Monday, June 09, 2008

The futurist: machines as smart as ourselves

John Tierney does a nice write up of the debate over the ideas of futurist Ray Kurzweil. (I've always thought that Kurzweil was simple proof of the proposition that if you propose any 10 crazy things, one of them will turn out to be right. People remember the correct prophesy, and forget the mistakes.) Still.... the guy has been right on a number of times. Here is part of the discussion of our cognitive/emotional repertoire being bested by machines ( (possibly piggybacked onto our biological hardware). This event is referred to as "the singularity." Kurzweil proposes that: the 2020s we’ll be adding computers to our brains and building machines as smart as ourselves...This serene confidence is not shared by neuroscientists like Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, who discussed future brains with Dr. Kurzweil at the festival. It might be possible to create a thinking, empathetic machine, Dr. Ramachandran said, but it might prove too difficult to reverse-engineer the brain’s circuitry because it evolved so haphazardly...“My colleague Francis Crick used to say that God is a hacker, not an engineer,” Dr. Ramachandran said. “You can do reverse engineering, but you can’t do reverse hacking.”...Dr. Kurzweil’s predictions come under intense scrutiny in the engineering magazine IEEE Spectrum, which devotes its current issue to the Singularity. Some of the experts writing in the issue endorse Dr. Kurzweil’s belief that conscious, intelligent beings can be created, but most think it will take more than a few decades....He is accustomed to this sort of pessimism and readily acknowledges how complicated the brain is. But if experts in neurology and artificial intelligence (or solar energy or medicine) don’t buy his optimistic predictions, he says, that’s because exponential upward curves are so deceptively gradual at first.

“Scientists imagine they’ll keep working at the present pace,” he told me after his speech. “They make linear extrapolations from the past. When it took years to sequence the first 1 percent of the human genome, they worried they’d never finish, but they were right on schedule for an exponential curve. If you reach 1 percent and keep doubling your growth every year, you’ll hit 100 percent in just seven years.”

Dr. Kurzweil is so confident in these curves that he has made a $10,000 bet with Mitch Kapor, the creator of Lotus software. By 2029, Dr. Kurzweil wagers, a computer will pass the Turing Test by carrying on a conversation that is indistinguishable from a human’s.
You should also check out John Horgan's caustic comments on the whole singularity bit in a special IEEE spectrum feature, which ends with:
Let's face it. The singularity is a religious rather than a scientific vision. The science-fiction writer Ken MacLeod has dubbed it “the rapture for nerds,” an allusion to the end-time, when Jesus whisks the faithful to heaven and leaves us sinners behind.

Such yearning for transcendence, whether spiritual or technological, is all too understandable. Both as individuals and as a species, we face deadly serious problems, including terrorism, nuclear proliferation, overpopulation, poverty, famine, environmental degradation, climate change, resource depletion, and AIDS. Engineers and scientists should be helping us face the world's problems and find solutions to them, rather than indulging in escapist, pseudoscientific fantasies like the singularity.


  1. While I agree that Kurzweil is overly optimistic, I completely disagree with this statement from Ramachandran:

    “My colleague Francis Crick used to say that God is a hacker, not an engineer,” Dr. Ramachandran said. “You can do reverse engineering, but you can’t do reverse hacking.”

    Of course you can do reverse hacking. All species, including humans, are chock full of weird hacks that we've figured out. For example, the bones of the inner ear were once jaw bones in a distant ancestor. To co-opt them for hearing was certainly a hack, using existing structure modified for a new adaptation.

    I guess one could always fall back on the excuse that "the brain is just too complex", but I think it's ridiculous to argue that we can't figure it out because it was not engineered in a top-down fashion.

  2. Anonymous2:44 AM

    I read Fantastic Voyage, The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity is Near, and they changed my life. I even found some of his lectures on Itunes and I find myself impatiently awaiting his next book.

    Recently read another incredible book that I can't recommend highly enough, especially to all of you who also love Ray Kurzweil's work. The book is ""My Stroke of Insight"" by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. I had heard Dr Taylor's talk on the TED dot com site and I have to say, it changed my world. It's spreading virally all over the internet and the book is now a NYTimes Bestseller, so I'm not the only one, but it is the most amazing talk, and the most impactful book I've read in years. (Dr T also was named to Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People and Oprah had her on her Soul Series last month and I hear they're making a movie about her story so you may already have heard of her)
    If you haven't heard Dr Taylor's TEDTalk, that's an absolute must. The book is more and deeper and better, but start with the video (it's 18 minutes). Basically, her story is that she was a 37 yr old Harvard brain scientist who had a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. Because of her knowledge of how the brain works, and thanks to her amazingly loving and kind mother, she eventually fully recovered (and that part of the book detailing how she did it is inspirational).

    There's a lot of learning and magic in the book, but the reason I so highly recommend My Stroke of Insight to this discussion, is because we have powerfully intelligent left brains that are rational, logical, sequential and grounded in detail and time, and then we have our kinesthetic right brains, where we experience intuition and peace and euphoria. Now that Kurzweil has got us taking all those vitamins and living our best ""Fantastic Voyage"" , the absolute necessity is that we read My Stroke of Insight and learn from Dr Taylor how to achieve balance between our right and left brains. Enjoy!