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 by Ray Kurzweil
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2005, 672 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2006, 672 pages

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Some observers question whether we are capable of applying our own thinking to understand our own thinking. AI researcher Douglas Hofstadter muses that 'it could be simply an accident of fate that our brains are too weak to understand themselves. Think of the lowly giraffe, for instance, whose brain is obviously far below the level required for self-understanding—yet it is remarkably similar to our brain.'  However, we have already succeeded in modeling portions of our brain—neurons and substantial neural regions—and the complexity of such models is growing rapidly. Our progress in reverse engineering the human brain, a key issue that I will describe in detail in this book, demonstrates that we do indeed have the ability to understand, to model, and to extend our own intelligence. This is one aspect of the uniqueness of our species: our intelligence is just sufficiently above the critical threshold necessary for us to scale our own ability to unrestricted heights of creative power—and we have the opposable appendage (our thumbs) necessary to manipulate the universe to our will.

A word on magic: when I was reading the Tom Swift Jr. books, I was also an avid magician. I enjoyed the delight of my audiences in experiencing apparently impossible transformations of reality. In my teen years, I replaced my parlor magic with technology projects. I discovered that unlike mere tricks, technology does not lose its transcendent power when its secrets are revealed. I am often reminded of Arthur C. Clarke's third law, that 'any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.'

Consider J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter stories from this perspective. These tales may be imaginary, but they are not unreasonable visions of our world as it will exist only a few decades from now. Essentially all of the Potter 'magic' will be realized through the technologies I will explore in this book. Playing quidditch and transforming people and objects into other forms will be feasible in full-immersion virtual-reality environments, as well as in real reality, using nanoscale devices. More dubious is the time reversal (as described in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), although serious proposals have even been put forward for accomplishing something along these lines (without giving rise to causality paradoxes), at least for bits of information, which essentially is what we comprise. (See the discussion in chapter 3 on the ultimate limits of computation.)

Consider that Harry unleashes his magic by uttering the right incantation. Of course, discovering and applying these incantations are no simple matters. Harry and his colleagues need to get the sequence, procedures, and emphasis exactly correct. That process is precisely our experience with technology. Our incantations are the formulas and algorithms underlying our modern-day magic. With just the right sequence, we can get a computer to read a book out loud, understand human speech, anticipate (and prevent) a heart attack, or predict the movement of a stock-market holding. If an incantation is just slightly off mark, the magic is greatly weakened or does not work at all.

One might object to this metaphor by pointing out that Hogwartian incantations are brief and therefore do not contain much information compared to, say, the code for a modern software program. But the essential methods of modern technology generally share the same brevity. The principles of operation of software advances such as speech recognition can be written in just a few pages of formulas. Often a key advance is a matter of applying a small change to a single formula.

The same observation holds for the 'inventions' of biological evolution: consider that the genetic difference between chimpanzees and humans, for example, is only a few hundred thousand bytes of information. Although chimps are capable of some intellectual feats, that tiny difference in our genes was sufficient for our species to create the magic of technology.

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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