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The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence Paperback – January 1, 2000
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How much do we humans enjoy our current status as the most intelligent beings on earth? Enough to try to stop our own inventions from surpassing us in smarts? If so, we'd better pull the plug right now, because if Ray Kurzweil is right we've only got until about 2020 before computers outpace the human brain in computational power. Kurzweil, artificial intelligence expert and author of The Age of Intelligent Machines, shows that technological evolution moves at an exponential pace. Further, he asserts, in a sort of swirling postulate, time speeds up as order increases, and vice versa. He calls this the "Law of Time and Chaos," and it means that although entropy is slowing the stream of time down for the universe overall, and thus vastly increasing the amount of time between major events, in the eddy of technological evolution the exact opposite is happening, and events will soon be coming faster and more furiously. This means that we'd better figure out how to deal with conscious machines as soon as possible--they'll soon not only be able to beat us at chess, but also likely demand civil rights, and might at last realize the very human dream of immortality.
The Age of Spiritual Machines is compelling and accessible, and not necessarily best read from front to back--it's less heavily historical if you jump around (Kurzweil encourages this). Much of the content of the book lays the groundwork to justify Kurzweil's timeline, providing an engaging primer on the philosophical and technological ideas behind the study of consciousness. Instead of being a gee-whiz futurist manifesto, Spiritual Machines reads like a history of the future, without too much science fiction dystopianism. Instead, Kurzweil shows us the logical outgrowths of current trends, with all their attendant possibilities. This is the book we'll turn to when our computers first say "hello." --Therese Littleton
"This is a book for anyone who wonders where human technology is going next".
-- The New York Times Book Review
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Now I'm not an engineer or much of a math guy and there's a lot of that stuff in this book, but Kurzweil is also a readable and prolific philosopher, and whether you agree with his philosophy or not, did I mention the guy hasn't been wrong in his predictions yet, you will take pause to rethink your point of view for better or worse. What else could you want in a book?
That said, Mr. Kurzweil book is highly recommended for those exhausted by the apocalypic readings of the emerging century, not for its unruly optimism but because it charts the coming century in a manner that seems almost plausible.
Recommended for those interested in the fate of both humans and the planet over the next almost 100 years.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.
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.
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