techno-utopianism makes it to time magazine

February 15, 2011

Since this blog is probably best known for it’s skeptical view of the strain of cyber-utopianism being promoted by professional technocrat, and apparently one of the world’s top atheists, Ray Kurzweil, it seems that I have to somehow note his appearance in Time Magazine and point out the numerous flaws in treating him like an immensely influential technology prophet with a pulse on the world of computer science. And it’s unfortunate that so many reporters seem to take him seriously because almost half a century ago, he was experimenting with some really cool machines and over the next few decades, came up with some interesting stuff. But for a while now, he’s been coasting on his own coattails, making grand pronouncements about areas of computer science in which he was never involved, and the reporters who profile him seem to think that if he can make a music machine in the 1965, it must mean that he knows where the AI world is headed, forgetting the fact that being an expert in one area of computer science doesn’t make you an expert in another. And so we’re treated to a breezy recitation of Kurzweil’s greatest hits which glosses over the numerous problems with his big plan for the world of 2045 with the good, old exponential advancement numerology that he loves to cite so often.

Again, there’s really nothing new here if you’re familiar with Kurzweil’s brand of transhumanism, just the same promises of mind uploading and digital immortality on the date predicted on the exponential chart that far too many devoted Singularitarians embrace with the same zeal as post-modernists ascribing to every concept with the word "quantum" in it. Never mind that mind uploading will require the kind of mind-body dualism based on the religious concept of a soul rather than sound science, and that even if it were possible, there would be huge adjustments involved with the process. Never mind that no matter whether Kurzweil takes a thousand vitamins a day, his body will simply fall apart by 125 because evolution does not produce humans who aren’t subject to senescence. Never mind that new inventions can backfire or never find an outlet and that the tech industry has been overpromising the benefits of what computers can do for nearly 50 years, always assuring us that the next generation of electronics would give us a nearly perfect world. Never mind that by now, more scholarly Singularitarians are trying to reign in Kurzweil’s hype while politely pointing out to whom we may want to listen instead. And never mind that Ray has a miserable record when it comes to predicting future trends in computing and technology and constantly changes what he said after the fact to give everyone the impression that he actually knows what he says he does. We’re told that every challenge to his dream world of immortal humans who swap minds between machines is easily met by the march of tech progress which will quickly add up to grant him his fantasies at just the right moment.

There’s really something borderline religious about Kurzweil’s approach to technology. He’s embraced is as his savior and his weapon to cheating death, and his devotion runs so deeply, he even says that any threats from new technology could be countered with more and better technology. But technology is just a tool, the means to an end, not an end in and of itself. It’s not something to be tamed and worshipped like an elusive or mysterious creature that works in bizarre ways, and it doesn’t work on schedule to give you what it wants. It is what you make of it and there are problems that it can’t overcome because we don’t know the solutions. Sure, being able to live for hundreds of years sounds great. But all the medical technology in the world won’t help a researcher who doesn’t know why we age and exactly what needs to be fixed or how to sufficiently and safely slow the aging process. Those kinds of discoveries aren’t done on schedule because they’re broad and very open-ended. Just saying that we’ll get there in 2030 because a chart you drew based on Moore’s Law, which was a marketing gimmick of Intel rather than an actual law of physics or technology, says so, is ridiculous to say the least. It’s like a theologist trying to calculate the day of the Rapture by digging through the Bible or the quatrains of Nostradamus’ volume. You can’t just commit scientists and researchers to work according to an arbitrary schedule so they can help you deal with your midlife crisis and come to terms with your own mortality. And yet, that’s exactly what Ray does, substituting confidence and technobabble for substance and attracting way too many reporters who just regurgitate what he says into their articles and call him a genius.

Here’s what will likely happen by 2045. We might live a little longer thanks to prosthetics and maybe artificial organs and valves which will replace some of our natural entrails when they start going out of order with age, and hopefully, better diet and exercise. We’ll have very basic AI which we’ll use to control large processes and train using genetic algorithms and artificial neural networks. We may even have a resurgence in space travel and be wondering about sending cyborgs into space for long term missions. We’ll probably have new and very interesting inventions and gadgets that we’ll consider vital for our future. But we’ll still inhabit our bodies, we’ll still die, and we’ll still find answers to the our biggest and most important problems when we find them, not according to a schedule assembled by a tech shaman. Meanwhile, I’ll be an old fogey who used to write about how Singularitarians are getting way ahead of themselves and have to face my own upcoming end as best I can, without dreaming of some magical technology that will swoop from the sky and save me because imaginary scientists are supposed to come up with it before I die and ensure my immortality. All I’ll be able to do is live out my life as best I can and try to do as many things as I want to do, hopefully leaving some kind of legacy for those who’ll come after me, or maybe a useful gadget or two with which they can also tinker. And if we manage to figure out how to stop aging before I’m gone for good, terrific. But I won’t bet on it.

[ illustration by Martin Lisec ]

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  • http://thetimchannel.wordpress.com The Tim Channel

    I agree with what you said. I believe his audience has got to be mainly old people who fear death, but have no faith in religion to resurrect themselves. It would appear that he has tapped a pretty big market of people who ‘just want to believe’ because there’s no other way to explain his popularity, given his total lack of any scientific rigor in his theories.
    Enjoy.