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