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Book Summaries

The Age of Spiritual Machines Summary (8/10)

The Singularity

In The Age of Spiritual Machines, we are told that machines will eventually become smarter than us. Kurzweil already predicted that they would become better at things like chess, financial trading, and diagnosing diseases. But people have pushed back by trying to minimize the importance of these breakthroughs – by reducing the complexity of playing chess, for example.

Of course, there are many basic activities that computers can’t do, and that children find simple and straightforward. In addition, human beings are very well rounded.

We are competent at many tasks whereas AI is hyper specialized on singular objectives. But eventually, they will become more complex and will communicate with each other – and thus retain and build knowledge at a speed that we cannot comprehend.

But a likely scenario is that we will merge with AI and there will cease to be a difference between the two. Once this merger occurs sometime in the next century, we will not be able to tell the difference between our own thoughts and those generated by the vast intelligence we are connected to. We will become superhuman and be able to learn and do things at an astronomical pace. Nanobots will be able to diagnose any deficiencies in our internal biological machinery. Our virtual experiences will be as rich – if not richer – than our real experiences. And every day, we move closer to this point – “The Singularity”.

The Luddites

Some human beings (luddites) may choose to be left behind, but the vast majority will need keep up. Kurzweil doesn’t minimize the arguments presented by people who oppose technology, including Ted Kaczynski – who’s careful, well-reasoned analysis of the state of modern society is appreciated and taken seriously. But Kurzweil contends that it’s too late for human beings to go back to living in nature – there isn’t enough nature left for the number of people on the planet. Urbanization and efficient technological progress are not choices, but necessary developments.  

The Law of Accelerating Returns

Our technological progress for most of human history can be represented as a flat, horizontal line on a two-dimensional graph (the vertical access marks progress, and the horizontal access marks time). But as these small compound effects take place across time – as we get incrementally more adept at building technology – that flat line starts to curve very quickly. We will approach the “knee of the curve”. That’s the idea of accelerating returns.

Every period of technological progress accelerates the speed of progress we will experience in the subsequent period. The same process can be seen in evolution as we emerged from single-celled organism where very little was going on for most of the time, but then in a very short period, incredible complexity emerges.

Moore’s Law

Moore’s law states that the price of computing power would half every eighteen months. As technology becomes cheaper and more accessible and as more people become educated, and as our inter-connectivity increases, and as the field of artificial intelligence advances, we will see larger compound effects. The interplay between these parallel processes will create non-linear technological progress that will move us closer the singularity.

As we move across this ever-curving line through time, our technological breakthroughs will occur at a more rapid rate. So rapid, in fact, that we will become less able to perceive the speed of these changes and will be utterly incapable of correctly predicting how the trend will continue.

Kurzweil is an inventor and has spent his life studying AI and has taken it upon himself to share with us his inventions. His predictions in the past have been remarkably accurate. He is something of a scientific Nostradamus – far more robust, but no less creepy.

Evaluation

Given the length of the book, a more thorough discussion about the moral complexities that will emerge in the future could have been given. While he doesn’t oversimplify the counter-position given by the Luddites, he doesn’t develop that argument far enough, leaving the reader with many questions about whether we are moving in the right direction. To brush off these concerns as being irrelevant since we’ve already become too interdependent and populous misses the point. And finally, there is little discussion of why this direction is optimal. What is our objective? Is it to become Gods of the universe? What does that even mean? And at what cost?

If you want to understand how quickly technology has been advancing, how accurate Kurzweil has been in the past in predicting future events, and what his vision is for the future. Read this book. You may not agree with Kurzweil’s views or philosophy, but his predictions have been accurate, impressive, well founded. I’ve seen many people attempt to arm chair diagnose Kurzweil with existential angst and dismiss him as a whack job. I saw neither in his writings. This book was entertaining, informative, and thought-provoking.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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