. While moratoria and constraints on some kinds of research are likely and possible from time to time, the nature of the Singularity means that disruptive (and potentially destructive) technology is more and more within reach of people and nations. It remains for societies to adapt to such realities in the same way that they have to nuclear, chemical and biological warfare dangers.
In a final major chapter, Kurzweil addresses many of his critics (both social and technological) and it is here that we can see the shape of the controversies to come should his Singularity predictions pan out. He addresses criticisms triggered by social concern (incredulity, Malthusian limitations, vested industrial interests, rich-poor divide, governmental regulation, theism, holism) and from narrower scientific skepticism (software design, analog processing, microtubules and quantum computing, Church-Turing thesis, system failure rates). The revolutionary nature of his arguments is reflected in the amazing breadth of people who are upset by his conclusions.
“The Singularity is Near” is a thorough, substantive introduction to the concept of the Singularity introduced in the Anglosphere Challenge. Kurzweil’s book is the result of years of research, thinking and debate so it offers as good an initial grounding in the subject as we are likely to see. The profound philosophical and spiritual questions it raises are with us in seed form already and can only increase in importance with each passing year. I think back to 1995 and saying to a college professor friend “You know, this Internet thing’s going to be huge.” After reading Kurzweil’s book, I’m more than a little awestruck by what the next ten years might bring. I’m going to take some time to think through the Singularity implications for the Anglosphere (and for Jim Bennett’s concepts) specifically, but my first hunch is that the coming decade will contain even more drama.