Archive for the ‘A.I.’ Category

Transcendent Man: Ray Kurzweil

I watched the documentary Transcendent Man tonight and it is a very interesting and educational film. I highly recommend it to anyone who has never heard of Ray Kurzweil or is unfamiliar with Moore’s Law. If you’ve already read Kurzweil’s book or seen him talk before, you will know what you are getting yourself into with this movie and might actually find it kind of boring (like I did) (but its still good).

Kurzweil is an inventor and engineer who holds a lot of patents on optical scanning technology (specifically OCR) and several musical instruments. He is pretty famous: in the film it seems like everyone from Colin Powell to Bill Gates is giving him props. Over the course of the last several decades, he has made a name for himself by making bold predictions about technology, most of which have kind of half-way or sorta all-the-way come true (sometimes not always exactly when Kurzweil predicts they will), although there is a lot of debate in the scientific community about the accuracy of his predictions. His Big Idea is the “Singularity”: a point in time where technological change will happen at such a fast rate that we will have to become cybernetic organism just to understand and comprehend it. Because of Moore’s Law, computer will be as small as blood cells by the year 2040 and we will be able to bioengineer ourselves into cyborgs that will live forever and be able to download information into our brains ala The Matrix. Most of the skeptics don’t so much disagree with the premise of his predictions as they do with when they will come true, and this is where things get interesting.

Kurzweil has been accused, and these accusations are somewhat supported by the seemingly candid view we get of him in Transcendent Man, of having a lot of fear-of-death driven hubris. The film brushes past the facts of Ray’s father’s illness and somewhat early death, Ray’s Type II diabetes, and his less than subtle obsession with immortality, to focus on the marvel of his predictions. In the film, he seems obsessed with the idea of his own genetic fragility, and also his ability to perhaps single handed invent a way to cheat death. Kurzweil definitely has a large emotional/spiritual/existential investment in his predictions coming to light.

Another criticism of Kurzweil’s extrapolations is that Moore’s Law has a limit (something freely admitted to by Gordon Moore himself). Computers can only become so small before they will have to actually be smaller than atoms (these subatomic computers are theoretically possible, and designing these types of computers is the objective of quantum computing). Also at a certain point, the speed of light and the gravitational constant come into play, although I am not versed enough in physics to explain the ramifications of these limits. Suffice it to say, the unlimited exponential growth that Kurzweil bases his theory from is dubious, although his predictions of cell sized computers may come to fruition before these limits are met.

Artificial intelligence also plays into Kurzweil’s view of the future world. He predicts that AI’s smarter than every single human brain on the planet combined will come into existence within the next 50 years. I personally find this hard to believe because we haven’t been able to build a machine that can pass the Turing Test yet. It is interesting to note the diverging opinions amongst some of the “experts” in this field. The kind of AI’s that some of Kurzweil’s peers describe in the film sound more like Skynet than the benevolent personalities imagined by Kurzweil himself. In any case, I am far from an expert on AI and the film doesn’t really try to explain the specifics of it, which is too bad because it is a fascinating and ill-understood subject.

Regardless of the accuracy of his predictions or the possible hubris behind his optimism, Ray Kurzweil is undeniably a genius and an inspiration. I personally hope that the predictions he makes come to be a reality within his lifetime so that he can see The Singularity happen and so I can live forever as a cyborg.