I just jumped off the plane from Newark, NJ for a medium sized three hour layover in the Chicago airport. On the flight into the windy city I read through an article on a persona I have followed a bit over the years. The article was in WIRED magazine and was simply titled Futurist Ray Kurzweil Pulls Out All the Stops (and Pills) to Live to Witness the Singularity. Well, maybe that title is not so simple nor the ideas being discussed therein. Let me try to summarize, in a few words, the work of Ray Kurzweil.
In my opinion, Ray Kurzweil is one of the intellectual geniuses of our times. He has been a bit of a legend in the computer science and artificial intelligence worlds. I know, that is probably something like .00001 percent of the world's population but he has contributed greatly in inventing technology that has changed the world. His work has been mainly in pattern recognition and machine text/speech recognition. He has invented software that can read books out loud to the blind and answer you phone calls for large companies. Well, maybe the latter one has been a bit of a frustrating experience to some. Kurzweil's more controversial work however has been as one of the leading proponents of what is known as Strong AI.
Strong AI holds that human intelligence (even consciousness for that matter) can be reduced (read my previous post on reductionism) to processes similar to a very complex computer. In other words, if you can mimic human thought, decision making...even emotions, you then have consciousness and self awareness. So in his theory, there will be a day when computers are powerful enough for Skynet to "wake up" make its own decisions and take over the world. Many of you have been exposed to the Strong AI view in pop culture through cinematic exploration. The aforementioned Skynet of the Terminator lore, HAL2000 of 2001 a Space Odyssey, the weird boy robot flick AI, the bizarre world of Minority Report, Will Smith's rambunctious robot romp in iRobot and the new theistic, philosophical cylons of the new Battlestar Gallictica.
Kurzweil believes that as computational power increases the ability to write a brain simulating, consciousness simulating algorithm draws nearer in time. In other words, given enough processing power, computers will some day be as human as you. Hence, his earlier works evolved from The Age of Intelligent Machines to the book I read some years ago entitled The Age of Spiritual Machines. Now, Kurzweill did not suddenly become a dualist in changing his language to "Spiritual Machines." His point is simply that future computers will appear to be every bit as conscious as ourselves - they might even worship and read books by the compuDalilama (my term, not his). His latest update of the book and its ideas deals with what he calls the singularity, and according to Kurzweil, it is near.
In the work, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (Viking Penguin), he speaks of a soon coming day where a radical shift in life as we know it will take place. At this singularity, we will all be uploaded as software into the network, with non perishing "bodies" (if you want) and live forever. Immortality, the fountain of youth and becoming as gods all in one push of a brain upload button. Now, if you believe this narrative (and many do not - read the sidebar in WIRED, Never Mind the Singularity, Here's the Science, featuring research of those that think the whole scheme of things is flawed) you will want to stay alive long enough to reach this glorious land. If you die before we arrive, so to speak, you will not get to gather at the other side with the other comphumans. Interestingly enough a Physicist Frank Tipler in The Physics of Christianity is writing about similar ideas though from a theistic perspective; though I found it very bizarre. If all this sounds a bit nuts, you are not alone.
One of the philosophical problems with computing=consciousness is that of self-knowledge. Computers, by nature of their design, perform by processing tasks according to algorithms. Even the learning and evolving systems, do so according to predetermined rules of logic placed upon them from minds - in this case programming. In other words, computers process data and symbols , they do not "know" anything. I actually thought of this over the weekend observing the functioning of a GPS navigation system in a car.
Our realtor during our house hunting in NJ would punch in an address and then a kind woman's voice (perhaps using Kurzweil inspired technology patents) would tell us precisely where to turn to arrive at our destination. In our case it was usually a small, dumpy, overpriced house...but I digress. Let me do a bit of a thought experiment with you at this point. Imagine for a moment that you were in a vehicle where you could not see where you were going yet you could cause a car to turn right or left based upon the cues from a GPS system processing your location. You would receive data, act upon it, then arrive perfectly at your desired destination. I felt like I actually did this many, many times sitting in the back seat of a car zipping around New Jersey this weekend. Now, in our experiment, you would seem to have a great knowledge of the area and a great sense of directions. Yet there is one glaring problem - you actually have no idea where you are. You have zero knowledge of New Jersey or any conscious sense of direction. You simply processed input and data. Computers process symbols and data, they do not know anything. They can do many things, appear intelligent, etc but they do not know. For a more sophisticated argument John Searle's now famous Chinese Room Problem is similar and much more cogent.
I also find massive ethical problems with this view because it will mean the rich and technological persons will keep themselves alive while others will languish in the pre-singularity world of death and decay. A new elitism will be even more severe in the imagined world of Kurzweil's future. It seems like a world that will have more selfish people, concerned only about the perpetuation of their own lives. God forbid the poor masses ever decide to pull the plug (literally) on the machines - we all know that will mean war. I've seen the Matrix you know. Or perhaps we will be self-deluded once again that we will make the world perfect this time around. Perhaps we have forgotten what happens in reality, as well as literature and film, when human beings think they can make the perfect world in their own image.
So what is Kurzweil doing besides promoting his vision of the coming singularity? He is taking hundreds of supplements a day and trying to experiment with any life lengthening idea just to keep his biological existence intact so he can make it. He is quite wealthy and is spending massive amounts of resources on keeping his ticker going as the clock ticks forward. Unfortunately none of this can keep one from getting hit by a bus, shot by a crazy person, or succumbing to disease. Yet it does seems that hope for immortality, even eternal life, lives even among materialists. Many today hope in aliens, hope in getting off this mound called earth by a coming Starship Enterprise and many hope to create our descendants and be transferred into machines by fiber optic transfer (or whatever high bandwidth technology is available at the singularity). Sadly, some may choose suicide.
What does all of this reveal about the human soul? I think we see that we long to live, not die. We long for a better future where the harsh realities of life outside of Eden are brought to an end. Some choose to trust in the promises of God and resurection for the hope of eternal life. Others seek to become godlike themselves. Where does this leave a human being? In Kurzweil's own description - it has left him lonely.
For all one of you interested in wrestling with these ideas further I recommend the work
Are We Spiritual Machines?: Ray Kurzweil vs. the Critics of Strong A.I. edited by Jay Wesley Richards.