Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Kurzweil's Singularity

Ray Kurzweil is an inventor and a futurist. I first became aquainted with the name by seeing it on a friends high-end electronic keyboard. I had no idea the swath the man had cut through the scientific and business world. He is regarded as one of the brightest men in America and he is profoundly optimistic about the future. Kurzweil's contribution to the world is already legend but his vision of the world to come may be his greatest offering yet.

Listening to Kurzweil talk takes a skilled ear because his mind is so quick just following his interconnected thoughts is like following an organizational flow chart. In a rapid fire yet calm manner he seems to be quietly shouting "Think of the possibilities!" Indeed, some of the wonderous things technology will bring us are going to be revolutionary in ways the human race has never seen before, however, I see problems that exist today that stand in the way of this fantastical future Kurweil presents. I think Kurzweil is so jazzed by the light of what is possible that he fails to see the dark side if you will.

The Singularity

In his latest book THE SINGULARITY IS NEAR: When Humans Transcend Biology, Kurzweil introduces us to a world that the greatest sci-fi writers could only dream of. The Singularity is the story of the destiny of the human-machine civilization. At the rate technology is progressing he believes this brave new world is only 30 or 40 years out.

In the book he examines technological evolution, all the latest findings in brain research, the revolutions in genetics, nanotechnology and robotics. He describes, these and other related new technologies, all of which promise enormous benefits to humans, like a limitless life spans and greatly enhanced intelligence. According to Kurzweil with boundless energy harnessed from the sun coupled with AI (artificial intelligence) with its exponential expansion we will eventually be able to manipulate the universe itself. Hunger and disease, even death itself will be wiped away from the human experience. In the human-machine civilization virtual nothing will be impossible. If you can think it it will be done.

Wait a Minute Here...

What are we talking about? Is it a wonderous world of limitless possibilities or a cross between the Borg and the Matrix of the movies. Frankly, some of Kurzweil visions frighten me. In fact I find it odd that Ray Kurzweil lists Bill Joy, one of the founders of Sun MicroSystems, among his friends. Several years ago Bill Joy drew a lot of attention with an essay he wrote called "Why the future doesn't need us". In it he raises all kinds of alarm bells citing the very technologies Kurzweil is touting as the rescuer of mankind. Which one of these men will ultimately be proven prescient only time will tell.

If AI develops without any human regulation it will just extend human competition and continue to magnify the difference between life's winners and losers. Face it, the technological revolution is already widening the gap between the educated and the uneducated. I work in the Information Technology field in computer networking and firewall security, and while I do not consider myself especially brilliant I find it amazing how little the average person understands about what goes on once they click that mouse. Just like turning on the light switch at home we take for granted the incredible amount of effort and expertise it took for that 60 watt bulb to illuminate the room. Most of us are technological dummies.

Now consider the pathology of an AI machine that can think, yes, think, circles around you and me. Will it have the morals and ethics that are inherent in the human soul? Do you doubt that there will be those who will design machines with virtues that don't comply with the regulations we as humans specify? Would these lead to an ever increasing game of developing legions of compliance AIs that can help detect and eliminate non-complying AIs.

Consider too the current hysteria over GE (genetically enhanced/engineered) foods. Even when no one can find a specific real world problem with scientifically engineered products which are in a sense no different than centuries old practice of hybridizing food crops there are entire continents that have banned them. The luddites are not going to go quietly into the world of Kurzweil's super-technology. To be sure, Kurzweil discusses the dangers inherent in such technology and addresses the major criticisms of his theories, but his eyes are full of wonder and he supposes that simple logic is going to assuage the paranoid masses.

It is a blast to hear Ray Kurzweil talk about the future and what these wonderful new technologies will offer mankind. We have seen technology greatly enhance our lives in profound ways in less than 100 short years. So far, God help us, we have not vaporized ourselves with the nuclear weapons we have developed. I think it's precisely because human beings have been charged with the ultimate decision as to whether or not they get used. I am not so certain that machine intelligence would be so easily disuaded just because a few billion biological lifeforms would perish.

We should step into "Kurzweil's Singularity" with our eyes wide open and with one foot firmly on the ground.