The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology
Ray Kurzweil

Duckworth Publishers (2005)
ISBN 0-7156-3561-1
RRP: £14.99

In the words of Bill Gates, Ray Kurzweil is “the best person at predicting the future of artificial intelligence” and his latest book certainly contains many interesting and arresting predictions with regard to what the future may well hold. The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology is a comprehensive and detailed account which presents a perspective of the future arising from a radical culmination of centuries of technological development and innovation, alongside an intriguing vision of the future of humanity. 

The book consists of nine chapters which could be roughly divided into two main sections. Chapters 1 through 4 expand and develop Kurzweil’s philosophy of the Singularity - what it is, what it entails and how it is reached. The second part of the book analyses the impact and implications of the Singularity.

From the outset of chapter 1, Kurzweil seeks to lay out a basic framework upon which the concept of the Singularity can be understood. The Singularity will represent,

“….the culmination of the merger of our biological thinking and existence with our technology, resulting in a world that is still human but that transcends our biological roots. There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality” (p. 9)

Therefore our understanding of the Singularity is of up most importance as it will supposedly alter our perspective on the significance of our past and have serious ramifications for our future. At this point it could be very easy to wonder what will actually stay the same, if anything at all, yet the author notes that consistency can be found in the fact that the human species is the only species that inherently seeks to extend its physical and mental reaches beyond current limitations. Thus in many respects, the very proposal that the human species is heading towards the Singularity is a sign that the species is remaining true to its inherent approach to progress.

Regarding this rate of progress, Kurzweil is extremely clear. Far from being a linear form of progress, human progress is exponential; expansion by repeatedly multiplying by a constant as opposed to merely adding by a constant as would be the case with linear progression.  The author goes on to outline the six epochs based upon his belief that it is the evolution of patterns that constitute the ultimate story of our world. Using the information-processing methods of the previous epoch, the next epoch is formed and so on and so forth. Therefore, epoch one started with the very basic of structures: patterns of matter and energy – information in the atomic structures. Building upon this source of information, epoch two evolved which saw the information in DNA and carbon based compounds becoming more and more intricate. DNA guided evolution produced organisms that could detect information with their own sensory organs, processing and storing that information in their own brains and nervous systems. Thus epoch three evolved with information said to be found in the recognition of neural patterns. Consequently this allows us to have the ability to use our own minds to redesign the world and put these ideas into action. Consequently, epoch four evolves with humans creating technology with information being contained within hardware and software designs. With sophisticated computational and communication devices, technology was able to have the capabilities of independently sensing, storing and evaluating patterns of information. Upon such a basis, it is not surprising to imagine the evolution of epoch five and the commencement of the Singularity which will see the merger of technology and human intelligence where methods of biology, (including human intelligence) will integrate into the exponentially expanding human technology base. Essentially epoch five will see the merger of vast knowledge embedded in our brains with the vastly greater capacity, speed and knowledge sharing ability of our technology. From here, in the aftermath of the Singularity, epoch six emerges where patterns of matter and energy in the universe will become saturated with intelligent processes and knowledge, which in effect will see the universe ‘wake up’ according to Kurzweil.

This ongoing acceleration of technology is something that the author addresses in chapter 2. Such an acceleration is a result of the implication and inevitable result of the law of accelerating returns which describes the pace and exponential growth of the products of an evolutionary process. This evolutionary process is something that Kurzweil continues to develop an understanding of by addressing the nature of order. This is a very detailed section and requires careful processing. The author makes the point that orderliness does not constitute order because order requires information. Order is in fact information that fits a purpose and the measure of order is the measure of how the information fits the purpose. Bearing this in mind, Kurzweil proposes that far from creating more complicated answers, evolution actually results in better answers. Thus deeper order could be defined as “a better fit to a purpose” and as such could be achieved through simplification rather than through further increases in complexity.

Chapter 3 forms an analysis of the amount of computation and memory required to achieve human levels of intelligence and why one can be confident that these levels will be achieved in inexpensive computers within two decades, including three dimensional molecular computing, the development of nanotubes and self assembling nanoscale circuits. Against such a backdrop, Kurzweil then proposes the date he predicts for the Singularity to occur as 2045, which represents in his own words “a profound and descriptive transformation in humanity…non biological intelligence created in that year will be 1 billion times more powerful than all human intelligence today” (p.136).

Having laid out the date for Singularity, the author then moves to focus on achieving the software of human intelligence in chapter 4. One such assumption is that non-biological mediums will be able to emulate the richness, subtlety and depth of human thinking. However achieving the hardware computational capacity of a single human brain will not automatically produce human levels of capability. The hardware computational capacity is necessary but not sufficient; rather understanding the organisation and content of these resources – what could be termed the software of intelligence - is even more critical and is the objective of brain reverse engineering. Computers today are digital and perform one (or perhaps a few) computations at a time at high speed. In contrast, human brain combines digital and analog methods but performs most computations in the analogue (continuous) domain using neurotransmitters and related mechanisms. Continuing with this theme, Kurzweil contrasts the computer with the human brain, identifying points such as the lack of speed of brain circuits, the combination of analogue and digital phenomena and the brain’s own renewal through its topology and conductance of dendrites and synapses. On the back of this, the author then details the application of brain scanning using nanobots, which is a powerful approach to capturing every salient neural detail from inside the brain. In the 2020s, Kurzweil predicts that nanobot technology will be viable and brain scanning will be one of its prominent applications. Once such a procedure becomes a reality, we will be in a position to place highly sensitive and very high resolution sensors (in the form of nanobots) at millions or even billions of locations in the brain and thus witness in breathtaking detail living brains in action.

Having now laid out exhaustive material in meticulous detail concerning the substance of what is referred to as the Singularity, chapter 5 heralds the second section of the book which is more reflective on the impact of this phenomena. The author proposes that three key revolutionary factors that will usher in epoch five – the beginning of the Singularity – namely, genetics, nanotechnology and robotics (GNR).  With the mapping of the genome, Kurzweil believes that we are already in the beginning stages of the genetic revolution and the emergence of cloning and the effective use of therapeutic drugs. However, there are yet many more emerging technologies that are yet to be fully appreciated. In the words of the author it is not just about “designer babies” but also “designer baby boomers” due to the potential of being able to use cell technology to reverse the aging process. Furthermore, it is proposed that animal muscle tissue could be created without creating the actual animal. Implications of this are clearly a limitless supply of food, without much environmental impact.

Nanotechnology promises significant revolutionary processes, not least the concept of the biological assembler which would be able to simulate the actions of RNA, the ribosome and other elements of the computer in biology’s assembler. The key advantages of these nanobots are that they could eliminate DNA transcriptions errors and turn off unwanted replication, effectively leading to the elimination of the threat of cancer. Furthermore, the advent of nanobots could also see their entry and use into our bloodstreams, functioning in tasks such as delivering medicine to specific parts of the body, regulating insulin levels of diabetics and even making redundant the biological digestive system by aiding and implementing nutritional sustenance. However radical these ideas may sound, it is other predictions that Kurzweil proposes which “fascinate” this particular reviewer. By placing and activating nanobots near to every interneuronal connection from our senses, inputs coming from our senses could actually be intercepted and suppressed and replaced with signals from a virtual environment. In essence, this would lead to full-immersion virtual reality.

The third revolution of robotics will arise from the development of strong AI, recognised as artificial intelligence that exceeds human intelligence. Combining the technology of strong AI with the other technologies from the other preceding two revolutions, there is the real potential to allow humans to combine their biological bodies with non-biological entities to enhance their abilities to process and store information. For example, the very notion of being able to download the contents of a human brain to an external storage device (in a process that could be compared to that of “backing up” a computer hard drive), could be a very real reality. Additionally, robots could be used in other specific areas of work involved in the military and intelligence, space exploration and medicine.

There are clearly going to be cogent effects on society as a result of the future proposals Kurzweil lays out in chapter five. Consequently, chapter six addresses the impact of these technological developments in four key areas, namely on the body, on learning, on work and on play.

Into this context, Kurzweil then shapes the understanding and beliefs of a Singularitarian in chapter 7. A singularitarian is someone who understands the Singularity and has reflected on its meaning for his or her own life. Kurzweil is keen not to promote a new doctrine or personal philosophy, but rather offers a number of personal comments and perspectives as a Singularitarian. Firstly, a singularitarian is one who understands that they have the means right now to live long enough to live forever. Their biochemistry is reprogrammable and that their body is only temporary, only the patterns of the body and the brain have continuity. Moreover, the singularitarian strives to improve their patterns by optimising the health of their bodies and external reaches of their minds by expanding their mental faculties by merging technologies. Knowledge is precious in all its forms and therefore the loss of knowledge is tragic. Yet information is not knowledge. The world is awash with information and as such it is the role of intelligence to find and act on salient problems, selectively destroying information to create knowledge.

Addressing the issue of promise versus peril, in chapter 8 Kurzweil refers to the now infamous article by Bill Joy, Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us and seeks to clarify Joy’s position. Simply interpreting Joy’s comments as broad relinquishment is a misinterpretation of what he is suggesting and was never Joy’s intent. Rather, Joy is keen to limit development of the technologies that are too dangerous, a view that is also supported by Kurzweil. Both men agree that if scientists wait until a catastrophe occurs before certain regulations are adopted, there is the great potential for severe and damaging regulations to result that could have been avoided if action had been taken sooner. Relinquishment is clearly laid out as the option to avoid but rational fear could also lead to irrational solutions.

In concluding quite an epic tome of futuristic proposals, Kurzweil quite rightly gives space to responding to his critics and their questions in chapter 9. This makes for helpful reading and further allows both the reader to understand the author’s proposals and thinking as well as allowing the author to extrapolate pertinent information.

Overall, the book could be considered a significant publication when it comes to the consideration of the implementation of artificial intelligence and associated emerging technologies. Whilst in parts the content of the book makes for an arduous read, if persisted with clarity does emerge through the use of relevant data and detail. The fictitious conversations between Kurzweil, fellow contemporaries and ‘future humans’ which run through the book are a useful feature and help to set many of the ideas explored in the book in context through more of a conversational-style approach. The book seeks to give room to the risks that such proposals can herald as well as identifying and responding to possible lines of attack that could emerge should such a trajectory be followed. However, it could be said that the book’s greatest strength is its greatest weakness. It is written by a more than capable scientist and technologist who delivers a strong and informed case for the emergence of information technologies, growing at an exponential rate, as being the solution to many of the world’s problems. However such a case is lacking any real consideration and exploration of the socio-cultural factors. As such, whilst the book contains many thought provoking and arresting predictions about the future, it is suggested that the book’s key contribution is to act as an anvil upon which ideas, thoughts and opinions can be challenged, contrasted and ‘hammered out’ in relation to other lines of thought, as opposed to simply consuming the book’s content as certain fact.


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