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Singularity Schtick: Hi-tech moguls and The New York Times may buy it, but you shouldn’t


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Ray KurzweilThe 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





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  1. 1. TX-CA-GA-NY 7:57 am 06/23/2010

    capitalism at it’s finest…

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  2. 2. live.the.future 8:14 am 06/23/2010

    OK, so I understand that this is an opinion piece and not a scientific article, but coming from SciAm, I guess I was still expecting more science and less opinion. Horgan’s criticism seems to be a mix of ad hominems and the assertion that "it’s all so complicated, therefore probably impossible."

    I was somewhat baffled to see that latter argument used against the human genome project, of all things. Does Horgan not understand how long it takes to do research, and then to use that research to bring an FDA-approved innovation to market? (Hint: the testing & "FDA-approved" part alone can easily take 10 years.) And by Horgan’s logic, most basic (as opposed to applied) research should apparently be shut down, as it also provides few if any usable results.

    One is certainly free to argue that the science and assumptions used by Kurzweil do not support his predictions. I personally think that Kurzweil’s timelines are probably overly optimistic. But I was hoping for a little more in-depth criticism than "Kurzweil’s a kook" and "it’s all so darn complicated."

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  3. 3. BoomWav 8:21 am 06/23/2010

    The transhumanism movement is way bigger than the singularity alone. Kurzweil is just one guy. If you read his book, you’ll see it’s just a possibility. I am not in the mood for another lengthy debate.. but did it even occur to you that he may be half right? A lot of people makes a lot of money for making you think this kinds of things are way off. Oil industry, religious industry, etc. Good luck with you. However, totally dismissing a theory like that might not be the best thing to do. Unless you know better. Bring on some points that contradict what he says and then, we will talk.

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  4. 4. Eyeless 8:52 am 06/23/2010

    Horgan, for shame. Honestly, how do you live with yourself? Does firing off this kind of empty ridicule make you feel like a big man? One of your style of thinking might say this is a shallow and defensive jab at someone whose growing popularity threatens the relevance of your own intellectual stance and written works, which, if evaltuated as deeply as you’ve herein analyzed the body of singularity thought, could be suspected of being cooked up as hollow contrarianism designed to drum up controversy and sales.

    You do so very little to justify your assault on a very straightforward and logical line of reasoning. You have offered no compelling support, beyond pointing out superficial similarities, for the comparison of belief in a future singularity to ancient forms of spiritualism. Many of the smart, accomplished people who support the concept of a singularity, unlike faithful Buddhists, actually know what they are talking about from firsthand experience and deep technical knowledge. Do you believe that we will somehow run out of progress and hit a technological ceiling?

    How is "information overload" any kind of proof of the sluggishness of development? Because our information interpretation resources were not sufficiently developed at the time the genome was sequenced, and we experienced a predictable bubble of optimism, we should just give up any hope of extracting useful knowledge from it? That makes sense.

    Whatever personal gripes you have with Kurzweil, you must tender more evidence for the worthlessness you claim of his "schtick." Ignoring his vitamin infomercials, there is nothing you have successfully criticized in the essential message of the singularity.

    Do your job better next time! You too, Scientific American. It makes me ill that this is here. Just gross.

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  5. 5. redazzo 9:02 am 06/23/2010

    Terry Grossman, co-author of "Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever" is a practitioner of homeopathy. ‘Nuff said.

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  6. 6. redazzo 9:02 am 06/23/2010

    Terry Grossman is a practitioner of homeopathy. ‘Nuff said.

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  7. 7. Dr. Paradox 9:02 am 06/23/2010

    Sometimes I think we invent things like the Singularity simply because we are so desperate to define ourselves via a struggle against something much larger and more dangerous than ourselves. Dragons, the devil, the Singularity… (pre-coffee rambling)

    P.S. Likin’ the new digs, Horgan.

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  8. 8. jtdwyer 9:18 am 06/23/2010

    IMO, most of the named successful media manipulators have been spouting visionary hoo ha for decades now. Like any fortune teller, the proof would be to repost their prognostications of the prior decade. I expect that would be very entertaining. I’ve never paid any attention to anything they’ve ever said, so don’t ask me for any details.

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  9. 9. JohnSciNew 9:44 am 06/23/2010

    Ray is a smart guy. He has pioneered in at least two areas (music synthesis and speech recognition) that I have personally witnessed. Plus, he has a long term case of diabetes, but has used his regimen of diet, exercise, life style and supplements to stay free of all symptoms.

    I hope he is right – or is pointing in a direction that will someday be bear beneficial fruit.

    On the other hand, for what its worth, although he says his methods are keeping him younger than his chronological age, (internal functions?) his face seems to be getting older in a normal way.

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  10. 10. halneufmille 10:26 am 06/23/2010

    Horgan, do you understand the difference between science and technology? Science is observing what is and understanding it. Technology is dreaming what could be from what we observe.

    If society listened to people like you, the genome wouldn’t be sequenced, the plane wouldn’t exist and we would still be using horses for locomotion.

    "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man." – George Bernard Shaw

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  11. 11. jimmywat 11:19 am 06/23/2010

    Suppose one took a sample of one’s blood tissue at 18 years and preserved it. Retro-viruses might be programed to infect you with your 18 year old DNA???

    If someone does have a breakthrough on aging, no government will be able to regulate or stop it. They will make and sell it on ships, secret labs, third world countries….

    Also remember that all the researchers are looking for something patentable – that they can corner the market in and make a killing, not service to mankind.

    But this article sounds like someone reviewing Jules Verne after talking to his "peers".

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  12. 12. Madd Barkington 11:38 am 06/23/2010

    Anyone who thinks the human brain is simple enough to interface with technology has a very shallow understanding of either. Data storage alone is a joke compared to the brain’s ability to store and retrieve information, and that’s just talking about raw data.

    Techies who know very little about biology and biologists who know very little about computer technology do not make good authorities on bio-tech, and both fields are sufficiently complex as to prohibit a truly comprehensive understanding of both in a lifetime.

    All you sci-fi dreamers wake me up in hundred years.

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  13. 13. halneufmille 11:54 am 06/23/2010

    jimmywat, How’s your 18 y.o. DNA significantly different from your present DNA? Why would you want to have it injected in you?

    On the economics argument however, you are spot on. Since there is already a big market for boggus youth preserving products, a real one would be the golden goose for any pharma company. In humans, aging is a universal disease.

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  14. 14. DrJohnty 1:34 pm 06/23/2010

    I think that current trends very much support Ray Kurzweils views on a number of fronts. Personally I view the Singularity or Irrevocable Convergence as I prefer to call it as being akin to trying me explain the inner workings of the internet to my pet Dobermann, in other words totally incomprehensible from the point where we stand at the present time. The merging of humans and machines will not happen overnight but will occur incrementally in small steps, more importantly it won’t only be the rich who benefit because all technology starts off being unbelievably expensive and not working particularly well but within a few years ends up costing a fraction of the price and performing extremely well; a plasma TV is a great example, another example is a cellphone. The reason the Singularity or Irrevocable Convergene will inevitably happen is that essentially the human brain is still pretty much the same as it was 50,000 years ago, the introduction of an increasing degree of non biological components will make us millions of times more capable than we are today and move us beyond the limitations of our biology freeing us from being trapped in the current situation where our mortality and mental limitations are holding us back. In my opinion Ray is almost certainly correct and I am confident that before the middle of the century we are likely to reach the point where it is hard to separate human and machine intelligence.

    I tend to agree with Ray Kurzweils prediction that machines will become conscious due to a massive expansion of artificial intelligence (AI) we must keep in mind that even if he is wrong and it takes 100 years to reach the stage where machines become aware the introduction of non biological intelligence into ourselves within the next couple of decades is inevitable, first through simple neuro implants and later through nano technology. Whether the Irrevocable Convergence arises or not we will still achieve a rate of progress which is incomparable to anything we have ever seen before.

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  15. 15. DrJohnty 1:34 pm 06/23/2010

    I think that current trends very much support Ray Kurzweils views on a number of fronts. Personally I view the Singularity or Irrevocable Convergence as I prefer to call it as being akin to trying me explain the inner workings of the internet to my pet Dobermann, in other words totally incomprehensible from the point where we stand at the present time. The merging of humans and machines will not happen overnight but will occur incrementally in small steps, more importantly it won’t only be the rich who benefit because all technology starts off being unbelievably expensive and not working particularly well but within a few years ends up costing a fraction of the price and performing extremely well; a plasma TV is a great example, another example is a cellphone. The reason the Singularity or Irrevocable Convergene will inevitably happen is that essentially the human brain is still pretty much the same as it was 50,000 years ago, the introduction of an increasing degree of non biological components will make us millions of times more capable than we are today and move us beyond the limitations of our biology freeing us from being trapped in the current situation where our mortality and mental limitations are holding us back. In my opinion Ray is almost certainly correct and I am confident that before the middle of the century we are likely to reach the point where it is hard to separate human and machine intelligence.

    I tend to agree with Ray Kurzweil’s prediction that machines will become conscious due to a massive expansion of artificial intelligence (AI) we must keep in mind that even if he is wrong and it takes 100 years to reach the stage where machines become aware the introduction of non biological intelligence into ourselves within the next couple of decades is inevitable, first through simple neuro implants and later through nano technology. Whether the Irrevocable Convergence arises or not we will still achieve a rate of progress which is incomparable to anything we have ever seen before.

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  16. 16. anadventurer 1:55 pm 06/23/2010

    Eh, I am already immortal. Not in a Christian way either.

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  17. 17. gunslingor 3:10 pm 06/23/2010

    singularity is a rediculous name for this line of thought. Cybernetic is much more appropriate, and is used throughout multiple industries for many years to mean the exact same thing. Besides, singularity doesn’t tell you anything about the line of thought, I’m thinking black holes!

    Guy trying to make a name for himself by renaming someone elses work, there is nothing new to his line of thought.

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  18. 18. Bridger 3:25 pm 06/23/2010

    For the record: Ray Kurzweil did NOT make a documentary called Transcendent Man. That film was made by a serious filmmaker, Barry Ptolemy who investigates Kurzweil’s life and ideas. Ptolemy looks at supporters and detractors. I don’t think the piece can be described as a vanity project. Especially, when people in the film describe Kurzweil as being "wrong."

    John Horgan needs to do more research (and thinking) before writing his articles. And Scientific America needs to vet their articles more.

    Stanley Bridger, Mountain View

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  19. 19. Amara 3:37 pm 06/23/2010

    From Ray Kurzweil: "John Horgan writes ‘Kurzweil has also made a vanity documentary called Transcendent Man.’ This is incorrect. Transcendent Man is an independent documentary made by Barry and Felicia Ptolemy and I had no role in making it."

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  20. 20. ...sleeprunning... 7:00 pm 06/23/2010

    The Silly-larity is what we call it.

    The desperate hope hope to cheat death always takes on the pop ideas/tech/media of each generation nearing death and those to bored to have much else to do then run around trying to out run death.

    Tech, not science, is our new religion. Hey at least we’re not mounting up to kill heathens in the mid east – a children’s crusade. So that’s progress!

    I just hope there are cute girls in this geek versions of 40- virgins-and-free- lattes-for-eternity ‘cus I am NOT spending eternity with a buncha hi IQ, bored, ultra wealthy, mid age- white guys from Nor Cal or MIT…TALKIN about girls/cars/gaming/VC deals/girls/etc….actually wouldn’t that be defined as hell?

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  21. 21. redazzo 7:39 am 06/24/2010

    I’ve been following the transhumanist and singularitarian philosophical movements since the late nineties, and have generally found its adherents fairly well-rooted in reality. Unfortunately, in my view, Ray’s involvement and collaboration with a medical doctor who espouses homeopathic treatments has seriously dented his credibility.

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  22. 22. barry12345 10:46 am 06/24/2010

    Lots of todays technology would be unfathomable to people just 30 years ago. Trying to argue that this exponential advance will stop is simply arguing against a strong historical trend- so where’s YOUR data? I’m not sure what the point of this article is- brains are complicated? haha… read Jeff Hawkins, ‘on intelligence’. Because the underlying principals of intelligence may not be nearly as complicated as we imagine. Your critique is predictable: we like to assign a mystical transcendent status to things we don’t understand.
    I dont know about the term singularity, but- will our relationship to technology go through a phase shift type event in the next 50 years? I say, according to the trends- its very very likely.

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  23. 23. robert schmidt 9:25 pm 06/25/2010

    @John Horgan, "…exposed how the decoding of the human genome has yielded little or no medical payoff" you need to read the article here on the 10th anniversary of the decoded genome. There is a great quote about the first rule of technology, new discoveries tend to result in overestimation of the short term consequences and underestimation of the long term consequences. Kurtzweil may be over optimistic about the rate of advancement, but I would rather have that than your cynicism. Hope drives us forward, cynicism stops us in our tracks.

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  24. 24. robert schmidt 10:04 pm 06/25/2010

    @Madd Barkington, "Anyone who thinks the human brain is simple enough to interface with technology has a very shallow understanding of either. Data storage alone is a joke compared to the brain’s ability to store and retrieve information, and that’s just talking about raw data." granted, the way the brain and modern computers work is very different but not incompatible. We already have brain computer interfaces and research is being done on prosthetic brain chips to replace damaged brain tissue. There are many different neuron and synapse models running on hardware, your optical mouse is one of them as it mimics the motion sensors in the retina. Last time I checked the brain had about 1 quadrillion synapses. If each of those synapses could be represented by 32 bits of data (and I know of no reason why they couldn’t) that would mean the brain stores about 4 terabytes of data. I have about that much storage in my home office. The big issue isn’t storage, (someone that had more than a shallow understanding of both computers and biology would already know that), the issue is that the brain has 100 billion filters (band-pass and others) and 1 quadrillion amplifiers running in parallel. My best computer only has 8 parallel processes. That is the limiting factor. Although, making a thinking machine might not require that many neurons and synapses as a machine does not need to regulate life support systems such as digestion and circulation. Those that like to believe humans are far too special to be replicated in a machine are allowing religious speciesism to cloud their judgement. We are all just electro-chemical machines. There is nothing about us that could not be replicated. The problem isn’t replication, it is integration.

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  25. 25. Miriam Ji Sun 2:51 pm 07/1/2010

    Rays predictions may be a bit like doing calculations in theoretical physics by assuming ideal conditions, i.e. neglecting disturbing factors (e.g. air resistance or friction) that are difficult to calculate. But for an engineer working with reality these negligible factors may be of great importance (e.g. for designing a car or aircraft). In this sense, Ray seems to calculate with an ideal case of technological development and an ideal case of the environment in which this takes place (under lab conditions). But disturbing factors (frictions, resistance etc.) are reality and present in form of societal influences. Like air resistance or friction these societal influences can represent great disturbances to the model under ideal conditions or in the lab and they are difficult (if not impossible) to predict in detail (like a turbulence).

    Thats why I look at foresights and forecasts from two perspectives: one representing the technological developments under ideal conditions, i.e. what could we have if we would have the necessary resources and support and would really want it and the other looking at potential influencing factors like resistance, but also perhaps tailwind conditions even spurring up things. In view of the first perspective, Rays predictions seem to look pretty good. In regard to the latter much has still not become reality in a way it could be, but in my view mainly due to economic situations, lack of funding, incoherent research efforts, social resistance, ethical and risk concerns etc. i.e. *social* disturbing factors.

    We could have much more renewable energy, we could produce enough food for all of humanity, be much further in life extension technologies, have genetically modified pets and we could all be cyborgs to some extent if we really wanted! If we would not constantly try to re-define intelligence in the context of AI just to save our human uniqueness, we may even already talk about strong AI to some extent (and why should an AI be capable of doing stupid human mistakes and get confused by emotions in order to be called really intelligent?). And also consider this: today many people may think that humans would not be capable of going to the moon, although we managed that already 41 years ago with far less advanced technology.

    So my main questions are always:

    - What can you do from a scientific-technical point of view? (Known natural laws and energetic considerations are the determining factors)
    - What can you do from an economic and resources point of view? (Financial, human, natural resources and time for accomplishment are the determining factors)
    - What do you want to do from a societal point of view? (Societal interest are the determining factors, and thus not everything that would be scientifically, technically and economically possible is also being done).

    And imagine what we would be capable of doing if we would decide to put all our effort into this particular goal!

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  26. 26. matrix 7:40 pm 03/18/2011

    Totally agree with the critic of this funny singularity institute and their ‘vision’.
    Basically they want to get to the cake (like we all want really in AI and Cognitive Science), whithout knowing how it is made of! without doing their homework, plain and simple. A short cut to an undeserved prize anyway, since, and even, the prize is not, or should not be anyone’s localgoal, thats ego, thats careers just. In other words, it really sounds pathetic from any view, something just banal and uninteresting. The goal is deep understanding, not the ‘visionaries’ behind it! Lacks atitude and intelectual maturity at its core. On the other hand, ironically, these Kurzweil guys who get way beyond their intelectual means, as history has frequently shown us, are needed – for they invite grounded, realistic critical thinking to evaluate more seriously big questions the world has this next century to sort. Keep up with the good work though, you might actually inspire some ‘singular’ video games, to amuse us all while we take a coffe break, from serious work, i mean
    :)

    7

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  27. 27. matrix 7:43 pm 03/19/2011

    i must admit..
    checked long time ago, SIAI, and thought they were way beyond themselves as noticed on my previous post, compared with where really, in reality, they were..
    as it were..
    read recently Horgan’s critic and just ‘shoot typed’ with former impressions i holded, and criticized the project all together..
    must admit was saying..
    i was unfair, in part at least..
    after revising their work nowadays, accordingly, with the university and more matured notions..
    i changed my opinion, again, in part
    your recent partnerships are certainly helping to create a foundation from where matured technology can be studied and developed..
    i still hold high reserves though due to the lack of theoretical work that needs to be done, accordingly, for, expected matured assessments of rationality.
    Congratulations anyhow, and apologise for those irreflective jumped conclusions that, as said, where based on former state-of-affairs from the referred project.
    notwithstanding the above correction, one should be glad to have high frequency critics, or sharp hawk advocates evaluating our work, i like really – it sharpens intellectual spirit anyway

    many thanks

    7

    PS: mind your egos still :)
    its just redundant fuzziness really, we dont need more than the logic one!
    for tractability purposes then
    relate scale to good old engineering and
    be patient, its a big task, avoid fast conclusions! :)

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