Ray Kurzweil

Kurzweil part 5 – the impact

By August 20, 2010 April 9th, 2011 2 Comments

This is the fifth post in a series summarising the key arguments of Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is near: When humans transcend biology.  The previous posts were:


image Kurzweil begins his chapter titled ‘The Impact…..’ with the sentence “A Panopoly of Impacts”, which makes the point that the range of impacts is extremely far and wide, with the potential to change almost every part of life as we know it.  I will give a small number of examples of positive impacts in this post, before turning to a brief discussion of the downside.

I have held off much discussion of the impact until now because many of the potential scenarios seem fantastical, and might serve to reduce confidence in the other arguments and predictions.  Most of the things I have discussed in this series up to now have had a 20-30 year time horizon.  These scenarios go beyond that.

A complete understanding of our genetic make up and a command of nanotech will enable us to build devices that plug directly into and interact with our conscious minds.  This is the obvious next step from the rudimentary brain implants in use today for purposes including treating Parkinson’s disease.

One application that is much talked about is to integrate with the optical nerves to introduce computer generated images into our visual field – augmented reality inside the eyeball, if you will – this would replace in-visor displays for fighter pilots and other military applications and could also be used to augment our memories – e.g. to remind us of people’s names as we see them across the room.

Perhaps more exciting is the possibility of full immersion virtual reality.  A computer could take over your entire visual field and by integrating with your other senses make it seem as if you were in another place, in every sense.  Applications could include games and virtual meetings (which would become indistinguishable from real meetings).

Similarly, our memories could become downloadable and storable elsewhere for back up purposes – making every memory retrievable (should we want it).  Taking it a step further our entire mind could be downloaded, and therefore uploaded again somewhere else – in a biological or non-biological body.  The essence of what it is to be ‘me’ in this scenario shifts from the heap of flesh and bones it is today to pure information.  I could then travel at the speed of light and exist (live) indefinitely.

On the more immediate horizon (20-30 years, at least to get started) is what Kurzweil terms ‘programmable blood’.  Nanotechnologist Rob Freitas has already produced designs to replace our red blood cells, platelets and white blood cells with nano devices.  Programmable blood has the potential to circulate itself around the body, removing the need for a heart, transport oxygen much more efficiently enabling us to hold our breath for vastly extended periods of time (and ultimately dispense with breathing altogether), and finally to download information on new diseases and pathogens via wireless connections to the outside world to target and remove dangerous foreign bodies before the patient experiences any symptoms.

There are, as far as I can see two types of downsides to these developments, specifically to the genetics, nanotech and robotics (strong AI) revolutions.  The first is that they come with increased risks to life and society.  Advances in genetics raise the possibility of terrorists releasing fatal designer diseases into society, nanotech advances raise the real risk of self replicating nano-scale devices enveloping the whole world (the grey goo problem), and strong AI carries the risk of the machines running rampant and using their vastly superior capabilities to destroy humankind.  I think Kurzweil is spot on in his response, which is to say that the benefits outweigh the risks and we can’t stop it any way – if we were to ban development in the UK it would continue in the US, or in China, or Iran or Pakistan.  I think everyone would agree it is far better for leading scientists to be operating in countries where the risk of irresponsible development is lower.  There are also activities we could, should, and are undertaking to minimise each of the specific risks, and any other risks that exist or emerge – these activities are centred around policies, regulation and self regulation.

The second fear that these discussions bring is that in this vision where we all become cyborgs we will lose what it means to be human.  We will lose touch with our bodies and our minds, and if we are reduced to information then what are we?  This is a philosophical and possibly religious question and one where views are formed as much in the gut as in the mind.  I will say only two things.  Firstly, for me this view of the future is much more exciting than frightening – the possibilities for increased exploration and (self) understanding are endless.  Secondly our sense of what it is to be ourselves has grown as we have evolved from no consciousness, to barely conscious to a more refined consciousness today – so there is nothing new about changes in what it is to be human.

On Monday I will close out this series with a post examining some of the critiques of Kurzweil’s position.

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