Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near

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.

14 thoughts on “Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near”

  1. Couple of readings for those interested:
    Kurzweil’s own The Law of Accelerating Returns, largely an earlier and shorter (~21,600 words; reading time 1-2 hours) version of TSIN
    K. Eric Drexler’s incomparable Engines of Creation, available in full for free online; the book that started it all 20 years ago; Spider Robinson has suggested that some future society may make 1986 its year 1 because of this book

  2. Extrapolating future technology trends can be tricky.

    Technology seldom follows a hockey-stick curve but instead tends to show a spike followed by plateau. Most technologies show a diminishing return effect where it become increasingly difficult to produce additional gains. So you get a performance curve shaped more like this:


    Look at aviation. The speed of aircraft increase on a smooth upward curve from 1904-1960. In the 1950’s it seemed perfectly obvious that the near-future would hold super-sonic airliners and “flying cars” Yet, by the mid-60’s airliner speeds stalled out at just under 600 mph and nobody built flying cars. Even the military lost interest in superfast aircraft. Todays neato aircraft are all subsonic. We can build multi-mach aircraft but they are incredibly expensive and have only a narrow functional niche.

    All technologies go through a stage of explosive growth in performance that may persist for several decades before leveling out. Computers may already reaching this point. The problem today is not hardware but software. We can manufacture increasingly powerful hardware but the sheer complexity of writing software to utilize that power is becoming a serious bottleneck. We won’t see the same enormous gains in productivity due to computers in the next couple of decades as we saw in the last three.

    We will undoubtedly see “booms” in various fields like neuroscience and nanotechnology but they to will hit a wall of diminishing returns and progress will slow.

  3. Actually, Kurzweil deals with this in the essay I linked above:

    Each time one paradigm runs out of steam, another picks up the pace.
    It is important to note that Moore’s Law of Integrated Circuits was not the first, but the fifth paradigm to provide accelerating price-performance. Computing devices have been consistently multiplying in power (per unit of time) from the mechanical calculating devices used in the 1890 U.S. Census, to Turing’s relay-based “Robinson” machine that cracked the Nazi enigma code, to the CBS vacuum tube computer that predicted the election of Eisenhower, to the transistor-based machines used in the first space launches, to the integrated-circuit-based personal computer which I used to dictate (and automatically transcribe) this essay.
    But I noticed something else surprising. When I plotted the 49 machines on an exponential graph (where a straight line means exponential growth), I didn’t get a straight line. What I got was another exponential curve. In other words, there’s exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. Computer speed (per unit cost) doubled every three years between 1910 and 1950, doubled every two years between 1950 and 1966, and is now doubling every year.

  4. How does the Kurzweil excerpt deal with the airplane problem?

    You could easily have longer and shorter periods of explosive growth. Maybe calculation/processing goes exponential for 1-2 centuries before hitting the Wall. Other technologies do it in only a few decades. Any plot of fast growth that doesn’t start before the Ind Rev is not going to be enough to refute the possibility of eventual diminishing returns.

  5. With respect to the “airplane problem”, it’s real, but maybe misunderstood. Physics didn’t slow the progress in aircraft, lawyers did. Tort law virtually destroyed the small aircraft industry. And I’ve got some suspicion that the military acted to slow civilian aircraft progress, too, in order to maintain it’s edge. Hence the military gets SR-71s, and their black project successors, while NASA is flying an ancient shuttle.

    It’s a serious problem, alright, because regulators are getting more and more proactive, stunting technologies before they even get off the ground.

  6. “Physics didn’t slow the progress in aircraft, lawyers did.”

    Count on more of that. One serious problem with Kurzweil is that he makes many otherwise pro-technology people leery. I only know Kurzweil’s work indirectly through Joel Garreau’s book Radical Evolution. However, taking that picture as fair, Kurzweil is talking about the extinction of corporeal humanity, and about the replacement of the species by machine intelligence, amongst other jolly scenarios. This is, to put it mildly, highly speculative. But the problem is that this image of the future we are heading toward is going to encourage many people who retain some attachment to corporeal humanity to respond to improving technology as a threat. Even a more or less technophilic person like myself found the Kurzweil portion of Garreau’s book to be horrifying. I think if Kurzweil and his type of presentation becomes more widely known it is going to lead to a backlash — in popular culture, in litigation, in regulation and in politics. Kurzweil’s presentation of the future is not one that most people are going to find appealing. And if they think it is like to come down as he describes, they are going to try to resist it and prevent it.

  7. Brett Bellmore,

    Physics didn’t slow the progress in aircraft…

    Physics does play a big part. Specifically it become increasingly difficult to get higher speeds out of aircraft because the increase in air resistance is non-linear.

    From Wikipedia:

    Note that the power needed to push an object through a fluid increases as the cube of the velocity. A car cruising on a highway at 50 mph (80 km/h) may require only 10 horsepower (7 kW) to overcome air drag, but that same car at 100 mph (160 km/h) requires 80 hp (60 kW). With a doubling of speed the drag (force) quadruples per the formula. Since power is the rate of doing work, exerting four times the force at twice the speed requires eight times the power.

    An even bigger problem however is economics. The economically important factor in travel is the time for the entire trip from a person’s front door to the final destination of which time in the air is only a part. By the late-60’s we had reached the point where the majority of travel time was spent moving to and from the airport. Using a supersonic transport to cut airtime wouldn’t change the overall travel time very much. If you had to build new airport further from ultimate destination any time gained by greater airspeed would be lost in increased time spent on ground travel.

    I would argue that every technology has a performance “sweet” range in which the cost of performance easily pays for itself. It is within this range that we see the logarithmic increase in performance. However, before and after the range we see much flatter curves.

  8. “Physics does play a big part. Specifically it become increasingly difficult to get higher speeds out of aircraft because the increase in air resistance is non-linear. ”

    But that wouldn’t stop a plane with a given speed from getting much cheaper over time. Regulatory factors did that.

    “An even bigger problem however is economics. The economically important factor in travel is the time for the entire trip from a person’s front door to the final destination of which time in the air is only a part. By the late-60’s we had reached the point where the majority of travel time was spent moving to and from the airport.”

    Which means we needed more, smaller, and more widely dispersed airports/airstrips, and more destinations close to airports/airstrips, to cut down travel time on the ground. If our society had evolved in a different regulatory environment, I could see most of present-day civilization being within walking distance of an airstrip, the way that most of civilization in our world is within walking distance of a parking lot or driveway.

    “Kurzweil is talking about the extinction of corporeal humanity, and about the replacement of the species by machine intelligence, amongst other jolly scenarios. ”

    That would be bad. But let’s think about how this stuff would get developed.

    People build technology because it solves other people’s problems well enough that other people are willing to pay for it. People don’t really need a superintelligent machine overlord, so there’s not going to be a lot of money devoted to learning how to build one. What will bring in a lot of money is coming up with ways to augment human intelligence, with machines interfaced to your brain and so forth. So essentially, unless some government-funded group decided that superintelligent machine overlords would be just the thing to fix up our society and make us all behave, and came up with tons of cash to get some built, we’ll end up with essentially superintelligent humans. Which would actually be really cool.

  9. Ken, I agree with you. But Kurzweil does not talk like you. He talks in terms of technological inevitability. His approach to discussing these things is, unfortunately, likely to have a negative impact because it is going to inspire fear and a backlash which could be very destructive to technological progress.

    Also, to be specific, I am not talking only about the “hazard” of machine overlords, whom Jay welcomes, but about the substitution of a machine-based existence for “humans” who will shed their bodies and become … something, I’m not sure what. Just make sure you hit “save” a lot, and don’t accidentally yank out the power cord.

    Even if, as I think, Kurzweil’s scenario is not going to play out quite that way, we are going to have vast changes in our world due to technology, and at an accelerating pace. And there will be lots of social upheaval as a result. And the political result will be lots of people trying to “do something” to slow it down or stop it. We are heading into interesting times.

  10. Playing chess is an issue of brute force. The computers can in the blink of an eye examine vast numbers of future chess positions.

    Chessmasters had a better “feel” for the game, and can somehow tell when a position is bad without looking as many turns into the future. But with computing power doubling every 18 months, brute force overcomes thaht advantage.

    Computers still aren’t good at playing games that don’t take place in an 8 x 8 grid, and are nowhere close to being able to think like a human or even hold a conversation.

  11. Ken,

    If it were just about physics vs travel to the airport time, then what we would have seen is no innovation on the domestic front but real speed innovation across the Pacific.

    Even taking into account the costs of getting to the airport, there is enough business to support a 5 hour regular flight from LAX to Tokyo, Hong Kong or Shanghai. The question is at what price.

    However, between the regulatory environmental problems and the fact that we don’t really have super cheap supersonic technologies, it ends up that we take the same 747s or their variants as we always have. That just means that we CAN’T produce cheap SSTs. Which means — for whatever reasons (social or engineering) — the technology has stagnated.

  12. I’m not sure the superintelligent machine overlord scenario is that plausible. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, chess playing computers make decisions based on thousands of “known knowns” stored in their memory banks. Life has so many “unknown knowns” that the computer would reach a threshold and sit there waiting for new data to make a decision. If survival is the computer’s primary directive, how many decisions would it make until it thinks the risk is not worth it? It certainly wouldn’t be able to have a “damn the consequences” capability because it would need to know each and every consequence it would make the decision. Joshua never asked anyone to play chess until he knew you wanted to do something with him.

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