Note: Cross-posted from my blog at The Marshall Independent.
A couple of weeks ago Google hired Ray Kurzweil to be its new director of engineering.
Google is best-known for its Internet search engine. In fact, the chances are good if you were looking into Kurzweil you might have been sent here by Google.
It’s unclear to me as yet what Kurzweil was hired to do at Google, but he is a pioneer in speech recognition technology, so it might have something to do with developing ways to ditch this keyboard and just tell your computer what you want it to do.
Uh, somehow I don’t think that’s going to make work around the office any easier. I already get weird looks because I like to compose aloud.
But what Kurweil is best-known for is the ideas he lined out in his book “The Singularity is Near.” Kurzweil thinks that in the not-so-distant future we’re going to have Artificial Intelligence, immortality, and powers and abilities that would seem godlike to us now.
The Technological Singularity is an idea that’s been kicking around for a while. The term was popularized by mathematician and SF author Vernor Vinge. Singularitarians can be classified with what’s called the Transhumanist Movement. which holds that we can and should transcend the limits of our biology and become more than human, superhuman.
The idea is that at a certain point in history possibly within our lifetime, our technology will have advanced so far that it is literally impossible to predict anything beyond that point. The analogy is with the physical singularity created by a black hole, from which no information can escape.
Of course, humans being what we are, that doesn’t prevent us from trying to picture what might lie on the other side of the Singularity.
There are a number of theoretical ways of reaching the Singularity, either gradually or in one breakthrough leap, but the standard model has it the Singularity happens when our machines get smarter than we are.
This is a prospect that is both exciting and kind of scary. If and when our machines become self-aware, who’s to know they might not say, “Hey thanks! Now who needs you?”
But if the Singularity is a scary idea, the alternative is just depressing, The Age of Failed Expectations.
That’s the notion that our knowledge and technology is approaching inherent limits and progress will start to slow down and eventually become almost static. We’ll see modest increases in human lifespan and not much more. Our laptops will have much more number crunching capacity, but we won’t be discussing the meaning of life with them. There’ll be an ever-increasing amount of stuff on the Internet, but most of it will be drivel and sorting through it will be as time-consuming and unproductive as the time you spend on Facebook.
I’m a technological optimist. Like William Faulkner, “I believe that man will not merely endure. He will prevail.”
But I have to admit, that’s my nature as an optimist. I believe it because I prefer to, not because I have any evidence either way.
And that’s the nature of the Singularity, the only way we’re going to find out is by living through it.
But I’ll be waiting to see what comes out of Google, now Kurzweil’s there.