Mike's Book Reviews

The Age of Spiritual Machines


Ray Kurzweil

Subtitle:   When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence

Click here. Classification: Nonfiction.

What it's about:   The Age of Spiritual Machines  is an extrapolation of the next century of growth in machine intelligence (AI, or Artificial Intelligence), based on today's technology and trends. And how that will completely change humanity.

The book, as you'll see from the Table of Contents listing below, this book is broken into three main sections.

The first section reviews the trends that have gotten us to where we are. Kurzweil builds a very compelling case for the continuation of those trends. As it happens I'm an electrical engineer by trade. Where I could personally check his information, I found his assumptions to be quite conservative. He also makes very compelling arguments regarding why the trends will be durable rather than dying away. Bottom line: I was convinced.

The second section looks at where we are now, the choices we face, and the forces that will continue to drive technology's advance. I was most impressed with his argument that we WILL soon implement various advances, simply because they make life BETTER. For example: If you could dictate (with 100% reliability) into your computer rather than typing--much more slowly--wouldn't you? Of course would. How about a more direct brainwave link, so you could--even faster--simply THINK your words onto the screen. Would you want that? Yep. And so it goes, with the man-machine link becoming ever more intimate. And that trend will go on and on simply because people will WANT it to.

The third section is the most exciting. Ray Kurzweil starts skipping ahead a decade at a time at first, then in larger steps, showing what life will be like when living with the technology of that time.

He makes a very arresting point, along the way (Moore's Law): Computers are increasing in power, doubling their "intelligence" approximately every two years.

So what, you say? That's what *I* thought, too. Because I hadn't thought it out as Mr. Kurzweil had. Now I feel really stupid. Here's the point that drives this section: Human intelligence is changing only very slowly. Machine intelligence is doubling every two years. HUMANS are not going to win this race!

Another point: He guesstimates that personal computers are now at about the intelligence level of a fly. And that, at the predicted doubling rate, they should be equal to a human by about 2019. I plan to be around then. Don't you?

Two rather chilling thoughts come from that:

ONE: Even if, come 2019, personal computers are only one eighth as "smart" as people are, JUST WAIT SIX YEARS! 2 X 2 X 2 = 8. That "doubling every two years" effect will NOT be long denied.

TWO: Once you have a PC on your desk that is as "intelligent" as you are...and they're doubling in power every two years...in two years it'll be TWICE as smart as you. In four years, FOUR times as smart. In six years, EIGHT TIMES as smart as you.

Think about that. How long do you think you can keep something like that under human control? Now you see the problem. No matter how long it takes to truly achieve "human equivalence" in computer intelligence--20 years, 25 years, 30 years--in just a VERY FEW YEARS after that, humanity will be badly outclassed.

To further unsettle your nerves, computers are already designing computers, and that trend's going to continue. No human can lay out all the millions of transistors in a modern CPU. It's done by computers following general rules and independently searching for internal connection routing optimizations and so on.

What happens when computers are both smarter than humans, and designing the next generations of computers?

A possible way out: Humans and computers will grow together and become one indivisible thing. Think of direct, wireless, high-speed mind-links to the Web. Or of memory-enhancing brain add-ons so you never forget anything you want to remember. And so on. "Borg" you say? Maybe. Virtual immortality? Perhaps. But shaped in a way that humanity WANTS it to be.

This book will REALLY, REALLY make you THINK. Whether you'll like your conclusions or not I cannot say.

What I DIDN'T like about this book:   Not much, just a couple of things:

Kurzweil ignores the effect of what author Vernor Vinge has called "The Singularity". The time at which the exponentially-accelerating rising curve of technology becomes virtually "straight up." Almost infinitely fast progress. I can find no fault with Kurzwiel's predictions; but what happens after his Law of Accelerating Returns drives us up to the Singularity is probably completely unpredictable from where we are.

And there's a small thing in his terminology that really nagged at me. He says that as technology grows at exponentially faster and faster rates, "time exponentially speeds up." Now he keeps saying this, and it drives me nuts. He makes it clear that what he MEANS by that is that the CHANGES or PROGRESS in a given amount of time speed up. But he keeps discussing "time speeding up."

I know that's a trivial thing. And I soon just started automatically translating his phraseology in my mind as I went along. I suppose I noticed this small flaw because overall the book is so GOOD.

What I DO like about this book:   It shows me things I should have been able to figure out for myself, but wasn't motivated enough, or clever enough, or smart enough to see.

I enjoyed how Kurzwiel found very "human" ways to illustrate what life will be like at the various stages of technology. The creation of fully-competent computer avatars; the wonderful functionality of multi-threaded consciousness that lets you do dozens of tasks at once; and on and on. His illustration of what it'll be like to deal with AI "entities" that as smart as you and I, but existing only in software, not in biological bodies, was very appealing. You thought the issue of "slave's rights" was a biggie? Just wait.

My overall evaluation of The Age of Spiritual Machines:   It's a WONDERFUL book!  And that subtitle ("When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence") isn't joking. It's backed up by very convincing data.

This book grabs your view of what tomorrow's world will be like and yanks it irresistably onto a new course.

And I LIKE the future it shows me!

It's so good that my copy is constantly on loan to friends.  I had to borrow my copy back from a friend to do this review.

Sorry for shouting folks, but I really MEAN this:

To give you a better feel for its contents, here are the book's chapter titles:
If you want to see what technology's march will inevitably bring,
if you want to be cheered and uplifted -- as I was -- by the thought of AI companions in our lives,
then folks, read this book!

Click here.
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Almost 20 years ago, long before "The Age of Spiritual Machines" was written, a science fiction story was published that predicted much of what became the Web. In fact, it's said it actually inspired the creation of the Web as it is today. That book is "True Names" by Vernor Vinge.

To see my review of "True Names: And the Opening Of the Cyberspace Frontier",  please click here .

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