Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Book Review: The Singularity is Near

I was fortunate enough to get an advance copy of Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near : When Humans Transcend Biologyawhile back and settled in for a good long read. And that's what it takes, as Kurzweil leads us through a thick wood where, if you don't pause for reflection, it's hard to see the forest for the trees. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

According to Kurzweil, we're approaching the time when nonbiological intelligence will emerge and advance so quickly that "unenhanced human intelligence" will be unable to keep up. This is the Singularity—a "profound and disruptive transformation in human capability"—and Kurzweil expects it by 2045. That's the premise for The Singularity is Near.

The first chapter—The Six Epochs—is a delightful summary of Kurzweil's thesis where he introduces us to the exponential evolution of technology (the bedrock for his later predictions). Indeed, he sees evolution itself as a "process of creating patterns of increasing order," and later suggests that the ultimate end of evolution is not biological or chemical, but intelligence. That he sees the sixth epoch as a time when the universe "wakes up" and is saturated with the intelligence "derived from its biological orgins in human brains and its technological origins in human ingenuity" is a clue that some metaphysical adventures lie ahead.

Great, stimulating reading thus far, but like all journeys that begin with enthusiasm and energy, challenges soon set in as Kurzweil fleshes out his theses with several detailed and heavily documented chapters. He examines technological evolution, the latest findings in brain research (hardware and software), the revolutions in genetics, nanotechnology and robotics. All are signs, he says, of our inexorable progress toward the Singularity. It's heavy going, even pedantic at times, but fascinating nonetheless.

It's when Kurzweil describes the likely impact on human bodies and culture that the questions begin to set in. Sure, it's wonderful to dream of a time when technology and intelligence have progressed so far that disease, world hunger and poverty are abolished. These are the visions of futurists of all eras. Yet the thought of nanobots replacing our blood, tinkering with our DNA to keep us disease, age and defect free while our slow electro-chemical brains are rewired by lightning-fast nanotechnological wonders gave me a mild case of the willies that grew as Kurzweil described moving ourselves into other "substrates"—not necessarily biological. To his credit, Kurzweil discusses the dangers inherent in such technology and addresses the major criticisms of his theories, but in the end I found something hollow in his depiction of the glories of the Singularity.

Kurzweil has been accused of being a reductionist and I find that critique at least in the ballpark. Despite the wonders of the human brain and intelligence that he vividly presents, Kurzweil skirts the issue of the nature of consciousness and spirit. I'm assuming he sees them merely as other manifestations of the incredible intricacy of our brains—but one reason I'm UXCentric is that I see humans as more than just an amalgam of biochemical reactions that produce intelligence. (In a future post, I'll examine what Kurzweil's vision might mean to user experience.)

Even so, I thoroughly enjoyed The Singularity is Near as a marvelous description of the latest research, a brain-and-spirit stretcher and a genuine discussion-starter with friends and colleagues.


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