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                   December 2005 Book Review and Quotes Archive

  

   

                                   The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology

                                                                        By:  Ray Kurzweil

                                                                             Viking 2005

                                                                       ISBN: 0-670-03384-7

  

                                                                        Radical Evolution:

      The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies—and What It Means to Be Human

                                                                       By:  Joel Garreau

                                                                         Doubleday 2004

                                                                    ISBN: 0-385-50965-0

 

Ray Kurzweil is a singularitarian.  He defines this as “someone who understands the Singularity and has reflected on its meaning for

his or her own life”.  His new book is an extended and thorough reflection on the Singularity and its many anticipated ramifications.

What is the Singularity? 

It’s a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be

irreversibly transformed.  Although neither utopian nor dystopian, this epoch will transform the concepts that we rely on to give

meaning to our lives, from our business models to the cycle of human life, including death itself.  Understanding the Singularity

will alter our perspective on the significance of our past and the ramifications for our future.  To truly understand it inherently

changes one’s view of life in general and one’s own particular life.[i]

Why does the question of where human evolution is headed—which  must surely rank with the most important questions that can be

asked—get such relatively little attention?   One reason explained in great detail by Ray Kurzweil, is our lack of perspective.  We tend

to extrapolate forward using our normal time perspective—that things change slowly at a linear rate.   In fact, the rate of change is

progressing at an exponential rate.  Kurzweil formulates this as the law of accelerating returns and this book is an analysis of this law

and its implications.

 Key to his analysis is the concept of patterns. 

 I regard myself as a “patternist”.  It’s through the emergent powers of the pattern that we transcend.  Since the material stuff of which

we are made turns over quickly, it is the transcendent power of our patterns that persists.[ii]

From the perspective of patterns of organization, evolution can be seen as the process of creating patterns of increasing order.  Kurzweil

proposes that both biological and technological evolution is comprised of six epochs with the Singularity beginning in the fifth and

spreading to the rest of the universe in the sixth.  These epochs provide the broad perspective with information being the key theme:

Epoch 1: Physics and Chemistry--Information in atomic structures

Epoch 2: Biology--Information in DNA

Epoch 3: Brains--Information in neural patterns

Epoch 4: Technology: Information in hardware and software designs

Epoch 5: Merger of Technology and Human Intelligence--The methods of biology (including        human intelligence) are integrated

into the (exponentially expanding) human technology base

Epoch 6: The Universe Wakes Up--Patterns of matter and energy in the universe become saturated  with intelligent processes and

knowledge[iii]

 While this schema provides an overall context, the book extends this framework to address very specific details on the likely developments

in each of the three areas of genetics, nanotechnology and robotics.  Supported by extensive references--which are almost too detailed and

can be skimmed without losing the overall argument--Kurzweil proceeds to make very specific predictions.  His surprisingly accurate track

record on prior predictions in earlier books leads us to take these quite seriously despite their science fiction quality.  They include extended

life-spans beyond 300 years in the not to distant future, computers  with more computing power than all the human brains alive today,

nanotechnology assemblers that can make almost anything out of light and dirt, robots with artificial intelligence which will assume most of

the work we do and act as true personal assistants and huge increases in wealth generated by these new technologies.  His timeline for

artificial intelligence equaling human intelligence is in the 2030s and the Singularity itself he targets for 2045.

 These predictions, of course, can also raise some anxiety concerning their implications and possible misuses.  Kurzweil devotes a long

chapter to exploring this issue as well as another anticipating and responding to critics.

 This is the specific question that Joel Garreau explores in his book Radical Evolution. 

If profound restatements of how the world works arose all over the planet the last time we had a transition on the scale of that from biological

evolution to cultural evolution, will it happen again as we move from cultural evolution to technological evolution?[iv]

Accepting that these kinds of developments are very likely in the near future, he presents three scenarios: heaven, hell and prevail.  Through

extensive interviews with leaders in these fields that view the future from each of these perspectives, he nicely condenses and focuses the

debate.  Kurzweil’s view is placed in the heaven scenario.  Bill Joy (co-founder of Sun Microsystems) stunned the technology world in March

of 2000 with his essay in Wired Magazine on the immanent dangers of an out of control technology--the hell scenario.  Jan Lanier is presented

as the exponent of the prevail scenario where humanity can control and use technology in a humanizing way to enhance its evolutionary process.

And this idea of evolutionary transcendence is the point where all of these ideas converge.  Whether one views it with anticipation or dread, it is

clear that humanity is approaching a new axial age where evolution will fashion a radically new humanity.  The transhumanist movement sees it

as a stage beyond the human as we know it.  Kurzweil prefers to see it as a blending of the human with artificial intelligence.  Whatever the

outcome,  the human experience will be profoundly different.

Garreau quotes Kurzweil:

We will be part of this very rapid explosion of intelligence, and beauty, and a very rapid acceleration of this evolutionary process.  And that,

to me, is what God is.  Evolution, I think, is a spiritual process because it moves us closer to what we have considered God.  It moves us

closer to infinity.[v]


[i] Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near. p.7

[ii] Ibid. p.388

[iii] Ibid. p.15

[iv] Garreau, Radical Evolution. p.259-260

[v] Ibid. p.128

 

Review by John Parker

                                                    

                                             December 2005 Weekly Quotes    

 

 

“In the cosmological sense the contemporary universe acts more like a simple machine than a conscious being. But as we discussed

in the previous chapter, the matter and energy in our vicinity will become infused with the intelligence, knowledge, creativity, beauty,

and emotional intelligence (the ability to love, for example) of our human-machine civilization. Our civilization will then expand outward,

turning all the dumb matter and energy we encounter into sublimely intelligent--transcendent--matter and energy. So in a sense, we

can say that the Singularity will ultimately infuse the universe with spirit.”
The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology By Ray Kurzweil
 

“I regard myself as a "patternist". It's through the emergent powers of the pattern that we transcend. Since the material stuff of which

we are made turns over quickly, it is the transcendent power of our patterns that persists.“
The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology By Ray Kurzweil
 

“In my view the purpose of life—and of our lives—is to create and appreciate every-greater knowledge, to move toward greater “order.”

As I see it the purpose of the universe reflects the same purpose as our lives: to move toward greater intelligence and greater knowledge.  
The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology By Ray Kurzweil
 

“Every year there is a little more dual awareness of non-duality. It lasts a little longer and comes a little easier. Just a process with

practice.”
Shelley Norton Ph.D.

 

  

                                                 

 

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