Part of the problem with books making predictions about the future is they only have two markets: (1), people who want to read predictions about the future, and (2) people who want to read the book ten years later and call the author stupid. When I picked up The Age of Spiritual Machines on the advice of my boss, I was only vaguely aware that it was already ten years old. That doesn’t seem so strange1, but when you’re talking about technology, that’s forever.
I will readily admit that The Age of Spiritual Machines has aged surprisingly well; but Kurzweil is undoubtedly a smart cookie, even if some of his other, hm, predilections are a bit left-field2. But then, too, the easy life of a futurist (especially a technophile) is apparent here, especially when he revisits some of the predictions he made in his first such book3: simply predict an upward technological trend and reap the inevitable benefits as a prognosticator par excellence.
Kurzweil spends a great deal of time on exposition: he sets up logical but tenuous parallels between biological evolution and technological progress, expounding at length about the nature of the human brain and its similarities and differences to mechanical and electronic computation machines. He creates a “Law of Accelerating Returns,” which is a little presumptive of him (a law? really?), which, in short, speaks of the exponential rate of technological acceleration, and Kurzweil therefore sees general technological acceleration/evolution as being immune from the sort of asymptotic nature that limits more specific things like Moore’s Law4.
The crux, then, of Kurzweil’s book is that there will come a time in the not-too-distant future when we will be able to technologically outpace the human brain: our transistors are already faster than neurons, and more efficient, but still outnumbered by them. This, Kurzweil says, will not last long. The more science understands about the brain, and as the progression of technology (inevitably) surpasses the raw computing power of our brains, we will come across the problems of artificial intelligence, continuity of consciousness, &c. None of which is anything particularly new, but I think Kurzweil’s point is that these will soon be real, pressing questions rather than hypothetical thought experiments in a futurist book.
One rather strange feature of the book was the day each chapter ended with a sort of Q&A: Kurzweil the author talking to some hypothetical questioner who wanted clarification on certain points—a “Little Billy,” if you will, though not quite so hackneyed. I thought this was kind of a weak device: if you need a fake conversation at the end of a chapter to further boil down your already-distilled points further, then you haven’t done your job in the preceding text. Kurzweil’s many sidebars on various topics are distracting but useful; his version of chapter summaries are not.
If Ray Kurzweil wasn’t such a business success and obvious technological genius, I’d write The Age of Spiritual Machines off as underwhelming, somewhat obvious predictions. Or maybe they just seem obvious in retrospect: still, there are plenty of Kurzweil’s contemporaries who think, especially with his latest book about technological singularities, that he’s perhaps drunk too deeply of his own Kool-Aid™. Still, the man is obvious very smart, and so I give him credit for his insight, and as a futurist myself I empathize with him, but I fall short of necessarily praising him as a brilliant prognosticator.
- I just watched The Rock last month, and that’s about 12 years old…[↩]
- Kurzweil is also a health nut who takes megadoses of resveratrol and drinks alkaline water daily; more power to him for daily exercise and a healthy diet, but the man’s clearly expecting to live forever (literally), and he’s a bit of a nutter.[↩]
- The Age of Intelligent Machines, 1990[↩]
- For those of you not familiar, here’s the Wikipedia entry[↩]