Excerpt from The Singularity Is Near by Ray Kurzweil, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Singularity Is Near

When Humans Transcend Biology

by Ray Kurzweil

The Singularity Is Near
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2005, 672 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2006, 672 pages

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I still recall the time in 1968 when I was allowed into the secure, cavernous chamber housing what was then the most powerful computer in New England, a top-of-the-line IBM 360 Model 91, with a remarkable million bytes (one megabyte) of 'core' memory, an impressive speed of one million instructions per second (one MIPS), and a rental cost of only one thousand dollars per hour. I had developed a computer program that matched high-school students to colleges, and I watched in fascination as the front-panel lights danced through a distinctive pattern as the machine processed each student's application. Even though I was quite familiar with every line of code, it nonetheless seemed as if the computer were deep in thought when the lights dimmed for several seconds at the denouement of each such cycle. Indeed, it could do flawlessly in ten seconds what took us ten hours to do manually with far less accuracy.

As an inventor in the 1970s, I came to realize that my inventions needed to make sense in terms of the enabling technologies and market forces that would exist when the inventions were introduced, as that world would be a very different one from the one in which they were conceived. I began to develop models of how distinct technologies—electronics, communications, computer processors, memory, magnetic storage, and others—developed and how these changes rippled through markets and ultimately our social institutions. I realized that most inventions fail not because the R&D department can't get them to work but because the timing is wrong. Inventing is a lot like surfing: you have to anticipate and catch the wave at just the right moment.

My interest in technology trends and their implications took on a life of its own in the 1980s, and I began to use my models to project and anticipate future technologies, innovations that would appear in 2000, 2010, 2020, and beyond. This enabled me to invent with the capabilities of the future by conceiving and designing inventions using these future capabilities. In the mid-to-late 1980s, I wrote my first book, The Age of Intelligent Machines.  It included extensive (and reasonably accurate) predictions for the 1990s and 2000s, and ended with the specter of machine intelligence becoming indistinguishable from that of its human progenitors within the first half of the twenty-first century. It seemed like a poignant conclusion, and in any event I personally found it difficult to look beyond so transforming an outcome.

Over the last twenty years, I have come to appreciate an important meta-idea: that the power of ideas to transform the world is itself accelerating. Although people readily agree with this observation when it is simply stated, relatively few observers truly appreciate its profound implications. Within the next several decades, we will have the opportunity to apply ideas to conquer age-old problems—and introduce a few new problems along the way.

During the 1990s, I gathered empirical data on the apparent acceleration of all information-related technologies and sought to refine the mathematical models underlying these observations. I developed a theory I call the law of accelerating returns, which explains why technology and evolutionary processes in general progress in an exponential fashion. In The Age of Spiritual Machines (ASM), which I wrote in 1998, I sought to articulate the nature of human life as it would exist past the point when machine and human cognition blurred. Indeed, I've seen this epoch as an increasingly intimate collaboration between our biological heritage and a future that transcends biology.

Since the publication of ASM, I have begun to reflect on the future of our civilization and its relationship to our place in the universe. Although it may seem difficult to envision the capabilities of a future civilization whose intelligence vastly outstrips our own, our ability to create models of reality in our mind enables us to articulate meaningful insights into the implications of this impending merger of our biological thinking with the nonbiological intelligence we are creating. This, then, is the story I wish to tell in this book. The story is predicated on the idea that we have the ability to understand our own intelligence—to access our own source code, if you will—and then revise and expand it.

From The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil. Copyright Ray Kurzweil 2005. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.

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