The most remarkable thing about Ray Kurzweil is not that he is convinced that he will never have to die. It’s that his ideas have gone mainstream.
He has just released a new book, the modestly titled, How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed. Meanwhile, over the past six years, the 64-year-old American futurist and inventor has been on the cover of Time magazine and has been the subject of a feature-length documentary. Forbes magazine dubbed him “the ultimate thinking machine.” He has 19 honorary doctorates and commands speaking fees of as much as $50,000.
All this stature stems primarily from his conviction that by 2040 we will be able to transfer our minds to machines.
As the promotional text proclaimed on his 2006 book The Singularity Is Near, “Our intelligence will become increasingly non-biological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today.” This will give birth to the Singularity – a time of total transformation in which we will merge with our computers, cast off our bodies, extend our lives indefinitely and have near-infinite intelligence at our disposal. (Mr. Kurzweil didn’t invent the idea, but he certainly popularized it.)
I reach Mr. Kurzweil at his home in Massachusetts and ask him if the predictions he first made in 2006 are still accurate. “We’re very much on that course,” he tells me. “We are right on the curve.” The curve is a graph showing, as he explains it to me, “the law of accelerating returns, the exponential growth of every form of information technology.”
We can actually see this happening in our everyday lives, he says, via ever-more-powerful smartphones, self-driving cars or supercomputers such as Watson, which bested the top human Jeopardy champions last year.
This has created a more receptive audience for his ideas. At first, people “thought it was some kind of fringe movement,” but now “a wide range of mainstream institutions and major universities” are entertaining his predictions about the future, he says. There is even an annual Singularity conference.
Not long ago, the Singularity was just one more far-fetched idea. Its renown first came courtesy of science-fiction writer Vernor Vinge, who wrote several novels anticipating the Singularity and then published a 1993 essay, The Coming Technological Singularity, in the underground journal Whole Earth Review. Nearly 20 years later, it has moved from fiction to an idea that a wide range of influential institutions has embraced as potential fact.
But Mr. Kurzweil has as many critics as he has “Singularitarian” supporters. A recent New Yorker magazine article about the new book cites the biologist PZ Myers, who once wrote, “Ray Kurzweil is a genius: One of the greatest hucksters of the age.”
Right or wrong, the idea of the Singularity is a perfect fit with our future-obsessed, gadget-oriented, me-first culture. For at least the past hundred years, the narrative of our society has been one of hyper-individualism, of empowering people to “own the future,” a phrase we are hearing more and more often.
In 2006, the year Mr. Kurzweil released The Singularity Is Near, Time proclaimed “You” the person of the year. The magazine editors were inspired by the rise of an easily accessible, ubiquitous cyberspace – just the latest chapter in a story about an endless, instantaneous supply of customized lifestyles for all: “Have it your way.”
This fantasy of specialness – that each and every one of us can, should and will have our dreams come true if we just believe hard enough – is now the core message of pop culture from comic-book superheroes to America’s Got Talent. Governments and institutions from hospitals to schools and even corporations increasingly articulate their role as giving individuals the tools to succeed, then getting out of the way.
Looked at this way, the Singularity isn’t some bold new vision, but a continuity – a believable climax to the just-do-it epic of You.
When I ask Mr. Kurzweil what the average individual should do to prepare for this purportedly radical shift, the answer is tellingly familiar: “If you find yourselves having a passion,” he says, “it could be music or journalism or history or any subject, pursue that – those are the areas that are going to become enhanced.”
In other words, like so many others in popular media, Mr. Kurzweil is urging us to follow our dreams, to never give up on our specialness – rather than spell the end of individualism (as the idea of a machine-networked consciousness logically might do), the Singularity, apparently, will simply enhance it, in ways we cannot yet imagine.
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