ray kurzweils digital pipe dreams

October 22, 2008

Futurist author Ray Kurzweil has a few dreams about humans and machines. Departing from the standard fear of robots which may become smarter than us (but not really), he envisions a world in which humans will combine with machines so much, we’ll leave our bodies behind and download ourselves into computer chips or intelligent nanobots that will explore the universe at the speed of light. All the we are and all we will be, resting in a few nanometers of a computer chip.

cyborg duoAt first, it sounds plausible. We’re already creating cyborgs when we try to replace bones, joints and limbs in trauma patients, help the deaf hear and the blind see. Patients who became paralyzed or had a massive stroke that took away their normal ability to communicate have had computer chips implanted in their brains, allowing them to manipulate computer programs by thought alone. It seems very likely that as the technology is tested and proven over time, even healthy people will be able to get enhancements and we’ll be part human, part machine.

Kurzweil takes all these developments and pushes them one degree farther. But the problem is that they’re not intended to go that one degree farther. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that human brains are not about raw computational power. This is why he assumes that when the typical computer “surpasses” the human brain in how many operations per second it could do, humans should have no trouble fitting their brains into a hard drive. However, the brain’s job is to come up with creative solutions. It doesn’t matter how fast we come up with ideas. In fact, some of the greatest ideas humanity ever had (atoms, gravity, relativity, the heliocentric solar system, other planets around other stars) took decades and centuries to ferment. It doesn’t matter how many teraflops your brain can do. What matters is the end result. A supercomputer like Red Storm can solve a complex mathematical problem a billion times faster than a human. But only we know what to do with the result or even what the result means.

Then theres the problem of what happens if you download a brain into a computer. Kurzweil is from the school of thought which believes the conscious and the personality are nothing more than some data in the recesses of our brain. We dont know that for sure. The way our brain is wired does more than just store information. Its also really important for our basic functions, instincts and drives, something which makes up a great deal of our personality and makes us human. Our love for a juicy cut of steak, our desire of money and status, our passion for other humans and our need for sexual release For Kurzweil to unceremoniously toss all of these important things aside like a monk beckoning us to ascetic lives whizzing through the stars in the circuit boards of a cosmic probe, shows a major oversight in his theories.

So if were able to dump all the data in our brains into a computer as done in some 1990s sci-fi movies and cartoons based on comic books, what wed have is a repository of facts and figures in our heads rather than a human being. All of the creativity, flexibility and self-awareness that reside in our biological wiring wouldnt transfer over. The end product would be totally useless and the human whos brain was drained to make this happen would suffer from an odd kind of death. A personality death. Her brain would be fine, but well empty. A lifetime of knowledge would be gone and she would have to start over from scratch and grow into a totally new and different person than was once there. (Which makes me wonder if the doctors who were trying to download her brain into a computer could be charged with homicide in this case.)

As we can see, the fantasy world of immortal humans who don’t need their bodies just wouldnt work. The mechanics of Kurzweils proposition are literally the digital equivalent of jamming a square peg into a round hole. But what motivates his desire to see this happen is transparently obvious. Since the late 19th century, various Occultists like Helena Blavatsky and Max Heindel wrote popular texts which wondered about possible methods for humans to become powerful immortals. Futurists like Kurzweil are just the latest incarnations of the long trend of pundits trying to predict the future as theyd like to see it when we seem to be at a crossroads. What he does is no different than Theosophists or Rosicrucian Mystics of the industrial revolution. Its just updated with modern technology.

Human brains are very powerful tools that are always evolving. Our biological wiring makes us who we are to a large extent and how we feel about our memories and what we desire make up our personalities. Rather than living up to another incarnation of old fantasies of immortality and total transcendence by leaping into things we dont quite understand headfirst, we should probably hold on to our brains for the foreseeable future. Theyve been quite handy so far and as of right now, they’re not showing any sign of slowing us down.

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  • Futurists and Sci-Fi writers all have had fun with this subject. I think you have correctly differentiated the personality from the ‘database’ of the brain.

    This whole issue of LIFE and living things is quite interesting.

    The second law of thermodynamics basically says that all things breakdown to their constituent elements. Hot goes to tepid, excessively cold warms to tepid and then they both slowly lose more and more energy. Organized structures, once organized, begin the process of deconstruction. Like they say, Entropy isn’t what it used to be!

    Life, on the other hand, seems to defy the second law. In fact, that might be a good definition for what life is – a force that organizes basic element into higher and more complex structures. Life takes dirt and water and organizes a tree. Life takes a tiny bit of genetic material from a mother and a father, adds nutrients from apples and steak and Caesar salad and turns all that into a baby. That baby continues to eat stuff and grow – from a 6 lb baby to a 200 lb person. In these and other examples unorganized matter is organized into living biomass. Then begins the battle where Life force struggles to hold off the entropic forces that are constantly trying to tear it down. Finally the life force ebbs out and the biomass decomposes and returns to its constituent elements.

    The universe is filled with its own dynamic and progressive forces. It does build stars and organize solar systems. However, these are all natural processes that follow pretty simple laws of physics. One great difference between life and the universe is that living things have the ability to procreate and propagate their own kind. The universe, on the other hand, does indeed create new stars or whatever with the application of massive amounts of energy but those creations, be they stars, suns, moons, planets or asteroids, cannot recreate themselves.

    So we are left to ponder life. How is it that life can reverse the entropic principle? What is that spark that animates a living organism and what happens when that spark goes out? When a brain dies why does it die? Why doesn’t it just turn off like your car engine when you turn the key. Why doesn’t it start back up when the key is turned on once more?

    So we get back to the subject of brain transfer. We might very well, one day, be able to download data from a brain to a chip but I suspect that when we do we will find that the life, the personality of the host, will be nowhere to be found.

  • Greg Fish

    Life can’t reverse entropy and actually, one of the primary components of death is the decay and destruction of tissues and organs. Living things just keep repairing the damage until they can’t repair it anymore.

    Entropy applies to a closed system in which resources and matter is finite. Nothing goes in and nothing goes out so everything decays in the end. But living things are in an open system. A planet is hit by comets and meteors with organic matter, volcanism supplies it with carbon, light gives it energy, liquids act as solvents for critical chemical reactions, etc. Within a complex closed system, you can have a very large, but finite number of open systems sharing matter with each other. It’s just that in the grand scheme of things, everything will slow down, break apart and the exchange will end.

    Although this assumes that the universe is finite and is a closed system. We don’t know either for sure. What we call the universe is just what we can see and I have a post about a more recent discovery of gravitational forces going into and out of our observable universe so we might not be a closed system subject to entropy after all…

  • I believe Kurzweil is right.

    Disregarding some technical difficulties (like the amazing brain tissue density and a zero-time deep scanning machine), theoretically, we can scan a human brain and recreate the same structure into hardware/software. Assuming all higher functions of the brain were copied (we can skip lower brain functions like keeping the heart rate), this artificial entity will have all the original brains memories and thought; self awareness included.

  • Greg Fish

    Assuming all higher functions of the brain were copied…

    And that’s a pretty big assumption to make. The higher functions of our brain are hard wired by the locations and the connections of neurons, not the electrical signals they exchange. If you try to copy that and you’re just a bit off… you’re in a danger of killing the person who’s conscious mind and personality you’re transferring.

  • Well, I’m assuming a perfect structural copy with no mistakes.

  • Kurzweil did not think of the Technological Singularity. He’s just a decent pop writer getting some attention. If you wanted to credit one person with discovering the Singularity, please credit Vernor Vinge. If you want to credit one person with inventing uploading, please credit Hans Moravec. Those people don’t deserve total credit either, but they were far more important in the formation of these ideas than Kurzweil. Just a little record straightening there.

    The Singularity is real. It has nothing to do with the fantasies spun by Kurzweil or anyone else– those of us who are honest will say that of course we have no idea what exactly is going to happen. (Which isn’t to say there’s no place for fantasy; it might help us get ready, if we ponder some wild guesses.) The surpassing of human intelligence is entirely a sideshow. The essential intelligence barrier comes where and whenever (your guess is as good as ours) an artificial intelligence is capable of making the decisions that lead to improvements in its own next iteration. That and that alone is what begins the final, unbelievable knee of the curve.

    No breaking into the special box where souls and love and such are preserved from duplication (btw, reductio: if only neuron arrangements count, we could of course arrange neurons) is even required. It’s not computers that love or fear or contain human uploads that matter, not in terms of propelling the final blast-off. All that matters is their ability to design computers, to design their own next generation. Surely you can allow yourself to see that (designing computers) as mundane– like addition, chess, and driving cars, something which will in its time be brought across the line. But when that one special something is brought across that line– becomes obtainable for no money down instead of only by raising a human child– the entire table by logical necessity must begin to tilt, to slide, and to flip.

    We Singularitarians have no idea what will happen then. We preach that there’s a Singularity, but we don’t really know what a Singularity is. We are warning you because we see it approaching: its giant shadow, its astounding shape. Computers will begin to invent themselves, and the following generations of improvement will begin to slam us again and again, like a sudden hail, like a rushing flood, each one doubling the speed of the next. Please believe us. Please look up at this for yourself. Please help us figure out what on Earth is happening, or what we could possibly do to save ourselves in such a maelstrom, for there may not be much time to contemplate or ruminate once we’re thrust into the midst of that flowing world.

  • cacarr

    Meat isn’t magic.

  • Me

    The last 2 posts sum it up quite well, except that I have your answer, mungojelly. You already know it, as do we all at some level or another. It’s pointless to face it head-on, though, so we rationalize it away, but the extinction of life as we know it will be the result. There can be only one.

  • Me


    Nonsense. Your post is utter nonsense. Given time, it is not a big assumption to make, but an inevitability. Also, there is no reason whatsoever that an upload would have to destroy the original person, or even affect him/her in any way. YOU’RE making the big assumption that all uploads will be destructive.

    If you misread my post, there’s no chance the post will be destroyed.

  • @Me:

    Well, I do think you’re right on one level. Not so much the literal extinction of life, but the irrelevancy of it, its zoo-like retirement. Life was not a game, life– a series of accidents!– was seriously the best engineer on this abandoned speck for a long while there. It will no longer be. We are about to look beyond the veil and create truly efficient uses of matter; biology is about to lose its grasp on history.

    I doubt we will be goo, though. Or at least, I doubt that we will be goo on every level. In fact, I would go so far as to guess that we are likely to create something with much MORE churn and bubble than life. Life isn’t actually trying to accomplish anything, after all. Evolution demands change… extremely rarely! On a day to day basis it demands absolute fidelity! What we make will not just change to adapt when it must, no, it will be intelligently creative to the core. I expect an age of wonders.

    In the midst of that tornado which is the end of human time, you will have to look back down a very long tunnel to see these times when we could not imagine building even a single human mind. It is of course simply denial. As @gfish’s second comment shows, these possibilities force us to question our fragile, situation dependent concepts of identity. I’ve just reread the OP, and they have a similarly unrealistic vision of themselves– “This is why he assumes that when the typical computer ‘surpasses’ the human brain in how many operations per second it could do, humans should have no trouble fitting their brains into a hard drive. However, the brains job is to come up with creative solutions. It doesnt matter how fast we come up with ideas.”– They think they are denying that computers can think, but really what they are asserting is that what they do is something even more magical than think. It’s not true.

    That’s another sense in which the Singularity will be an extinction. It will lay bare what this world truly is, what the human mind and human life are. It is not what we pretend to be. That vision, that assertion, that happy lie of what it is to be human will be gone forever, and we will be forced to remember simply the dirty truth of what we have been.

  • Tartessos

    “What he doesn’t seem to realize is that human brains are not about raw computational power. This is why he assumes that when the typical computer ‘surpasses’ the human brain in how many operations per second it could do, humans should have no trouble fitting their brains into a hard drive.”

    This is a pretty shameless straw man you are knocking down, because that is not at all what he has claimed. In fact, it is the opposite. Quote: “A principal assumption underlying the expectation of the Singularity is that nonbiological mediums will be able to emulate the richness, subtlety, and depth of human thinking. But achieving the hardware computational capacity of a single human brain – or even of the collective intelligence of villages and nations – will not automatically produce human levels of capability. (By ‘human levels’ I include all the diverse ways humans are intelligent, including musical and artistic aptitude, creativity, physical motion through the world, and understanding and responding appropriately to emotions.) The hardware computational capacity is necessary but not sufficient. Understanding the organization and content of these resources – the software of intelligence – is even more critical and is the objective of the brain reverse-engineering undertaking.”

    “As we can see, the fantasy world of immortal humans who don’t need their bodies just wouldnt work. The mechanics of Kurzweils proposition are literally the digital equivalent of jamming a square peg into a round hole.”

    Who made this claim, other than you? It was not Kurzweil. To quote: “If we are truly capturing a particular person’s mental processes, then the reinstantiated mind will need a body, since so much of our thinking is directed towards physical needs and desires.” [_The Singularity Is Near_, p. 199]

    If you are going to criticize someone’s claims, at least stick to what they actually claimed, not some convenient straw men.