Ray Kurzweil lays out an argument that in the near future, humans will “transcend biology” and become computer-based entities in his book “The Singularity Is Near”. Although he says that this will present neither a utopia nor a dystopia, there is no doubt that he sees this eventuality in a positive light, saying it will end poverty, among other things. This line of thinking has been called transhumanism. Kurzweil is one of the most prominent transhumanist thinkers. As a technology worker and a concerned citizen, I’d like to examine Kurzweil’s ideas about this proposed future, and explore them from my own perspective.
In being confronted with his ideas, first we must grapple with whether Kurzweil predictions are plausible and likely. If our reaction is simply dismissive, that this isn’t going to happen, then there’s no need for further analysis. But if we can see the possibility for technology to become the basis for human thought, then a whole host of issues arises that demand consideration. I’ll sum up some central beliefs, so we can begin an analysis. Kurzweil’s central predictions rest on just a few main arguments (which are exhaustively researched and cross-referenced in the book):
- The exponential rate at which humans develop technology is increasing – the size scales are becoming smaller and computers are becoming faster and cheaper – making today’s super computers common and inexpensive down the road.
- People will gain the ability to reverse engineer the human mind and to fully understand how thoughts are represented physically in the brain.
- Through mastery of nanotechnology, humans will create microscopic robots capable of traversing our bodies and transmitting information to and from the brain.
These arguments are put together and lead to the concept of creating mathematical models of the brain and gathering real time state information on individual minds, thereby enabling the human consciousness to leave the “hardware” of the body and enter the hardware of the supercomputer. Once there, the mind’s “software” can run extremely fast, creating a super-intelligence capable of thinking a million times faster than a biological human. The “Singularity” Kurzweil speaks of will occur once there is rampant uploading of minds and technological and cultural innovation becomes so fast that biological humans won’t be able to keep pace. He estimates this will take place in the year 2045. If you think you might not be around for that, he also says that humans will be able soon to reverse biological aging processes. This would ensure near-immortality for those who can take advantage of this progress. According to Kurzweil, soon after the Singularity humans will largely leave biology behind. The computing power of humanity will then proceed to consume every available resource on the planet Earth, since we will learn to use raw atoms or subatomic particles to compute, and why stop when you have such a good thing going? From there, we will turn the solar system into a vast network of computation, and so on to the entire Milky Way and then whole universe. We will, of course, leave untouched whatever portion of nature that we deem necessary for preservation purposes. Purely biological humans will always be around, perhaps as museum pieces.