Just after I finish posting a piece expressing a certain ambivalence towards the science fiction genre, along comes Ray Kurzweil proposing stuff that sounds like science fiction and leading me to conclude that I have good reason to feel ambivalent about science and technology. Mr. Kurzweil invented the first text-to-speech reader for the blind, a line of high-end music synthesizers, computer hardware and software designed to enhance human creativity, and a host of other pretty cool gadgets all built around the concept of artificial intelligence, or teaching machines to do what people can do. If I remember correctly, he was also the guy who once referred to conventional libraries (y’ know, the old-fashioned kind with real books and stuff) as “museums of compressed wood pulp,” or words to that effect.
OK, so Mr. Kurzweil is apparently not a big fan of printed books and is a big booster of high technology. That’s fine. Everybody’s entitled to an opinion. We all have our likes and dislikes, right?
But now, some of the things Mr. Kurzweil is advocating, proposing, and forecasting for technological advances just give me the heebie-jeebies and bring out my inner Dr. McCoy. On the original Star Trek show, every time Mr. Spock would rhapsodize about the glories of logic and science and the supposed infallibility of the ship’s computers, McCoy would lose his patience and blurt out something like, “It’s a blasted machine, Spock! You can’t argue with a machine!” McCoy is the voice of the humanist, warning us that we risk losing a little something of our humanity and our liberty every time we allow our machines to do our thinking and acting for us.
Mr, Kurzweil, on the other hand, apparently thinks it’s just fine to let our machines think and act for us, since he says that in a few years we’ll not only make increasing use of technology, we’ll actually merge (his word) with our technology. In a few years, the machines will be as smart as we are, anyway, if not smarter. Here’s what he says in a conversation with host and interviewer Steve Curwood on the public radio show Living on Earth:
CURWOOD: But what excites him most is what he sees over the horizon now. What he calls ‘the singularity.’ And what does he mean by that?
KURZWEIL: Well, it primarily refers to our merging with our technology and greatly expanding our human potential. Literally the word refers to a profound transformation. And here we’re using it in a context of human history, in that there will be a great transformation of human society. I put it around twenty forty-five. Where we will greatly expand our capabilities by merging with our technology. And to be a little more specific, by the late twenty-twenties we’ll have both the hardware and the software to create machines that are at human levels of intelligence. We’ve already modeled and simulated twenty different regions of the brain. And we can test those simulations and they perform equivalently to human performance of those brain regions. And the hardware will be quite capable of actually being much more powerful than the human brain.
CURWOOD: So you’re saying in the next twenty-five years—
CURWOOD: The machines will be as smart as we are?
KURZWEIL: Right . . .
And the hardware will be quite capable of actually being much more powerful than the human brain.
Apparently, he thinks this will be a good thing! Is anyone else as creeped out by this idea as I am? What happens when tools become smarter and more powerful than their masters? Who then is the tool and who is the master?
I realize I’m beginning to sound a bit like a paranoid Luddite here. I’m not. I’m obviously using a computer to compose this blog entry. I just finished uploading some fiction to a website where anyone and his brother can read it if they so choose. I listen to podcasts almost compulsively. As I write this, I’m sitting in an electric wheelchair that gives me infinitely more freedom and mobility than I would have otherwise. I have pacemaker or cerebellar stimulator to compensate for some of the effects of my cerebral palsy. I have cable TV and a home stereo system, like most other Americans. Obviously then, I don’t hate technology on principle. It’s just that I like a little distance between my self–my soul, my being, that certain something that defines me as a unique human being created in the image and likeness of God–and any tools I use. I’m not sure I’m ready to go from this:
I’m not sure the future Mr. Kurzweil is proposing would allow me that distance, however:
So, my vision of what life will be like in the late twenty-twenties, is we will have millions of these nano-bots inside our blood stream. They’ll be keeping us healthy from inside, repairing DNA errors, removing debris, killing cancer cells, augmenting the immune system.
Ahem. Ray? Mr. Kurzweil, sir? Just what is a “DNA error?” Is it, say, Parkinson’s Disease or Down’s Syndrome or cystic fibrosis? Or could it be something like not having blond hair, blue eyes, and an Aryan perfect physique? Not being fast enough or strong enough or pretty enough? Just who is to decide what a “DNA error” is, and how the nano-bots are to correct it? Have you not considered the gross potential for abuse with such a technology? And what happens if one (or more) of these little nano-bot thingies goes on the blink? But everything’s going to be swell in Kurzweil-land ’cause we all know that scientists are perfect and technology never malfunctions or has unintended negative consequences, right? Hearing talk like this, I’m reminded of Mark Shea’s observation that all of history can be divided into two phases: “What can it hurt?” followed by “How was I supposed to know?”
But wait, there’s more! Coming soon to a cerebral cortex near you: Virtual Reality!
One thing it can do, for example, is provide full-immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system. So, if we want to go into virtual reality, the nanobots shut down the signals coming from your real sensors, replacing them with the signals that your brain would be receiving if you were in the virtual environment. Then your brain feels like it’s in that environment. You go to move your hand, it moves your virtual hand. Design of new virtual environments will be a new art form. But mostly it’s going to actually extend human intelligence, which arguably computers do today even if most of them are not yet inside our bodies and brains.
So this guy thinks the world of M. T. Anderson’s Feed would be a good thing, I suppose: a world of virtual zombies, occupying the same physical space, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually isolated from each other. But hey, it’s not all bad–they can still shop, shop, shop!
The last sentence of the quotation is so rich in irony, it’s almost like a punchline:
But mostly it’s going to actually extend human intelligence, which arguably computers do today
Arguably, indeed. They obviously haven’t done much for your brain power, fella.
even if most of them are not yet inside our bodies and brains.
Yes, and please God, may they remain so! Sheesh! This guy is living proof that being educated is not the same thing as being smart and being smart is not the same thing as being wise.