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Sunday, May 8, 2011

NATURAL SELECTIONS

'Transcendent Man' denies life ends with death

An encounter with genius Raymond Kurzweil


When Ray Kurzweil was a child he tried to invent a homework machine: He didn't accept that he had to waste time doing his dumb school assignments. Half a century on, nothing much has changed, though the authority Kurzweil challenges has got loftier: Now, says the American futurist and inventor, he doesn't accept that life ends with death.

News photo
Far-sighted: The U.S. scientist Raymond Kurzweil, whose 2005 book "The Singularity is Near" foresees humans merging with robots. PHOTO BY MICHAEL LUTCH, COURTESY OF KURTZWEIL TECHNOLOGIES, INC. HTTP://WWW.KURZWEILAI.NET

At age 63, it's not surprising that he needs to dye his hair to conceal the gray, but he has far more ambitious plans to cheat the passage of time.

I met Kurzweil while he was in London last month to promote the release of a film about him and his life, the immodestly titled "Transcendent Man." With its tagline that could equally well be applied to this column — "Prepare to evolve" — I wanted to see what the film, and Kurzweil, had to say.

The event, at the Science Museum in London, cost paying punters a hefty £75 (almost ¥10,000), and the place was full. I spoke to several of them — mostly single men, as it happened — and they were wide-eyed and thrilled at being in the same room as their hero. However controversial it is, Kurzweil's expansive and provocative vision does inspire people, and he has legions of followers.

Some background: Kurzweil started writing software and inventing things at an early age, and his skill has earned him a fortune. He invented a flatbed scanner and a text-to-speech synthesizer that can be used by the blind to read books — Stevie Wonder is one of Kurzweil's many happy customers. In 1999, he was presented with the U.S. National Medal of Technology by President Bill Clinton, the highest award the president can bestow for pioneering new technologies. The guy is a bona-fide genius.

At some stage, however, Kurzweil started making prophecies. In 2005, he published "The Singularity is Near," a book describing his vision of a time in the near future when machines will surpass human intelligence, and when we will merge with robots. He co-founded Singularity University, a place in Silicon Valley, California, which aims to "assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies."

These "leaders" pay handsomely for their lessons: For instance, a nine-day training session for executives costs $15,000.

Kurzweil has predicted that, by 2029, we will have reverse-engineered the human brain and created an artificial intelligence so powerful that it will be able to pass itself off as human.

He told me that he is writing a new book about the brain and how to make an artificial one.

He wants to create immortal, software-based humans.

It's all exciting stuff, but the problem is it's very hard to validate his predictions. This has left some commentators wondering about their value.

I'm not trained in neuroscience, but even my understanding of the brain suggests to me that he has underestimated its complexity and the problem of consciousness.

Take what Kurzweil wants to do about his dead father.

Fredric Kurzweil passed away when Ray was 22 years old. In a storage unit in Massachusetts, Kurzweil has amassed every document he can lay his hands on to do with his father — tax returns, letters, photos, newspaper clippings, shopping lists, school reports, medical cards, and so on. It helps, he said, that his father was a hoarder, like him.

But why amass all this stuff?

Simple: Kurzweil is waiting for computers to become intelligent enough for one to be able to assimilate all this information about his father, and all the information contained in Kurzweil's brain about his father, and recreate the long-dead man.

Kurzweil wants to create what could be described as a resurrection machine.

I was telling a friend at work about this. I was incredulous that any amount of information — such as the stuff Kurzweil is storing about his father — could be equivalent to that person.

My friend, who is a champion of artificial intelligence, didn't see why not.

Sure, as there is no such thing as a soul, we needn't worry about that. Personality, thinking, imagining, even the conscious self — they will all probably just turn out to be algorithms, she said. And if they are just algorithms, then we can program them.

But what about memories and personality? What about all the millions of little things that you experience in a lifetime that you don't tell anyone about? These things aren't stored in written documents, so will not be part of the constructed, artificial father.

My friend, like Kurzweil, is not worried about this. A clever enough computer will be able to fill in the gaps and make educated guesses about personality, given enough starting material to work with. Perhaps that construct will be a pretty close match to the actual person. I'd certainly like to meet one.

In the "Transcendent Man" movie, Kevin Kelly, a journalist and founding editor of Wired magazine, calls Kurzweil a modern-day prophet. It's true that Kurzweil does have something of the prophet in his manner. He pronounces his vision and his predictions with the certainty that a more cautious scientist wouldn't indulge in. "He's more poet than mechanic," says Kelly.

Even if some of his predictions are wrong or can't be substantiated, does that mean Kurzweil is harmful? I don't think so. He may be misleading, but his vision doesn't seem to be actively damaging.

We know he is a highly successful inventor and entrepreneur. Perhaps more than anything he is a good businessman. Yet watching the movie, and reflecting again on its title, I couldn't help but wonder if Kurzweil really is styling himself as a prophet — a spiritual leader, even — for a technological society.

Now that, come to think of it, is a little scary.

Rowan Hooper is the news editor of New Scientist magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowhoop. The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha at ¥1,500. The title is "Hito wa Ima mo Shinka Shiteru" ("The Evolving Human").


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