Sunday, October 09, 2005

The end is near?

Ray Kurzweil is back. The in-your-face futurist/inventor from Massachusetts has a new book -- The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology -- that touts the tipping point when silicon, not carbon, becomes the basis for intelligent life on Earth. He foresees a time in the not so distant future when a single zero-energy-consuming computer will be more powerful -- and smarter! -- than all the human brains on Earth acting together. Aging and natural death will be eliminated by technology, says Kurzweil. Invisible nano-machines will operate within and outside of the human body, tidying and repairing internal and external worlds. And that's just for starters.

If it happens on Kurzweil's schedule, my children may live to see it. My grandchildren, certainly.

Fifteen years ago, Kurzweil caused a stir with his book "The Age of Intelligent Machines," in which he made startling predictions about future developments in information technology. For example, he predicted that a machine would soon outperform a chess grand master. His prediction came true in 1997 when IBM's chess-playing computer Big Blue trounced grand master Gary Kasparov.

Then came "The Age of Spiritual Machines," in which Kurzweil made even more provocative predictions. By 2019, he said, a $1,000 computer will match the processing power of the human brain. We seem well on schedule for that. Computers will be largely invisible and embedded everywhere, predicted Kurzweil, in walls, desks, clothing, jewelry, and household appliances, allowing inanimate objects to respond to our every whim -- a forecast that now seems blindingly obvious. In recent weeks we have seen ads for computer controlled toothbrushes.

By 2029, most of our communication will be with machines, wrote Kurzweil. People will have relationships with electronic personalities, and use them as companions, teachers, caretakers, and lovers. Virtual sex will be better than the real thing. Machines will claim to be conscious and many of us will believe them. Well, it's not 2029 yet, but as I walked through the campus this morning, almost everyone I passed was communicating with one sort of machine or another, an iPod or cell phone, oblivious to the natural world and other human beings.

And now, in his new book, Kurzweil is telling us that by mid-century humans will have relinquished their place as lords of creation to biomechanical beings.

What are we to make of these predictions of the imminent demise of everything we deem human?

A few folks, such as Kurzweil, embrace the post-human future with enthusiasm. They look back upon the long sweep of cosmic evolution and recognize that humans are a momentary efflorescence, destined to be supplanted by new forms of complexity as surely as people took precedence over insects and mice.

In Kurzweil's view, the future will be characterized by "greater complexity, greater elegance, greater knowledge, greater intelligence, greater beauty, greater creativity, greater love." His optimism is similar to that of the Jesuit mystic Teilhard de Chardin, who saw the fulfillment of creation at the end of time, rather than at the beginning.

The majority of people, however, are distressed and frightened by the prospect of a post-human future. The late great chemist Erwin Chargaff and entrepreneur Bill Joy, cofounder of Sun Microsystems, have gone so far as to call for constraints on certain kinds of technological innovation as the only way of preserving our essential humanity.

Many people take refuge from fears about the future in religious fundamentalism, New Age mysticism, anti-technological Luddism, or hippie back-to-nature minimalism.

Kurzweil's predictions might be wrong, but I wouldn't bet on it. By the end of this century, humans will possess powers for self-transformation unlike anything even the futurists dream.

We must ask ourselves before it's too late: What is a human self? What, if anything, is the essential difference between an organism and a machine? Are constraints on human curiosity desirable or possible? Is the human species as we know it today the final destiny of cosmic evolution? Will the arrival of a post-human future trigger a massive retreat by a large part of the planet's population into anti-science fundamentalism? Is it already happening?

If philosophy departments in our universities want a useful mission, they should introduce young people to the growing technological potential for planetary and self-transformation, and prepare them to make the collective political decisions that will ensure that whatever the future brings, it will indeed be characterized by greater knowledge, intelligence, beauty, creativity, and love.

As it is, we have two sorts of people out there on the street announcing the future. There's Ray Kurzweil, with his signboard proclaiming "The Singularity Is Near," and on the next corner is the Bible-thumper predicting that "Jesus Is Coming Soon." Surely, somewhere between those two poles is a place for a liberally educated band of cautious optimists, respectful of science, knowledgeable about history, nourished by poetry and art, attuned to nature. That sensible middle space seems ever more narrowly squeezed by the forces of exponential technology and head-in-the-sand reaction.

Further Reading

Ray Kurzweil's books: The Singularity is Near; The Age of Spiritual Machines.

For a challenge to Kurzweil's views by several critics, and response, see Are We Spiritual Machines?, published by the Discovery Institute.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.