Remember Hal in Stanley Kubrick's "2001"? He was a wuss compared to the deep thinking digital machines Ray Kurzweil suggests are heading our way over the next century. Forget the debate over human versus artificial intelligence. "The Age of Spiritual Machines" suggests that we and our computers are about to become one, evolving together in a whole new bio-digital species. By 2020, computers will be as smart as we are. By 2099, there will no longer be any clear distinction between humans and computers. Is this techno-hype or prescient futurism?
In l990, inventor Ray Kurzweil predicted in "The Age of Intelligent Machines," that the Internet would proliferate rapidly and that the defeat of a human chess champion by a computer was imminent.
He was right on both counts, so it's worth paying attention to his new book, "The Age of Spiritual Machines," (Viking, $25.95). This round, Kurzweil is making even more radical predictions - namely, that computing will develop so rapidly over the next century that technology and human beings will literally merge in socially, educationally, biological, even spiritual ways.
Kurzweil has ratcheted up the human-versus-artificial intelligence debate a few notches. There will, he makes clear, be no human intelligence versus artificial intelligence. We and our computers will become one.
This theory picks up where Moore's Law leaves off. Gordon Moore, one of the inventors of the integrated circuit and former chairman of Intel, announced in l965 that the surface area of a transistor - as etched on an integrated circuit - was being reduced by approximately 50 per cent every twelve months. In l975, he revised the rate to 24 months. Still, the result is that every two years, you can pack twice as many transistors on an integrated circuit, doubling the number of components on a chip as well as its speed.
Since the cost of an integrated circuit has stayed relatively constant, the implication is that every other year brings twice as much circuitry running at twice the speed for the same price. This observation, known as Moore's Law on Integrated Circuits, has been driving the acceleration of computing for decades.
The most advanced computers are still much simpler than the human brain, currently about a million times simpler. But computers are now doubling in speed every twelve months. This trend will continue , Kurzweil predicts, with computers achieving the memory capacity and computing speed of the human brain by approximately the year 2020.
This is a stunning idea. Human evolution is seen by scientists as a billion-year drama that led to its greatest creation: human intelligence. Computers will get to the same point in less than a hundred years. It's time - past time, actually - to start asking where they will go from here.
Kurzweil doesn't argue that next year's computers will automatically match the flexibility and subtlety of human intelligence. What he predicts is the rapid rise of what he calls the software of intelligence. Scanning a human brain will be achievable early in the next century, and one future approach to computing will be to copy the brain's neural circuitry in a "neural" computer designed to simulate a massive number of human neurons.
"There is a plethora of credible scenarios for achieving human-level intelligence in a machine," writes Kurzweil. "We will be able to evolve and train a system combining massively parallel neural nets with other paradigms to understand language and model knowledge, including the ability to read and understand written documents."
Kurzweil's own law of accelerating growth and return is centered on the idea that this new bio-digital species becomes increasingly learned and sophisticated, life will become more orderly and efficient, while technological development continues to accelerate.
Kurzweil's premise - that computers will become as smart as we are and then merge their intelligence with ours -- is not only challenging and provocative; it also makes sense. But he isn't as clear or coherent when it comes to divining just what kind of intelligence computers will have - how intuitive they can be, how individualistic or ethical.
By the second decade of the next century, there will be reports of computers passing the Turing Intelligence test, says Kurzweil. The rights of machine intelligence will become a public policy issue. But machine intelligence will still largely be the product of collaborations between humans and machines, computers still programmed to maintain a subservient relationship to the species that created them. But not for long.
Where his book and his vision stumble is in grasping what will happen to us when computers become smarter than we are, then sensual, social or spiritual. Will we better off? Will the computer be moral? Will it have a social or other consciousness? Do we wish to merge with computers into one species? Will we have any choice? We could be heading for a sci-fi nightmare or, alternatively, for another of those utopian visions that used to pepper Wired magazine before it became the property of Conde Nast.
While futurists can measure or plot the computational skills of tomorrow's computers, can anyone really know the precise nature of that intelligence, and whether or not it can replicate the functions of the human brain?
The idea of our being outsmarted, thus dominated and endangered by computers, has been portrayed as a nightmare in Stanley Kurbrick's "2001" (Kubrick apparently greatly underestimated the virtual person Hal would become). It's also surfaced in various rosy intergalactic Disney-like visions in which machines perform labor, clean the air, heal humans, teach kids. Kurzweil doesn't say which notion, if either, sounds more plausible.
The latter half of the book becomes essentially a time-line: Kurzweil somberly walks us through the evolution of computing intelligence, and the eventual merging of digital technology and human beings into a new species.
By 2009, Kurzweil predicts, human musicians will routinely jam with cybernet musicians. Bioengineered treatments will have greatly reduced the mortality from cancer and heart disease. But human opposition to advancing technology will also be growing, an expanding neo-Luddite movement.
By 2019, nonetheless, Kurzweil predicts that computers will be largely invisible, embedded in walls, furniture, clothing and bodies - sort of like the artwork in Bill Gates' massive new mansion. People will use three-dimensional displays built into their glasses, "direct eye" displays that create highly realistic, virtual visual environments that overlay real environments. Paraplegics will routinely walk and climb stairs through a combination of computer-controlled nerve stimulation and exoskeletal robotic devices. This display technology projects images directly onto the human retina, exceeds the resolution of human vision, and will be widely used regardless of visual impairment.
In 2009, human opposition to advancing technology will be growing - as in the spread of the Neo-Luddite movement.
By 2019, there will be almost no human employment in production, agriculture, or transportation, yet basic life needs will be met for the vast majority of the human race. A $1,000 computing device will approximate the computational ability of the human brain that year, and a year later, the same amount of money will buy the computing capacity of about 1,000 human brains.
By the year 2099, a strong trend towards the merger of human thinking with the world of machine intelligence that humans created will be underway. There will no longer by any clear distinction between humans and computers. Most conscious entities will not have a permanent physical presence. Life expectancy will no longer be a viable term in relation to intelligent beings.
Small wonder Kurzweill expects a growing discussion about the legal rights of computers and what constitutes being "human." Direct neural pathways will have been perfected for high-bandwidth connection to the human brain. A range of neural implants will be available to enhance visual and auditory perception, machine-generated literature and multi-media material.
"The Age of Spiritual machines" surpasses most futuristic predictions of sci-fi writers and technologists. Scientists and programmers may not be the best judge of the nature of artificial digital intelligence. Some input from biologists and neurologists might have been useful. Sometimes, Kurzweil's predictions read like the numbingly familiar, gee-whiz techno-hype that infect mass media discussions of the Internet.
Yet Kurzweil is someone to be taken seriously. No nutty academic or cyber-guru, MIT named him inventor of the year in 1988; and he received the Dickson Price, Carnegie Mellon top science award, in 1994.
Caution is still in order. Kurzweil's earlier predictions about the Net and chess were short term, thus much more cautious and feasible. Only the new bio-digital species will know if these visions turned out to be right.
Predictions about the future of technology have a checkered history, itself a cautionary tale for futurists. Walt Disney was convinced we'd be whizzing back and forth to Saturn on weekends by now. We were surely supposed to be controlling the earth's climate rather than worrying about holes in the ozone layer. And whatever happened to cancer cures and hover cars?
But it's hard to find any parallel with the history of computing. The growth of digital machines suggests the future of computers be taken more, not less, seriously. "The Age of Spiritual Machines" is a wake-up call. It reminds us that the relation between human beings and the remarkable machines they've invented is almost sure to change radically. Perhaps it's time to start thinking seriously about how.
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