kurzweil’s techno-narcissism

Ray Kurzweil looks into the future and sees the singularity gazing back full of love. It whispers. It seduces. “Ray, take care. Preserve yourself. It will be another 50 years yet. Go. Preserve yourself with vitamins, fruits, infusions. Keep your body tender and vital, and soon enough you will be subsumed, you will transcend. The singularity is near!”
singularity.jpg Kurzweil’s book is out and it’s as big as a dictionary. A good friend of mine was given it as a gift a couple of nights ago for his birthday. After dinner, as we rode the crosstown bus toward a game of cards, I read the first few pages. Try holding this goliath in one hand! The bus was crowded and we were standing in the aisle, gripping the handles on the top rail. The bus lurched, and I cursed my physiognomy. If only I could download the damn thing into my brain! If only the singularity were here now!
Kurzweil’s theory, or rather, his unshakeable conviction, his messianic belief, is that we, the human species, are nearing the point (he predicts around 2045) when our tools will become more intelligent than us and we will merge – mentally, biologically, spiritually – with them. Computer processing, artificial intelligence, biotechnology are all developing at an exponential rate (the law of accelerating returns), and are approaching a point of singularity, an all-encompassing transformative power, that will enable us to eliminate poverty, eradicate hunger, and “transcend biology.”
The reason Kurzweil is preserving his body – “reprogramming his biochemistry,” as he puts it – is because he is convinced that in about a generation’s time we will be able to ingest millions of microscopic nanobots into our neural pathways that will turn our brains into supercomputers, and engineer ourselves to live as long as we please. We will become, to borrow a conceit from an earlier book of Kurzweil’s, “spiritual machines.”
I would like to say that I will take the time to read his book and engage with it in more than a passing (and admittedly reactionary) way. Perhaps we’ll make a project of reading Kurzweil here at the institute as a counterpoint to Neil Postman (see recent discussion). But I’m not sure how much of his flaming narcissism I can take. Kurzweil’s ideas of “transhumanism” are so divorced from any social context, so devoid of any acknowledgment of the destructive or enslaving capacities of technology, and above all, so self-involved (the fruit and vitamin regimen is no joke – and there is probably a black monolith at the foot of his bed), that I’m not quite sure how to have a useful discussion about them.
As an inventor, Kurzweil has made many valuable contributions to society, including text-to-speech synthesis and speech recognition technology that has greatly aided the blind. It is understandable that his success in these endeavors has instilled a certain faith in technology’s capacity to do good. But his ecstatic, almost sexual, enthusiasm for human-machine integration is more than a little grotesque. Kurzweil’s website and book jacket are splashed with approving quotes from big name technologists. But I don’t find it particularly reassuring, or convincing, to know that Bill Gates thinks

Ray Kurzweil is the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence.

For a more reasoned, economic analysis of the possible outcomes of accelerating returns, read John Quiggins’ “The singularity and the knife-edge” on Crooked Timber. Another law – or if not a law, then at least a common sense suspicion – is that if the engine keeps accelerating and heating it up, it will eventually fall apart.

2 thoughts on “kurzweil’s techno-narcissism

  1. Gary Frost

    I have just returned from eight days of library salvage operations on the Mississippi coast and I am pleased to see the discussions of the Kurzweil and Postman publications. For me it is just such discussion of an imagined post-human society that bears directly on the future of the book.
    Incidentally, I am of the view that the era of the ideal cyborg has past and is now extinct. This era is represented by the Linotype machine
    which produced set type for all the newspapers and a large portion of the books printed in the first half of the 20th century. The Linotype machine and the Linotype operator comprised a perfect cyborg in which neither of the symbotic partners could perform without the other.

  2. dan visel

    There are reviews up at The Wall Street Journal (Glenn Harlan Reynolds of InstaPundit) and The New York Times (Janet Maslin), as well as discussion over at Slashdot. He gets good (if slightly incredulous) treatment from the Times, fanfare from the Journal, and mixed acclaim from Slashdot.

    quick musings: I think it’s problematic that both of the newspaper reviews posit a dichotomy between futurists (I reflexively feel uncomfortable when people call themselves “futurists“) & Luddites. I don’t think it’s that simple: I myself would have a hard time deciding between those two categories (as I suspect a lot of the other people around here would). Technology’s by and large amoral – the book itself is maybe the most apposite example of this; to me, it seems more like a question of how it’s being used & to what end it’s being used – questions that it sounds like Kurzweil’s can’t be bothered with in his race to the glorious future.

    Gary’s mention of the Linotype machine seems appropriate if we’re to chart a middle way of technohumanism. There’s a long history of humanist printers & book designers – Wm. Morris at the end of the 19th & Eric Gill in the last century seem exemplary figures for this sort of political view, using technology but humanly. Who’s following them now, though?

    A pair of Thomas Pynchon’s essays come to mind (not least because Kurzweil’s welding of man & machine brings to mind frightening passages from Gravity’s Rainbow): one he did for the New York Times Book Review entitled “Is It Okay to Be a Luddite?” (1984) and an introduction he wrote in 1997 for Jim Dodge’s so-so novel Stone Junction. The first of these two essays is the better, usefully providing a history of Luddite thought. It ends curiously:

    If our world survives, the next great challenge to watch out for will come – you heard it here first – when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge. Oboy. It will be amazing and unpredictable, and even the biggest of brass, let us devoutly hope, are going to be caught flat-footed. It is certainly something for all good Luddites to look forward to if, God willing, we should live so long.

    He’s ahead of Kurzweil, if coming from the other direction . . . The second, however – written in the thick of the dot com boom – is much more guarded. Would be curious to know where he’s at now.

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