Ray Kurzweil: The Singularity is Near
Attending last night’s Distinguished Speaker Series lecture by Ray Kurzweil in Schwab Auditorium left me feeling slightly concerned about the future of the world. Why?
Because The Singularity is Near.
At least that’s the basic thesis put forth by Ray Kurzweil, an accomplished futurist predicts the advent of smarter-than-human technology by the mid-21st century. He says that once a larger portion of man’s intelligence exists in our technology and not organic material, the world will enter a period of extreme development, in which technological progress and paradigm shifts take a fraction of the time as in previous epochs.
Leading up to this period of exponential growth, the fields of technology that will enable this Singularity will also grow at an exponential rate. Kurzweil pointed to graphs plotting the exponential growth of everything from the number of IP addresses to the world’s total computing capacity to the world’s solar power consumption.
Kurzweil believes that society is close to controlling domains such as art and music as information technologies, and that our next major frontier is simulating the capacity for personality traits such as humor and love in our artificial intelligence applications. How about that, a series of bits that define our core human experience!
Here’s the thing about Kurzweil. Once you appreciate the Singularity, it’s hard to concentrate on anything else. As one of Penn State’s few students of Science, Technology, and Society, I talk about the future of technology on a regular basis. One thing that academic experience has taught me is that I feel powerless unless there’s some agency in what’s being talked about, some sense of how I can contribute to the potential eventualities that are discussed. What can we do to prevent a future like 1984 or Brave New World?
The whole point of the Singularity is that one cannot predict past it. Ray Kurzweil has been living his life looking forward to this point because he thinks it will be part and parcel to the end of aging, a massive increase in our life-expectancy. The man takes dozens of supplements and pills daily to elongate his life, and claims that he has already slowed his aging. He has built a profitable health and longevity company on this premise and co-founded a university sponsored by Google and other foundations with the explicit purpose of preparing leaders for the challenges these exponentially developing technologies will present.
What confused me was Kurzweil’s optimism for this most technological of futures. It’s no secret that I think tech generally makes the world better, but I do not predict a smooth transition from here to his immortality. The path to pervasive computing could be a dangerous one, and I got the sense that Kurzweil didn’t appreciate that.