[LINK] The End Is Nigh [Was: On the Day that you were born (UN

stephen at melbpc.org.au stephen at melbpc.org.au
Fri Nov 11 03:30:24 AEDT 2011

David wrote:

> > Humanity will be no great loss to the universe. The pity is that we
> > look like taking the rest of life on Earth with us.
> (Rick) It would dreadfully difficult to wipe out all microbiotic life.. 
> Better minds than mine have warned against assuming that we cannot make 
> such a mess of the world that it will no longer support life as we know 
> <http://350orbust.wordpress.com/2010/07/23/carl-sagan-and-stephen-

Maybe .. otoh, it's Friday .. and ..

Live Forever? Computer Says Yes 

Nick Miller, November 8, 2011. http://www.theage.com.au/technology/sci-

Futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil believes humans will soon be able to 
live forever with the help of computers. Barmy or brilliant? 

IT USED to be that you would go into a dark tent where an old woman would 
gaze into a ball and tell you about the dark handsome stranger in your 

In the 21st century, it seems, the tent is a rather eccentrically 
decorated office in the suburbs of Boston; the old woman, a professorial 
chap in a suit; and the handsome stranger, a network of hyper-intelligent 
computers that will take over the world.


It is hard not to think Arnold Schwarzenegger while talking to futurist 
Ray Kurzweil. This is not because he looks like Arnie (he is pretty much 
the physical opposite), but because he keeps saying things that sound 
like the plot of the movie Terminator. Nanobots, self-aware computers and 
human cyborgs litter his conversations.

The media love Kurzweil because his predictions are so bold and expressed 
with utter certainty. He says that in the first half of this century 
there will be a ''Singularity'', a period of incredibly rapid 
technological change, triggered by the moment that computers become smart 
enough to improve themselves without human intervention.

He sets 2029 as the year computers will overtake humans - which is when 
things start getting really weird. Disease will be cured, death defeated, 
the universe will become the playground of immortal super-beings.

''Every aspect of human life will be irreversibly transformed,'' says 
Kurzweil, who is due in Melbourne this month. Computers will enter our 
bodies and brains. The pace of change will be incomprehensible unless we 
enhance ourselves with artificial intelligence boosts.

''What Ray does consistently,'' says Neil Gershenfeld from MIT 
university, ''is take a whole bunch of steps everyone agrees on, and take 
principles for extrapolating that everyone agrees on … so they lead to 
things that nobody agrees on … things that seem crazy''.

But Kurzweil has serious, respectable chops in the prediction business. 
While these days he makes a fortune on the lecture circuit, much of his 
early success came as an inventor, forseeing needs that technology would 
soon be able to fulfil, then coming up with the gadgets to do it.

He started early. The way he tells it, a hospital in Spanish Harlem hired 
him to do statistics for a government program that provided preschool 
help for underprivileged families. He used electromechanical calculators 
with levers and gears to work out simple sums. But he was frustrated by 
their clunkiness.

''I discovered they actually had a computer, one of the 12 in New York 
City, in the building. I taught myself to program and wrote a program to 
do these [statistics]. They were surprised.''

No wonder. He was 12 years old.

Kurzweil grew up in Queens, New York, born a few years after his parents 
had fled Hitler's Europe. They were a talented family. His grandmother 
was the first woman in Europe to get a PhD in chemistry, his father a 
successful concert pianist and conductor, his mother an artist.

''The family religion was the power of human ideas,'' Kurzweil says. 
Their idea of a sacred text was a da Vinci manuscript. He had an uncle 
who was a researcher at Bell Laboratories and introduced his nephew to 
early computers.

Kurzweil loved gadgets from an early age - aged eight he built his own 
mechanical puppet theatre and later he would build his own computers from 
surplus electronics. He was inspired by computers, ''the idea that you 
could recreate the world, the thinking process''.

At 17 he appeared on the TV game show I've Got a Secret and played a 
piece of piano music. One of the contestants guessed correctly that 
Kurzweil had programmed a computer that composed the piece itself, after 
analysing the patterns in ''real'' music.

His path was set. Inventions he has had a hand in include the earliest 
flatbed scanner and a text-to-voice reader for the blind (used and 
endorsed by Stevie Wonder).

Gradually Kurzweil turned from inventor to futurist as his ambition and 
imagination flew further from practical products.

In the prediction business Kurzweil, though by no means infallible, seems 
to have had more hits than most. The one he is proudest of was predicting 
the date to within a year - and a decade before the fact - when the first 
chess computer would beat a human.

Then he latched on to the idea of Singularity. It was not his originally -
 science fiction writer Vernor Vinge was one of the first to propose it 
in detail, and the ''father of the computer'' John von Neumann also 
pondered it.

Kurzweil developed it into a ''Law of Accelerating Returns'', predicting 
exponential growth in power in anything technological. Think of how 
amazingly far we've come, he says, and there's no reason things won't 
just get more and more amazing, more and more quickly, because each new 
technology is built on the shoulders of the one before, until that 
dizzying ''Singularity'' where we lose track altogether.

In bestselling books and $30,000-a-pop lectures, Kurzweil describes 
Singularity as ''the destiny of the human-machine civilisation''.

Critics point to strong signs that the increase in computer power is 
starting to slow down. The cost of R&D has gone up with every computer 
generation, so a faltering economy could cause the law to fail. Others 
say there are various physical limits on computer circuits that will halt 
progress, possibly in only 10 years' time. Still others wonder what is 
going to power this vast new computer network.

Kurzweil isn't worried. He says new discoveries will inevitably cause 
things to pick up. In 40 years, he points out, we have gone from 
computers that filled a room and cost millions of dollars to massively 
faster ones that fit in a pocket and cost $100. In the next 40 years we 
will go from a unit that fits in your pocket to one the size of a blood 
cell - all running on solar power.

The future is closer than we think. We are already living in a society 
that depends on smart machines, he says.

''There's no question we don't have our hand on the plug - we could not 
turn off all the computers,'' he says. ''Our civilisation's 
infrastructure would grind to a halt, all communication would stop, 
transportation would stop, financial markets would totally freeze up.

''We are increasingly dependent on machine intelligence as machines get 
more intelligent. But this is not an invasion from Mars. We have always 
been a human-machine civilisation, we create tools to extend our reach.''

But there is a difference between machines getting better at their jobs, 
and their gaining artificial intelligence and self-awareness.

Kurzweil concedes that consciousness is still a mystery, in terms of how 
it comes about or how we can be sure it exists in a machine (or indeed a 
person). But he sidesteps this, saying that once a machine acts like a 
self-aware being, it might as well be, and people will perceive it as 
one - again by that magic date of 2029.

''[It's the] 'acts like a duck' test,'' he says. ''If it really seems 
conscious and it's convincing, I will believe it is conscious. That's 
really the only test that matters.''

When Watson the Computer won the US game show Jeopardy! earlier this 
year, Kurzweil saw a glimpse of the future he had predicted. ''That's 
viscerally impressive,'' he says

Not everyone buys into Kurzweil's view of the future. In fact, he has 
many critics. One scientist called into a TV program he was on to 
complain that the producers had given time to this ''highly sophisticated 
crackpot'', a purveyor of ''pseudo-religious predictions that have no 
basis in objective reality''.

When Kurzweil dips into a subject such as biology or artificial 
intelligence, hard-core researchers tend to argue he has glossed over 
complexities that will make progress much slower. For example, computers 
may be getting ever faster at recalling data, but they still can't tell 
the difference between a dog and a cat.

One of Kurzweil's critics is scientist and blogger PZ Meyers (''pseudo-
scientific dingbat'' was a particularly stinging conclusion to a recent 

''The heart of the Kurzweil method is to simply pick a date far enough in 
the future that we cannot predict what technological advances will occur, 
and also far enough forward that he isn't likely to be confronted with 
his failure by people who remember what he said, and all is good,'' 
Meyers wrote a year ago, during a spicy exchange over when we 
would ''reverse-engineer'' the brain to understand its inner workings.

Meyers also picks at Kurzweil's fondness for the word ''exponential'', 
saying it can't be used as a magic wand to wave at any currently 
intractable problem.

But Kurzweil also has plenty of supporters who respect his intellect and 
his predictions - although some debate his optimistic timeline and 
utopian assumptions.

Well-respected Australian philosopher David Chalmers, from New York 
University, believes the idea of the Singularity, while it may not 
actually come to pass, is credible enough that we should take it 
seriously and consider its implications.

Kurzweil accuses his critics of lack of imagination - or of resisting the 
idea of technological immortality, because of a superstitious belief that 
we have to stay on good terms with death.

Kurzweil's palpable fear of death (''It's such a profoundly sad, lonely 
feeling that I really can't bear it'') infuses his work to such a degree 
that you wonder if his predictions are wish-fulfillment.

The death of his father at 58 from heart disease and an early diagnosis 
of Type 2 diabetes have made Kurzweil extremely health-conscious. He has 
his blood taken and checked every month, and downs 200 pills of vitamins, 
minerals and other concoctions every day (he calls it ''reprogramming my 
biochemistry''). He describes death as a ''looming disaster'', 
a ''looming tragedy''.

''People … believe that this disaster is a good thing, that the goal of 
life is to become comfortable with death,'' he says. ''People have come 
to rely on these philosophies as a way of coping with this fundamental 
anxiety that permeates human life.''

Kurzweil intends never to die.

''That's the goal,'' he says. Healthy living will keep him alive for at 
least another 15 years (''I'm really not ageing very much,'' he says), at 
which point he believes he will be able to directly program his genes to 
recover youth. Then ''nanobots'' will live inside the body and do a 
better job than flesh and blood in keeping us going. And finally man will 
merge with machine and ''upload'' to a cyber-life.

"That's my plan,'' he says. ''It's not guaranteed to work, but I am 
optimistic it will. Some people define humanity based on our limitations. 
I define humanity as that species which seeks to overcome its 
limitations, and has done so, time and time again.''

Raymond Kurzweil will appear at Creative Innovation 2011, in Melbourne 
from November 16-18.



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