Review: Raymond Kurzweil’s “The Singularity is Near”

Human life as we know it is about to change dramatically in the coming 30 years. At least that is what inventor and future author Ray Kurzweil claims in his volume The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, published in 2010.

First of all I would like to recommend to read this book (you can use the link above to order it at Amazon, either in hard-copy or for your Kindle). But be ready to take some time: The volume is thick and the material sometimes a little chewy. Furthermore, not wanting to be too harsh, but Kurzweil’s writing style is quite dry and requires a certain level of endurance. But like endurance sports: The race is not always easy, but you are happy you did it once you crossed the finish line!

The book forces the reader to think out of the box. Actually, by reading the book I started to realize how much more out-of-the-box I will need to think in order to be able to seriously evaluate the possible scenarios for the future of mankind! This effect makes the book by itself a very valuable read, and completely overshadows any further critical comments I will give in the remainder of this review.

For those who hate spoilers: Stop reading here, and come back after you read the book!

The book presents three main mega-trends and claims that these trends show a long-term exponential growth curve. The trends are Genetics, Nanotechnology and Robotics (GNR). The exponential growth curve for each of these three mega-trends is about to reach what Kurzweil calls “the knee“, after which the growth curves become so steep that the development seems to reach endless acceleration.

Developments in genetics will allow us to repair biological errors, grow new organs and renew our DNA for extended vitality of our cells. Human 2.0 is what Kurzweil calls this.

Developments in nanotechnology will create so-called nanobots that will be able to enter the human body by the billions and do their bio-mechanical repair jobs. Or perform a remote sensing job, either on the battle field or on remote exo-planets.

Robots will be based on strong Artificial Intelligence (AI), which requires further increase of our computation capacity per unit volume. Kurzweil demonstrates that we are currently just a few orders of magnitude away from the required computing capacity to develop strong AI. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have just applied an IQ test to MIT’s ConceptNet 4 artificial intelligence system, and determined it’s about as smart as a somewhat-challenged four-year-old child (see here).

Kurzweil advocates the use of nanobots to do a detailed scan of the brains from the inside, and than use this map for partial re-engineering to create first strong AI brains. These will then be supporting us in further accelerating the development of computation speed and SW solutions.

Exponential growth of technology

With respect to the exponential character of the growth in each of these technology realms Kurzweil presents a richness of material to support his claim that these technologies grow exponentially. Obviously Moore’s law is the best known example of such a growth curve, but the author presents many more examples.

Based on the four points above the author then predicts that in the years 2030 – 2045 the development in these three sectors will reach an explosive speed and power, resulting in radical innovations in our lives: Human 3.0, being an integration of biological and non-biological components of “me”, nanobots all over the place, and robotic intelligence that will outdo our biological intelligence by a factor of well over a billion. Finally, Kurzweil is adamant about the prediction that within his lifetime we will be able to prevent death, first by delaying it until we have the means to completely abolish it (at least from natural causes).

First a few general remarks on Kurzweil’s style of argumentation. In the book he presents an impressive amount of material on the topics he discusses, with lots of references (not all on the level of academic evidence, but good still). Sometimes he has the tendency to drag in too many topics, to the point where he tends to digress, and thus loose the focus. The famous quote: “Sorry my presentation is so long, I didn’t have the time to make a brief one” is certainly valid for this book!

The second general point I would like to make is that Kurzweil weakens the validity of his argument by presenting hard time predictions regarding the different technology break-throughs, and present these not so much as probabilities, but much more are facts. It is a strong and powerful practice in science to present findings as probabilities, with clear indications of the assumptions that underlie the findings. The presentation of the “Higgs-like particle” on July 3rd 2012 by the CMS- and ATLAS-teams at CERN show a very nice and example of this practice (worthwhile to watch here, it was a historic event!) . This way of presenting scientific findings is not so much driven by humbleness, but by experience that making strong statements based on limited evidence is a sure road to embarrassment. It is admitted that Kurzweil explicitly includes the sensitivity of his predictions on the input parameters, but given that not just the parameters are uncertain, but the complete model, this doesn’t change the point.

Then a few words about the explanatory model that Kurzweil uses for the exponential growth rates of the different technologies and the resulting singularity: There is no explanatory model! The author shows the development of a number of trends, and indeed is able to identify rates that seem to be exponential.

By the way, it would not have hurt to do some explicit statistical hypothesis testing on these claims. But that is a detail.

But the reason why these growth rates are exponential, and what determines their parameters, is lacking. Kurzweil recognizes that technology is developed by humans (at least for the time being) and that social processes drive this growth. But how does that work? Are there social processes that can change the direction of these developments? Or even significantly delay or expedite them?

In his inspiring book Cosmos, Carl Sagan argues that the Ionian Awakening, around the 3rd century B.C. in Greece, with the Great Library of Alexandria at its epicenter, was a surge in intellectual and rational development, that was subsequently overrun by worlds of religion, superstition and provincialism. It took the Western World until the days of Galileo to return to the way forward. How could this have happened? What were the social, political and religious forces that halted our progress? It is an interesting exercise to evaluate what-if scenarios! Where would we be today without the stagnation period between 250 BC until Galileo?

Before we can make hard, probabilistic predictions regarding the future development and adaptation of technological mega-trends, we need to put more effort in creating and testing explanatory models of socio-technological development. This is the social science part of futures studies.

With regard to the main mega-trends that Kurzweil selects, I would agree with development and importance of both genetics and robotics, as I have claimed in one of my previous posts, see here. Definitively Kurzweil is an authority in the field of AI, and his description of the developments in this field, combined with the development of computing power, reads as convincing. Definitively also his detailed and thorough discussion on machine intelligence and machine consciousness is important and convinces.

Genetics is in a tremendous maelstrom, bringing new results and new techniques out at an ever faster pace. No wonder that the worlds of politics and of ethics have trouble in keeping up with the developments. Again Kurzweil writes convincing, and with lots of examples of ongoing research. The reader gets a clear impression that the predictions the author makes are within the same universe as we are today, seem challenging but feasible.

Somehow I cannot say the same of his predictions regarding nanotechnology and especially nanobots. A disclaimer regarding this skepticism is that I know very little about nanobots. I know about the fascination developments in the field of nano-tubes. Amazing physical properties are used for surfaces, touch screens and electronics applications, to name a few. But my imagination fails to picture, within my life time, billions of nanobots scanning my brain. Call it a limitation of my mental capabilities, but until I am convinced with more evidence that this is ongoing I will remain a skeptic!

Nano-buts in my Head

It is mainly his predictions regarding to nanobots that make Kurzweil claim that within his lifetime we will be able to abolish natural death. This is the Holy Grail of humanity, literally! That would also bring it within my lifetime. Wouldn’t that be great. However, I just don’t believe it. This is not a very scientific argument, I know, but as before with respect to the nanobots, I believe we are still a long way off!

As an aside, we need to start thinking about the consequences of further dramatic increases of life expectancy. On Earth the resources to sustain biological life are limited, so either we will need to increase the domain from which we derive our resources, and/or we need to dramatically change our procreation habits and ethics. This will not be easy, as procreation is so deeply ingrained in the fundamental fabric of life.

We will be able to extend the life expectancy, probably step-by-step, as we have been doing for the past 100 years. We can reduce the risks of premature death. But we are not yet able to abolish the effects of aging. People who live past their 100th birthday are both physically and mentally not so fit as we would want to be. We must solve that before we can go realistically beyond our current efforts. So I will follow the developments in this area with great interest, have some hope that the pancreatic cancer that both my parents died of will become curable, and commit myself to healthy food and (very) regular physical and mental exercise as my method for life extension.

The End of Aging

A few elements I find lacking attention in the book. These have to do with evolution, with entropy and with expansion of mankind and her technology into the Universe beyond Earth and the Solar System.

Evolution is a simple yet powerful mechanism. First of all you need something that self-replicates. We call this life. Then we need variation in life. This variation happens, over time. For typical biological very much time. Then you need a struggle for limited resources. And then the automatic result will be survival of the fittest. Only those variants that are best at competing for the scarce resources will survive and be able to reproduce. Evolution as as simple and beautiful as that.

Homo Sapiens has been very good at this survival game. Thus far. Through our brain we have been able to adjust our survival strategies faster than genetic adjustments would allow in other species, and therefore we have been so successful in grabbing the food, and the land, and everything.


Now we create hyper-intelligent technology, and I believe that will happen, and we will be able to turn that into a benign development. But we will need to prevent introducing a competition for resources with this superior technology. We might not survive that competition. Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics most certainly will not do the trick (I, Robot).

The second element I find lacking in the book is the understanding of entropy, or the second fundamental law of thermodynamics. Entropy in any closed system always increases. And our Universe is a closed system, according to all current cosmological models. This means that Kurzweil’s prediction that humanity will take over the Universe and prevent it to end in a entropy death cannot be true. Local order is a statistical variation in a universal system that increases it’s amount of disorder. This is a very slow process, but it is happening, and no one and nothing will be able to stop that process.

Finally I believe that Kurzweil gives insufficient attention to the mega-trend of space-travel, in other words the expansion of humanity beyond the boundaries of planet Earth. As I will write about this mega-trend a lot in future posts I will not elaborate on that here.

Second Law of Thermo-dynamics

In summary, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology is a valuable piece of positive, optimistic Out-of-the-Box thinking. I can highly recommend it. And my reading advice on it is (as with all books): Do not believe just everything what you read, but make it part of your model of the world that we live in. Enjoy!


Technological and Scientific Progress

In last week’s post I made the case for strong investments in big science, see here. On the web we see a culture clash between religious and often fundamentalist denialists on the one hand, and usually rational and usually atheist “believers” in science and the scientific method on the other. From my wording it is not hard to guess my position in this debate.

I will not advocate any links to the “Dark Side”, but good and often funny (and probably known to my readers) places to follow this debate are on Facebook: “I Feacking Love Science” (actually the title of the page is different, but I believe it would be filtered out as inappropriate language, so I use the same word as the URL), and on Twitter people like Bill NyeRichard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The debates are around global warming, evolution, cosmology, stem cell research, just to name the loudest and most published of them. On a higher level the debate is about different paradigms of reality: Between on the one hand people who have ready stories of the world versus people who display continuous curiosity and ever deeper searching for how stuff works; but also a debate between people who hope for Armageddon versus people who care for the world we leave to humanity after us and who believe that we do make a difference. This last facet is nicely discussed by Christopher Hitchens in “God is not Great“, a recommended read for all who are interested in the debate between religion and atheism (God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything).

In the many debates we see strong emotions on both sides. On the side of the rationalists we see often a pessimistic fear that the influence of the religious fundamentalists will lead to a destruction of science, and therefore a destruction of the Earth. Though I sympathize with those emotions, the thought is incorrect and does not consider the evolutionary logic of scientific and technological progress.

As with many temporal catastrophes, it is good to take a historical perspective. Ray Kurzweil does a nice job at drawing this bigger picture in his book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. I will refer to Kurzweil again in later posts, he has a very optimistic but therefore inspirational view on our mid-term future.

Kurzweil claims that most scientific and technological progress show an exponential growth curve. The example in the figure on the right is from computing speed which is the well-known Moore’s Law, but he provides many more examples. Basically all forms of growth or development that show a more or less fixed percentage of increase per time unit are exponential growth processes. Exponential growth curves exhibit a number of interesting features.

The first is that they appear linear and quite flat in the early phases of the process. That is, until they reach what Kurzweil calls the “knee”, when the growth takes off to explosive growth rates. Until this knee is reached, we all seem to recognize a linear growth. And many of our predictions regarding the future are based on this perceived linear development rate. Kurzweil then argues that the development of a number of technologies are close to reaching this knee in their growth curve, and will reach explosive growth rates during the coming 20 to 50 years: in particular computing, brain science and cognitive science. He names this explosive growth phase “the singularity“, free after John von Neumann who coined the concept in the mid-1950s.

As indicated above, I guess Kurzweil can be criticized for his boundless optimism, and partially for being somewhat selective in finding evidence to support his claims, instead of using the scientific approach of critically searching for falsification. But then again he doesn’t claim his work to be a piece of science. Place it somewhere in between science fiction – which also provides mightily important inspiration for science and technology, just think of Asimov – and science. I actually see his work as part of the tradition of futurology, which is a form of quality speculation (and always fun to follow-up over the years). Futurologists make predictions about the future. But then again, isn’t that what science does? As long as we are comparing the predictions with what happens in the real world there is nothing wrong with this activity!

The second feature of many growth curves that Kurzweil presents is that they seem so very continuous. Maybe we see a little bump due to some world wars, maybe some small wiggles here and there. But in the big picture, think 70 years and more, these growth curves are very very continuous. My point here is that the growth seems to be driven by forces stronger than the Pope, Stalin, Hitler, Khomeini or the Tea Party.

On a regional scale developments may slow down for several decades due to political or religious obstruction, but globally not much changes. Brains follow the money! Many scientists escaped from Russia and Germany before WW2 to move to either the UK or the USA to continue their scientific and technological work. Many people of learning left Iran after the initial illusion of liberation by the Ayatollahs had faded. Unfortunately Iran pays good money to nuclear physicists, so too many of them stayed in the country! And there are examples of genetic scientists leaving the US after Bush II stopped the funding for stem cell research, see e.g. here. And stem cell research has continued in Europe and Japan, hardly noticing the obstruction in the USA.

Scientists are people with a mission (if you are a scientist and you don’t recognize this statement you may consider getting into a different business!). They will go where ever they can do their work. Think of the famous example of Wernher von Braun, the father of the V2 and of the Apollo program. Often this type of behavior  is considered amoral. Well, whatever. But it is the driver behind scientific and technological progress. Scientists will continue to do science and go where the money is and where the possibility exists to do their work. Scientists and technologists have moved for as long as written history exists: Thinkers went to Athens, Tycho Brahe moved away from Denmark after the funding for his Hven observatory was stopped by the new Danish King Christian IV, and found new funding by Bohemian king Rudolph II in Prague.

So Scientists continue to do science and  technologists will continue to develop technology. The exponential growth curves show it. Therefore I can now write this post on a PC with thousands of times more computing power than the Mainframe on which I did my first programming. Therefore we are beating AIDS. Therefore we are able to give pre-tsunami warnings to people in coastal regions. Therefore we are now progressing with treatment research for Alzheimer disease using stem cells. Because scientists do what they have to do: Science.

And no Congress, no Ayatollah, no Pope and no economic crisis can stop science and technology. Not on the larger scare, in the longer time. They can cause small dips in the curve. They can cause utter frustration with groups of dedicated scientists. But in the bigger picture these obstructionists of progress are irrelevant.

Therefore I am not so pessimistic about the future of our civilization. Not that there are no potentially catastrophic threats! There are! But the evolutionary forces of variation of ideas and survival of the most fruitful of those ideas is unstoppable as long as there is humanity. And that is a good thing!

Now don’t get me wrong: I strongly support efforts to stop the anti-progress zealots, I object to teaching creationism, I campaign against the Global Warming Deniers and in favor of strong action to reduce Greenhouse gasses. Those are necessary actions to prevent unnecessary human suffering. But I do not believe that even if we lose one or two of these battles it means the end of science and the end of the world. The evolution of progress and intelligence has too strong a logic to be stopped by human stupidity. Call me an optimist, I can live with that. Optimism and speculation about where we can go inspires us, and our children, to work on our future, in all it’s fascinating complexity and in all its surprising directions.

Where will this all bring us? Kurzweil and others have strong opinions about that, and some of those ideas are very thought provoking. What especially fascinates me is the concept of post-biological humanity. First of all because it is feasible. Secondly because it will solve some important obstacles to space travel. But I am now jumping ahead. This will be a topic I will come back to in the near future.