Kurzweil, the Singularity and His Futurism

If the idea of a coming technological Singularity were a church, inventor and innovation maven Ray Kurzweil would be its most ardent and persuasive evangelist, and woe betide the unprepared heretic who crossed his path. For some, the Singularity—a point in our future history when artificial and enhanced intelligences will be the major drivers of progress and leave merely human imagination in the dust—is the much derided “rapture of the nerds” and Kurzweil is a brilliant man dreaming of immortality to avoid facing death. For some others, the Singularity is an inevitable outcome of our accelerating advances in A.I., biomedicine and nanotech, and Kurzweil is an intensely knowledgeable and foresighted expert who embraces what most of the world fears to recognize.

Presumably, there are also still others who fall somewhere between those camps, but they are not the people who usually write online. In feature articles, blog posts and comment sections about Kurzweil and his ideas, those highly polarized camps always seem to dominate.

Refreshingly, Carl Zimmer offers an antidote to the feverish extremes in an excerpt from his new e-book Brain Cuttings now posted at ScientificAmerican.com. “Can You Live Forever? Maybe Not—But You Can Have Fun Trying” is a balanced-but-not-wishy-washy, critical appraisal of the ideas that Kurzweil and other speakers tout at the annual Singularity Summit.

These two paragraphs neatly summarize Carl’s conclusions:

After the meeting I decided to visit to researchers working on the type of technology that people such as Kurzweil consider the steppingstones to the Singularity. Not one of them takes Kurzweil’s own vision of the future seriously. We will not have some sort of cybernetic immortality in the next few decades. The human brain is far too mysterious and computers far too crude for such a union anytime soon, if ever. In fact some scientists regard all this talk of the Singularity as a reckless promise of false hope to the afflicted.

But when I asked these skeptics about the future, even their most conservative visions were unsettling: a future in which people boost their brains with enhancing drugs, for example, or have sophisticated computers implanted in their skulls for life. While we may never be able to upload our minds into a computer, we may still be able to build computers based on the layout of the human brain. I can report I have not drunk the Singularity Kool-Aid, but I have taken a sip.

By all means, read Carl’s whole article. If you hurry, you might even be able to comment on it before most of the haters and fan boys arrive.

Carl’s perspective is pretty squarely what mine has been for some time: I don’t know whether to believe in the phenomenon of the Singularity as such, and I’m very skeptical of some of the specific technological assumptions that often go into it (such as uploading human minds), but monumental improvements in A.I., life extension and medicine, genetic engineering, nanotech, and mental and physical augmentation all seem quite certain. My greatest doubts surround Kurzweil’s highly optimistic timetable, which seems to call for us to achieve that time of miracles by 2050 or so. Nevertheless, I do have considerable respect and admiration for Kurzweil, who is truly a genius and who may be as well-versed in cutting-edge technology as anyone alive.

Perhaps my views would surprise some of those who have read my recent feature story in IEEE Spectrum,Ray Kurzweil’s Slippery Futurism” (December 2010 issue). Part of why Kurzweil is taken so seriously when he talks about the Singularity is that he enjoys a reputation as a prescient seer of tech trends. In his books The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990) and The Age of Spiritual Machines (1998) he makes voluminous predictions about how the world will work by 2010 (and beyond). Today he maintains that the track record for his predictions to date is extremely good. I question that claim, however. To quote from my article:

On close examination, his clearest and most successful predictions often lack originality or profundity. And most of his predictions come with so many loopholes that they border on the unfalsifiable.

For example, Kurzweil is commonly credited with having foreseen the rise of the Web, yet I point out he made that prediction about widespread networked computing at a time when many others were making that same claim, and businesses if not whole industries were built on it. Similarly, he repeatedly predicted in 2005 and thereafter that “by 2010, computers will disappear”—referring, of course, to the spread of embedded microprocessors. But given that embedded microprocessors were already commonplace by that time, and no one doubted that the trend would suddenly stop, what did that grandiose claim really mean?

Read the article for my full argument. I had other examples in my original draft of the article that might be worth posting here if there’s interest, but I think my basic criticism will stand or fall based on what is in print in IEEE Spectrum.

Lo and behold: I started writing this post today because Carl’s book excerpt, posted yesterday, gave me a good occasion to bring up the subject of my own article. But just this afternoon, I learned that IEEE Spectrum has posted a response from Kurzweil to what I wrote. Excellent. I’ll be replying to his letter shortly, after I check a few things with the magazine’s editors, and probably posting my remarks both here and at IEEE Spectrum. Stay tuned.

Update (Xmas day): I’ve written my reply to Kurzweil, but the Christmas holidays seem to be interfering with my getting answers I need from IEEE Spectrum’s office (for reasons that will become obvious). So it looks like I’ll have to wait until early this coming week to post it. No hurry.

Update: My full reply is now available here.

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18 Responses to Kurzweil, the Singularity and His Futurism

  1. Excellent piece, thanks.

    Have you seen PZ’s attacks on Kurzweil: here and here.

    • Ooops… left out: ?

    • John Rennie says:

      I have, thank you. The superabundance of takedowns of some of his Singularity ideas and his “law of accelerating returns” was one reason I chose not to spend much space in my article addressing them, and to concentrate instead on his predictions through the current day. They do still seem to bear on his general credibility—or his hubris.

  2. Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    Unh. I haven’t read Kurzweil, so I have no idea if “the singularity” is to be taken literary.

    But the math doesn’t pan out, you can’t go from exponentials (number of trends) of exponentials (rate trends) to not defined or not well-behaved (no derivatives). The best it could be is that “the system” is supposed to be topologically unstable, so small changes will change it catastrophically. But why would that be, the current society has nothing of that but smaller hiccups (say, war).

    I’m fairly certain that the article in IEEE is a correct description, people wouldn’t be so interested unless Kurzweil slips some unfalsifiable predictions in. Because about the only robust prediction you can make on the subject of random predictions is that they ultimately fail (due to contingencies among the trends).

    That can’t be a measure of genius, as you allude priests have used this projection of pattern recognition for all times. Neither can “as well-versed in cutting-edge technology as anyone alive” be that measure. So I don’t get it – if Kurzweil is the run-of-the-mill scam artist he seems to be, what would be *his* genius?

  3. Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    Also this, while it does nothing to modify my previous comment in either direction, about the only thing I seem to remember of the man makes me pity him.

    It was an article way back, which promptly made me file him under “religious delusions of utopias”. But also contained the info (as I remember it) that he took nutritional and other supplements to prolong his life for some “eternal life upload into computers”.

    If so, he likely made a terrible mistake: now that epidemic studies on nutritional supplements starts to get robust, IIRC it turns out that all they do is prevent early death in those who really lack some of them – but instead promote (somewhat but statistically significant) early death in healthy subjects!

    Maybe a specific point, maybe not, on his “the track record for his predictions to date is extremely good”, to add to the IEEE article.

  4. David Dobbs says:

    This isn’t constructive, I know, and truly no scratch on you, John, but:

    I am SO TIRED of hearing about Kurzweil.

    I’d love to think correction works in a situation like this. The problem is that even when someone like you or Carl takes apart the basis of his more fantastic fantasies, when the emperor is tripped naked so that he stands, yes, nude, even though he still carries his many truly remarkable inventions, the rest of the press still just keeps bringing him back on stage to let him tell us, “It’s coming, people!”, while remarking about the beauty of his suit.

    Aye. Aye-yi-yi. I say all this knowing you are trying to do exactly this: Protect me from the singularity. Would be a singular gift.

  5. David Dobbs says:

    I think it’s obvious that I meant ‘stripped naked’ in my prior comment, not ‘tripped naked.’ Though the latter is perhaps is what’s needed: Stripped, then tripped. He’s been stripped a hundred times and people still see the clothes.

  6. David Black Belt Gelt says:

    Hi there,

    Great job on commenting about Kurzweil’s predictions. But you have skipped the main point of this, intentionally or not, and that is: he has high connections (multinational corporations CEO, presidents, former and actual prime-ministers) which means that very soon his version of futurism will be shoved down the throats of everyone, whether they like or not.

    It will be very interesting how this will play out.


    • John Rennie says:

      Interesting point, David, thank you. It’s not one that had occurred to me. For what it’s worth, I think that the version of the future Kurzweil propounds has so many, many authors that he’s merely one highly effective spokesman for it. Even if he didn’t exist, others would probably rise to convey much the same message, which I’d characterize as techno-utopian (though that label glosses over ideas in it that aren’t purely technological or utopian at all).

      I think it’s also unclear how well all the Singularity talk plays with those corporate and political leaders you mentioned. My hunch (and it’s only that) is they are happy to listen to it, indulge it, and patronize it because it’s fun and there are genuinely useful nuggets of information and strategic intelligence that they can find in what’s said. But at the end of the day, they dismiss it as far-out science fiction. You’ll note in Carl Zimmer’s piece that he said many of the scientists who spoke at the Singularity Summit privately distanced themselves from that organization’s grand vision. Scientific American’s reporters had similar experiences years back when they attended a big nanotechnology conference: many of the scientists there didn’t think much of Eric Drexler’s “Engines of Creation” view of nanotech but recognized that appearing at the conference was good for their visibility.

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  8. Andrew T says:

    Hmmm. I guess I could say I’m one of those people in the middle, neither a fanboy nor a hater. I was on the Extropians email list back in the early 90’s, so concepts like the singularity are old hat for me.

    For what it’s worth, and this is only my personal (and probably narrow) opinion, Kurzweil is admired by many futurists and singularitarians, but he’s not regarded as any kind of pope, or the way that Objectivists regard Ayn Rand. Regarding his critics, one thing that peeves me about them are how much their criticisms center around the man rather than his ideas. I.e. there are a lot of subtle (and not-so-subtle) ad hominems. Kurzweil this, Kurzweil that. I don’t much care about Kurzweil either way. What does interest me are his ideas, and that’s where I think people should be focusing their attention, not on the messenger. Kurzweil certainly has ideas to be criticized for, like his stand on nutritional supplements and the optimism of his future prediction timetables. He also has a number of ideas seriously worth considering. Either way though, I just wish it was his ideas, rather than the man himself, that were at the center of attention and discussion.

    • John Rennie says:

      Thanks, Andrew. I agree that critics of the Singularity movement (or whatever it is) probably do ignore that there are many people within it who are less carried away by the more utopian, unfettered versions of what it might entail. Focusing on Kurzweil himself does slide too easily into ad hominems, which I why I try to avoid it (despite what some of the commenters on the Spectrum article think, who seem a little fuzzy on what an actual ad hominem is). Unfortunately, efforts to build confidence in Kurzweil’s visions of the future based on his past track record tend to blur the distinctions between the man’s ideas and his personal authority. Perhaps that’s less the fault of Kurzweil himself than of the p.r. apparatus with which he’s surrounded himself.

  9. David Ropeik says:

    Here’s a fresh aspect on the issues raised; not so much whether predictions are right or not, and those who make them wise with foresight or not…but…why do we try in the first place? for the same reason many look to religion to answer THE BIG QUESTION; “What happens after we die?” Risk perception psychology has found that to master our fear when we are uncertain, we try to give ourselves a feeling of control, i.e., knowing what lies ahead. The NY Times Room for Debate Opinion blog has a whole discussion of this coming out Tuesday. I’m one of several voices. Can’t wait to read the rest. (By the way…the sheer preposterousness of replicating the mind…not the cells of the brain but The Mind…is rationalist/intellectual arrogance in the extreme.)

    • John Rennie says:

      Thanks, David. That emotional tug may indeed help to explain why so many of us are drawn to predictions (or attempts to predict). At the same time, I can respect Kurzweil’s basic point that issues of timing are fundamentally important for many tech businesses, and that it’s important to have the timeline right for those entirely prosaic reasons. Given that this reason is part of his pitch justifying the existence of the Singularity University and similar projects, I think it’s important to scrutinize the reliability of the timetables for change that he and it suggest.

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  11. Diane Crane says:

    I thought I did post a comment. What happened to it? Again i ask, “what do you plan to do with those individuals who happen to disagree with all your elaborate and somewhat fantastical plans for this coming singularity, Mr. Kurzweil?’ I mean, who’s in charge of all this? personally, from what I see in average people on the street, they’re too obsessed at this point with JUST GETTING BY from day to day. The economy is still not fully recovered, and all this tech is very expensive. I think Hitler would have loved this idea!!!!!!!!!! Yeah, we p;ut only the upper echelon of society in charge!!!! Brilliant!!!

  12. This is fascinating. Singularity University has garnered a lot of attention from techies and their hangers-on in the San Francisco area. A lot of trendy people want to augment themselves with embedded and wearable gizmos just to have the new Pet Rock. The social pushback against them is getting serious. I’d like to hear more about whether any of the ideas generated at Singularity University have matured into real technology.