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The Next Big Thing?

The Singularity Is Near When Humans Transcend Biology Ray Kurzweil Viking: 652 pp., $29.95

November 27, 2005|Gregory Benford | Gregory Benford is a professor of physics at UC Irvine and the author of "Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia."

IF you were a thousand times smarter and lived for centuries, what would you do? Finally write that novel burning inside you? Hitch a ride to the stars? Assume godlike tasks? Subside into sybaritic debauch? All of the above?

You might be able to squeeze in all that and more, if inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil is even half right. He doesn't buy into the dark worldview of movies like "Blade Runner," "Mad Max," "Waterworld" and similar dystopias to come. He has immense faith that the next half-century or so will see our technologies spawn a new breed of human beings who will transcend us, thanks to symbiotic advances in "GNR" (Genetics, Nanotechnology and Robotics), creating "a profound and disruptive transformation in human capability."

"The Singularity" -- defined here by Kurzweil as "a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed" -- is San Diego mathematician Vernor Vinge's term. He introduced it in the 1980s, supposing that our technological advances would bring us into a better life -- a gauzy realm of superhuman and nearly immortal intelligence. Kurzweil acknowledges his predecessor, but to him the past is mere prologue.

In the Singularity era, which Kurzweil thinks will begin around 2045, interlaced technologies will merge with our minds and bodies, snowballing, erasing the old barrier between humans and machines. We will download information, just as our computers do, until "the nonbiological portion of our intelligence will predominate." (This sounds like some people I know already.)

Kurzweil explores these labyrinths in dizzying detail; it is a tale clearly told, while staggering in prospect. His "posthumans" will comfortably wear their dazzling high intelligence, durability, swift comprehension and exact memories -- just the sort of people you don't want to spend your downtime with, I'd say. Maybe a bit edgy and obsessive.

According to Kurzweil, such trends will accelerate, as miniaturization and computational power spread. He foresees a fast-moving interactive world. Our cities will talk incessantly with our smart bodies, which will sport fetchingly fashioned smart clothes. Our minds will swim in a virtual reality created by tiny computers in our eyeglasses and our clothing. Cell-size devices will cruise our bloodstreams. These advances and their far-reaching effects, he says, are driven by science and science fiction alike. Already they sneak up on us, in the form of wild and crazy rides like the recent "Minority Report" and "Being John Malkovich," mainstreaming the future.

Kurzweil marshals impressive arguments, waving away Stephen Jay Gould's view that scientific revolutions reduce our stature on the universal stage. To Kurzweil we're the Next Big Thing in the galaxy, or will be, once our brains and bodies reach their potential: "[W]hen scientists become a million times more intelligent and operate a million times faster," he argues, "an hour would result in a century of progress (in today's terms)."

Of course, these visions are as untested as they are seductive. Predictions from his earlier books, "The Age of Intelligent Machines" (1990) and "The Age of Spiritual Machines" (1999), have come true to some extent, such as smarter and smarter sensing and recognition devices. Still, much of his thinking tends to the classic techno-visionary. He projects a buoyant optimism, ignoring the darker aspects of progress. He prefers to contemplate the life-enhancing powers of nanotechnology instead of wondering what might happen if cell-size computers within the human body were to run amok.

For perspective, Kurzweil conducts imaginary conversations with George 2048, a mid-21st century machine with a condescending personality, and has bacteria from 2 billion years ago arguing among themselves about the wisdom of banding together into multicellular life forms. Along with these playful Socratic dialogues, he deploys charts, quotations and sidebars on the rewards and existential risks of exploding infotech, biotech and nanotech. Midway through the book, he even appears in an antic photo wearing a cardboard sign announcing that "The Singularity Is Near" -- a funny, defiant touch. At times, his tone seems almost evangelical -- proclaiming the delivery of the Left Behind after the Rapture of the Nerds.

Does this Rapture have to happen?

Predictions of this kind of unending exponential growth run afoul of saturation in both technology and human adaptation. Consider, for example, aviation, a hot technology that took us from Kitty Hawk to the moon in a lifetime. Earlier futurists might have concluded that by 2000 we would all be zipping off to Europe in our own planes. Bill Gates does, but not many of the rest of us. Nor does Bill Gates yet vacation on Mars, or even in orbit.

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