Wired | Futurist Ray Kurzweil pulls out all the stops (and pills) to live to witness the Singularity
March 24, 2008
Wired — Mar 24, 2008 | Gary Wolf
Ray Kurzweil, the famous inventor, is trim, balding, and not very tall. With his perfect posture and narrow black glasses, he would look at home in an old documentary about Cape Canaveral, but his mission is bolder than any mere voyage into space. He is attempting to travel across a frontier in time, to pass through the border between our era and a future so different as to be unrecognizable. He calls this border the singularity. Kurzweil is 60, but he intends to be no more than 40 when the singularity arrives.
Kurzweil’s notion of a singularity is taken from cosmology, in which it signifies a border in spacetime beyond which normal rules of measurement do not apply (the edge of a black hole, for example). The word was first used to describe a crucial moment in the evolution of humanity by the great mathematician John von Neumann. One day in the 1950s, while talking with his colleague Stanislaw Ulam, von Neumann began discussing the ever-accelerating pace of technological change, which, he said, “gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs as we know them could not continue.”
Many years later, this idea was picked up by another mathematician, the professor and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, who added an additional twist. Vinge linked the singularity directly with improvements in computer hardware. This put the future on a schedule. He could look at how quickly computers were improving and make an educated guess about when the singularity would arrive. “Within 30 years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence,” Vinge wrote at the beginning of his 1993 essay The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era. “Shortly after, the human era will be ended.” According to Vinge, superintelligent machines will take charge of their own evolution, creating ever smarter successors. Humans will become bystanders in history, too dull in comparison with their devices to make any decisions that matter. [...]