Sunday, November 18, 2007

Book Review: The Singularity is Near, by Ray Kurzweil

The singularity refers to a time, sometime in the future, when machines become more intelligent than biological humans, and technology begins to improve rapidly as a result. The Singularity is Near is Ray Kurzweil's attempt to justify his belief that the singularity is coming sooner than most people think, and what consequences it will have.

Oh, what consequences.

Kurzweil envisions a future where almost nothing is impossible. Human-machine hybrids live forever in a world with very few problems, playing and engaging in intellectual pursuits in any virtual reality environment they can imagine. This isn't your typical flying-car future. What use are flying cars when anybody can instantly obtain any information, or experience any location, just by thinking about it? It sounds like science fiction, but Kurzweil convincingly argues that it is not fiction at all.

The best part is that, if he's right, almost everyone reading this can experience this future in their lifetime. This book should be prescribed to suicide-prone people. With a Utopian future just a few years off, why end it now?

Some would probably argue that Kurzweil is too hopeful. He does seem a little, uh, off at times. The dude is on a radical diet involving dozens of drugs and food restrictions, just so his aging body can last long enough to see the singularity he so believes in. And how many times do we need to be reminded that in the future, you can become the opposite gender and have sex with whoever, or whatever, you want? That's cool if you're into it, but in a world with almost no limits, I think most people will come up with even more interesting stuff to do with their time. And although he argues each point well, if he's wrong about even one - for example, one fundamental limit on technology is reached, or one catastrophic world-altering event sets us back - all his predictions could fall apart.

Still, even a small chance that he's right should give us all an enthusiastic hope for the future. Reading this book (and its shorter predecessor, The Age of Spiritual Machines) made me happy to be alive in today's world; I don't think I could give a book any higher a recommendation than that.


P.S. I wrote more about this book at this post. Yes, it took me more than 6 months to read it. In fact, it probably took me over a year. It's damn thick. But although it does have boring bits, it's worth the time investment.

4 comments:

Harry J. Sachz said...

Good review. I still have a few more months of reading ahead of me before I can say that I'm done; but even after that point, I'll have to go back and re-read it a few times to attempt to understand what the hell that man is talking about.

Glad to hear that you stuck with it.

SharkBoy said...

If no one ever dies, the population growth will destroy us.
And cities under the seas won't help, I've seen DeadRobot play Bioshock.

Phronk said...

When millions of humans can exist as uploaded brains in a computer the size of a rock, population growth isn't a problem.

Plus, we'll just colonize space when we have AI smart enough to figure out how.

Of course, if we figure out immortality before anything else, we're screwed.

Anonymous said...

I read Fantastic Voyage, The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity is Near, and they changed my life. I even found some of his lectures on Itunes and I find myself impatiently awaiting his next book.

Recently read another incredible book that I can't recommend highly enough, especially to all of you who also love Ray Kurzweil's work. The book is ""My Stroke of Insight"" by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. I had heard Dr Taylor's talk on the TED dot com site and I have to say, it changed my world. It's spreading virally all over the internet and the book is now a NYTimes Bestseller, so I'm not the only one, but it is the most amazing talk, and the most impactful book I've read in years. (Dr T also was named to Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People and Oprah had her on her Soul Series last month and I hear they're making a movie about her story so you may already have heard of her)
If you haven't heard Dr Taylor's TEDTalk, that's an absolute must. The book is more and deeper and better, but start with the video (it's 18 minutes). Basically, her story is that she was a 37 yr old Harvard brain scientist who had a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. Because of her knowledge of how the brain works, and thanks to her amazingly loving and kind mother, she eventually fully recovered (and that part of the book detailing how she did it is inspirational).

There's a lot of learning and magic in the book, but the reason I so highly recommend My Stroke of Insight to this discussion, is because we have powerfully intelligent left brains that are rational, logical, sequential and grounded in detail and time, and then we have our kinesthetic right brains, where we experience intuition and peace and euphoria. Now that Kurzweil has got us taking all those vitamins and living our best ""Fantastic Voyage"" , the absolute necessity is that we read My Stroke of Insight and learn from Dr Taylor how to achieve balance between our right and left brains. Enjoy!