Erik's Reviews > The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology

The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil
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bookshelves: detailed-review, non-fiction

The Singularity, if you’ve never heard it, is a term given to a theoretical point in the future when our technology will have become so advanced (compared to today) that it becomes impossible to see beyond it or understand its ramifications.

For example, try to imagine a person with an IQ of 200. Not that difficult. Empathy is still valid at that point. The thinking of a 200 IQ person is qualitatively similar to that of a 100 IQ person but scaled up: faster, sharper, wider, deeper. A 200 IQ person would still use his human flesh to navigate the world and would still use our languages and institutions. He might struggle with loneliness. He might experience love.

Now try to imagine an entity with an intelligence equivalent to an IQ of 10000. Impossible. Would it – could it even – be housed in a human body? Such an intelligence would certainly have no more use for human language than humans have for the chirping of birds. We have as much chance of understanding this 10000 IQ intelligence as an ant has of reading Shakespeare.

And yet we can understand and ponder the steps leading up to the development of this super-intelligence. This is the task that Ray Kurzweil attempts with The Singularity Is Near, and the picture he paints is certainly an intriguing one.

In Kurzweil’s vision of the (not so far) future, we have transcended our mortal coils. We’ve moved beyond genetic mastery wherein we use tools like CRISPR to edit out the flaws in our genetic code. We’ve moved beyond nanobots in our blood, which are capable of capturing sensory input and motor output to immerse us in a virtual reality that is indistinguishable from the real. Instead, we’ve shed our weak flesh to merge with (and become) immortal machine super-intelligences, spreading through the solar system, the galaxy, and then the universe in a quest to reach ever new heights of knowledge, art, beauty, and creation. And through this all, claims Kurzweil, we maintain our humanity.

Pretty grand! But how realistic? Will this vision of the future come true?

Put simply: yes. True enough, Kurzweil’s time-frame is almost certainly too optimistic and the steps along the way will probably turn out different than he imagines, but the end game? The singularity? This vision of ever increasing intelligence and complexity? Barring catastrophic human destruction, self-inflicted or otherwise, is there ANY reason to doubt it?

It is a completely indisputable, unambiguous statement to say that the history of our planet is one of escalating intelligence/complexity and that the history of human civilization is one of escalating technological and scientific advancement. Meanwhile history is full of breakthroughs skeptics claimed were impossible: Europeans crossing the Atlantic ocean, heavier-than-air flight, space flight, nigh-instantaneous world-wide communication, the elemental analysis of ultra distant stars and galaxies, etc. In 1934 Albert Einstein wrote, “There is not the slightest indication that [nuclear energy] will ever be obtainable. It would mean the atom would have to be shattered at will.” Mmhmm.

Even the numerous ultimately FAILED endeavors or companies that Kurzweil cites don’t render his general claims dubious. At one point, I estimated roughly 80% of the companies or technologies he was citing had since failed. Seems a slam dunk case against his predictions. In fact, the opposite is true. His “Law of Accelerating Returns” suggests that companies fail and arise at ever-increasing rates. Consider the solar power industry:

I recently undertook some research in various solar power companies with the aim of investing in their stock. I have little doubt that solar power will play a major role in the future of power generation, if just because solar power follows the general trend of decentralization that seems to be happening in so many industries. Even so, after my research, I opted not to invest in any stock. Why not?

Because no solar company seemed a particularly good bet. Here’s the problem: A solar company will create (or acquire) a new process or method for more efficient and/or cheaper solar modules or cells. So they build a new factory (or retool an old one) to manufacture these new solar cells, a rather expensive investment. This puts the company, momentarily, in the lead. Consumers, corporations, and governments buy their stuff. However technology is advancing so rapidly now that before this company can earn back its expensive investment, some other better solar product reaches the marketplace. Everyone switches to this new product. So the first company goes bankrupt and a new company acquires their expertise and technology and eventually puts out a newer, superior product. Thus the wheel turns.

So while the solar industry as a whole is progressing, no single company has yet to truly dominate the field, as Google has done with search engines. And I, at least, can’t predict which one, if any, will.

Point being, when looking at broad predictions of the future, we can’t let day-to-day or even year-to-year chaos and setbacks obfuscate the overall path. We must try to see the forest, despite the trees, and Kurzweil seems to do a decent job of this.

Nevertheless, I wasn’t a huge fan of The Singularity Is Near. Now I certainly learned *a lot.* This book inspired me to do outside research on a slew of topics including wormholes, genetic engineering, the phases of clinical trials, and much more. And yet, the book as a whole lacks humanity. It explores these visions of the future without ever truly exploring how they will affect humanity – at the visceral, emotional, dramatic level of individuals. Kurzweil’s writings were less engaging than they might have been because they rarely afforded me the opportunity to hypothesize upon what I personally might do, when faced with future ethical questions. In fact, the overall feel of the book is that it’s less about communicating with me as a fellow human being than it is about Kurzweil organizing his own thoughts and evidences on the matters he wishes to write about.

Such a lack is ironic because Kurzweil seems very concerned with countering the notion that our humanity might be lost when we escape our corporeal bondage. He finishes the prologue with a quote from Muriel Rukeyser: “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms” and the actual last line of the prologue is: “This book, then, is the story of the destiny of the human-machine civilization, a destiny we have come to refer as the Singularity.”

If this was truly his intention – to tell this story – then I would say Kurzweil singularly failed.

So, some good, some bad. That much for the book review. To finish, I want to try to succeed, in at least one tiny area, where I feel Kurzweil failed. I want to talk about immortality and what it’ll mean to you and to me, personally.

The year is 2060. I am 75 years old. My parents are dead, as will be many of those reading this right now. My nephews who are 5 and 6 years old right now will have become grown men, almost 50 years old themselves, maybe with kids of their own. At 75, I am extremely healthy. Not as spry as I am now, but like all those who can afford it, I undergo routine age extension treatments. The world government, which speaks English as the lingua franca, is constantly debating whether such age extension should be ‘nationalized’ but as yet it is not and the biomedical company that provides these treatments is the wealthiest company in the world and has a name as recognizable as that of Google.

Speaking of, Google has far transcended its early century roots as a mere search engine. It is a massive artificial general intelligence whose intelligence is well-documented to be quite beyond even the smartest unmodified human, who is on average 5 to 10 IQ points smarter than today’s human, given ubiquitous and routine pre-natal gene therapy techniques.

When I wake up in the morning, I say to Alexandra, my own personal household AI, more family than slave and also one of my best friends: “Alex, you there?”

“Yep,” she says. “Wondering what’s going on with the immortality debates?”

“You know me,” I reply.

She sighs dramatically. “Lord what fools these mortals be!”

I laugh in agreement. “Mmhmm. Show me.”

Alex turns on the debates – held in a virtual building of course – regarding the impending immortality treatment. The world is vastly more peaceful than it ever used to be. Superior medicine and therapy techniques have reduced the effect of mental illness, while increased prosperity and education have slowly eroded the last bastions of fundamentalism, crime, and irrationality. But of course, it is not all gone, as the vociferous debates demonstrate it. Immortality at our fingertips… and some still reject it.

Because, of course, they must. Immortality is one of my favorite topics to bring up to my students, and I’d say that, on average, more students REJECT the idea of immortality than embrace it. Their reasons include many objections: overpopulation; that being immortal would be “boring”; or that death gives us meaning or otherwise motivates us. Rather abstract objections. I encourage them to try to think of immortality not as some idea far out in the future but as an imminent issue requiring real, practical decisions.

Consider a person in my above setting. He’s 110 and dying and there are no more technologies to stop it. What will HE think about these debates regarding immortality? Are they, in some sense, tantamount to murder? What must it feel like to WANT to live forever, to be so near, and be so afraid that you’ll miss your chance by mere days or months? Or consider that man’s wife, who may have been married to him for eighty years, and who does live long enough to avoid death.

I’m particularly interested to see how religious people will respond to the real possibility of immortality. Will they REALLY choose to die – so that they might enter heaven? Some might, but I doubt most will, no more than Christians who get cancer today concede, “Welp guess this is God’s will. I’ll let myself go.” No of course not. Most fight tooth and nail to live. And how will the Pope and other religious leaders respond to this? How will they re-interpret their various holy books to account for this change in mortal fortunes?

Consider fundamentalists who WILL choose to die rather than choose to be immortal. That’s their choice, okay, sure. But what if they choose it for their children? What if immortality involves maintaining a neural and genetic backup and some fundamentalist parents refuse to let their children maintain such backups – just as many parents now refuse to let their children be vaccinated? Is this child abuse? Is this murder? Do we FORCE it? Will those same people who are so against abortion suddenly go from “pro-life” to “pro-death”? [Hint: Yes they will, though it won’t be called ‘pro-death.’]

Where will YOU stand on these issues? Will you stick by your religious beliefs and take the gamble for an eternity of post-death paradise? If your honest answer’s no, what does that say about your beliefs now? If your answer’s yes, then will you teach the same to your children? If some accident happens and they die, what will you tell yourself? How will you deal with the guilt? And in a broader sense, will you vote for politicians who run on anti-immortality, pro-death platforms, knowing that such might deny us non-believers the chance to extend our lives and the lives of those we love?

What if, say, becoming immortal meant becoming permanently sterile, either for biological reasons or as part of a government-enforced agreement to deal with potential overpopulation? Is that an acceptable trade for you?

Or will you take the opposite tack? What arguments can you make to convince those who are anti-immortality? How will you deal with the pseudo-science they will inevitably find showing that the, say, consciousness transfer technology doesn’t REALLY work? That it’s been shown that the copy persona isn’t ACTUALLY the original persona? Will you test out your supposed new immortality by undertaking daring and fatal stunts, like leaping from a plane with no parachute, just so experience what it’s like? Or will you be too fearful and consider the idea utterly foolish, if not disrespectful?

Such conundrums – and the drama, humanity, bravery, hate, and love associated with them – constitute the real story of the topics that Kurzweil brings up. Perhaps I am asking for too much to have wanted him to try to capture all that in his non-fiction book. Luckily, science fiction offers a wealth of stories which do explore such drama. Just from my own collection:

Paolo Bacigalupi’s short story Pop Squad focuses on the conundrum of immortality & sterility/population control.

In Richard Morgan’s very noir Altered Carbon, a rich man commits suicide, and his backup hires a detective to figure out why.

The second of Arthur C. Clarke’s three laws is stated thus: The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible. Kurzweil’s book, and man himself, for all their faults, is a daring adventurer who does just that. He deserves at least a little applause.

[This review is part 2 of a small AI-focused reading study I undertook. The first book I read and reviewed was James Barrat’s Our Final Invention. The next book is Oxford Philosopher Nick Bostrom's Superintelligence]
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Reading Progress

January 24, 2017 – Started Reading
January 24, 2017 – Shelved
January 24, 2017 –
page 600
92.02% "This seems like a divisive book. Gonna be fun to write a review! Be nice to talk about immortality and how utterly troubling it is to conflate human mortality with human greatness. If you are such a person, I invite you to ponder for a moment the *actual* effect of stating & believing that DEATH is what gives meaning to our lives."
February 2, 2017 – Shelved as: detailed-review
February 2, 2017 – Shelved as: non-fiction
February 2, 2017 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-8 of 8 (8 new)

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Erik That moment when you write a 2000 word review and forget to actually give it a star rating. Oops!

message 2: by Michael (new)

Michael Fime mind expanding excursion. I still am skeptical about the prospect of singularity in the sense of a computer intelligence achieving a sense of self or self consciousness. All the problem solving of computers miss out on the emotional component of hu,an intelligence so tied to being embedded in a body and individuals in a society. Let me know if you find some writers in your explprations who speak of this angle. Damasio made a start down this path in his The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness.

message 3: by Renata (new)

Renata I've listened to several of Kurzweil's Ted Talks and I think his IQ must be nearing the 500 mark!
Greatly enjoyed all the thinking this book inspired in you as well as the explorations on immortality. My touchstone is a Star Trek episode where a visitor from another planet was notified while onboard that it was time for his "Sendoff" or what I refer to as Going Out Party. There was such a debate on how could any government arbitrarily decide that when a being reached their 60th Year it was time to close the book. That intrigued me then and still does now - perhaps more so now!
I'm not sure the book is for me, but thank you for a stimulating presentation of its concepts!

Erik Michael wrote: "Fime mind expanding excursion. I still am skeptical about the prospect of singularity in the sense of a computer intelligence achieving a sense of self or self consciousness. All the problem solvin..."

Haha we've disagreed about consciousness in machines before, and I still maintain that there is no "hard problem" of consciousness. That is, there's nothing particularly mystical or special about consciousness.

But more to the point of what you wrote, I see no reason why machine intelligence cannot be paired with a body (either robotic or within a virtual simulation), nor why machine intelligence couldn't be formed within a community of other machine intelligences. Those aspects may well be key in our pursuit of developing an Artificial General Intelligence.

Just personally, the current sci-fi story I'm working on now utilizes this approach (the idea that AI must grow up in a 'community'), although in the story, this is also done for safety purposes. The other, lesser AIs serve as watchdogs on the primary AIs.

Erik Renata wrote: "I've listened to several of Kurzweil's Ted Talks and I think his IQ must be nearing the 500 mark!
Greatly enjoyed all the thinking this book inspired in you as well as the explorations on immortali..."

I'm glad you enjoyed what I wrote! It's why I do it. Well also to help me make sense of things, but, yknow, win win, two birds one stone, etc.

It really is amazing how sci-fi can prepare us to confront ideas that we have not yet encountered in our own lives. I definitely feel as if I'd be a considerably crappier person, were I not such an avid reader and watcher of sci-fi.

message 6: by Renata (new)

Renata I agree about the way good sci-fi can enrich and expand your thinking. That's one of the reasons I have been such a reader and watcher of it, too. I don't read as much anymore - am
Not sure if it's change in taste or I'm not finding the kind of stories that speak to me.

Erik Read as much sci-fi anymore? Or just in general?

Perhaps it's the screen. The book has a difficult time competing with all the screens we have in our lives now.

Personally, I've found that I have much higher standards than I used to. I figure every time I read something new that's good, it raises my expectations that much more. Now it seems my appreciation for quality is a double-edged sword.

message 8: by Lionheart (new)

Lionheart I'm not so sure the "religionists" of today will be the ones objecting to "immortality". Perhaps people like this will still be around, but as you yourself implied when you talked about your students, the bulk of the opposition will probably come from ordinary people with either an acquired or temperamental resistance to it. I get it - imagining "no end" to your life forces you to conceive of yourself in a very different way. I think there's something very poetic and even moving about death, and the life cycle and biological humanity generally; there is a vulnerability and fixed-ness to it that I actually find quite appealing, but at the same time I'd be the first one to choose not to die.

I don't think it will it be like an "off/on" switch, a debate about a single decision with a single cut-off date, though. I think that life extending medicine (or its non-biological equivalent) will just get better and better until it's maximized people's chances of living as long as anyone can. It might kind of creep up on us until some of us alive today (or whenever this stuff really gets going) are 1000 and terms like "mortal" or "immortal" have ceased to make any sense.

On the other hand, a good review. And I mostly really agree with it. The human side of these developments is still bizzarely under-discussed, but I've got a feeling it isn't likely to remain this way. Lots of interesting fiction, philosophy, and discussion is likely to be coming our way.

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