93 of 101 people found the following review helpful
on December 5, 1999
This book got me excited. It changed the way I think about the future, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the possibilities that the future holds.
Kurzweil presents his theories a lot more convincingly than I can, but I've certainly tried a lot since I read this book. It stimulates philosophical debate on the nature of life and intelligence, but grounds its philosophical wanderings in believable theory.
The book is not without its problems. The jump into the future of nanotechnology leaves is abrupt and the Law of Accelerating returns is not a law but a trend. He ignores the possibility of social movements or government action to prevent Artificial Intelligence research once it reaches a certain level. When he speaks about specific aspects of humanity or sex, he reveals an incomplete understanding of the way people feel and love.
But these flaws only serve to remind the reader that the book is indeed speculation, not fact. And the speculation is beautiful, absolutely inspiring. It introduced possibilities and ideas that I'm still turning over in my mind, and it did it all with clear, entertaining writing that a non-scientist like me can understand.
Pick up this book, read it, make your friends read it, and enjoy the time you spend discussing it. The resulting conversations will be so much more interesting than your usual social fare.
In fact, read a book like this every year, whether it's something totally off the wall (Robert Anton Wilson's "Prometheus Rising") or a little more grounded in current science (Kevin Kelly's "Out of Control"). It will broaden your "reality-tunnel" and get your mind working with big, fun concepts.
119 of 132 people found the following review helpful
on September 7, 2000
Ray Kurzweil's "The Age of Spiritual Machines' is an intelligent look at what the future might be holding for us all. Like other similar titles - Visions by Michio Kaku comes to mind - Kurzweil tries to predict where science will take us. Unlike `Visions' however, this book is considerably more focused on computer technology and artificial intelligence, and I would only recommend it if you're not looking for a much broader answer to the question of where we are headed. Kurzweil never intended to cover other matters, and reading the Prologue will be enough to understand that most of the book will explore the rising of machine intelligence to a level that will surpass the capabilities of the human brain.
Kurzweil starts by describing the exponential growth of computer power, Moore's Law, and transistor-based computing. The present and the future are described until quantum effects start becoming a problem and a completely new kind of technology becomes necessary (some alternatives are mentioned, Quantum computation is of course, mentioned). The book proceeds to more metaphysical subjects, and questions if we can create another intelligence form more intelligent than ourselves. Can the created exceed the creator?
It will then proceed to cover consciousness and feelings; Kurzweil gets philosophical in what in my opinion is one of the book's weakest chapters The methods available to solve a wide range of intelligent problems (when combined with heavy doses of computation) will follow, in a chapter that covers subjects from recursive formulas to neural nets, and of course, enough space is dedicated to Alan Turing, the father of all modern computers.
Part 2 starts with my favourite chapter of this title; Kurzweil discusses how evolution has found a way around the computational limitations of normal neural circuitry. And from nature's lessons we move to ideas about molecular computing harnessing the DNA molecule itself as a practical computing device, now a possibility under investigation. I wish I had this book last year when I was doing some research on general quantum computing for college, Kurzweil fully managed to transmit the impact that future developments in these areas might cause, and the problems that will be caused by ultra-fast parallel computation (especially with cryptography). The port of slow mammalian carbon-based neurons to speedier electronic and photonic equivalents is covered with simplicity, but convincingly.
Next comes the problem of the body. A disembodied mind will quickly get depressed, no matter how powerful. So what kind of bodies should our machines have, or later on, what kind of bodies will they provide for themselves?
Part 2 ends with a few thoughts on the array of tasks that are now performed by computers, lacking sense of humour, talent for small talk and other endearing qualities, but still vital for tasks that previously required human intelligence: How much do we depend on modern technology? If all the computers stopped functioning, would chaos rise? Is our world too based on technology and vulnerable to global disasters?
After 2009, the book truly starts facing the future. You will be shown how extremely cheap and powerful (compared to today's standards) computers will be imbedded in clothing and jewellery, among other items, surrounding us completely. Virtual personalities start emerging, and Kurzweil dares to predict real time translating telephones and even human musicians jamming routinely with cybernetic musicians. Also interesting, I thought, is the possibility of some sort of neo-Luddite movement growing around this time.
Next stage is 2019. By this time, Kurzweil believes that a $1k computing device will be approximately equal to the computational ability of the human brain. Computers should be almost invisible, and will be everywhere. 3D virtual reality will reach good quality levels, and VR displays are embedded in glasses and contacts lenses, providing a new interface (and the main interface) for communication with other persons (via the future version of the Web). Interaction with computers is made through gestures and 2-way natural language. A few thoughts on relationships with automated personalities end the chapter.
By 2029, Kurzweil's predictions turn to direct neural pathways that somehow have perfected some soft of high-bandwidth connection to the human brain. Ultra fast learning à-la-Neo from Matrix in less than 28 years? Kurzweil suspects so. Neural implants become widely available to enhance visual and auditory perception and interpretation, as well as memory and reasoning. People with physical problems and strongly helped by implants. Computers have "read" all available human literature and the discussion about legal rights of computers and what constitutes being human. Machines claim to be conscious.
Around 2099, human thinking starts merging with the world of machine intelligence. There is no clear distinction between humans and computers. Most of the intelligences are not tied to a specific processing unit, but widely spread. This chapter's most interesting aspect is perhaps the discussion about software based humans, when compared to those still using carbon-based neurons. The use of neural implant technology provides enormous augmentation of human perceptual and cognitive abilities, creating some sort of division between first class and second-class humans. Kurzweil implies that those who do not utilize such "enhancements" will be unable to meaningfully participate in dialogues with those who do. Being alive no longer means what it used to mean. Life expectancy is no longer a viable term in relation to intelligent, machine-based intelligent beings.
The books ends with a few thoughts on the fate of the whole universe, a part that is probably the weakest of the whole book, extremely pale when compared to Michio Kaku's "Visions" look. Kurzweil might do a good job describing a universe in which artificial intelligence and nanotechnology combine to bring longevity, but failed partially when discussing that longevity and the coming connections of computers with immortality, a subject that deserved a lot more attention and space in this book. Left me wanting more.
You will find this book fascinating if you're particularly interested in what the future holds when it comes to computers. Kurzweil knows his science well and adding a bit of common sense and humour, is enough to result in a very enjoyable title. If the predictions turn to follow the expected timeline, well, frankly I don't care much, and I don't think it's very relevant to discuss it; Most of it will happen precisely as the author puts it, but it might take more or less time. This book is not complex, and has many references and notes; so even people with a poor background in computer science will be able to follow the author's ideas. Of course knowing what's behind it will make your experience a lot richer. You also get a decent glossary, very valuable if you're new to the subject.
Overall, a good book, but lacking depth in some areas (especially machine based existence and immortality). Sometimes too over simplified. Still, check it out and see where we're heading. Combine it with Neuromancer, Visions and a few more technical titles and you will wish you could live 300 years...then again, maybe not. ;-)
34 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on May 16, 1999
Ray Kurzweil is well known for the myriad of inventions he has pioneered, from the original Kurzweil Synthesizer through a series of computerized appliances designed to make life easier for the handicapped. He is less well known for his previous book, "The Age of Intelligent Machines," and for his shockingly accurate past prognosticating on the future of technology (he missed calling the chess match victory of Deep Blue against Kasparov by one year...making the prediction a decade or more ago). Now Kurzweil is weighing in on what the astounding exponential advance of computer processing power is going to mean to the human race. In short, he goes way, *way* out on a limb, and flatly predicts that human minds and bodies will have largely combined and integrated with super-powerful computers within 100 years from today. Furthermore, he convincingly extrapolates present advances in computing power to predict that a $1,000 desktop PC in the year 2020 will have equal computing power to a human mind. Then 40 years after that, by 2060, a desktop computer will have the combined computing power of every human mind on earth. And that curve will continue increasing until individual computers within the next hundred years will have the computing power of billions of human minds. In the face of that, Kurzweil predicts, human beings will assimilate with the new super-intelligence of machines, in order to bypass biological evolution and supercharge not only our minds but also our bodies, which will be remade and redesigned in virtually any way we might find compelling and useful. In short, Kurzweil is predicting the emergence of a new species within the next 100 years, as machine intelligence exceeds carbon-based intelligence by millions of powers. Scary? Not at all. In fact, not only does Kurzweil make his predictions supremely believable but the picture painted by his predictions heralds a golden age of existence for humanity that far surpasses anything that has gone before in its beauty, complexity, speed, intelligence, longevity, creativity, and spirituality. Read this book, and fasten your seatbelt. If Kurzweil is right, most of those who live until about the year 2020 or 2030 will probably live long enough so that they will never have to die. Kurzweil's predictions are more than hopeful; they herald a real new world of wonder and beauty undreamed of even by science fictions writers until recently. And he's serious.
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on December 1, 2000
I read an excerpt from this outstanding book in the magazine Scientific American about a year ago, causing me immediate future shock, now exacerbated and expanded upon reading the entire book.
If you read the last chapters first it would be easy to conclude that Mr. Kurzweil is crazy. However, we have here an obviously highly educated computer scientist, successful business person, and superb writer, who also apparently has spent significant time and personal engergy considering the implications of our present science. Given the attributes and qualifications of this author, the substantive content of the book then becomes extremely difficult to ignore or dismiss, and I certainly wonder when the implications here presented will begin to create the expected anxiety among our general population.
Mr. Kurzweil carefully sets the stage for his various futurist predictions. He presents a most interesting history of computer science; an intro to the law of "chaos" theory, and a rendition of the theory of evolution intelligent enough to permanently stifle any creationist; a comprehensive, informative explanation of both machine and human intelligence, which upon reading, I finally understand the mental machinations of my animals and of myself--call it "consciousness explained", and we are made aware of its scientific limits and possibilities. And, for those who have any question at all that machine intelligence equivalent to human intelligence is possible, Mr. Kurzweil breaks it down into both understandable and frightening reality.
The book examines the present state of knowledge regarding both human and computer intelligence from the established technology to the most esoteric research, and then proceeds to project where all this will take us on a timeline ending in the year 2099.
Mr. Kurzweil several times states his own optimism about what he projects and predicts, but in truth can his surmises suppose anything but the end of the human race as we know it. Mr. Kurzweil has machines going to church, a mother merging with her computer, human brains which become software programs, and on and on. Thankfully Kurzweil ends at the year 2099, since for me one of the unwritten implications of going further would be to question what really is the difference between God and Kurzweil's machines.
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on January 8, 2002
Of all the books written in recent years concerning the soon-to-be-felt effects of rapidly advancing technology, Ray Kurzweil's is the best. He combines a confident grasp of technical and scientific complexities with the unusual ability to express far-reaching ideas in a way that is not only understandable but compelling. Kurzweil is a noted inventor, a wealthy entrepreneur, a genius, and a fine author. It's too bad he hasn't published more books (this is only his third), but apparently he has his hands full running high-tech companies, participating in think tanks, and contributing to his fabulous online chronicle of technological advancement.
The Age of Spiritual Machines serves as a sweeping review of the historical development of intelligence and computation, as a grand introduction to the fields of nanotechnology, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence, and as a mind-blowing summary of where we are headed in the next thirty years. Kurzweil's scientific credentials are impeccable and lend credence to his often startling extrapolations. For the non-technical reader, the book is very engaging and highly readable. For the more serious student, it includes a comprehensive series of notes and an exhaustive bibliography. On all counts, I give it my highest recommendation.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on August 1, 2000
Kurzweil's book is interesting, especially for those who want an easily readable, breezy introduction to the world of artificial intelligence. The author has a nice knack for using metaphors that get complicated concepts across. That is also one of the flaws of this book, for sometimes the metaphors oversimplify at best, or mislead at worst. Kurzweil has an unbridled enthusiasm for thinking machines, and his sense of excitement in speculating on where the latest developments in this field will lead us certainly comes through. So this book is quite unlike many others in the artificial intelligence field, which tend to get bogged down in complex analysis while losing the sense of wonder behind the technology.
On the other hand, Kurzweil is perhaps overly "gung ho" on the potential for smart computers. He addresses mainly the "benefits" side of the coin here, and tends to downplay or ignore the possible costs to human existence. This bias is very clear when he presents a long quote about the dangers of human beings becoming too dependent on technology that thinks. Turn the page, and -- surprise -- the author of the quote is Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber. Thus Kurzweil uses the "guilt by association ploy," suggesting that anyone who objects to the development of synthetic consciousness can be classified in the "fringe element" along with the Unabomber. Very unfair! While most of us deplore what Kaczynski did to get his points across, that does not mean that all of his ideas are horrendous as well. In fact, Bill Joy, an author who lost colleagues to the Unabomber, makes this point in his Wired article, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us." We must be careful not to define anyone who questions the value of technological progress as just another "nut."
But then again, Kurzweil can pull the reader right back with a fascinating example of how artificial minds may serve us in new ways. He writes about the potential for "downloading" human consciousness, for instance -- is this a step towards attaining immortality? I agree with the other readers who have asserted that many of Kurzweil's speculations are overly optimistic. He presents examples of poetry "written" by a computer, but they are not so impressive when you consider that the computer was given data on "style" of real human poets. Considering that, this creative achievement by a machine is closer to what current word-processing programs do than to what a human author experiences.
I don't want to sound too critical here, because the fact is that I really enjoyed this book, even while disagreeing with many of the author's conclusions. I would in fact highly recommend this book to anyone who is intrigued with the impact of artificial intelligence on human nature. It is certainly the sort of book that will inspire spirited (pun intended) debates among those who like the idea of conscious computers and those who are leary of same. And that's the very good thing about this book -- it will spur necessary debate over an extremely important issue, and we all stand to benefit from that.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on January 12, 2000
This book brings together the theory of evolution, philosophy, biology, chemistry and the exponential growth of technology to explain how the world became to be what it is today, and where it will continue to go. Kurzweil puts together very strong arguments for his theories and predictions and leaves me a believer. I think that every computer science major (and anyone interested in the future) should read this book.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on April 11, 2000
I bought the book after attending a symposium organised by DougHofstadter at Stanford and featuring Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec(among others.) It really is a best seller in the US - at least intech book terms - WAKE UP Britian! The central theme of this book (and Moravec's Mind Children and Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind and Paul & Cox's Beyond Humanity), is that we are approaching the crossover ie we are roughly 20 years away from when machine intelligence will overtake human intelligence. And that once this happens, machine intelligence will accelerate into uncharted waters. I think that a convincing case is built that we are on track to do this within approximately this time span.
It's quite possible to nit-pick over much of what Kurzweil says - but that's not the point. The point is the general vision of where we are headed. Kurzweil's view is that there is a 50% plus chance that humanity will make it through this transitory phase (ie the next century), that we will successfully combat the comming threats of self replicating biotech pathogens, software pathogens and self replicating nanopathogens, to complete the process of integration with our technology - and abandonment of our biological roots that we are now in the early/final stages of. Early because we are currently only fractionally fused with our technology (language, books, machines etc). Final because the maybe 40,000 year process is, because of the exponential acceleration of technological development, perhaps only 50-100 years or so away from completion.
I guess this is likely to seem utterly far fetched to 99.9% of the public - just as would mobile phones, the internet and robotic jet travel have seemed beyond belief to a 1900 audience. My belief is that these guys are very much on the right track. Bottom line - If you are interested in how this century might pan out, this is as good a place to start as any. END
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on June 23, 2001
The argument here starts with the observation that intelligent machines are already a reality. In the future we will be able to create ever more intelligent machines. A truly explosive increase in machine intelligence is described, up to unimaginable levels only 100 years from now.
As far as hardware is concerned, the author insists that Moore's law, according to which computing power at a given cost doubles every 18 months, will continue unabated. Current computer technology will hit fundamental physical constrains in about 10 years, but the author insists that intelligence will find a way to grow explosively without slowing down because of mere physics. He describes several potential avenues through which computer power can increase. The most intriguing one is the possibility of building quantum computers. According to theory these can have immense computing power, because quantum phenomena allow for a huge number of calculations to be done in parallel. Nature does never give something for nothing, and, for my taste, quantum computers come too close to the edge - but who knows?
More interesting is the question of software. When I was a student I was taught that hardware power is not very significant for defining the reach of computers, because algorithmic complexity almost always grows exponentially when related to the size of the problem to be solved. So fundamental advances will come from better algorithms, not from increased hardware power. The current state of affairs seems to agree with this view. After all, word processing 20 years ago using an Apple II is not fundamentally different from word processing today using computers a thousand times more powerful. Algorithmic design is a very costly process that few humans can do well, and this fact, it seems, would necessarily frustrate the rapid increase in machine intelligence. The author produces two solutions: One, to dissect a human brain and copy its "algorithm". To me this sounds rather similar to Da Vinci's idea of dissecting birds in order to build a flying machine. The second solution refers to methods where the algorithm builds itself, i.e. learns how to work. Two methodologies are mentioned here, genetic algorithms and neural nets. Many examples are given about the successful use of these to solve surprisingly difficult problems. These are powerful ideas. Certainly if we come to a point where an intelligent machine can design and maybe build an even more intelligent machine, then indeed we have the ingredients for a runaway explosion of intelligence.
The author paints a rather scary near future. First we use machines to broaden our own minds, but we also build independent machines that become more and more powerful. The war between conscious machines and humans never happens, because it is won by the machines before it even starts: Human minds migrate into machines and lead a fruitful life within the more expansive means that this new medium offers. A few biological humans remain at a much lower level of intelligence, and presumably wilt away without remorse or bitterness. The next level of evolution is achieved by beings that are unimaginably more intelligent than we are now. At this stage it is not meaningful to talk about machines, they are just our offspring living in bodies that are not DNA based. In fact these immortal beings include persons originally born as humans, including, it is stated, Microsoft's Bill Gates. Again, all of this will happen in the next 100 years.
Now, what is wrong in this picture, apart from the idea of having Bill Gates around for all eternity?
For starters, for this vision to work the whole world should be like California, which it is not. On most places of this planet misery rather than intelligence rules. The book was written before the techno-bubble burst, an event not predicted in the book, and also before the recent power failures in California itself. The earth is in such bad working order that one must wonder if ever intelligence will take hold.
Also, if the explosion of intelligence is a necessary natural phenomenon, something like an unstoppable supernova, then by now the universe should be full of manifestations of intelligence, it should be infused, drenched, saturated by intelligence. Why, entire suns would be cloaked in order to harvest their energy needed for the huge amount of computations going on. (Maybe this explains the mystery of the dark matter, i.e. the fact that most matter in the universe is not visible.) Also, why hasn't this cosmic intelligent fabric reached us? Well, maybe they wanted to leave part of the universe in its natural state, you know like we keep protected nature parks. Our corner of the universe may be just such a place. We do not listen to the noise created by intelligence elsewhere, but maybe this only shows our low level of development.
Now, if we assume that the universe is not really intelligent, this leaves us with three possibilities: First, for some reason there may exist intrinsic limits to the growth of intelligence. This does not seem probable, particularly after reading this book. Second, depressingly, the explosive growth of intelligence may always bring about its demise, the same way that the uncontrolled growth of cancer kills the organism that creates it. This sounds rather plausible if we observe the way humanity manages the world today. The third possibility is that the growth of intelligence reaches a level where it decides to stop, where it understands that the "law of accelerating returns" is not conducive to happiness. So maybe the universe is filled not only by intelligent, but also by wise races, that look after their own small garden without disturbing the rest of creation, and live meaningful, biological, limited lives.
All in all, this is an extremely interesting book to read. I withhold one star, only because I find that the catchy title has little relevance to its content.
20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on August 22, 2001
Back in the '50s artificial intelligence researchers Newell, Shaw, and Simon created a program called the General Problem Solver which succeeded in finding solutions to some hard problems in mathematics, to include a completely original proof to a theorem from Principia Mathematica that had never previously been solved. This led Simon and Newell to predict that by 1985 that machines would be able to perform any task that humans can do.
Simon and Newell were brilliant thinkers, but also were gravely mistaken in their predictions. Their optimism has ever since embarrassed the AI field. Fast forward to 1999, the year in which Kurzweil wrote The Age of Spiritual Machines. Deep Blue has defeated chess champion Gary Kasparov, the world wide web is everywhere, and virtual reality image technology has improved. All marvelous technological achievements, but reading this book I can't help but think that Kurzweil is falling into the same trap into which Simon and Newell fell half a century ago. Extrapolating current progress to predict the future is a tricky business.
Kurzweil is at his most persuasive when he discusses the recent past and present. Spiritual Machines is filled with interesting insights on how we think and how our brains work, and his discussions on emerging technologies strike the right balance between technical detail and general readability.
His predictions for the future, however, come across as outlandish. Kurzweil predicts that within 100 years that machines themselves will claim to be human, that humans will universally use neural implant technology that will allow them to immediately understand information, and that those humans that don't use this technology will be unable to meaningfully participate in dialogues with those who do.
I'm puzzled by readers who find this outlook to be optimistic, and I recognize that it is possible that I reject Kurzweil's predictions simply because I find them unpleasant. I'm no technophobe, but I do find that I enjoy holding a book in my hand, struggling to learn a new language, and assimilating information and communicating using the carbon-based brain that I was born with.
That said, Spiritual Machines is interesting and thought provoking, and often entertaining. The reader simply needs to consider the author's enthusiasm for AI when evaluating his conclusions. At any rate, seeing that Kurzweil is at the cutting edge of the technology that he discusses in this book, perhaps it's not reasonable to expect him to keep his enthusiasm in check.