The Singularity is Near, Ray Kurzweil

Viking, 2005, 652 pages, C$42.00 hc, ISBN 0-670-03384-7

Let’s get something out of the way: I’m a singularitarian. I believe in technological acceleration and its effect on society. The historical evidence seems clear enough: I hop in anticipation of the upcoming impact of what Joel Garreau calls the GRIN technologies (Genetics, Robotics, Informatics and Nanotechnology) I may not believe in the strong version of the Singularity (the so-called “Rapture of the Nerds” after which everything is supposed to be sweet and perfect), but I’ve read too much SF not to anticipate fundamental changes in my forecast lifetime. Even before cracking page one, I approached Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near as confirmation, not persuasion.

But that book is not written for me. It’s written for well-educated people who may understand how technological progress is accelerating, but don’t read Science Fiction and aren’t familiar with Vernor Vinge’s concept of the ever-accelerating technological singularity. It’s written to convince politicians, entrepreneurs and other decision-makers that there’s a new future knocking at our doors, a new future that has nothing to do with the weak beer of STAR TREK or, for that matter, most of the conventional visions of things to come.

It’s no accident if almost half of The Singularity is Near is spent looking at the historical evidence of technological acceleration. Kurzweil’s background is in computer science, and arguments derived from progress in transistor size, density and cost make up a backbone of his thesis. See Moore’s Law, for instance, which lives on despite ever-dire predictions of its obsolescence. See the rapid adoption of cell phones, the Internet, DVD and MP3 players in far less than a decade, compared to dozens of years for television and automobiles. Everyone knows that technological progress is increasing. The only question is; what’s the destination?

Kurzweil then continues his exploration of What We Know in biological science, establishing to his satisfaction that there is nothing special about consciousness, hence the inevitability of its recreation in an artificial medium. My lack of familiarity with neurobiology made this chapter significantly less accessible than the others, but its intent remains crystal-clear: it clearly establishes the background for Kurzweil’s vision of the Humans 2.0: Re-written DNA, redesigned bodies, enhanced intelligence, transferable consciousness, artificial intelligence and so on. Whew.

This is old stuff for SF fans, but what’s important about Kurzweil’s book is how it’s developed from the ground up, from real-world headlines onward. The Singularity is Near bridges the gap between SF fantasies and real trends, grounding speculations in palpable trends. (iPods as drivers for the Singularity. Discuss.) This is a book that can dropped in boardrooms, one that plants stakes in the consensus vision of the world.

And an optimistic vision it is. At a time when the space age is historical, when the coming energy crunch is so worrisome, when ecological collapse seems all too likely, the idea of ever-increasing progress seems quaintly anachronistic. It won’t be an easy road, warns Kurzweil (amongst many other chills, The Singularity is Near posits a positively alarming solution to the gray goo problem), but it’s an inspiring one.

Richly argued and accessibly written, The Singularity is Near takes its place alongside (and building upon) previous futurology books such as Future Shock, and The Engines of Creation —along with a dash of The Physics of Immortality. It has already sold widely and created its own talkstorm of argument for or against the Singularity, recoming a standard reference text on the subject.

As previously stated, I’m already convinced. Belief in the Singularity often boils down to, well, faith: Do you believe in progress, or not? There are certainly enough hints and trends pointing away from the Singularity, not the least of them being the Fermi Paradox: If intelligence is so common, if the Singulariy is so inevitable, why haven’t we seen any evidence of alien Singularities? Kurzweil’s pat answer (“We’re obviously the first! Ta-da!”) is one of the most unsatisfying aspects of the book.

But the Singularity can also be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Books like this one, by suggesting what can happen, are an important part of how we collectively define where to go next. Have a look.

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