Rebirth of Reason


Book Review: The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology
by Ryan Brubaker

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an “intelligence explosion,” and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.

Irving John Good, “Speculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine,” 1965 (22)
Not since Atlas Shrugged has a book elicited so many different emotions in me than The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil. His description of a future world in which man has merged with machine and has eliminated poverty, disease and even death, provides any Objectivist with a sense of wonder and excitement at what men may soon accomplish. At the same time, this predicted future world is so radically different than the present one, the reader cannot help but think hard about how he will accept such changes and how these changes affect his current views on life.

Kurzweil defines the Singularity as follows:
The Singularity will represent the culmination of the merger of our biological thinking and existence with our technology, resulting in a world that is still human but that transcends our biological roots. There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality. If you wonder what will remain unequivocally human in such a world, it's simply this quality: ours is the species that inherently seeks to extend its physical and mental reach beyond current limitations (9).
Kurzweil argues the Singularity will come about due to the law of accelerating returns, which describes the rapid exponential growth we currently see in the technology sector. Kurzweil points out that most people fail to realize the power in the exponential equation is also growing at an exponential rate. This “double” exponential growth will ultimately result in an explosion of technological invention, including the ability to simulate the human brain using computers. These brain simulations, operating at the speed of light, will be much more powerful than our biological brains, which are limited by the speed of electrochemical signals. These forms of intelligence will be used to design and create even more powerful forms of intelligence, the cycles continuing ever after to create higher and higher forms of intelligence.

According to Kurzweil, the Singularity will be preceded by major revolutions in the following areas: Genetics, Nanotechnology and Robotics.

Kurzweil believes we are already in the beginning stages of the genetic revolution that began with the mapping of the genome. That breakthrough has already opened the door to many technologies we are already familiar with, such as an increase in effective therapeutic drugs and cloning. Even more exciting technologies are already in development and should be available in the near future. Cells will be modified to replicate younger versions of themselves, effectively reversing the aging process. Cloning technologies will allow scientists to produce animal muscle tissue without creating the actual animal. The implications of such a technology are enormous as it would result in a virtual endless supply of food, produced with little environmental impact and sold at an extremely low price.

The nanotechnology revolution will have even more interesting consequences and implications. The main outcome of this revolution presented by Kurzweil is the biological assembler. This assembler would:
replace biology's genetic-information repository in the cell nucleus with a nanoengineered system that would maintain the genetic code and simulate the actions of RNA, the ribosome, and other elements of the computer in biology's assembler. (232)
This nanobot would have several advantages over our current biological system including elimination of DNA transcription errors and the ability to turn off unwanted replication, eliminating the threat of cancer. Nanobot assemblers will also be used to create non-biological entities, reducing the production costs of most entities to virtually zero.

This revolution will also result in the introduction of nanobots into our bloodstreams. These nanobots will perform such tasks as delivering medicine to specific parts of the body, regulating the insulin levels of diabetics and even supplying complete nutritional sustenance, eliminating the need for a biological digestive system.

Even more fascinating is Kurzweil's prediction that nanobots will eventually be placed near every interneuronal connection coming from our senses. If turned on, these nanobots will be able to intercept and suppress any inputs coming from our actual senses and replace them with signals from a virtual environment, resulting in full-immersion virtual reality.

The final revolution will result in the development of strong AI, or artificial intelligence that exceeds human intelligence. Using technology from the previous revolutions, humans will be able to combine their biological bodies with non-biological entities to enhance their abilities to process and store information. Information and knowledge will be transferred from person to person much like information is shared between computers today. Technology will exist to download the contents of a human brain to external storage devices, essentially preserving/duplicating our minds. Robots will also perform the tasks that cannot be performed by biological humans such as deep space exploration.

The Singularity and Objectivism
While reading The Singularity is Near, many questions popped into my mind on how Objectivism relates to Kurzweil's predictions of the future. Although I have already answered some of these questions within my own mind, I will ask the questions below to hopefully spur further discussion about this topic:
  • If the primary choice of every living thing is to live or not, what is the primary choice if man eliminates death?
  • If all of our material needs are eliminated or fulfilled for virtually free, what happens to the virtue of productivity?
  • How important is political activism considering Kurzweil's predictions eliminate the need for most social welfare programs?
  • If all knowledge can be transferred and learned with no effort, what happens to the virtue of gaining knowledge?
  • Would it be wrong for Objectivists to choose to live most of their lives in virtual reality? What if the virtual environment was the equivalent of Galt's Gulch?
  • Can a non-biological entity be conscious?
This article is only a very brief summary of some of the positive consequences of the Singularity presented in The Singularity is Near. There are many more fascinating consequences, both positive and negative, presented in the book. I would encourage anyone interested in these topics to read this book as it has spurred me into new ways of thinking about life and what my future may hold.

All page references are from:
Kurzweil, Ray. "The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology." New York: Viking, 2005
Sanctions: 18Sanctions: 18Sanctions: 18 Sanction this ArticleEditMark as your favorite article

Discuss this Article (51 messages)