"All the World's a Stage We Pass Through" R. Ayana

Monday, 23 May 2011

To be Human is to be more human than human

To be Human is to be more human than human

By: Mike Thurau

There is a popular sentiment circulating through our living rooms and universities that humankind has reached “the end of history”. This is to say that every Big Idea which can be thought of has been thought of already and that the global society of the distant future will be fundamentally the same as the present. Eventually, the rest of the world will jump on the liberal-capitalist-democracy bandwagon and “progress” as we know it will end with pats on the back and high fives all around. Suffice to say, the time for revolutions and paradigm shifts is over.

The self-congratulatory proclamation that capitalism facilitated by representative democracy is the last stage of human social evolution is a pretty bold stance to take, but it is the official stance of the controversial academic Francis Fukuyama. Of course, there are plenty of people who disagree with Fukuyama about what tomorrow will look like.

Environmentalist warn of a devastating collapse of our planetary ecosystem, academics prophesy of a new dark age brought about by disenfranchised fundamentalists who are appalled at how quickly the world is changing, and there are even still a few old fashioned Marxists left in the world who expect capitalism and representative democracy to eventually wear themselves out and be replaced with a workers paradise.

Regardless, capitalism as an institution is stronger than ever, and while the democracies of the world might sometimes be unpleasant to gaze upon, the idea of democracy still enjoys tremendous popularity. Marxism is pretty much discredited, Theocracy is no longer an option for countries outside of the Middle East, and pretty much every other form of authoritarian command economy seems to be on the way out. However, there is still one more Big Idea that has yet to be consigned to the garbage pail of history, and that Big Idea is the brainchild of a man called Ray Kurtzweil. If Kurtzweil is even half-way correct about the kind of future he expects, then we are on the threshold of the weirdest and most exciting phase of human history yet.

This man believes he has a shot at living forever

What does Ray Kurtzweil believe the next 100 years will bring? Well for starters, by 2019 he expects a $1,000 personal computer to have as much raw computing power as the human brain, pinhead-sized cameras will become incredibly common and privacy will be all but dead, exoskeletons will give people with spinal injuries new freedom, translator machines that will be as good or better than human interpreters, and cars controlled remotely by robots to alleviate congestion.

By 2029 he expects a computer will be designed which will be fully equipped with artificial intelligence and capable of having opinions and a desire to be recognized as a conscious being. Furthermore, agriculture and industry will become so efficient that the basic needs of even the most impoverished will finally be regularly met. His vision of humankind’s final destiny thousands of years from now is “Intelligent beings consider the fate of the Universe.” Which is to say, Godhood.

Kurtzweil not only expects technological progress to upgrade the human experience, he expects it to change the very nature of human experience its self. We are unable to appreciate the magnificence of this new state of being in the same way that a mosquito is unable to appreciate the magnificence of a masterpiece concerto.

By now you’re probably smirking or perhaps you are moving your cursor to the “Back” button at the top of this page. Kurtzweil’s  technological utopia may seem like the musings of a crazy person, and Ray Kurtzweil may very well be crazy. However, he is without a doubt a genius. In 1963, at age fifteen, he wrote his first computer program. A few years later he created a sophisticated pattern-recognition software program that analyzed the works of classical composers, and then synthesized its own songs in similar styles. The capabilities of this invention were so impressive that, in 1965, he was invited to appear on the CBS television program I’ve Got A Secret, where he performed a piano piece that was composed by a computer he had also built. He is a millionaire several times over thanks to his numerous inventions and contributions to artificial intelligence.

At this point, we can still write him off as a brilliant yet eccentric entrepreneur who may have read one to many Isaac Asimov novels. But what is really unsettling is how frequently Ray Kurzweil has been right. Kurzweil predicted the advent of search engines, cell phones, military drones, cybernetic limbs, and numerous other world changing innovations that have already come to pass.

So far, Kurzweil’s track record for accurately predicting the future stands at 102 out of 108 correct predictions, so it’s safe to say this man is not simply just a fortune telling shyster. But the source of controversy surrounding Kurzweil isn’t if he has been correct so far (he has), it’s a matter of whether or not he will continue to be right in the future.

So why should we take Kurzweil’s more outlandish predictions seriously? It’s because he uses the same methodology to estimate when we will enter the age of intelligent machines as he used to predict all of the things he was right about. Kurzweil is a firm believer in the law of accelerating returns and so far, it has served him well.

The law of accelerating returns is based on Moore’s law, which is belief (which has been demonstrated to be true for decades) that the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. The result of this is essentially an exponential increase in the power and affordability of computers. To anyone who has ever bought a top of the line computer only to find that it is obsolete a year later, this should come as no surprise. A similar trend of exponential growth applies to how much we know about the human genome, the amount of bandwidth available to the average user and various other indicators of technological progress.


Think about how bizarre the world of today must look to someone who lived 80 years ago. Is it really so irresponsible to predict that in the next 80 years, the world will be even more different?  The fact that the world is changing quickly and that technology is changing even quicker is conventional wisdom. 40 years ago, it would have sounded ridiculous to suggest that Indian fishermen would be using tiny battery powered phones to coordinate their harvest from the sea, but that is exactly what they are doing. 30 years ago it would have sounded na├»ve to suggest that over three quarters of America would have their own personal computers, but they do.

If you sometimes feel like the line separating science fiction and reality is blurring, it’s because it is. Which proposition is more ridiculous, the notion that tomorrow will always be pretty much the same as today and that we are the beneficiaries of the final culmination of human self knowledge or the notion that we are on the verge of the biggest step forward in the expansion of the human experience since the evolution of the frontal lobe? If Kurzweil is right, then we are not only approaching a time in which our potential to experience life as people who are fully human, but we are approaching a time in which the definition of the word “human” will be subject to revision. It’s an exciting time to be alive.

From Taboo Jive @ http://taboojive.com/?p=2490

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