June 23, 2010 | 27
The New York Times Sunday business section recently ran an enormous puff piece on Ray Kurzweil and the "Singularity" cult (my term, not the Times‘s). Kurzweil is a successful inventor–entrepreneur best known lately for his sci-tech prophecies. He claims that advances in AI, nanotech, biotech, computer science and neuroscience are bearing us toward a radical transformation of our minds and bodies called the Singularity—aka "rapture of the geeks".
Believers squabble over how exactly the Singularity will go down. Will we just genetically soup ourselves up? Become human–machine cyborgs? Totally synthetic robots? Digitize our psyches and download them into cyberspace? All the predictions entail superintelligence and immortality, and Kurzweil’s major emphasis lately has been the latter. Kurzweil "intends to live for hundreds of years," the Times noted, "and resurrect the dead, including his own father." Together with Terry Grossman, a physician, Kurzweil recently wrote Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever (Rodale Books, 2009) and created Ray & Terry’s Longevity Products health supplements company.
Bill Gates has blurbed Kurzweil’s books. Other admirers include Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal, and Peter Diamandis, who heads the X PRIZE Foundation, which promotes space travel. Celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz and motivational guru Tony Robbins appear in Kurzweil’s new film, The Singularity Is Near. (Kurzweil has also made a vanity documentary called Transcendent Man.) Sergey Brin and Larry Page, co-founders of Google, helped Kurzweil establish a "Singularity University" at NASA Ames Research Center in California. According to the Times, "executives, inventors, doctors and investors jockey for position" to take courses on "promising technologies" for as much as $25,000 each. Kurzweil also consults for the Pentagon.
The Times article implied that because smart, accomplished people believe in the Singularity, it should be taken seriously. Wrong. I know smart, accomplished Catholics and Buddhists, but their faith doesn’t make resurrection or reincarnation any more credible. The Times did mention a Singularity skeptic, Jonathan Huebner, a physicist. He faults Kurzweil’s analysis of sci–tech trends, asserting that the rate of technological innovation peaked in 1873 or 1916, depending on how you measure it. This guy sounds as kooky as Kurzweil.
My own skepticism is based on simple comparisons of Kurzweil’s claims with what is actually happening in science. For example, Kurzweil contends that reverse-engineering the brain isn’t that big a deal. "The brain is at least 100 million times simpler than it appears because the design is in the genome," he wrote on the blog Posthumans. "The compressed genome is only about 50 million bytes," which is "a level of complexity we can handle."
Actually, the major trend in both neuroscience and genetics over the past decade or two has been the discovery of deeper and deeper levels of complexity, which have thwarted medical applications. This theme emerged in several Times articles that bracketed its lengthy pro-Kurzweil press release. An excellent two-part report by Nicholas Wade and Andrew Pollack exposed how the decoding of the human genome has yielded little or no medical payoff. "Ten years after President Bill Clinton announced that the first draft of the human genome was complete, medicine has yet to see any large part of the promised benefits," Wade wrote. He added that "after 10 years of effort, geneticists are almost back to square one in knowing where to look for the roots of common disease."
Pollack added that "not only has there been no pharmacopoeia, but some experts say the Human Genome Project might have at least temporarily bogged down the drug industry with information overload." In a separate article Pollack reported on how a string of recent failures of "targeted cancer therapies" serve as a reminder of "how devilishly complex cancer can be and how much more remains to be understood." Treatments for brain disorders aren’t faring any better; The Wall Street Journal reported that "attempts to find treatments for Alzheimer’s disease have produced scant results and a long string of busts."
But don’t worry! Immortality is right around the corner! Ray Kurzweil says so!
When I debated Kurzweil at the 2008 Singularity Summit, a revival meeting for the faithful, he seemed all too sincere. But his Singularity schtick is so out of sync with reality that I’m beginning to wonder if even he takes it seriously. Maybe he believed it once and now he’s just spouting it to peddle his books, lectures, consulting, health food supplements, university courses and films. But whether or not he takes himself seriously, no one else should.
Photo of Ray Kurzweil courtesy Wiki Commons