Vision | And they all lived technologically ever after

May 2, 2007

Vision — Spring 2007 issue | David F. Lloyd

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American inventor and futurologist Ray Kurzweil submits that humans are on the brink of transcending their biology. He reminds his readers that in his 1998 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, he was already envisioning the nature of human life “past the point when machine and human cognition blurred.”

With great emphasis, he notes in his latest book that when experts from various disciplines estimate where we will be in 50 years, they use linear calculations; that is, they base the projected rate of change over the next 50 years on the last 50. But he points out that technological progress is speeding up exponentially: “We won’t experience one hundred years of technological advance in the twenty-first century; we will witness on the order of twenty thousand years of progress” (The Singularity Is Near, 2005). To lend credibility to his claim, he asserts that his predictions for the decades of the 1990s and 2000s have so far proved reasonably accurate.

Going even further, Kurzweil argues that today’s exponential rate of growth is itself often exponential—what he calls “double exponential growth.” He believes that the final two of six epochs of evolution lie ahead of us. The fifth and imminent epoch will mark the merger of technology and human intelligence. Kurzweil claims that the growth of knowledge, computer processing power and computer intelligence will be so immense that unenhanced human intelligence will be essentially outmoded.

Repeating an oft-quoted line from a 1965 paper by British statistician Irving John Good, he writes that “the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.” Interestingly, like many others who quote this provocative statement, Kurzweil omits the second half of Good’s sentence: “provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.” As Good himself went on to note, “it is curious that this point is made so seldom outside of science fiction.” [...]