Quoting: The Singularity is Near

I just completed reading Ray Kurzweil’s non-fiction book about AI and the future of humanity.

Book Cover

To quote Wikipedia:

Kurzweil describes his law of accelerating returns which predicts an exponential increase in technologies like computers, genetics, nanotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence. Once the Singularity has been reached, Kurzweil says that machine intelligence will be infinitely more powerful than all human intelligence combined. Afterwards he predicts intelligence will radiate outward from the planet until it saturates the universe. The Singularity is also the point at which AI and humans would merge.

It was a great read and abound with fascinating predictions, but also felt aggressively so. Many paragraphs are spent contradicting critics and naysayers with various obvious proof and facts, some of which have barely begun being explored. There are many predictions that refer to technology yet to be conceived, yet Kurzweil manages to link to something that has already been achieved in the same area.

I won’t dispute the credibility of all these statements, but as an entertaining piece of reading material, that sometimes made for a strenuous read.

Another thing that had me regularly frowning with doubt was Kurweil’s repeatedly strong belief that the human brain will be reverse engineered, and soon. I would love this to happen as well, but I have a feeling it’s not going to be quite that easy. The human brain is extremely complex and have trillions of connections between its billions of cells.

And what about consciousness? We still don’t really know what that is about.

Nevertheless the book was still an intriguing read and full of quoteworthy stuff. I’ve thought about writing blog posts quoting what I found interesting in the books I read, and I have decided that Kurzweil’s book will finally be the one where I try this out. So, here goes.

The book has nine chapters, as well as a prologue and an epilogue.

Prologue – The Power of Ideas

I realized that most inventions fail not because the R&D department can’t get them to work but because the timing is wrong. Inventing is a lot like surfing: you have to anticipate and catch the wave at just the right moment.

I’ve sometimes played with the thought of grabbing some type of new technology and then use a time machine to travel back and give it to humans in the past, but I’ve come to the same conclusion that it might just not catch on at all. The timing is wrong and the context is out of whack.

Chapter One – The Six Epochs

By the end of this century, the nonbiological portion of our intelligence will be trillions of trillions times more powerful than unaided human intelligence.

So, citizen of 2019, what do you say? Are we getting there? Remember, this book was published in 2005.

Nanotechnology-based manufacturing devices in the 2020s will be capable of creating almost any physical product from inexpensive raw materials and information.

Kurzweil puts a lot of trust in nanotechnology and it is frequently revisited in the book.

In the beginning of various chapters, Kurzweil quotes other inventors, scientists and philosophers. It must have taken quite some time to gather all these wise words. The first of many that I liked was this one:

The future ain’t what it used to be.Yogi Berra

Ain’t that the truth.

In the description of the first epoch, he touches upon the anthropic principle. It’s a comment to the question about why the constants of the universe are fine-tuned to allow life to exist in the first place.

The anthropic principle holds that only in a universe that allowed our own evolution would we be here to ask such questions.

I always liked this principle. It works for me.

The following chapter quote is actually the last sentence of a much larger paragraph:

The first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.Irving John Good, 1965

Time for a prediction:

We will have the requisite hardware to emulate human intelligence with supercomputers by the end of the decade and with personal-computer-size devices by the end of the following decade. We will have effective software models of human intelligence by the mid-2020s.

And another:

Once machines achieve the ability to design and engineer technology as humans do, only at far higher speeds and capacities, they will have access to their own designs (source code) and the ability to manipulate them. Humans are now accomplishing something similar through biotechnology (changing the genetic and other information underlying our biology), but in a much slower and far more limited way than what machines will be able to achieve by modifying their own programs.

And about virtual reality too:

Nanobots will interact with biological neurons to vastly extend human experience by creating virtual reality from within the nervous system.

And at the end of everything:

Ultimately, the entire universe will become saturated with our intelligence. This is the destiny of the universe.

Chapter Two – A Theory of Technology Evolution

In a paragraph about the nature of order, I found this gem:

Not surprisingly, the concept of complexity is complex.


I liked that Kurzweil at one point described entropy as “randomness in a closed system” – probably one of the shortest descriptions I have seen of this. Can you make a shorter one?

Some of the earlier chapters of the book had several pages taking place inside a gray box, which I thought was a slightly iffy design decision. Anyway, inside one of those he talked about books:

The size and weight of computerized devices are approaching those of books, but the devices still are heavier than a paperback book.

I think our devices of today have indeed surpassed that, but I loved his next sentence:

Paper books also do not run out of battery power.

Much later, inside another one of those gray matter boxes:

Perhaps the first to postulate that the universe is being computed on a digital computer was Konrad Zuse in 1967.

Here’s a link to his Wikipedia article, in case you want to read more about him.

On the same topic, Kurzweil quotes Robert Wright quoting Edward Fredkin in the 1980s as saying:

Fredkin believes that the universe is very literally a computer and that it is being used by someone, or something, to solve a problem. It sounds like a good-news/bad-news joke: the good news is that our lives have purpose; the bad news is that their purpose is to help some remote hacker estimate pi to nine jillion decimal places.

Returning to virtual reality, Kurzweil offers another prediction:

Once we have full-immersion virtual-reality environments incorporating all of the senses, which will be feasible by the late 2020s, there will be no reason to utilize real offices. Real estate will be become virtual.

Maybe Second Life will then have a sequel named Third Life?

On the topic of the exponential growth in education and learning:

Automation started by amplifying the power of our muscles and in recent times has been amplifying the power of our minds. So for the past two centuries, automation has been eliminating jobs at the bottom of the skill ladder while creating new (and better-paying) jobs at the top of the skill ladder.

Chapter Three – Achieving the Comp. Capacity of the Human Brain

Here, Kurzweil calculates the processing power of the human brain based on the retina, resulting in…

…an estimate of about 1014 (100 trillion) instructions per second for the entire brain.

After discussing simulation attempts for a few pages, he ends up with…

…about 1016 synaptic transactions per second.

And another prediction:

It is reasonable to expect human brain capacity, at least in terms of hardware computational capacity, for one thousand dollars by around 2020.

He also touches upon the capacity of the human memory. A reasonable estimate ends at a…

…total capacity of 1013 (10 trillion) bits for a human’s functional memory.


If we model human memory on the level of individual interneuronal connections, we get a higher estimate. We can estimate about 104 bits per connection to store the connection patterns and neurotransmitter concentrations. With an estimated 1014 connections, that comes to 1018 (a billion billion) bits.

This is probably too much out of context, but still:

At 1042 cps, a 2.2-pound “ultimate portable computer” would be able to perform the equivalent of all human thought over the last ten thousand years (assumed at ten billion human brains for ten thousand years) in ten microseconds.

For the deduction of the 1042 cps, you’re going to have to read the book.

Finally, Kurzweil sets a date for the singularity:

I set the date for the Singularity—representing a profound and disruptive transformation in human capability—as 2045.

The nonbiological intelligence created in that year will be one billion times more powerful than all human intelligence today.

Chapter Four – Achieving the Software of Human Intelligence

Moving on to discuss the complexity of the human brain:

The firing of a neuron can be considered a digital event whereas neurotransmitter levels in the synapse can be considered analog values.

Peeling the onion:

The brain tends to use self-organizing, chaotic, holographic processes (that is, information not located in one place but distributed throughout a region). It is also massively parallel and utilizes hybrid digital-controlled analog techniques.

The massive parallelism of the human brain is the key to its pattern-recognition ability, which is one of the pillars of our species’ thinking.

A bit later, a large paragraph about our memories:

The reason memories can remain intact even if three quarters of the connections have disappeared is that the coding method used appears to have properties similar to those of a hologram. In a hologram, information is stored in a diffuse pattern throughout an extensive region. If you destroy three quarters of a hologram, the entire image remains intact, although with only one quarter of the resolution. Research by Pentti Kanerva, a neuroscientist at Redwood Neuroscience Institute, supports the idea that memories are dynamically distributed throughout a region of neurons. This explains why old memories persist by nonetheless appear to “fade”, because their resolution has diminished.

I’ve had the same thoughts about how memories are stored throughout the years. Recently, I’ve even pondered how I can’t remember the faces of people I had dramatic interactions with in my old job as a postman. The exact wording of their complaints is also missing. I actually find that positive, as these situations were a sometimes unavoidable downside of the job.

Here’s a small aside:

You can write faster by drawing straight lines instead of detailed curves for each letter.

On the topic of our visual system:

Although we have the illusion of receiving high-resolution images from our eyes, what the optic nerve actually sends to the brain is just outlines and clues about points of interest in our visual field. We then essentially hallucinate the world from cortical memories that interpret a series of extremely low-resolution movies that arrive in parallel channels.

Kurzweil also mentions that…

…neural activity to initiate an action actually occurs about a third of a second before the brain has made the decision to take the action.

I’ve heard about even much larger time estimates the most recent years. I’m well aware of how much the brain tries to predict scenarios, like how the cerebellum predicts how the screen scrolls up or down as you try to move the scrollbar but because the program has crashed it doesn’t move, yet your eyes swoop in the expected direction for a fraction of a second.

However, I’m not entirely happy by the latest findings that the brain decides what to do a long time before it feels like you’re finally making the actual judgment. It makes it sound like free will is a complete illusion. There may be other reasons for discarding free will that I’m more comfortable with, like how the universe may be evolving in a predetermined manner, but that brain delay? That’s just creepy.

Moving on, spindle cells are found in certain cortex areas of the brain and are particularly active…

…when a person is dealing with high-level emotions such as love, anger, sadness, and sexual desire. Situations that strongly activate the spindle cells include when a subject looks at her romantic partner or hears her child crying.

Interestingly, spindle cells do not exist in newborn humans but begin to appear only at around the age of four months and increase significantly from ages one to three. Children’s ability to deal with moral issues and perceive such higher-level emotions as love develop during this same time period.

We have fifty billion neurons in the cerebellum that deal with skill formation, billions in the cortex that perform the transformations for perception and rational planning, but only about eighty thousand spindle cells dealing with high-level emotions.

Another prediction. Kurzweil claims that the confirmation of our understanding of the theory of operation will be in the form of a functional simulation of…

…human intelligence that passes the Turing test, which I believe will take place by 2029.

Chapter Five – GNR / Three Overlapping Revolutions

On the topic of prolonging the life expectancy:

By modifying genes in the C. elegans worm that control its insulin and sex-hormone levels, the lifespan of the test animals was expanded sixfold, to the equivalent of a five-hundred-year lifespan for a human.

Here’s a really good example of Kurzweil’s steadfast trust in our abilities:

Biology will never be able to match what we will be capable of engineering once we fully understand biology’s principles of operation.

On the topic of nanobots:

The basic concept of nanotechnology is that we will use trillions of nanobots to accomplish meaningful results—a factor that is also the source of the safety concerns that have received so much attention. Creating this many nanobots at reasonable cost will require self-replication at some level, which while solving the economic issue will introduce potentially grave dangers. Biology uses the same solution to create organisms with trillions of cells, and indeed we find that virtually all diseases derive from biology’s self-replication process gone awry.

Kurweil quotes Eric Drexler quoting Richard Smalley with this observation:

When a scientist says something is possible, they’re probably underestimating how long it will take. But if they say it’s impossible, they’re probably wrong.

Coincidentally, Kurzweil also uses the much more famous quote by Arthur. C. Clarke in the beginning of the ninth chapter:

If a scientist says that something is possible he is almost certainly right, but if he says that it is impossible he is very probably wrong.Arthur C. Clarke

But back to the topic at hand:

Those of us who attempt to project into the future based on well-grounded methodologies are at a disadvantage. Certain future realities may be inevitable, but they are not yet manifest, so they are easy to deny. A small body of thought at the beginning of the twentieth century insisted that heavier-than-air flight was feasible, but mainstream skeptics could simply point out that if it was so feasible, why had it never been demonstrated?

On the topic of powering the singularity:

All technologies will essentially become information technologies, including energy.

It’s important to recognize that most energy sources today represent solar power in one form or another.

A while later on the same topic:

We could meet [the] entire energy need with solar power alone if we captured only 0.0003 (three ten-thousandths) of the sun’s energy as it hits the Earth.

We could also pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to provide the carbon for nanomachinery, which would reverse the increase in carbon dioxide resulting from our current industrial-era technologies. We might, however, want to be particularly cautious about doing more than reverse the increase over the past several decades, lest we replace global warming with global cooling.

Nanobots in the bloodstream:

Robert A. Freitas Jr.—a pioneering nanotechnology theorist and leading proponent of nanomedicine (reconfiguring our biological systems through engineering on a molecular scale), and author of a book with that title—has designed robotic replacements for human blood cells that perform hundreds of thousands of times more effectively than their biological counterparts. With Freita’s respirocytes (robotic red blood cells) a runner could do an Olympic sprint for fifteen minutes without taking a breath.

Another external chapter quote that I liked:

Will robots inherit the earth? Yes, but they will be our children.Marvin Minsky, 1995

And another prediction:

I expect that full [molecular nanotechnology] will emerge prior to strong AI, but only by a few years (around 2025 for nanotechnology, around 2029 for strong AI).

Nevertheless, Kurzweil is aware of the…

…premise that once strong AI is achieved, it will immediately become a runaway phenomenon of rapidly escalating superintelligence.

He then goes on in the book to explain why his own view is only slightly different.

On neural nets:

The human brain does not have a central processor that simulates each neuron. Rather, we can consider each neuron and each interneuronal connection to be an individual slow processor.

Then another one of those gray matter boxes emerged. This time about whether humans are getting smarter, or computers are getting stupider.

In “The Age of Intelligent Machines”, which I wrote between 1986 and 1989, I predicted that a computer would defeat the human world chess champion by the end of the 1990s. I also noted that computers were gaining about forty-five points per year in their chess ratings, whereas the best human playing was essentially fixed, so this projected a crossover point in 1998. Indeed, Deep Blue did defeat Gary Kasparov in a highly publicized tournament in 1997.

On the topic of military and intelligence:

Advance warning of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks was apparently detected by the National Security Agency’s AI-based Echelon system, which analyzes the agency’s extensive monitoring of communications traffic. Unfortunately, Echelon’s warnings were not reviewed by human agents until it was too late.

As another aside:

The AI winter is long since over. We are well into the spring of narrow AI.

On the topic of strong AI:

If you open up your Palm Pilot and cut a wire, there’s a good chance you will break the machine. Yet we routinely lose many neurons and interneuronal connections with no ill effect, because the brain is self-organizing and relies on distributed patterns in which many specific details are not important.

Chapter Six – The Impact . . .

Billions of nanobots will travel through the bloodstream in our bodies and brains. In our bodies, they will destroy pathogens, correct DNA errors, eliminate toxins, and perform many other tasks to enhance our physical well-being. As a result, we will be able to live indefinitely without aging.

On the topic of redesigning the digestive system:

Research by Dr. Ron Kahn at the Joslin Diabetes Center has already identified the “fat insulin receptor” (FIR) gene, which controls accumulation of fat by the fat cells. By blocking the expression of this single gene in the fat cells of mice, Dr. Kahn’s pioneering research has demonstrated that the animals were able to eat without restriction yet remain lean and healthy. Although they ate far more than control mice, the “FIR knockout” mice actually lived 18 percent longer and had substantially lower rates of heart disease and diabetes. It’s no surprise that pharmaceutical companies are hard at work to apply these findings to the human FIR gene.

On the topic of programmable blood:

I mentioned earlier Rob Freita’s nanotechnology-based designs to replace our blood cells, platelets, and white blood cells.

Freitas also envisions micro-size artificial platelets that could achieve homeostasis (bleeding control) up to one thousand times faster than biological platelets do, as well as nanorobotic “microbivores” (white-blood-cell replacements) that will download software to destroy specific infections hundreds of times faster than antibiotics and will be effective against all bacterial, viral, and fungal infections, as well as cancer, with no limitations on drug resistance.

On the topic of us becoming cyborgs:

By the 2030s we will become more nonbiological than biological.

Biological evolution is only capable of what is called “local optimization,” meaning that it can improve a design but only within the constraints of design “decisions” that biology arrived at long ago.

Nature doesn’t do refactoring.

Kurzweil also believes that in by the year 2030…

…a “Virtual-reality environment designer” will be a new job description and a new art form.

With our current VR technology, we may already have that job description.

On the topic of the transformation to nonbiological experience:

Recent research shows that even our neurons, thought to be relatively long lasting, change all of their constituent subsystems, such as the tubules, in a matter of weeks. Only our pattern of matter and energy persists, and even that gradually changes.

Moving on to the topic of the longevity of information:

Information lasts only so long as someone cares about it.

The only way that my archive (or any other information base) can remain viable is if it is continually upgraded and ported to the latest hardware and software standards. If an archive remains ignored, it will ultimately become as inaccessible as my old eight-inch PDP-8 floppy disks.

And then came a prediction we know by now actually happened:

In the early part of the second decade of this century visual-auditory virtual-reality environments will be full immersion, very high resolution, and very convincing.

Again, remember this book was published in 2005.

Another external chapter quote:

Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.Helen Keller

Perhaps a bit binary. Pun intended.

More about virtual reality:

By the 2020s, full-immersion virtual reality will be a vast playground of compelling environments and experiences.

Although the environments will not be completely convincing at first, by the late 2020s they will be indistinguishable from real reality and will involve all of the senses, as well as neurological correlations of our emotions. As we enter the 2030s there won’t be clear distinctions between human and machine, between real and virtual reality, or between work and play.

Kurzweil then moves on to ponder why we are probably alone in the universe. After several pages of presenting and describing the Drake equation, he first mentions this:

The SETI Institute’s senior astronomer, Seth Shostak, estimates that there are between ten thousand and one million planets in the Milky Way containing a radio-broadcasting civilization. Carl Sagan estimated around a million in the galaxy, and [Frank] Drake estimated around ten thousand.

However, Kurzweil himself is not as optimistic. After a few suggestions for the equation, he believes…

…the Drake equation tells us that there is about one (1.25 to be exact) radio-capable civilization in the Milky Way. And we already know of one.

I believe him. It sounds about right.

His point at hand:

The jump from the first stirrings of radio to powers that go beyond a mere type II civilization takes only a few hundred years. So the skies should be ablaze with intelligent transmissions.

Nevertheless, he ends the chapter with these words:

Incidentally, this is not an argument against the value of the SETI project, which should have high priority, because the negative finding is no less important than a positive result.

Which immediately makes me think of this classic old quote by Arthur C. Clarke:

Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.

Later, Kurzweil touches upon solar system-scale technology, and then another prediction is set down:

The computational powers of these solar system-scale computers will be achieved, according to my projections in [an earlier chapter], around the end of this century.

On the topic of the speed of light:

Recent experiments have measured the flight time of photons at nearly twice the speed of light, a result of quantum uncertainty on their position.

Kurzweil even ponders the currently accelerating expansion of the universe:

Yet another faster-than-the-speed-of-light phenomenon is the speed with which galaxies can recede from each other as a result of the expansion of the universe. If the distance between two galaxies is greater than what is called the Hubble distance, then these galaxies are receding from one another at faster than the speed of light. This does not violate Einstein’s special theory of relativity, because this velocity is caused by the space itself expanding rather than the galaxies moving through space.

So, can the speed of light be changed?

In 2001 astronomer John Webb discovered that the so-called fine-structure constant varied when he examined light from sixty-eight quasars (very bright young galaxies). The speed of light is one of four constants that the fine-structure constant comprises, so the result is another suggestion that varying conditions in the universe may cause the speed of light to change.

Much later in the book, he even writes this:

If I had to place a bet, I would put my money on the conjecture that circumventing the speed of light is possible and that we will be able to do this within the next couple of hundred years.

Revisiting the Fermi paradox:

It takes only a few centuries at most from the advent of computation for civilizations to expand outward at at least light speed. Given this, how can it be that we have not noticed them?

The conclusion I reach is that it is likely (although not certain) that there are no such other civilizations. In other words, we are in the lead. That’s right, our humble civilization with its pickup trucks, fast food, and persistent conflicts (and computation!) is in the lead in terms of the creation of complexity and order in the universe.

Could this turn into another “the Earth is the center of the solar system” of our time?

Incidentally, I have always considered the science-fiction notion of large spaceships piloted by huge, squishy creatures similar to us to be very unlikely. Seth Shostak comments that “the reasonable probability is that any extraterrestrial intelligence we will detect will be machine intelligence, not biological intelligence like us.” In my view this is not simply a matter of biological beings sending out machines (as we do today) but rather that any civilization sophisticated enough to make the trip here would have long since passed the point of merging with its technology and would not need to send physically bulky organisms and equipment.

Revisiting the anthropic principle:

How do we account for the remarkable design of the laws and constants of matter and energy in our universe that have allowed for the increasing complexity we see in biological and technology evolution? Freeman Dyson once commented that “the universe in some sense knew we were coming.”

The perplexity of how it is that the universe is so “friendly” to biology has led to various formulations of the anthropic principle. The “weak” version of the anthropic principle points out simply that if it were not the case, we wouldn’t be here to wonder about it. So only in a universe that allowed for increasing complexity could the question even be asked.

But then, on the topic of evolving universes:

Leonard Susskind, the discoverer of string theory, and Lee Smolin, a theoritical physicist and expert on quantum gravity, have suggested that universes give rise to other universes in a natural, evolutionary process that gradually refines the natural constants. In other words it is not by accident that the rules and constants of our universe are ideal for evolving intelligent life but rather that they themselves evolved to be that way.

That’s why I’m a fan of the theory of the multiverse. It offers a good reason instead of making the anthropic principle sound like magic. Or God.

Kurzweil then ponders the fate of the universe. Will it end in a big crunch, or expand forever?

In my view, the primary issue is not the mass of the universe, or the possible existence of antigravity, or of Einstein’s so-called cosmological constant. Rather, the fate of the universe is a decision yet to be made, one which we will intelligently consider when the time is right.

Black holes are of course also a topic of interest:

A well-organized black hole would be the most powerful conceivable computer in terms of cps per liter.

Chapter Seven – Ich bin ein Singularitarian

Yes, we have a soul. But it’s made of lots of tiny robots.Giulio Giorelli

The chapter has a bullet list of reflections. Here’s a few of them:

My body is temporary. Its particles turn over almost completely every month. Only the pattern of my body and brain have continuity.

Knowledge is precious in all its forms: music, art, science, and technology, as well as the embedded knowledge in our bodies and brains. Any loss of this knowledge is tragic.

Intelligence selectively destroys information to create knowledge.

When people speak of losing part of themselves when a loved one dies, they are speaking quite literally, since we lose the ability to effectively use the neural patterns in our brain that had self-organized to interact with that person.

Malcolm Muggeridge articulates the common view that “if it weren’t for death, life would be unbearable.” But the explosion of art, science, and other forms of knowledge that the Singularity will bring will make life more than bearable; it will make life truly meaningful.

In my view the purpose of life—and of our lives—is to create and appreciate ever-greater knowledge, to move toward greater “order.”

Two external quotes from the beginning of a sub-chapter:

If you could blow the brain up to the size of a mill and walk about inside, you would not find consciousness.G.W. Leibniz

Dreams are real while they last; can we say the more of life?Havelock Ellis

About consciousness:

People often talk about consciousness as if it were a clear property of an entity that can readily be identified, detected, and gauged. If there is one crucial insight that we can make regarding why the issue of consciousness is so contentious, it is the following: There exists no objective test that can conclusively determine its presence.

And how it affects nonbiological entities:

Nonbiological entities will be extremely intelligent, so they’ll be able to convince other humans (biological, nonbiological, or somewhere in between) that they are conscious. They’ll have all the delicate emotional cues that convince us today that humans are conscious. They will be able to make other humans laugh and cry. And they’ll get mad if others don’t accept their claims.

That last sentence might be sending the wrong message, though.

I was quite amused to find the following paragraph with questions:

Even if we assume that all humans who seem to conscious in fact are, why is my consciousness associated with the particular person, me? Why am I conscious of this particular person who read Tom Swift Jr. books as a child, got involved with inventions, writes books about the future, and so on? Every morning that I wake up, I have the experiences of this specific person. Why wasn’t I Alanis Morissette or someone else?

I have often been pondering the exact same thing myself.

Who am I? What am I?

I am rather like the pattern that water makes in a stream as it rushes past the rocks in its path.

How can matter (the brain) lead to something as apparently immaterial as consciousness?

An as another aside:

90 percent of the cells in your body don’t [even] have your DNA.

On the topic of singularity as transcendence:

Random strokes on a canvas are just paint. But when arranged in just the right way, they transcend the material stuff and become art. Random notes are just sounds. Sequenced in an “inspired” way, we have music. A pile of components is just an inventory. Ordered in an innovative manner, and perhaps with the addition of some software (another pattern) we have the “magic” (transcendence) of technology.

Chapter Eight – The Deeply Intertwined Promise and Peril of GNR

In chapter eight, one of the later sub-chapters had this external quote:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.Charles Dickens

I’ve often seen the first two sentences mentioned. It was nice to see more of it for once. It’s from A Tale of Two Cities, a historical novel from 1859 which I obviously haven’t read.

By the way, GNR is short for Genomics, Nanotechnology and Robotics.

Most significant will be the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, although nonbiological intelligence will quickly come to predominate.

This later leads into whether we are living in a simulation that can be turned off.

The best way we could avoid being shut down would be to be interesting to the observers of the simulation. Assuming that someone is actually paying attention to the simulation, it’s a fair assumption that it’s less likely to be turned off when it’s compelling than otherwise.

I’ve heard this idea in science videos on YouTube lately. Did Kurzweil come up with this first?

Our world appears to have a long and rich history. This means that either our world is not, in fact, a simulation or, if it is, the simulation has been going a very long time and thus is not likely to stop anytime soon. Of course it is also possible that the simulation includes evidence of a long history without the history’s having actually occurred.

A disturbing thought.

On preparing the defenses for nanotechnology running amok:

Should we tell the millions of people afflicted with cancer and other devastating conditions that we are cancelling the development of all bioengineered treatments because there is a risk that these same technologies may someday be used for malevolent purposes?

The vast majority of software-virus authors would not release viruses if they thought they would kill people.

Probably not, but I imagine it only takes the exceptions…

Moving on to GMOs:

It is not my position that all GMOs are inherently safe; obviously safety testing of each product is needed. But the anti-GMO movement takes the position that every GMO is by its very nature hazardous, a view that has no scientific basis.

And back to nanobots:

A phenomenon like gray goo (unrestrained nanobot replication) will be countered with “blue goo” (“police” nanobots that combat the “bad” nanobots).

On the topic of protecting us from “unfriendly” strong AI:

Given that self-improving strong AI cannot be recalled, [Eliezer] Yudkowsky points out that we need to “get it right the first time,” and that its initial design must have “zero nonrecoverable errors.”

And decentralization:

Centralized technologies are subject to disruption and disaster. They also tend to be inefficient, wasteful, and harmful to the environment.

As these technologies develop, our need for aggregating people in large buildings and cities will diminish, and people will spread out, living where they want and gathering together in virtual reality.

Or Skype.

Time for another external quote:

We come from goldfish, essentially, but that [doesn’t] mean we turned around and killed all the goldfish. Maybe [the AIs] will feed us once a week… If you had a machine with a 10 to the 18th power IQ over humans, wouldn’t you want it to govern, or at least control your economy?Seth Shostak

And as the last piece of wisdom from the eight chapter:

Greater intelligence will always find a way to circumvent measures that are the product of a lesser intelligence.

Chapter Nine – Response to Critics

The genome contains only about thirty to one hundred million bytes of design information when redundancy is considered, so the design information for the brain is of a manageable level.

Kurzweil really doesn’t like the idea of the Chinese Room:

Consider that I understand English, but none of my neurons do. My understanding is represented in vast patterns of neurotransmitter strengths, synaptic clefts, and interneuronal connections.

On critiscism from incredulity:

Consider that predicting the path of a single molecule in a gas is essentially impossible, but predicting certain properties of the entire gas (composed of a great many chaotically interacting molecules) can reliably be predicted through the laws of thermodynamics. Analogously, it is not possible to reliably predict the results of a specific project or company, but the overall capabilities of information technology (comprised of many chaotic activities) can nonetheless be dependably anticipated through the laws of accelerating returns.

About software stability:

I am not aware of any airplane crashes that have been caused by failures of automated landing software; the same, however, cannot be said for human reliability.

While this may sound true, would the creators or the users of the automated landing software tell the world about a plane crashing with hundreds of people dead because of a silly bug?

Moving on to the responsiveness of software:

The romancing of software from years or decades ago is comparable to people’s idyllic view of life hundreds of years ago, when people were “unencumbered” by the frustrations of working with machines. Life was unfettered, perhaps, but it was also short, labor-intensive, poverty filled, and disease and disaster prone.

And then the complexity:

We can already handle levels of software complexity that exceed what is needed to model and simulate the parallel, self-organizing, fractal algorithms that we are discovering in the human brain.

Which ultimately leads back to discussing the structure of the brain:

The brain uses massive parallel processing as one strategy to achieve more complex functions and faster reaction times, and we will need to utilize this approach in our machines to achieve optimal computational densities.

As I discussed earlier, the human brain itself is created from a genome with only thirty to one hundred million bytes of useful, compressed information. How is it, then, that an organ with one hundred trillion connections can result from a genome that is so small? (I estimate that just the interconnection data alone needed to characterize the human brain is one million times greater than the information in the genome.) The answer is that the genome specifies a set of processes, each of which utilizes chaotic methods (that is, initial randomness, then self-organization) to increase the amount of information represented.

The design information in the genome is a probabilistic fractal, meaning that the rules are applied with a certain amount of randomness each time a rule is iterated. There is, for example, very little information in the genome describing the wiring pattern for the cerebellum, which comprises more than half the neurons in the brain. A small number of genes describe the basic pattern of the four cell types in the cerebellum and then say in essence, “Repeat this pattern several billion times with some random variation in each repetition.” The result may look very complicated, but the design information is relatively compact.

Much later, as an aside:

It is important to point out that imperfection is an inherent feature of any complex process, and that certainly includes human intelligence.

Getting close to the end of the book, Kurzweil once again returns to the subject of consciousness:

If I ask the question, “does a particular entity emit carbon dioxide,” I can answer that question through clear objective measurement. If I ask the question, “is this entity conscious,” I may be able to provide inferential arguments—possibly strong and convincing ones—but not clear objective measurement.

This was in an e-mail reply to John Searle.

As I discussed in [an earlier chapter], we have discovered a biological feature unique to humans and a few other primates: the spindle cells. And these cells with the deep branching structures do appear to be heavily involved with our conscious responses, especially emotional ones. Is the spindle cell structure the neurophysiological basis “x” for human consciousness? What sort of experiment could possibly prove that? Cats and dogs don’t have spindle cells. Does that prove that they have no conscious experience?

I think consciousness in humans and animals come in more or less amounts of strength, or resolution if you will. The smaller and simpler the animal, the less significant is the sense of consciousness. And I’ve often pondered whether insects are just small “soft robots” purely guided by instinctual rules.

On the topic of criticism from e.g. government regulation:

Desirable information technologies rapidly become ubiquitous and almost free. It is only when they don’t work very well (that is, in an early stage of development) that they are expensive and restricted to an elite.

Early in the second decade of this century, the Web will provide full immersion visual-auditory virtual reality with images written directly to our retinas from eyeglasses and lenses and very high-bandwidth wireless Internet access woven in our clothing.

While the VR prediction is pretty much spot on, I don’t have Internet access in my undies. I guess the access to the Internet kind of “froze” into the smartphones we use today.

Also, I wouldn’t want my mum to call me through my shoes. All yours, Agent 327.

In the second decade of this century, we will routinely be interacting with virtual humans that, although not yet Turing-test capable, will have sufficient natural language understanding to act as our personal assistants for a wide range of tasks.

Siri. Alexa. Cortana. Or the Google Assistant.

It is my thesis that by sharing the complexity as well as the actual patterns of human brains, [the] future nonbiological entities will display the intelligence and emotionally rich reactions (such as “aspirations”) of humans.

On the criticism from holism:

Despite the common wisdom that machines are deterministic and therefore predictable, there are numerous readily available sources of randomness available to machines. Contemporary theories of quantum mechanics postulate a profound randomness at the core of existence. According to certain theories of quantum mechanics, what appears to be the deterministic behavior of system at a macro level is simply the result of overwhelming statistical preponderances based on an enormous number of fundamentally unpredictable events. Moreover, the work of Stephen Wolfram and others has demonstrated that even a system that is in theory fully deterministic can nonetheless produce effectively random and, most importantly, entirely unpredictable results.


And in the end of the ninth and last chapter:

We can build and already are building “machines” that have powers far greater than the sum of their parts by combining the self-organizing design principles of the natural world with the accelerating powers of our human-initiated technology. It will be a formidable combination.


Just as we find it hard to see beyond the event horizon of a black hole, we also find it difficult to see beyond the event horizon or the historical Singularity. How can we, with our brains each limited to 1016 to 1019 cps, imagine what our future civilization in 2099 with its 1060 cps will be capable of thinking and doing?

About human centrality:

A common view is that science has consistently been correcting our overly inflated view of our own significance. Stephen Jay Gould said, “The most important scientific revolutions all include, as their common feature, the dethronement of human arrogance from one pedestal after another of previous convictions about our centrality in the cosmos.

But it turns out that we are central, after all. Our ability to create models—virtual realities—in our brains, combined with our modest-looking thumbs, has been sufficient to usher in another form of evolution; technology. That development enabled the persistence of the accelerating pace that started with biological evolution. It will continue until the entire universe is at our fingertips.

On my iPad Air 2 in portrait mode, the book has about 966 pages. It turned out that a whopping third of this was an appendix with tons of footnotes as well as an index. There may have been a lot of additional juicy tidbits to be found in these footnotes, but I didn’t read that part.

Awesome words found:

  • Interconnectedness
  • Pfizer’s Torcetrapib
  • Singularitarianism
  • Moratorium
  • Interlocutor
  • Ipso facto
  • Meritocracy
  • Mutatis mutandis
  • In toto
  • Human-ssinitiated (sic)

You can buy the book on Amazon. I bought mine on Apple Books for my iPad.

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