It’s been a while since I’ve posted a book review, but that doesn’t mean I’ve not been reading. I finished two tomes over the past couple weeks, Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near, and Stephen Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. I’ll focus on Kurzweil’s opus in this post.
Given what I hope to do in What We Hath Wrought, I simply had to read Singularity. I’ll admit I’ve been avoiding doing so (it’s nearly six years old now) mainly for one reason: The premise (as I understood it) kind of turns me off, and I’d heard from various folks in the industry that the book’s author was a bit, er, strident when it came to his points of view. I had read many reviews of the book (some mixed), and I figured I knew enough to get by.
I was wrong. The Singularity Is Near is not an easy book to read (it’s got a lot of deep and loosely connected science, and the writing could really use a few more passes by a structural editor), but it is an important one to read. As Kevin Kelly said in What Technology Wants, Kurzweil has written a book that will be cited over and over again as our culture attempts to sort out its future relationship to technology, policy, and yes, to God.
I think perhaps the “weirdness” vibe of Kurzweil’s work relates, in the end, to his rather messianic tone – he’s not afraid to call himself a “Singulatarian” and to claim this philosophy as his religion. I don’t know about you, but I’m wary of anyone who invents a new religion and then proclaims themselves the leader of it.
That’s not to say Kurzweil doesn’t have a point or two. The main argument of the book is that technology is moving far faster than we realize, and its exponential progress will surprise us all – within about thirty years, we’ll have the ability to not only compute most of the intractable problems of humanity, we’ll be able to transcend our bodies, download our minds, and reach immortality.
Or, a Christian might argue, we could just wait for the rapture. My problem with this book is that it feels about the same in terms of faith.
But then again, faith is one of those Very Hard Topics that most of us struggle with. And if you take this book at face value, it will force you to address that question. Which to me, makes it a worthy read.
For example, Kurzweil has faith that, as machines get smarter than humans, we’ll essentially merge with machines, creating a new form of humanity. Our current form is merely a step along the way to the next level of evolution – a level where we merge our technos with our bios, so to speak. Put another way, compared to what we’re about to become, we’re the equivalent of Homo Erectus right about now.
It’s a rather compelling argument, but a bit hard to swallow, for many reasons. We’re rather used to evolution taking a very long time – hundreds of generations, at the very least. But Kurzweil is predicting all this will happen in the next one or two generations – and should that occur, I’m pretty sure far more minds will be blown than merged.
And Kurzweil has a knack for taking the provable tropes of technology – Moore’s Law, for example – and applying them to all manner of things, like human intelligence, biology, and, well, rocks (Kurzweil calculates the computing power of a rock in one passage). I’m in no way qualified to say whether it’s fair to directly apply lessons learned from technology’s rise to all things human, but I can say it feels a bit off. Like perhaps he’s missing a high order bit along the way.
Of course, that could just be me clinging to my narrow-minded and entitled sense of Humanity As It’s Currently Understood. Now that I’ve read Kurzweil’s book, I’m far more aware of my own limitations, philosophically as well as computationally. And for that, I’m genuinely grateful.
Other works I’ve reviewed:
In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (my review)
The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (my review)