Kurzweil, Ray. The Age of Spiritual Machines. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. ISBN 978-0-14-028202-3.
Ray Kurzweil is one of the most vocal advocates of the view that the exponential growth in computing power (and allied technologies such as storage capacity and communication bandwidth) at constant cost which we have experienced for the last half century, notwithstanding a multitude of well-grounded arguments that fundamental physical limits on the underlying substrates will bring it to an end (all of which have proven to be wrong), will continue for the foreseeable future: in all likelihood for the entire twenty-first century. Continued exponential growth in a technology for so long a period is unprecedented in the human experience, and the consequences as the exponential begins to truly “kick in” (although an exponential curve is self-similar, its consequences as perceived by observers whose own criteria for evaluation are more or less constant will be seen to reach a “knee” after which they essentially go vertical and defy prediction). In The Singularity Is Near (October 2005), Kurzweil argues that once the point is reached where computers exceed the capability of the human brain and begin to design their own successors, an almost instantaneous (in terms of human perception) blow-off will occur, with computers rapidly converging on the ultimate physical limits on computation, with capabilities so far beyond those of humans (or even human society as a whole) that attempting to envision their capabilities or intentions is as hopeless as a microorganism's trying to master quantum field theory. You might want to review my notes on 2005's The Singularity Is Near before reading the balance of these comments: they provide context as to the extreme events Kurzweil envisions as occurring in the coming decades, and there are no “spoilers” for the present book.

When assessing the reliability of predictions, it can be enlightening to examine earlier forecasts from the same source, especially if they cover a period of time which has come and gone in the interim. This book, published in 1999 near the very peak of the dot-com bubble provides such an opportunity, and it provides a useful calibration for the plausibility of Kurzweil's more recent speculations on the future of computing and humanity. The author's view of the likely course of the 21st century evolved substantially between this book and Singularity—in particular this book envisions no singularity beyond which the course of events becomes incomprehensible to present-day human intellects. In the present volume, which employs the curious literary device of “trans-temporal chat” between the author, a MOSH (Mostly Original Substrate Human), and a reader, Molly, who reports from various points in the century her personal experiences living through it, we encounter a future which, however foreign, can at least be understood in terms of our own experience.

This view of the human prospect is very odd indeed, and to this reader more disturbing (verging on creepy) than the approach of a technological singularity. What we encounter here are beings, whether augmented humans or software intelligences with no human ancestry whatsoever, that despite having at hand, by the end of the century, mental capacity per individual on the order of 1024 times that of the human brain (and maybe hundreds of orders of magnitude more if quantum computing pans out), still have identities, motivations, and goals which remain comprehensible to humans today. This seems dubious in the extreme to me, and my impression from Singularity is that the author has rethought this as well.

Starting from the publication date of 1999, the book serves up surveys of the scene in that year, 2009, 2019, 2029, and 2099. The chapter describing the state of computing in 2009 makes many specific predictions. The following are those which the author lists in the “Time Line” on pp. 277–278. Many of the predictions in the main text seem to me to be more ambitious than these, but I shall go with those the author chose as most important for the summary. I have reformatted these as a numbered list to make them easier to cite.

  1. A $1,000 personal computer can perform about a trillion calculations per second.
  2. Personal computers with high-resolution visual displays come in a range of sizes, from those small enough to be embedded in clothing and jewelry up to the size of a thin book.
  3. Cables are disappearing. Communication between components uses short-distance wireless technology. High-speed wireless communication provides access to the Web.
  4. The majority of text is created using continuous speech recognition. Also ubiquitous are language user interfaces (LUIs).
  5. Most routine business transactions (purchases, travel, reservations) take place between a human and a virtual personality. Often, the virtual personality includes an animated visual presence that looks like a human face.
  6. Although traditional classroom organization is still common, intelligent courseware has emerged as a common means of learning.
  7. Pocket-sized reading machines for the blind and visually impaired, “listening machines” (speech-to-text conversion) for the deaf, and computer-controlled orthotic devices for paraplegic individuals result in a growing perception that primary disabilities do not necessarily impart handicaps.
  8. Translating telephones (speech-to-speech language translation) are commonly used for many language pairs.
  9. Accelerating returns from the advance of computer technology have resulted in continued economic expansion. Price deflation, which has been a reality in the computer field during the twentieth century, is now occurring outside the computer field. The reason for this is that virtually all economic sectors are deeply affected by the accelerating improvements in the price performance of computing.
  10. Human musicians routinely jam with cybernetic musicians.
  11. Bioengineered treatments for cancer and heart disease have greatly reduced the mortality from these diseases.
  12. The neo-Luddite movement is growing.

I'm not going to score these in detail, as that would be both tedious and an invitation to endless quibbling over particulars, but I think most readers will agree that this picture of computing in 2009 substantially overestimates the actual state of affairs in the decade since 1999. Only item (3) seems to me to be arguably on the way to achievement, and yet I do not have a single wireless peripheral connected to any of my computers and Wi-Fi coverage remains spotty even in 2011. Things get substantially more weird the further out you go, and of course any shortfall in exponential growth lowers the baseline for further extrapolation, shifting subsequent milestones further out.

I find the author's accepting continued exponential growth as dogma rather off-putting. Granted, few people expected the trend we've lived through to continue for so long, but eventually you begin to run into physical constraints which seem to have little wiggle room for cleverness: the finite size of atoms, the electron's charge, and the speed of light. There's nothing wrong with taking unbounded exponential growth as a premise and then exploring what its implications would be, but it seems to me any forecast which is presented as a plausible future needs to spend more time describing how we'll actually get there: arm waving about three-dimensional circuitry, carbon nanotubes, and quantum computing doesn't close the sale for me. The author entirely lost me with note 3 to chapter 12 (p. 342), which concludes:

If engineering at the nanometer scale (nanotechnology) is practical in the year 2032, then engineering at the picometer scale should be practical in about forty years later (because 5.64 = approximately 1,000), or in the year 2072. Engineering at the femtometer (one thousandth of a trillionth of a meter, also referred to as a quadrillionth of a meter) scale should be feasible, therefore, by around the year 2112. Thus I am being a bit conservative to say that femtoengineering is controversial in 2099.

Nanoengineering involves manipulating individual atoms. Picoengineering will involve engineering at the level of subatomic particles (e.g., electrons). Femtoengineering will involve engineering inside a quark. This should not seem particularly startling, as contemporary theories already postulate intricate mechanisms within quarks.

This is just so breathtakingly wrong I am at a loss for where to begin, and it was just as completely wrong when the book was published two decades ago as it is today; nothing relevant to these statements has changed. My guess is that Kurzweil was thinking of “intricate mechanisms” within hadrons and mesons, particles made up of quarks and gluons, and not within quarks themselves, which then and now are believed to be point particles with no internal structure whatsoever and are, in any case, impossible to isolate from the particles they compose. When Richard Feynman envisioned molecular nanotechnology in 1959, he based his argument on the well-understood behaviour of atoms known from chemistry and physics, not a leap of faith based on drawing a straight line on a sheet of semi-log graph paper. I doubt one could find a single current practitioner of subatomic physics equally versed in the subject as was Feynman in atomic physics who would argue that engineering at the level of subatomic particles would be remotely feasible. (For atoms, biology provides an existence proof that complex self-replicating systems of atoms are possible. Despite the multitude of environments in the universe since the big bang, there is precisely zero evidence subatomic particles have ever formed structures more complicated than those we observe today.)

I will not further belabour the arguments in this vintage book. It is an entertaining read and will certainly expand your horizons as to what is possible and introduce you to visions of the future you almost certainly have never contemplated. But for a view of the future which is simultaneously more ambitious and plausible, I recommend The Singularity Is Near.

June 2011 Permalink