The following is a book review for the”Age of Spiritual Machines” written by Ray Kurzweil.
To begin with and to quote from the back cover:
”Imagine a world where the difference between man and machine blurs, where the line between humanity and technology fades, and where the soul and the silicon chip unite. This is not science fiction. This is the 21st century according to Ray Kurzweil, the inventor of the most innovative and compelling technology of our era. In his inspired hands, life in the new millennium no longer seems daunting. Instead, it promises to be an age in which the marriage of human sensitivity and artificial intelligence fundamentally alters and improves the way we live”
Now before I get into the details, let me begin by saying that I really really enjoyed Kurzweil’s writing style and well, the content. I think it was almost a decade ago, that I was casually introduced to the concept of the ‘technological singularity’ . That is what started my casual interest in all things cognitive sciences, very limited interest in artificial intelligence e.t.c. For someone to even dabble in these subjects and not come across the works of Ray Kurzweil is simply unheard of. So, up until this time, I have simply been watching some ofthe things that Ray has to say, primarily through Youtube. But this was the first book that I have gone through (cover to cover) that has been written by Ray himself.
For anyone who is not familiar with the basic concepts of Technological Singularity and or does not even have a latent interest in cognitive science, but happens to be reading this blogpost. For those individuals, this book is about technology, advances in computing, artificial intelligence and well unravelling some of the mysteries when it comes to a complex organ such as the human brain. And as the title of the book suggests, the content of the book builds up very quickly to determine the probability of when a machine based brain will emerge and the different scenarios of how it will all come about.
Now, a little bit about the author. Ray comes across as someone who thinks very deeply about the subjects that he is writing about. Kurzweil has the rare ability of painting the big picture, as well as getting into the details of how that vision will eventually come about. A significant percentage of the predictions that Kurzweil has made, have come true some 2 decade or more later. Remarkable track record. This list of predictions is long and unbelievably accurate (in scope and timing). Here is an example:
Kurzweil has also got a knack for debating both sides of the issue. I found the dialogues that keep popping up in the book from time to time, to be informative and amusing at the same time. These are thought experiments in the shape and form of dialogues really.
The Actual Book Review
Kurzweil’s manages to pull content from a variety of subjects, and not just related to the items mentioned above. It's almost like poetry. For example, the story begins with the very creation of the universe and subsequently the start of the evolutionary process here on earth. Then he gets into defining technology, as in what's technology at the bare minimum, the inevitability of technology and computing. Explaining things from the perspective of chaos and order, inevitability of Moore's Law e.t.c.
The next couple of chapters build up very quickly and we start getting into the realm of artificial intelligence and the various possibilities that will come about, with the emergence of a machine based brain. Kurzweil highlights the enormous benefits to society and I would say that the significant majority of the book focuses on the events leading up to, during and in a post technical singularity world. There is even a chronological timeline towards the back of the book that highlights the major achievements in the history of computing and tech and then shows the evolutionary path that these trends will be following.
There are some warnings, but by and large the content is focused on the benefits. The only exception to that rule are the warnings to pay attention to potential attacks from the luddites. A reoccurring theme throughout the book.
Also, there are so many ideas packed into this book! I couldn't help, but to stop, think about all the things Kurzweil had prophesied. You have to remember, that this book was written in 1995. So it was eerie to review the content and then actually come to the conclusion that some of these events (on the projected timeline) are occurring as we speak, exactly like Kurzweil had predicted some 19 years ago. For example, there is mention of Virtual Reality and Kurzweil starts getting into the details of how it will play out. And that totally was/is Oculus Rift and OMNI.
Coming back to the ideas bit. Seriously, there are entire product lines mentioned in this book. So quite naturally, I found myself sending out a couple of tweets relating to this.
Overall, this has got to be one of the most interesting books that I have gone through.
Our grasp of our consciousness is, well, still a guess. But Kurzweil predicts that in a couple of decades, we will start seeing the emergence of machines, machines that claim to be having spiritual experiences.
In short, Kurzweil has made me rethink the very notion of what it means to be human.
The Age of Spiritual machines. What a wonderful, wonderful read. Thank you Ray Kurzweil!