Felix Stalder on 19 Sep 2000 08:13:49 -0000

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<nettime> The Age of Spiritual Machines (Review)

[It is sad to think that it was this book that woke up the German
feuilleton to the possibility that technology might have cultural
implications (see
http://www.nettime.org/nettime.w3archive/200007/msg00036.html). The slumber
must have been very deep indeed.]

Kurzweil, Ray: The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human
Intelligence. Viking: New York. 1999. pp.388  ISBN: 0-670-88217-8

This book is in equal measures interesting and annoying. In this
combination it might be a better indicator of the strange world view
prevalent in some circles of computer science than of the future it
purports to forecast.

Let's start with the interesting part. Kurzweil forecasts three technical
developments to convergence, leading to the creation of computers that are
intelligent in the way most humans are. First, around 2020, $1000 dollars
will buy a computer that will have roughly the same processing power as the
human brain. The underlying equation is the surprisingly simple. Roughly,
the human brain consists of 100 billion neurons linked into 100 trillion
connections, each capable of a simultaneous "calculation", i.e.
transmitting or blocking an impulse. Each connection is capable of 200 such
calculations per second, hence the total processing power of the human
brain is about 20 million billion calculations per second. A recent desktop
computer makes about 1 billion calculations per second (1 gigaflop).
Kurzweil argues that processing power will continue to increase at the same
rate than it has in the last few decades (Moore's Law), considering still
experimental approaches such as three dimensional chips and quantum
computing, it might well even accelerate.

Second, advances in non-invasive brain scan technologies ("magnetic
resonance imaging" (MRI) and "optical imaging") will increase our knowledge
of how the brain works, that is, which of the 100 trillion connections are
activated to create a particular mental process, for example, the visual
recognition of an object, or, the storage of a memory. It is already
possible to use scanners to distinguish between the sets of neurons
responsible for the perception of depth, shape and colour. Ultimately, it
will be possible to create a complete model of the particular configuration
of an individual human brain based on a precise mapping of all connections
among all neurons, and the calculations they produce. There are two
scenarios for the use of such detailed scans within computer science. They
can be used to design simulated neural nets that operate similarly to the
human brain, or, and this is a bit more far fetched, "but also ultimately
feasible" (p.124), to re-create or "download" individual brains, including
the content of its memory, on a sufficiently fast computer.

The third development stems from advances in artificial intelligence,
particularly in the field of neural networks, evolutionary algorithms, and
other approaches based on theories of self-organization. The underlying
idea is the following: We are able to do a lot of things that we do not
understand fully. The classic example is how we catch a flying ball. We do
not know the objective variables of the flying ball (speed, angle, weight,
wind, etc.) but we possess enough subjective experience to continually
adjust our movements to those of the ball, so that we end up standing in
the right spot to catch it. We are not born with this ability, we have to
acquire it. However, we do not do this in the physics class, but by
training on the playing field. In a similar way, a computer can be trained,
through repeated feedback that reinforces successful decision-making
strategies and weeds out others. In this accelerated evolutionary process,
complex patterns can be made to emerge. Their particular configurations are
not programmed in a top-down fashion (as in a traditional expert system)
but are rather  bottom-up induced. Many Wall Street firms manage their
portfolios based on recommendations from such artificial intelligence

According to Kurzweil, the combined effect of these three developments will
be ubiquitous computers with human-like, or even superior, intelligence. It
will be increasingly difficult to define clear boundaries between humans
and machines. On the one hand, computer implants will become more common,
augmenting everything from sight, to hearing to memory, replacing failing
organs and extending the life span of human beings. On the other hand,
intelligent machines, baffling even their creators, will become more and
more similar to human beings in their mental complexity, a similarity that
will be enhanced by the advances of virtual reality technology. Kurzweil's
sketches of the technical development seem quite convincing, much less
outlandish than those of, say, Hans Moravec and his space-conquering

Now to the annoying part. Kurzweil goes to great lengths to explain why all
of this happens, or rather, why all of this needs to happen. What he comes
up with is what one might call the eternal rule of evolution. Starting with
the first fractions of a second after the big bang, Kurzweil draws a
straight line into the future, picturing an evolution jumping from one
level of complexity to the next: first physics, then chemistry, and later
biology. The higher the level of complexity, the faster is the pace of
evolution. However, biological evolution is still slow and linear, that is,
it cannot break with its own history. To overcome this limitation,
evolution, in its drive to accelerate itself, has added another layer of
complexity: technology. Why? Because "once life takes hold on a planet, we
can consider the emergence of technology as inevitable" (p.77). One wonders
how many planets did Kurzweil sample to detect this "law"? Back on planet
earth, "evolution has found a way around the computational limitation of
neural circuitry [i.e. the human brain]. Cleverly, it has created organisms
that in turn invented a computational technology a million times faster
than carbon-based neurons" (p.101). In other words, computer scientists are
the leading edge of "carbon-based" evolution, fulfilling the destiny of
this planet, which has been manifest since the beginning of time.

This is a strange role that Kurzweil casts for himself. He and his
colleagues are at the same time merely raw material for an almighty
evolution, no different from amoebae cleverly designed to overcome the
limits of chemistry, and, at the same time, god-like fulfillers of destiny
and creators of the future. One does not need to be David Noble [2] to see
strong religious themes sweeping through the book. "We will be software,
not hardware" (p.129) could have been uttered by an ecstatic prophet
announcing: The final judgment cometh and thou shalt be spirit, not flesh.
Interestingly enough, though, in this contemporary eschatological vision,
there is no day of reckoning. In best engineering tradition, each problem
will be solved, separately, one by one, though in a very quick pace. For
Kurzweil, paradise is only thirty years away when "the basic necessities of
food, shelter and security are available for the vast majority of the human
population" (p.222), and, "a variety of neural implant technology has
essentially eliminated the handicaps associated with most disabilities"
(p.221). In light of this bright future, any critique can only be
irrational, misguided Luddism whose impact, however, "is limited by the
level of prosperity made possible by the new technology" (p.196).

The book is characterized by the stark contrast between a highly
sophisticated, well-grounded technological vision and a rather obtuse,
empirically poorly founded social vision of the use of these technologies.
This would be unproblematic were its aims purely technical. But they are
much broader. Kurzweil strives "to reflect on the gradual, yet inevitable,
emergence of true competition to the full range of human though in order to
comprehend the world that lies ahead" (p.6). Particularly unsettling is the
insistence on the evolutionary necessity and inevitability of computer
technology which seems motivated, consciously or unconsciously, by the
desire to claim credit and, at the same time, disclaim responsibility.

[1] Moravec, Hans (1999). Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind. New
York, Oxford: Oxford University Press
[2] Noble, David F. (1997). The Religion of Technology - The Divinity of
Man and the Spirit of Invention. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

[btw, this text is copyrighted and you should not redistribute it.]

Les faits sont faits.

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