Fw: [TSE-Chat] The Age of Ray Kurzweil.
It would be interesting to meet this guy in person. Also, I wonder if he needs product testers.
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Sent: Monday, September 26, 2005 1:26 AM
Subject: Fw: [TSE-Chat] The Age of Ray Kurzweil.
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Sent: Sunday, September 25, 2005 11:02 PM
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From: TSE-Chat@yahoogroups.com [mailto:TSE-Chat@yahoogroups.com] On Behalf Of Michael Townsend
Sent: Sunday, September 25, 2005 8:20 PM
Subject: [TSE-Chat] The Age of Ray Kurzweil.
The age of Ray Kurzweil
By Drake Bennett
The Boston Globe, September 25, 2005
CAPTION: Ray Kurzwell takes hundreds of nutritional supplement pills every
day. As he puts it, he is "reprogramming my biochemistry." (Photo by Rick
Friedman for The New York Times)
What will happen when technology outstrips human intelligence? Renowned --
and controversial -- techno-visionary Ray Kurzweil says we won't have to
wait long to find out. And he, for one, is looking forward to it.
KURZWEIL TECHNOLOGIES takes up two floors of a low office building in
Wellesley Hills, near where the Charles River crosses and then recrosses
Route 128. In the reception area are a vintage Thomas Edison dictation
machine and a large flat-screen monitor on which a computer program draws
angular, cartoon-like portraits. Across from the entrance sits an alarmingly
lifelike man made of wax, bearded and brandishing a pipe as if in
Ray Kurzweil, the company's founder, is an inventor, and has been one for as
long as he can remember. ''When I was 7 or 8 my inventions actually began to
work," Kurzweil told me recently in his large, cluttered office. ''I'd build
these robotic devices, like a theater that would move scenery and props and
characters in and out of view by elaborate mechanical linkages."
He was still a high school student when, in 1964, he created a computer that
composed music in the style of Chopin, Mozart, and other great composers. In
the early 1970s he invented the first flatbed scanner and the first
practical character-recognition software, paving the way for everything from
digital photography and graphic design to online newspaper archiving.
Combining those two technologies with a text-to-speech synthesizer (another
of his inventions), he made the Kurzweil Reading Machine. He sold the very
first one to Stevie Wonder--for whom he then developed the first music
synthesizer able to fool professional musicians into thinking they were
listening to real instruments. In 1987 his company Kurzweil Applied
Intelligence was the first to market large-vocabulary speech-recognition
By any measure, Kurzweil has had an exceptional career. Now, however, he has
a new project: to be a god. And not just because he thinks he can live
forever. Within decades, he predicts, he will be billions of times more
intelligent than he is today, able to read minds, assume different forms,
and reshape his physical environment at will. So will everyone. Today's
human beings, mere quintessences of dust, will be as outmoded as Homo
All this, Kurzweil believes, will come about through something called The
Singularity. Popularized more than a decade ago by the mathematician,
computer scientist, and science fiction novelist Vernor Vinge, who borrowed
the term from mathematics and astrophysics, it refers to the future point at
which technological change, propelled by the explosive growth of artificial
intelligence, will accelerate past the point of current human comprehension.
In Vinge's prevision, once artificial intelligence surpasses human
intelligence there will be no turning back, as ever more intelligent
computers create ever more superintelligent offspring.
Among the programmers, scientists, and philosophers concerned with the
larger contours of technological evolution, the term quickly caught on. The
Singularity became an axis around which debates on technology, human nature,
genetic enhancement, and the future of consciousness all turned. Figures
like Marvin Minsky and Hans Moravec, the artificial intelligence pioneers,
and K. Eric Drexler, the father of nanotechnology, took it up.
Today Ray Kurzweil is the most radical and most visible prophet of The
Singularity. In talks, public debates, articles, postings on his website,
and in a series of increasingly provocative books--''The Age of Intelligent
Machines" (1990), ''The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed
Human Intelligence" (1999), ''Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live
Forever" (2005)--he has done more than any other thinker to make the case
for both the desirability and the imminence of The Singularity. According to
Doug Lenat, a leading expert on artificial intelligence, ''Ray is one of the
few people who can step back and see the big picture for what it means for
our species and for the planet."
This week Kurzweil has a new book out, with the self-consciously millennial
title ''The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology" (Viking). It
is the most detailed brief he has yet written for the nearness of the
unimaginably strange future, and it arrives with approving blurbs from
Minsky and Bill Gates (''Ray Kurzweil is the best person I know at
predicting the future of artificial intelligence," writes the Microsoft
founder.) At a time when political debates over the ethics of stem cell
research, genetic modification, cloning and even nanotechnology are growing
at once more fervent and more complicated, Kurzweil offers a vision of
technology as destiny, of transformative change that has slipped the bonds
of politics, culture, and--for many--credulity.
That his predictions make moot most of the cultural norms and physical
limits of today's world is, he believes, only a testament to the power of
the forces he describes. To his many critics, however, Kurzweil is simply
spinning fairy tales, preaching transcendence but propagating ignorance.
Arrayed around Kurzweil's office and in the hallways outside are a few of
his inventions. When I asked, he readily showed them off. He had an old
Kurzweil Reading Machine flatly declaim the opening of the Gettysburg
Address. He played the first few measures of a Beethoven piano sonata on an
early-model Kurzweil synthesizer, stumbled, started over, stumbled again,
then switched to Gershwin. He arranged a demonstration of a pocket reading
machine for the blind that he plans to roll out in January. He told me about
FatKat, his artificial-intelligence investment program: Over the past two
years, he claims, it has brought in stock market returns of 80 to 100
Kurzweil is compact and trim, with full cheeks, a small smile, and a
knot-like nose drooping toward a broad chin. The tone of his voice, deep and
deliberate, is somewhat at odds with his eyes, which narrow and furiously
blink as he talks. He is 57 years old, nearly the age at which his father
died of a heart attack. According to a battery of controversial tests
administered by Terry Grossman, the anti-aging expert who co-wrote
''Fantastic Voyage," Kurzweil has not aged appreciably in the past 17 years.
Every day, Kurzweil takes hundreds of nutritional supplement pills, and once
a week he takes several others intravenously. He is, as he puts it,
''reprogramming my biochemistry" and claims in so doing to have conquered
his Type 2 diabetes. More importantly, he insists, he is stretching his
natural lifespan until either genetic therapies, microscopic ''nanobots"
(hypothetical robots on the scale of single atoms and molecules that
Kurzweil believes will be able, among many other things, to take over some
of the vital functions of the human body), or simply the ability to download
one's mind onto a computer make immortality a reality.
What links all of Kurzweil's creations is the concept of pattern
recognition: recreating the human ability to distinguish signal from noise.
As he sees it, the predictions he's making are simply pattern recognition
applied to history.
The pattern he sees is a simple one: He calls it the law of accelerating
returns. To explain, Kurzweil uses the example of Moore's Law, the storied
1965 prediction by Intel cofounder Gordon Moore that the power of computer
chips would double roughly every two years. In 1972 there were 2500
transistors in an Intel chip, in 1974, 4500, and by 2004 there were 592
For Kurzweil, however, the explosive power of exponential growth goes far
beyond transistors: Human technological advancement, the billions of years
of terrestrial evolution, the entire history of the universe, all, he
argues, follow the law of accelerating returns. He has put a team of
researchers to work gathering technological, economic, historical, and
paleontological data. All of it, he claims, graphs neatly onto an
exponential plot, starting out slowly, then nosing sharply upward through
the ''knee of the curve" into higher order and greater complexity, arcing
''Ultimately," he promises in ''The Singularity Is Near," ''the entire
universe will become saturated with our intelligence. This is the destiny of
the universe. We will determine our own fate rather than have it determined
by the current 'dumb,' simple machinelike forces that rule celestial
mechanics." How he is not sure, but he trusts his math.
At such moments, Kurzweil's predictions have the ring of eschatology, of
half-cocked end-times rapture. For him, though, it's surreal to hear people
talk about the size of the Social Security shortfall in 2042--by then, he
believes, advances in nanotechnology will allow us to ward off disease and
senescence and to manufacture all the goods we want for a pittance. By then,
in other words, aging and poverty may hardly exist and people may not retire
or even work in a way that's recognizable to us.
For Kurzweil, stubbornly linear habits of mind explain why, for example, so
few neuroscientists share his conviction that we will soon be able to
reverse-engineer the brain. ''A lot of scientists," he told me, ''Nobel
Prize-winners included, take a linear perspective. They just intuitively do
the mental experiment of what will it take to achieve certain goals at
today's rate of progress, with today's tools." Kurzweil points to the
skepticism that greeted his forecast, in 1990, that in as few as nine years
a computer would beat the world chess champion. He was too conservative, as
it turned out: Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in 1997.
. . .
Yet even among those like Vinge, Minsky, Drexler, and Lenat, for whom The
Singularity is less a matter of if than when, Kurzweil is a figure of rare
certainty. Nick Bostrom, a philosopher and the director of the Future of
Humanity Institute at Oxford University, isn't so sure the timing of The
Singularity can be pinpointed. ''We should be thinking about it more as a
probability distribution smeared out over a long period," he says.
Then there are the many thinkers who find Kurzweil's case less than
compelling. Since his theories take in the whole history of the universe,
there is no shortage of points at which to contest them. Some skeptics
dispute Kurzweil's computer science. They argue that even computers billions
of times more powerful than today's wouldn't necessarily be meaningfully
intelligent, much less spiritual. Any one of a number of hurdles--from the
complexity of neural networks to the difficulty of recreating the brain's
analog processing with a computer's digital circuitry to our continued
inability to begin to articulate the essence of consciousness--might stand
immovably in the way of human-level artificial intelligence.
As John Searle, a philosopher of mind and language at the University of
California, Berkeley, wrote in a public exchange of letters with Kurzweil,
''the existing technological advances that are supposed to provide evidence
in support of these predictions, wonderful though they are, offer no support
whatever for these spectacular conclusions."
Others, like the Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, take issue with
Kurzweil's teleological view of evolution. ''It's the old idea that the
process of evolution is some push in the direction of greater complexity--in
particular greater intellectual complexity," Pinker says. ''In one twig of
the tree of life, namely ours, having a big brain happened to have
advantages. But that's just what worked for a particular species of primate
5 to 7 million years ago."
Still others see something darker in Kurzweil's visions of transformation.
Bill Joy, the founder of Sun Microsystems, was so horrified by a
conversation with Kurzweil that he wrote a now-famous Wired magazine cover
story in 2000 entitled ''The Future Doesn't Need Us," describing a
technological apocalypse, the earth chewed to pieces by out-of-control
nanobots. Thinkers like the political scientist Francis Fukuyama of Johns
Hopkins University foresee a subtler corrosion: The pursuit of biological
perfection, Fukuyama warns, deprives us of qualities like compassion and
courage that spring from an awareness of our vulnerability.
Jaron Lanier, a pioneer of virtual reality computing, and like Kurzweil and
Joy somewhat of a tech-world guru, manages to combine the technological and
the moral critiques of Kurzweil's thought. In a 2000 essay entitled ''One
Half of a Manifesto," he argued that our ever-more-powerful computers were
likely to be limited, for the foreseeable future, by the software running
them. Lampooning Joy's nightmare scenario, he wrote, ''Just as some newborn
race of superintelligent robots are about to consume all humanity, our dear
old species will likely be saved by a Windows crash."
Still, Lanier finds Kurzweil's ideas unsettling. ''Ray has incorporated in
his little system of thought all of the elements of a religion that are
selfish but none of the ones that are generous," Lanier told me. ''His thing
is purely, 'Here's how to live forever, here's how to be uploaded into the
machine.' There's no concern for other people since it's assumed that
everyone will be infinitely rich and happy in his future." It's a philosophy
based on narcissism, Lanier charges, a dream of ultimate individual
The last chapter of Kurzweil's new book is entitled ''Response to Critics,"
and it is nearly 60 pages long. Kurzweil's rejoinders are detailed and
exhaustive, ranging across topics from software development and neural
networks into quantum mechanics and the philosophy of consciousness.
Nowhere, however, does he offer any apology for his promise of eternity or
his focus on individual enhancement.
This individualistic, mechanistic ethos, his critics argue, also blurs
Kurzweil's predictive power, because it ignores all the ways in which
technologies are bounded by social forces. As Harvard's Pinker points out,
''the track record of technological predictions is laughable. I remember a
prediction in my childhood that by now we'd be living in domed cities and
commuting by jet pack and eating protein pills instead of meals. On the
other hand a lot of revolutions are predicted by no one. My favorite is that
in the movie '2001,' you had space travel and human-level artificial
intelligence, but people were still writing on clipboards. Arthur C. Clarke
hadn't predicted the laptop."
Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail drbennett@....
Home Phone: 904 727-6031
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