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on January 4, 2004
Kurzweil's book tries to predict what our lives would be like in the year 2100 (yes, one of his predictions is that we'll all still be "alive" in 2100 - for the reason I put "alive" in quotes, you'll have to read the book).
A common theme you see in many science-fiction books and films that try to depict life on earth in 2100, or life of advanced aliens, is the striking similarity between the way of life of these creatures and our current lives. Star-Trek is a good example. Sure, Captain Kirk shoots a laser gun, gets teleported and eats food generated by a machine, but in his world humans (or other carbon-based life forms) still rule, travel physically in the universe, get cured by a human doctor, and so on. More unusual life forms are either relegated to one episode, or given bizarre flaws to explain their rarity (e.g., Commander Data).
So, what will earth really look like in 97 years, in 2100? What will it look like in just 17 years, in 2020? Kurzweil sets out to predict the answers to these questions, and he does so in an enjoyable writing style and using his extensive technical knowledge and visionary approach. He will shock most readers by his predictions which initially seem outlandish, but on second thought suddenly sound very reasonable and very possible - and perhaps even - undeniable.
The basic premise of this very interesting book is what Kurzweil calls "The Law of Accelerating Returns". Moore's law, stating (roughly) that the computing power of a $1000 computer doubles every 12 months, is an example of Kurzweil's more general law. But Moore law only talks about integrated circuits made from transistors - this law only became relevant in the 1960s, and will most likely stop being relevant sometime in the next decade. But Kurzweil demonstrates that the same "law" of computing acceleration has been valid ever since 1900 (!): The first computers were mechanical, then came computers using electro-mechanical relays, then came vacuum tubes, then stand-alone transistors and finally integrated circuits and VLSI; Computing continued to accelerate at an almost constant pace throughout all these changes in paradigms and technologies, and Kurzweil argues that it will continue to do so - even if we need to replace our IC-based computers by computers based on massively-parallel neural networks, nanotechnology-manufactured computers or even quantum computers.
Once you understand Kurzweil's basic premise and agree that it is plausible (he explains it very well and very convincingly), the unavoidable consequences are staggering. The most obvious thing that is going to happen if computing accelerates in its current pace, is that around 2020, a $1000 computer will have the computing power of a human brain. Very quickly afterwards the computer "intelligence" will surpass those of humans. In the following decades other advances in technology like self-replicating nanotechnology will make relying on human labor and thinking not only unnecessary - it will even be stupid. Sending a human for exploration missions in outer space in a large UFO-like spaceship would be extraordinarily silly, when you could send a computer sized like a grain of rice and having the intelligence of a thousand humans. By 2100, computer intelligence and the original human intelligence that started it all will be completely inseparable, according to Kurzweil. I don't want to spoil your fun of reading the book, so I won't reveal here more of Kurzweil's predictions.
Kurzweil's book isn't perfect, of course. It discusses philosophical and moral issues very sparingly. It downplays "modes of failure" (like computer viruses, renegade nonobots) and the effect of Luddites and underdeveloped countries. It is very conservative economically (Bill Gates will remain the richest person in 2050, in 2020 there will be many more lawyers than doctors, because Intellectual Property will be the most important economic issue).
All-in-all Kurzweil's book is very thought-provoking and I strongly recommend it. Even if most of his predictions never come true, it really shines a light on the question of what might happen as computers get stronger and stronger, too strong to be used merely as a platform for "cute" GUIs like Mac OS/X or MS-Windows :)
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on July 13, 2004
This book is an exhilarating glimpse into the future of technology, with an emphasis on when and how it could ultimately affect us: "us" as vulnerable injury prone biology, us as students, us as workers, us as socialites, and perhaps most interestingly, us as mortals.
Hard science in plain terms, Kurzweil stitches in humor and optimism to keep the reading fun, but never sacrifices the basic ambition of this book; I believe that ambition is to share his well-founded exitement about the likilihood that "just around the corner" (owing to the laws of accelerating return) things are going to get real interesting, and really strange.
While I note that plenty of reviews take issue with the pace of change Kurzweil predicts, few dispute the likilihood technologies outlined in the book (Nanotechnological production, AI, man-made/machine-made alternatives to biology such as prosthetics that work as well or better than nature designed) will ever come about, or take issue with the myriad ways in which they will have a profound effect on our individual lives, society, and the world at large.
Kurzweil is an optimist, but not a blind one. He was the principal developer of the first omni-font optical character recognition, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first CCD flat-bed scanner, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments, and the first commercially marketed large-vocabulary speech recognition. Many of his tech-prophecies have come true, and he has well earned respect in the scientific community.
Even if he's somewhat "off" on timing, or the exact embodiment these technologies will take, just throwing one of your neural legs over the sweeping impact these technologies could usher in makes this book more than a worthwhile read.
Christian Hunter
Santa Barbara, California
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on June 28, 2004
...the ideas in this book are highly stimulating and fascinating. It is basically a summary of all the wants of futurism--nanotechnology, AIs, quantum computers, holistic evolution. But instead of finding these theories spread over numerous books, Kurzweil brings them all together as emanating from one conclusion: evolution is increasing on its own order, and thus speeding up. Our technology is a part of the evolutionary process, and should not be feared.
How realistic are these visions? Foglets (nanotech clouds that can form and reshape into any object), scanning our brains into robots or computers so we can be immortal, quantum computers...Nanotech has some fundamental problems to work through, A.) how to dispose of heat and B.) that funky thing called quantum mechanics. The brain is ludicrously complex (neurons have thousands of connections), and the notion of simply scanning it into a computer and having one's memories recreated inside a new robotic shell is a bit far fetched. Neuroscience is still a hazy business, see The Undiscovered Mind and The Mind and the Brain (from different Points of View, the former Freudian, the latter a proponent of Free Will). If our memories are no longer existent in the new shell, at least the memories as we remember them (I know this is getting into "loaded question" territory), does the self remain the same? Is it the same "person", a man of meat becomes a man of machine who remembers his "old" past differently?
Nonetheless, this is a worthwhile book on where humanity may be going to, and it would probably help give you some ideas if you're a wannabe science fiction writer. You can also drop some of these concepts on your date and wow her w/ your insight and speculatory nature.
One complaint that I have about the book is I didn't care for all the quasi-conversations the author manufactures in the beginning of the latter chapters. I started skipping them.
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on May 2, 2004
I am not sure there is anything I could say that someone else reviewing this book has not already said. My experience was hit & miss, reading the book in short spurts over a month or so a few months back. His expectations and theories of where computing is headed are intriguing, and you can easily correlate what has already happened and what has been announced to his theories. The title was published in 1999, but yet even with how fast computing has changed Kurzwell's thoughts flow along with the advances that have happened since 1999. Who knows what will happen, and the author could be a bit optimistic in his thoughts - but I think that is just a humans well wishes for our kind showing in his writing.
The suggested readings & web links will have you reading & researching for a long time to come.
I would venture to recommend this title to anyone who is interested or works with computing. Having a grasp on where we have been , and where we are (most likely) heading towards.
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on April 4, 2004
This is an OK book. It is another in a long line of books that teases out of some present trend a future that seems wondrous, somewhat frightening, and somehow plausible. Mr. Kurzweil's thesis is that the next step of evolution will be that our own machines will attain consciousness through their sheer capacity and the powerful software we will write. At some point they will become more intelligent than humans and so forth.
I think two things he includes in the book point to the problem (even though the author really thinks he has convincingly dealt with them). First, on page 72 he includes a wonderful cartoon with two scientists working on a complicated formula on the blackboard. The words "Then a Great Miracle Occurs" are written in the middle of the formula. One of the scientists, pointing to these words says, "I think you should be more explicit here in step two". The weakness of this book is similar. There are lots of specific claims, but nothing much provable.
The timeline 261-280 is also in the tradition of these kinds of books. Lots of detail and specifics from the past up until the publication date of this book (which was 1999). Then we skip TEN YEARS to 2009 - a date near enough to give the book a plausible relevance, but far enough in the future that the book won't be disproved until long after it has become irrelevant. Oh, well...
As I said, there are interesting things here to read and think about, but in many ways this is really a work of science fantasy rather than a serious analysis of the future of society and technology.
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on February 5, 2004
Bring along a sense of humor when you read this interesting work. The author argues that given the steady and seemingly endless (well, at least, for the last thirty years) march of progress in computational information processing, in next to no time we will have encountered the next Great Leap Forward in the evolution of life, transfer ourselves into electronic neural nets, and just sit in our hammocks drinking virtual Mai-Tais while we download ourselves into immortality (so we can, perhaps, be the servants of the next generation of silicon-based life forms).
Kurzweil is at his best when he makes us think and at his worst when he is trying to be realistic about it. Just because it would seem that when you have an infinite number of computers with an infinite number of megabytes they will eventually produce conscious life (or something that says it's life), doesn't make it so. Nearly every conjecture in this book is highly speculative and nearly as realistic as devising a machine that will predict something as simple as, say, the stock market or how to find a decent internet date. Of course, he gives himself an "out" by saying that humanity may find some clever way to destroy itself, but a better bet may be that something in his well-oiled "spiritual machine" will go awry and leave us wondering when the Next Great Leap Forward may take place.
Interesting reading but the past is littered with the remains of predictions that seemed just about as plausible but now just seem very, very amusing.
On the other hand, Kurzweil's short book is worth reading because of the author's excellent credentials and because it is such a good thought piece. Technology often seems to be increasing at a seemingly unworkable rate, and this often-expensive "designer technology" may become directed by the financially rich but ethically deprived, or the legally and politically powerful. The people in a well-educated democracy should be thinking about how to ethically and consistently handle the social and psychological changes and benefits associated with these developments, and this book seems a good place to begin.
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on December 5, 2003
This is flat-out the most intelligent and provocative look I've seen describing the development and direction of artificial intelligence. Ray Kurzweil is a true believer in AI, and he makes a convincing case for the emergence of a superior intelligence. And he's talking this century, folks, maybe within the next four or five decades.
These are the key points of his thesis, as I see them:
•Computational power is growing exponentially and will continue doing so for the foreseeable future. By 2020, the computational power of a $1,000 computer will be about equal to that of the human brain. After that, computers leave us in the dust.
•Biological evolution is slow and has taken us about as far as it can. It's already being replaced by technological evolution, the enhancement (or replacement) of slow, biological processes by engineered processes (e.g. neural networks).
•The mind is just a complex machine. Issues such as consciousness, free will and the soul can be endlessly debated, but fundamentally, we are just a complex machine, currently the most complex one on the planet. But that will change.
•Our bodies, also a complex machine, can also be re-engineered or replaced. Great strides are being made to simulate or replace our senses.
•Technological innovation proceeds inexorably during the next few decades, rapidly transforming our objects and ourselves. By the end of the century, there will be virtually no distinction between human and artificial intelligence.
This is a fascinating thesis, a real mind-blower. Forget about a Star Trek or Star Wars future; that's not where we're going. Well, maybe Star Trek. Consider the Borg with personality and a sense of humor.
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on November 30, 2003
Good book. I don't remember the specifics, because I read it when it came out, which was a few years ago. But I'm continually recommending it to people. Along with another book in a simlar vein, by author Daniel Crevier, called AI. Which is one of my favourite books of all time.
Ray writes about what has happened in technology during human history, touching upon particularly important examples of improved technology.
He then extrapolates from this, the idea that technology is getter better and better, faster and faster. And hence that some important changes are going to take place soon, which may or may not (depending on how technology is used,) lead to some important quality of life milestones being reached by humankind.
Third world milestones, such as substantially reduced world hunger and reduced number of people who don't have access to other basic needs like clothing, basic medicine and shelter.
And Milestones for the general population, such as substantially improved day to day health (technology which significantly reduces obesity and improves muscle and skin tone and flexability and significantly speeds up healing etc.) and substantially longer lifespan.
The bulk of the book and it's key strength is in taking recent technologies that we are familar with today and showing directly how they will lead to much better technologies in the near future.
This book did this very well for it's time. Since then a cornucopia of authors have written similar books which draw from this one, so it is becoming slightly dated (which you would expect a book to become, quickly, in our accelerating age, no?)
Still, Highly Recommended.
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on September 18, 2003
One of the most rejuvenating books I've read in a long time! I was on a high for months - contemplating the relationship between man and machine and the future of consciousness. For me, the author's vision of the future is highly inspirational for some strange reason.
A few of my favorite topics are covered in the book - history (of the future), computers and the virtual world, science fiction and the possible future of mankind.
Kurzweil's ideas are mind blowing and they challenge the intellect on many levels. His systematic approach to the potential future of computers and machines is the best I've come across.
I think he omitted one thing from his calculations: that human intellect & understanding also have a Moore-like law and human understanding will jump in parallel with the progress of the machines, maybe a bit slower, so 2020 is a bit soon as the last date to switch of the machines.
I read Vernon Vinge's A Fire upon the Deep after Spiritual Machines and found it a relevant breather and maybe an implementation of the theme, albeit in a make-believe sci-fi world.
Spiritual Machines changes your daily outlook.
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on August 24, 2003
This book certainly puts forward some interesting ideas. It wasn't as convincing as I had hoped for, but I suppose you can't expect anyone to provide "sufficient proof" for their divinations. His is an opinion, not a proof, but as an opinion it is a very intriguing one at that. His tone has a hint of arrogance and condescension that I found annoying, but I suppose someone as successful as he has the right.
I was also hoping for a little bit of ethics or philosophy, but there was none. He discusses the technology and its superficial social impact, but he does not analyse his predictions in terms of human behaviour, serious sociology, or even basic philosophy. One can only be an expert in so many things, however instead of acknowledging this void in his analysis, he goes on as though it plays no role. (With the attitude that: technology will come, people will accept it, everyone will benefit, it will be good.) He assumes that technology in a capitalist environment will automatically lead to benefit, and that everyone will gain and share equally in this benefit. He often comes across as naive in these regards. I will concede that perhaps I may be expecting too much, but the absence of a deeper analysis is nonetheless frustrating. His almost child-like optimism is reassuring in ways however, and certainly helps in dispelling the sense of doom that naturally comes over a person when reading such things.
Perhaps machines won't be as cruel and greedy as we are, and perhaps they will make the world a better place. You never know.
In conclusion, this book provides only technical insights and not many social ones - but it nonetheless succeeds in giving quite a large dose of information for one to think over. Well worth the read.
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