- Paperback: 672 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Books (September 26, 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0143037889
- ISBN-13: 978-0739466261
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.4 x 9.1 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 456 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #16,489 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology
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“Anyone can grasp Mr. Kurzweil’s main idea: that mankind’s technological knowledge has been snowballing, with dizzying prospects for the future. The basics are clearly expressed. But for those more knowledgeable and inquisitive, the author argues his case in fascinating detail . . . . The Singularity Is Near is startling in scope and bravado.”
—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“Filled with imaginative, scientifically grounded speculation . . . . The Singularity Is Near is worth reading just for its wealth of information, all lucidly presented . . . . [It’s] an important book. Not everything that Kurzweil predicts may come to pass, but a lot of it will, and even if you don’t agree with everything he says, it’s all worth paying attention to.”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“[An] exhilarating and terrifyingly deep look at where we are headed as a species . . . . Mr. Kurzweil is a brilliant scientist and futurist, and he makes a compelling and, indeed, a very moving case for his view of the future.”
—The New York Sun
—San Jose Mercury News
“Kurzweil links a projected ascendance of artificial intelligence to the future of the evolutionary process itself. The result is both frightening and enlightening . . . . The Singularity Is Near is a kind of encyclopedic map of what Bill Gates once called ‘the road ahead.’”
“A clear-eyed, sharply-focused vision of the not-so-distant future.”
—The Baltimore Sun
“This book offers three things that will make it a seminal document. 1) It brokers a new idea, not widely known, 2) The idea is about as big as you can get: the Singularity—all the change in the last million years will be superceded by the change in the next five minutes, and 3) It is an idea that demands informed response. The book’s claims are so footnoted, documented, graphed, argued, and plausible in small detail, that it requires the equal in response. Yet its claims are so outrageous that if true, it would mean . . . well . . . the end of the world as we know it, and the beginning of utopia. Ray Kurzweil has taken all the strands of the Singularity meme circulating in the last decades and has united them into a single tome which he has nailed on our front door. I suspect this will be one of the most cited books of the decade. Like Paul Ehrlich’s upsetting 1972 book Population Bomb, fan or foe, it’s the wave at epicenter you have to start with.”
—Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired
“Really, really out there. Delightfully so.”
“Stunning, utopian vision of the near future when machine intelligence outpaces the biological brain and what things may look like when that happens . . . . Approachable and engaging.”
—the unofficial Microsoft blog
“One of the most important thinkers of our time, Kurzweil has followed up his earlier works . . . with a work of startling breadth and audacious scope.”
“An attractive picture of a plausible future.”
“Kurzweil is a true scientist—a large-minded one at that . . . . What’s arresting isn’t the degree to which Kurzweil’s heady and bracing vision fails to convince—given the scope of his projections, that’s inevitable—but the degree to which it seems downright plausible.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“[T]hroughout this tour de force of boundless technological optimism, one is impressed by the author’s adamantine intellectual integrity . . . . If you are at all interested in the evolution of technology in this century and its consequences for the humans who are creating it, this is certainly a book you should read.”
—John Walker, inventor of Autodesk, in Fourmilab Change Log
“Ray Kurzweil is the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence. His intriguing new book envisions a future in which information technologies have advanced so far and fast that they enable humanity to transcend its biological limitations—transforming our lives in ways we can’t yet imagine.”
“If you have ever wondered about the nature and impact of the next profound discontinuities that will fundamentally change the way we live, work, and perceive our world, read this book. Kurzweil’s Singularity is a tour de force, imagining the unimaginable and eloquently exploring the coming disruptive events that will alter our fundamental perspectives as significantly as did electricity and the computer.”
—Dean Kamen, recipient of the National Medal of Technology, physicist, and inventor of the first wearable insulin pump, the HomeChoice portable dialysis machine, the IBOT Mobility System, and the Segway Human Transporter
“One of our leading AI practitioners, Ray Kurzweil, has once again created a ‘must read’ book for anyone interested in the future of science, the social impact of technology, and indeed the future of our species. His thought-provoking book envisages a future in which we transcend our biological limitations, while making a compelling case that a human civilization with superhuman capabilities is closer at hand than most people realize.”
—Raj Reddy, founding director of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University and recipient of the Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery
“Ray’s optimistic book well merits both reading and thoughtful response. For those like myself whose views differ from Ray’s on the balance of promise and peril, The Singularity Is Near is a clear call for a continuing dialogue to address the greater concerns arising from these accelerating possibilities.”
—Bill Joy, cofounder and former chief scientist, Sun Microsystems
About the Author
Ray Kurzweil is one of the world’s leading inventors, thinkers, and futurists, with a twenty-year track record of accurate predictions. Called “the restless genius” by The Wall Street Journal and “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes magazine, Kurzweil was selected as one of the top entrepreneurs by Inc. magazine, which described him as the “rightful heir to Thomas Edison.” PBS selected him as one of “sixteen revolutionaries who made America,” along with other inventors of the past two centuries. An inductee into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and recipient of the National Medal of Technology, the Lemelson-MIT Prize (the world’s largest award for innovation), thirteen honorary doctorates, and awards from three U.S. presidents, he is the author of five other books: Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever (coauthored with Terry Grossman, M.D.), The Age of Spiritual Machines, The 10% Solution for a Healthy Life, and The Age of Intelligent Machines, and How to Create a Mind.
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Anyone who has ever played around with the arithmetic of compounding and exponential growth knows how crazy the numbers get as growth feeds on itself. The phenomenon is quite real in the world, and it describes everything from viral epidemics to Warren Buffet's fortune. Kurzweil applies the exponential growth paradigm to the future of technology. He sees not only change itself accelerating, but the rate of change too, if you can go back to your high school calculus and wrap your mind around that stomach-churning concept. The math starts quickly approaching infinity, which is why it's so weird.
"Singularity" is a common term-of-art among theoretical physicists, who apply it to a variety of seemingly irrational constructs, such as an infinitely large mass compressed towards an infinitely small point. Kurzweil co-opts the term for his own purpose here to mean the point in time where artificial intelligence starts exceeding human intelligence. Thereafter, it takes over its own programming and, being so powerful, does a better and better job of it. Because things are already moving so fast today, the accelerating rate of change means that Kurzweil's Singularity is closer than even optimists might imagine - hence the book's title. He projects it to occur somewhere in the middle of this century. Afterwards, nothing will ever again be the same.
In physics, unimaginable things start happening at singularity points, like energy explosions within black holes. Following Kurzweil's Singularity, the most garish science fiction fantasies start becoming commonplace. The combination of genetics, nanotechnology and robotics - which he refers to collectively as GNR - will transform all aspects of human existence. He believes, for example, that nanobots released into a person's bloodstream, will facilitate a comprehensive (that is to say, 100%) map of that person, including genetic code and nervous system, that can be uploaded and downloaded at will onto new "substrates". In other words, robotic copies of human beings - body, mind, memories, and (one presumes) soul - can be made that will appear indistinguishable from the originals. And for that matter, those originals themselves can be re-shaped at will, giving us all the opportunity to become brilliant, strong, happy, and beautiful.
Kurzweil tells us that artificial circuits replicating themselves at a molecular level will merge with the biological circuits that constitute our nervous systems, giving rise an "enhanced" human super-intelligence. Once this starts happening, what we now call the Internet will in effect become telepathic, giving these enhanced humans instantaneous access to all available knowledge and information as they fashion their brave new world. You see how explosive this gets? And it's just the beginning.
Once the process gets underway, the evolving super-intelligence keeps expanding until it permeates the entire planet and, still accelerating, eventually the universe. Kurzweil suggests that movement though time-space "wormholes" should one day facilitate rapid travel beyond our own galaxy, taking the process literally everywhere.
I realize that my amateur's survey of Kurzweil's thinking here makes him sound like a crank. However, let there be no mistake: he is an accomplished scientist and a highly sophisticated thinker. MIT-trained, he's an expert in artificial intelligence and has put his ideas into practice as a successful tech entrepreneur. Most of this book is not even devoted to prognostications, but to an in-depth review of research currently underway that lays the practical groundwork for virtually everything he talks about (except maybe the wormhole business). While he makes numerous leaps of faith in taking us from here to there, none of his forecasts represent sheer fantasy. He is an extremely good writer, and while staying true to what is in fact pretty complex science, describes it all in a way that makes it reasonably clear to lay readers.
For all his hardcore materialism, Kurzweil also has a whimsical streak. Every 50 pages or so, he breaks up his text with imaginary light-hearted debates among himself (appearing as "Ray"), various historical figures - Darwin, Freud, etc. - and a person named "Molly", who seems to be a student. Molly is bright, curious, skeptical, and not in the least bit awed by Ray or the others. The thing about Molly is that she appears in two separate guises: Molly 2004 (the year this book was being written), and Molly 2104, which is of course well beyond the Singularity. One of Kurzweil's key forecasts is that future science will learn how to arrest and even reverse the aging process, allowing people more-or-less to live forever at whatever age they choose. So Molly has made it through the Singularity and returned as a still-young woman to speak about it from experience.
Kurzweil is fully aware of the potential downside to his vision. He devotes one long chapter to what he calls "The Deeply Intertwined Promise and Peril of GNR". He devotes another even longer chapter to responding to critics, who have attacked his ideas from every possible perspective. While he treats most criticisms respectfully, in the end he largely dismisses them all. One partial exception and the one specific fear he himself does seem to harbor is of self-replicating nanobots. He and other scientists who seriously debate such stuff even have a short-hand term for this specter: The Grey Goo Problem. Were self-replication somehow to spin out of control, Kurzweil explains to us that in a matter of days it could, in theory, consume the Earth's entire biomass and reduce it to "grey goo". This is indeed a troubling prospect, since this endangered biomass includes all of us.
Interestingly, the cluster of criticisms that he responds to most gently are those arising from a spiritualist perspective. In one of his imaginary debates with "Molly", she repeatedly asks "Ray" if he believes in God. Ray surprises by dodging the question every time rather than saying no. Badgered into a corner, he finally avers: "For the sake of your question, we can consider God to be the universe, and I said that I believe in the universe." This sounds suspiciously like a yes, albeit with a twist. He then goes on to explain how his entire vision can be described as a picture of the universe "waking up" as enhanced human intelligence pervades its many corners. Religious people of an unorthodox bent might be tempted to embrace this image as God's self-realization. Fundamentalists of every stripe, however, were they to take K's cosmology seriously at all, would view it with disgust as the self-realization of God's Opposite Number.
For me, the most unnerving question that this book triggers is who will control these accelerating technologies. Reading through many passages of the book, I found it hard not hard to be thinking about Nazi scientists beavering away at the design of their Master Race, or North Korean labs re-programming the neural patterns of citizens lacking enthusiasm for Kim Jong-Un. Kurzweil seems to trust in the pragmatic good will of the scientific community, buttressed by regulation. However, not all scientists have good will, and he says nothing about who he supposes will regulate the regulators. I also find it hard to see what joy or challenge there could be in a world where machines or enhanced humans dominate everything. People choosing not to become "enhanced" would either have it forced upon them or face life as a sub-species. The line between utopia and dystopia here is pretty fuzzy, and I find it a little scary that Kurzweil doesn't seem to care. Maybe I've seen too many science fiction movies.
All that aside, I highly recommend this book. Decades ago when I was in college I used to describe about every other book I read as "changing my life", as we said in the day. Nowadays, no book changes my life, although the best ones still move the needle for me. Whether I like it or not, this one has me looking at things a little differently than I did before.
The book does have a number of problems however that need to be pointed out. One is that his views on AI depend almost entirely on brain emulation and reverse engineering. He does not examine other ways AI may develop that do not parallel the human brain. A second problem is that he ignores the economic incentives that would drive human – machinery fusion. To him, the mere availability of the technology means it will be adopted. In this reviewer’s opinion the main driver will be economic competition a la zero sum game theory. In this reviewer’s opinion the real driver will be economic competition. If one’s competitor’s have chips that enable instant memory recall or interfacing with the internet (or a future version of it) one will not be able to compete. Like it or not, for one’s economic survival, one will have to follow the path of becoming a cyborg (or more like one).
A third problem is that there is little discussion on how technology will influence human institutions. It may be the case that technology will so undermine these or prevent new ones from emerging in which humans can interact with each other without destroying each other or even functioning effectively with each other. A fourth major problem with his book is that he views the human – machinery fusion that he is predicting in very glowing positive terms. Other authors, such as George Zarkadakis in his “in our image” believe this symbiosis will be what will eventually lead to humanity’s extinction. Another important weakness of the book is its very glowing view of the benefits of human “immortality” or, at the very least a vastly increased lifespan. He seems to forget that the increased lifespan of humanity will also lead to much longer lived Stalin or Maos. Imagine a world where degenerates like these can reign not 20 or 30 years but 100 or 200.
Last but not least the most important weakness of the book is the fact that it ignores the very important role that death plays in the evolution of human history through paradigm shifts. Changes in human institutions and popularity held beliefs (i.e., religions, nationalism, secularism, the scientific method, etc.) occur primarily because the young, eventually, replaces the old. A vastly increased human lifespan, never mind immortality, would go very far in undermining this. Alfred Adler put it very eloquently in the following quote: "Death is really a great blessing for humanity, without it there could be no real progress. People who lived for ever would not only hamper and discourage the young, but they would themselves lack sufficient stimulus to be creative".
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