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.
“The Singularity,” he tells me, “is all about our capturing intelligence and then amplifying it. That process is already under way. I am smarter today then I was five years ago or 10 years ago, because of all the brain extenders I have, like Google and Wikipedia. When Wikipedia went black for one day, I felt like part of my brain was going on strike.”
This is music to the ears of the vanguard information-era companies looking to nuzzle up to your neocortex. Indeed, the vast majority of these entities either tacitly or overtly support Mr. Kurzweil’s vision of the future. Bill Gates endorsed The Singularity Is Near, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos recently talked about keeping customers on “the upgrade treadmill,” the consumer equivalent of “exponential growth.”
The hive, the cloud, big data, permanent connectivity – more and more popular buzzwords seem to evoke Mr. Kurzweil’s vision, not to mention the business plans of countless tech companies, from start-ups to global titans.
No wonder the Singularity seems less and less outlandish. In many ways, we’re already there, living in an age of endlessly customizable virtual extensions of the self. Welcome to the 21st century; welcome to Singularity Lite.
But what’s good for Silicon Valley is not necessarily good for humanity (or even post-humanity). Yes, we have more information instantly at our disposal; yes, we are in increasingly permanent connection with our technology; but no, that doesn’t necessarily make us smarter and certainly not more content.
In North America, rates of depression and anxiety remain high and continue to grow. Mr. Kurzweil often references Moore’s Law, the axiom that the amount of memory a computer chip can hold is basically doubling every two years. Our rates of anxiety and depression are like some kind of inverse Moore’s Law – the more we can fit on a chip, the more anxious we get.
While there is no evidence to suggest that near-constant interface with technology is making us happier, there is a mounting body of evidence showing that our brains are changing in new ways as we merge with Singularity Lite. One study out of Harvard University showed that people were less likely to remember facts they were given if the Internet was mentioned at the same time. Our minds reflexively fall back on the easy solution: Search the Web.
This may seem inconsequential, but consider the words of a couple who followed GPS instructions into a snowy back road and were stranded for three days: “We thought it was strange,” they told reporters afterward. “But then we just figured it knew something we didn’t.”
This is one legacy of the Singularity so far. Increasingly, we are deferring to technology, to the hive in the cloud. As psychologist Daniel Wegner, the senior author of the Web memory study, wrote for The New York Times, “We become part of the Internet in a way. We become part of the system and we end up trusting it.”
This might actually cause the opposite of the advertised effect: We don’t get smarter or more creative; we become more prone to passivity and manipulation.
Consider what I’m starting to think of as the innovation trap: Polls taken in Canada, the United States and Britain over the past three years, for example, suggest an increasing indifference to environmental issues in general and global warming in particular. Much of this is ascribed to the current prominence of economic concerns. But I think it also has to do with the increasing prominence of Singularity-like ideas.
More and more, we are ascribing godlike powers to technology. Surely the same forces of science that are inexorably leading us to eternal life will, along the way, solve comparatively minor problems like global warming. And anyway, won’t we soon be disembodied and living in virtual realities, free at last from the corporeal confines of the planet?
Unfortunately, Mr. Kurzweil tells me that he has to go before he can answer my questions about the innovation trap. He has another interview scheduled. He is in demand. But a 2011 headline from The Guardian nicely sums up his likely response: “Climate change no problem, says futurist Ray Kurzweil.”
Apparently the law of accelerating returns does not apply just to data technology and mapping the brain. It applies to all technological advancement. Which means that, according to Mr. Kurzweil, the planet will be weaned off fossil fuels in a few short decades no matter how apathetic we might become.
The world is increasingly fascinated with the radical vision that Mr. Kurzweil presents. But we have been chasing the ultimate narcissist’s dream of eternal life for millennia: El Dorado lies ahead, in pie chart and nanobot.