Volume 24, Number 2, Winter, 2006

How I learned to love the future

The Singularity is Near

By Ray Kurtzweil

Viking, 2005, $29.95
ISBN: 0-670-03384-7, 602 pages
Reviewed by Anders Monsen

By Anders Monsen

The Singularity.

The word conjures up many meanings and images. The origin of the word reaches back to the 1960s, yet really didn’t take off as a popular term until the 1980s. Mathematician and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge wrote about the “technological singularity” in a science journal and novels (see, for example, Marooned in Realtime and A Fire Upon the Deep). Vinge speculated on an inevitable trend toward accelerating technological growth leading up to a point where some event (the singularity) rendered the future unknowable to present humans. This hyper-technological leap would occur when the exponential growth of technology became such that humans merged with machines, or genetic change became so advanced yet readily available, that humans could mold themselves into something more than human, or beyond the present definition of humanity.

In the field of science fiction, the idea of the singularity has both provided rich fodder for writers, while at the same time been ignored completely by many practitioners of the art of writing about the future. According to some scientists the singularity looms just around the corner, and when reached will render all our speculations about life beyond 2050 moot. Most sf writers take a slower path, and set novels centuries in the future not much different from our present day. A memorable early example of the former view is Bruce Sterling, whose Schismatrix and Crystal Express told the story of mechs vs. shapers, two radically different and opposing forces of human singularitarians. More recently, the foremost example of a writer working within the premises of the singularity is Charles Stross, whose first novel even bore the title, Singularity Sky. Still, his starkest example of the implications of the singularity lies in his 2005 novel, Accelerando (reviewed on page 4). At times Accelerando reads like a fictionalized road-map of Ray Kurtzweil’s new non-fiction work, The Singularity is Near.

Kurtzweil, an inventor and science writer, has embraced wholeheartedly the idea of the singularity as a positive and inevitable event. The concept itself almost mirrors the Christian idea of transcendence (indeed, the book is subtitled, “When Humans Transcend Biology”). Elsewhere, Stross jokingly has referred to the singularity as “The Rapture of the Nerds,” almost lampooning the day when tech-savvy individuals who have embraced the implications and effects of technological transcendence (ie., the true believers) leap across the event horizon and become something other than human.

Introducing his vision of rapidly accelerating change, Kurtzweil first walks the reader through six epochs of evolution, concluding that the singularity will take place in the fifth epoch, some time later this century. More specifically, this transformation will occur in the year 2045, and mere forty years from now. At this point, the “nonbiological intelligence created in that year will be one billion times more powerful than all human intelligences today.” With a vast array of charts and diagrams, Kurtzweil sketches the progress of evolution through to today’s computational nexus of activity.

It seems only natural that since most of the technological advances of the twentieth century have taken place in the areas of computers—from room-sized, isolated tape-driven machines to mobile, interconnected super fast and ubiquitous daily objects—that Kurtzweil takes the idea of computational power as his corner stone metaphor. Computers, once purely the domain of large universities, corporations, and government entities, now form the pervasive component of everyday life.

From the world of computers, The Singularity is Near discusses the computational power and design of the human brain, drawing parallels between how humans think and how computers think. Inevitably, Kurtzweil seems to argue, human brains and computers eventually will approach each other enough in design and action to one day merge. This is the foundation for brain mapping and uploading, much discussed among futurists and extropians, and also deeply entrenched as a science fiction trope. Indeed, many an sf writer could mine the pages of this book for story ideas and road-maps of technological progress.

Kurtzweil looks at the three areas that will shape the future of mankind: genetics, robotics, and nanotechnology, or GNR. At this point the ice perhaps is thinnest, as much of what he writes is speculation and extrapolation of current trends, ideas, and discoveries. Each of these fields are relatively young, yet progress is rapid. The implications a few years down the road also are staggering.

Kurtzweil’s book is an exciting yet scary vision. Although he does spend some time answering his critics, and also mentions some of the dangers of GNR, I fear his book is far too rosy in its vision of the future. While no techno-pessimist, I recognize the inherent failings of ubiquitous technology. In the early 1990s we thought the world being interconnected was fantastic. Yet along with the Web, email, and instant news we have spam, crippling viruses, ID theft, government control of information aided and abetted by companies (see China). How will we defend ourselves against GPS driven courier bombs, re-programmable nanocytes in our bodies, or amoral AI? Change is inevitable, and while Kurtzweil presents a bold vision of the future which may or may not happen, parts of it will come true. Will we be freer as a result? Who knows. The story of history has been the story of liberty, as Benedetto Croce wrote. Awareness is the key, and the first step might be to arm yourself with this book, as the ideas within will open your eyes and make you wonder (and prepare) for the future.

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