the subtle love-hate relationship with ray kurzweil

August 26, 2010

Whenever the person most associated with transhumanism and futurism in the media, Ray Kurzweil, makes another grand pronouncement and finds himself the target of critiques by skeptics and experts, there's a very interesting thing that happens on a number of Singularitarian and transhumanist blogs. We're diplomatically told to keep in mind that Ray is very smart, very well read, always does his homework, but that his predictions can be a little too aggressive. Then, we're just as politely given a much more realistic estimate and asked to consider how far technology has come today and how likely it is we can build on it in the future to do all kinds of amazing things. The underlying message I've gotten from several prominent Singularitarians like Vassar, Anissimov, and transhumanists like my Skeptically Speaking counterpart, George Dvorsky, seems to go a little like this: there's no need to focus just on Ray's proclamations and encourage the media to do the same.

Just to drive that idea home, last week George made it a point to list some prominent, sober transhumanists and futurists on our second episode on the subject. And if you missed the show, he posted the complete list on his blog along with a very unambiguous thesis that paying far too much attention to Kurzweil is distracting people from a community of serious thinkers and researchers interested in the topic. Michael Anissimov was quick to put up a link and reiterate the message that there's much more to high tech futurism then Kurzweil's last sound bite and it would be a good idea to make note of those cited by George. And you know what? They are absolutely right. While many people today get their first exposure to Singularitarian thought from Ray and his books, he didn't create the concept. The idea that at some point in the future, something profound enough to change the world as we know it thanks to technological advances accumulating at an exponential rate was the brainchild of computer scientist and sci-fi writer Vernon Vinge, more specifically, from a vague paper he wrote for NASA in 1993. Kurzweil simply capitalized on these ideas and wrote several books.

Now, of course, whenever Ray comes out on stage and drops a profound whopper like his recent claim about reverse-engineering the human brain in a million lines of code according to his to obscure numerology, an exercise comparable with scanning an alphabet into a computer and reproducing the Oxford Dictionary, there is a need to defend him to some extent lest the core idea of trying to simulate the human brain on a computer at some point in the future be discarded as ridiculous. So the futurists and transhumanists say several vague and murky positives, then proceed to correct him because they know that neurologists are actually busy trying to reconstruct the human brain in supercomputers so they can try to find potential treatments for Alzheimer's, tumors, and ideas for how to repair brain damage. It's almost like an exercise in damage control as a media hound who managed to become a symbol of their movement to the public at large goes around promising a path to immortality by 2045, recommends taking hundreds of supplements a day to "reprogram the body," and essentially runs his own version of transhumanism, Singularity® Inc., as a lucrative business. The more coverage he gets in the media, the more books, alkaline water, vitamins, and lectures will be bought and so it makes perfect sense for him to continue being a media hound.

But on the other side of the movement are sober scholars who are genuinely interested in what's going on in the world of cutting edge technology, noticing potential trends and ideas. They are the ones you're going to be meeting at Singularity Summits, just like Skepchick's Sam Ogden discovered for himself this year. As Ray's streak of grabbing headlines with bold, often unrealistic claims which seldom show what his fans say are the nuanced, profound explorations into complex technical topics for which he's best known, continues, there's a certain urge among the more realistic and far less known Singualritarians to make their voices heard over the sensationalistic proclamations of a media messiah prophesying the Nerd Rapture. And that would be a good thing because it seems that nowadays, Ray needs Singularitarians and transhumanists a lot more than they need him. After all, to them it's not about making money and hoping to live forever, but simply exploring what's possible and rejecting the ideas that we should be afraid of technical progress, or that we are to surrender to the forces of nature, while making philosophical and epistemological excuses for doing so.

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  • The more fundamental problem is that Kurtveil’s vision is distorted.

    His efforts to underline the very clear exponential pattern of technological development (which has been apparent to many of us for more than half a century and even quantified by Gordon Moore 40 years back) are certainly to be commended.

    Nevertheless, Kurtzveil remains completely oblivious to the clear and inevitable extension of biological evolution which, by a process of self-assembly rather than direct human design, will, within decades, transition to a new inorganic (most likely diamond-based) phase of the observed life process.

    Kurtzveils great naivety in this respect no doubt stems from two factors. Firstly, a too close focus on his own specialist discipline of IT. Secondly, from anthropocentrism. This colored the beliefs of the religionists of yesteryear and, in modern times, has spurred the transhumanist mindsets of Kurtzveil and most others of his ilk.

    An empirical take on the much wider interpretation and implications of natural processes (of which technology is one) is provided in my book “Unusual Perspectives” (available at eponymous website for free download)

  • Greg Fish

    Kurtzveil [sic] remains completely oblivious to the clear and inevitable extension of biological evolution which … will, within decades, transition to a new inorganic (most likely diamond-based) phase of the observed life process.

    Um… Say what now? Maybe it’s just me, or the couple hundred thousand biologists who would object pretty loudly to this statement, but how could evolution, a process only possible in organic life, ever shift to substances like minerals? So, how much research did you do for your book again, and why are you not publishing it through a media company?

  • MaDeR

    I intepret his hilarious mispublications as getting desperate. He is older and older, and no immortality in sight. Hilarity ensues. I was and am always amused by “predictions” of singularity herolds, that are just accidentally within lifespan of said herold. Wishful thinking much?

    And about this mythical “singuarity”… this is point of view, not physical state. For peasant from 1000 years ago, we are DEEP in singularity.