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

The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil
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really liked it
bookshelves: i-have-one, transhumanism, ai, futurology, sciences, genetics, nanotechnology

I'm not sure to be the right guy to review such a book. Why? I'd lie if I told that I understood everything Kurzweil explained in it. O.K. the author tried hard to make it more understandable: he put as much as possible in graphs and statistics, pictures, examples of the ordinary life and so on. All these tools should help us to understand, but... this is still a book written by a nerd for nerds. And don't you know that graphs and stats lie? Furthermore, in French we say: "Comparaison n'est pas raison". It means that's not because you give great examples that seem to justify what you're saying that you're right.
Anyway, sometimes this book seemed to me like a plate of spaghetti. There are a lot of theories (noodles) from many different sources, some true, some questionable, and they are so much intermingled that you can't tell where one ends and the other begins. And on top of that, Kurzweil adds his own theories (sauce) that cover everything, so we are not able to really distinguish on what he exactly based his statements.
But maybe, the problem is not Kurzweil's wordiness, maybe it's just me. I'm not a nerd in genetics, nanotechnology, computing, and robotics. Who, except Kurzweil, can pretend to possess an extensive knowledge on all these subjects anyway? Even for an avid reader of science blogs and scientific magazines, there are parts hard to read in this book. But the papers I usually read in magazines are much shorter and more simplified than the content of this dense book.


Kurzweil characterized evolution throughout all time as progressing through six epochs, each one building on the next. He said the four epochs which have occurred so far are Physics and Chemistry, Biology and DNA, Brains, and Technology. He predicts the Singularity will coincide with the next epoch, The Merger of Human Technology with Human Intelligence. After the Singularity he says the final epoch will occur, The Universe Wakes Up.

Law of Accelerating Return in summary:

Kurzweil explains that evolutionary progress is exponential because of positive feedback; the results of one stage are used to create the next stage.

a) human intelligence creates technology
b) technology is growing fast
c) technology is now beginning to improve human intelligence (computing, biotech, neuroscience, etc.)
d) this creates a positive feedback loop, exponential in nature

Kurzweil is not the first to suggest the idea of accelerating change - it's been stated in varying forms since the 60's by folks like Buckminster Fuller. But basing his thesis on the well-known "Moore's Law" - computing power will double every eighteen months - Kurzweil shows how computer processing capacity will soon outstrip that of the human brain. Once that transformation is achieved, it will be a short step to enhance existing technology to reforming the human body.

"We are just now obtaining the tools sufficient to begin serious reverse engineering (decoding) of the human brain's principles of operation. We already have impressive models and simulations of a couple dozen of the brain's several hundred regions. Within two decades, we will have a detailed understanding of how all the regions of the human brain work.
We will have the requisite hardware to emulate human intelligence with supercomputers by the end of this decade and with personal-computer-size devices by the end of the following decade. We will have effective software models of human intelligence by the mid-2020s."
"In the aftermath of the Singularity, intelligence, derived from its biological origins in human brains and its technological origins in human ingenuity, will begin to saturate the matter and energy in its midst. It will achieve this by reorganizing matter and energy to provide an optimal level of computation... to spread out from its origin on Earth."


Kurzweil is very optimistic. He believes that dramatic advances in GNR (Genetics, Nanotechnologies, and Robotics) are inevitable; any resistance by governments, ethicists, or individuals are automatically calculated into his predictions. So he has no qualms on setting a date for the completed Singularity: 2045. By that time, he claims, we would have completely reverse engineered the human brain (meaning decoded the brain and recoded it in machines), and would be leveraging non biological intelligence a billion times more powerful. We would be able to change or upgrade any part of the human body; our DNA will be transformed to make us unable to catch major diseases; we'll have "nanodoctors" inside our bloodstream that will improve our health from within. Thus we would be able to practically live forever (if we are still alive by then). Kurzweil is also confident that other serious issues confronting humanity such as poverty, hunger, energy shortage, global warming and so on will be easily solved by the power of technology. Most of the solutions seem to depend on Genetics, Nanotechnology, Robotics (GNR) supported by Artificial Intelligence (AI). With autoreproducing nanocomputers, nanobots, nanotubes, other nanotechnologies and inventions. And by "the power of ideas" (according to the author, there is an idea to solve any problem if you think hard enough) every hurdle will be easily surmountable.

Here are some of the arguments he bases his predictions on:
* Software are getting exponentially more complex
* Hardware are getting cheaper
* Our understanding and modeling of the human brain is getting better and better

He focuses on the good impacts of technology, such as:
* Technological innovations will allow the disabled to see, hear, and walk if they so choose (it remembers me some well-known prophet)
* New "toys" as immersive virtual reality
* End of illness
* Radical life extension
* Economic benefits
* Freeing humans from work

And some of the scary impacts:
* New "toys" as immersive virtual reality
* Nanorobots for the military that make it possible to kill anybody anywhere with complete precision
* Destruction of the biological basis of humans and uploading one's brain on the computer (unclear how it will be done and how voluntary this will be)
* Legal rights for artificial intelligence machines
* Genetic engineering of babies (people who will not subscribe to this will 'evolve' out of the way)
* Failure to understand the social consequences of new technologies is like playing with fire
* A nanodefense immune system to protect the biosphere from the dangers of self-replicating nanobots (why this is scary is that an improper use of the immune system itself can destroy the entire Earth biosphere in a matter of hours)
* Merging of human and machine (not determined if "human" is the result our complete genetic or the result of the functioning of our brain)
* There will not be any technological magic wand to help us with these possible problems.

Note that I put "new toys" in the good and the bad impacts because it could seem "virtually" fun, but I don't want anybody to become a part of the "Matrix".

A few personal questions:

If we got nanochips in our brain and the technology improves exponentially, how many times are you ready to be operated to get the last technology? What will happen if futuristic hackers succeed to control all those in-brain chips? What will happen if terrorists succeed to remote control our nanobots (nanoweapons, nano-aircrafts, nanomissiles and nanowarriors,...)? With the possibility to control remotely everything, there are no borders anymore, so who will legislate on those topics?

Before ending, just a little joke. J. G. Ballard, a great science fiction author wrote:
"If enough people predict something, it won't happen."


It's hard to believe that this book was written 8 years ago. It still reads like a cutting-edge science book. Whether we agree with Kurzweil or not, this book is an intellectual feast and an absorbing read. Example, there are great discussions as to when computers will become indistinguishable versus humans (Turing test). If nothing else, the book is dynamite to any reader who likes to ponder the future and technological changes. So I give it four stars.
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Reading Progress

January 31, 2014 – Shelved
January 31, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
January 31, 2014 – Shelved as: i-have-one
January 31, 2014 – Shelved as: transhumanism
January 31, 2014 – Shelved as: ai
March 9, 2014 – Started Reading
March 9, 2014 –
page 34
March 10, 2014 –
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March 11, 2014 –
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March 12, 2014 –
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March 13, 2014 –
page 103
March 14, 2014 –
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March 15, 2014 –
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March 16, 2014 –
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March 16, 2014 – Finished Reading
March 17, 2014 –
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March 18, 2014 –
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March 19, 2014 –
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March 20, 2014 –
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March 21, 2014 –
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March 22, 2014 –
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March 23, 2014 –
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March 24, 2014 –
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March 25, 2014 –
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March 26, 2014 –
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March 27, 2014 –
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March 28, 2014 –
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March 28, 2014 –
page 623
March 29, 2014 – Shelved as: futurology
March 29, 2014 – Shelved as: sciences
March 29, 2014 – Shelved as: genetics
March 29, 2014 – Shelved as: nanotechnology

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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message 1: by Lex (new)

Lex Allen Great review, Danny. If you're interested in more "Transhumanism" in an interesting/fictional setting, try Zoltan Istvan's "The Transhumanist Wager". It'll blow your mind and likely make Kurzweil appear even more prophetic.

Danny Tyran Lex wrote: "Great review, Danny. If you're interested in more "Transhumanism" in an interesting/fictional setting, try Zoltan Istvan's "The Transhumanist Wager". It'll blow your mind and likely make Kurzweil a..."

Thanks for the suggestion. But I already read it. :)

message 3: by Lex (new)

Lex Allen LOL... good deal. I usually see all of your reviews; guess I missed that one.

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