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Brave New World
on October 13, 2005
To say that Mr. Kurzweil is a bit of an optimist is like saying Shaq is a bit on the tall side. Mr K is positively bubbling with enthusiasim. Had it not been taken by Joe Namath a suitable title might have been "The Future's So Bright I Just Gotta Wear Shades". But therein lies the problem. Mr K comes across more like a passionate evangelical than a reasoned scientist. Whenever someone is absolutley convinced about the rightness of his assumptions I become skeptical.
If you're reading this you know the premise of the book. Mr. K maintains that the pace of technological change (and by technology he means the really cool technologies, like infotech, biotech, and nanotech) is not simply increasing, but increasing exponentially, so fast that we will soon reach a point where man and machine have become one, and are brains are a million (or maybe a billion) times more powerful. When this happens everything we know will have changed forever.
Moreover, this is not someting that will happen at some vague time in the far future. It's just around the corner. Mr. K even gives us a date: 2045.
While reading the book I kept thinking, What if Mr. K had written this in the mid 1950's? Certainly he'd have backup for his basic premise--the changes that occured in the first half of the 20th century were indeed tremendous. Take aviation, a hot technology in those days. Mr. K would no doubt have observed that we went from Kitty Hawk to the Boeing 707 in just 50 years. Projecting ahead, Mr. K would have concluded that the second half of the century would see an even greater rate of advancement, so that by now we'd all have our own personal flying devices, zipping off to Europe in just minutes.
But that hasn't happened. Certainly there has been signigicant progress in aviation in the last 50 years, but not like the 50 years before that. In some says it's worse. I suspect that since 9/11 the time it takes to fly from Los Angeles to San Francisco (from the time you get to one airport to the time you leave the other) may be longer now than it was in the 1950's.
Why has this happened? A lot of this has to do with social conditions, not technological ones. Supersonic trasport never got off the ground (so to speak) in part because people didn't want the sonic booms near populated areas. These same social factors may well put the brakes on a lot of what Mr. K predicts.
It's not that Mr. K's book isn't based on hard science. It's positively larded with science, so much so that my eyes tended to glaze over many times. It's just that he doesn't seem very critical. While he does acknowledge the existence of contrary opinion, he quickly (albeit politely) dismisses any cautionary thoughts. Those who disagree with his beliefs are clearly stuck-in-the-mud, nay-saying Luddites.
Mr K is obviously a brilliant, well-informed scientist. I don't have enough knowledge to judge the accuracy of his facts, except in a few situations. When that does occur, though, I become unimpressed. For example, he spends a few pages talking about the increases that have occured in life expectancy, and uses this to project further increases to 150 years and then to 500 years. But he fails to distinguish between life exoectancy and life span. The former has indeed increased, but the latter has not. I am certain Mr. K knows the difference. His failure to make the distinction is misleading and disingenuous. It makes me wonder about the veracity of the rest of the book.
As to the book itself, it's far too long. He repeats his points so much it seems as though he thinks that by mere repetition the reader will become more convinced that he's right. And some parts of the book are simply annoying, like the smug pseudo-conversations among past, present, and future personages that appear throughout the work.
To his credit, though, his optimisim about the future is refreshing, and certainly an antidote to the dystopian views typical in literature and Hollywood (Brave New World, 1984, Blade Runner, Mad Max, The Terminator, Waterworld, etc.).
The bottom line here is that Mr. K. doesn't seem to remember that virtually all predictions about the future are wrong, since the predictions are simply extrapolations of current trends. The future is never what we think it will be, and Mr. K is no exception.
Then again, he could be right. If so, I just hope I can live long enough to enjoy the sigularity, so I can have my body filled with nanobots and my brain uploaded to (as he would say) a suitable substrate. Maybe being a cyborg won't be so bad.