The counter arguments to Kurzweil’s Singularity thesis

By August 23, 2010Ray Kurzweil

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

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image Most of the disagreement with Kurzweil’s thesis stems from what he describes as ‘incredulity’ or ‘simple disbelief that such profound changes could possibly occur’.  Many people think he is simply talking about too much change too quickly.  The key counter arguments are variations of ‘the world is more complex than Kurzweil allows for and these changes are far more difficult/will take longer/may never happen’.

These arguments are applied in the specific to the different strands of Kurzweil’s Singularity thesis – e.g. hardware development, re-engineering the human brain in software and the nanotech revolution.  For examples look in the comments on the posts in this series, or check out this recent conversation on Hacker News where people debate the depth of Kurzweil’s understanding of the brain and one contributor suggests it will take 75 years for us to reverse engineer the brain’s functionality, rather than the 20 years Kurzweil is predicting.

Kurzweil dedicates a chapter of The Singularity to countering the arguments of his detractors.  His broad response to the ‘incredulity’ criticism is to point out the long history of exponential rates of increases in all key technologies (covered in the first post in this series) and to repeat the point that our brains aren’t wired to notice when we are on exponential curves, but instead interpret the progress as linear (i.e. the tangent of the exponential) and hence routinely underestimate the pace of change.  He also notes (perhaps displaying a little hubris…) that humans have a long history of resisting notions that threaten the accepted view that our species is special – be it Copernicus’s insight that the earth was not at the centre of the universe or Darwin’s idea that we are only slightly evolved from other primates.

My view, having soaked up a lot of Kurzweil related material over the last few weeks, is that (rather boringly) the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  Kurzweil has done a lot of good thinking and makes a lot of predictions across a lot of areas.  Inevitably some of them will be right, and some will be wrong, particularly when it comes to timing.  For me the important thing is not exactly when the brain will be reverse engineered or we will have nano-bots in our blood stream, but rather that we are headed in that direction.  This last point is one that not too many people seem to take issue with.  I also think that Kurzweil suffers from being a generalist, and as such he attracts criticism from specialists wanting to defend their turf.

Beyond incredulity there is one other objection to Kurzweil’s theories that I’m going to cover off in a little detail here, which is the argument that exponential trends don’t last forever.  Proponents of this criticism point out that most exponential trends we observe hit a wall, usually driven by the environment.  E.g. human population growth tails off when population density approaches critical levels.  Kurzweil’s response is to me convincing.  He recognises that the tailing off in computing power will come, but argues it is a long, long way off.  To prove the point he describes at some length how we will be able to use more and more of the matter in the universe for computational purposes, and shows how this will provide all the computing power we need to get us a long way past the singularity.

For completeness I’m going to close by noting that there are a number of other criticisms that are beyond the scope of this post and which in my opinion Kurzweil adequately covers off in his book – e.g. brains are too complex to model, quantum computing will be required and is impossible, lock in to legacy technologies will prevent progress, and various philosophical and religious arguments which hold machines can’t be conscious.  In most of these cases my (relatively uneducated) view is that Kurzweil’s arguments are much the stronger, although none of these issues are black and white.

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So that is it for the ‘Kurzweil series’ – I haven’t enjoyed writing it as much as I expected I would, largely because the subject is much heavier than my normal posts.  That said, I have learned a lot :-).  Thanks to everyone who commented and retweeted.

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  • I enjoyed this, Nic. I’m with Kurzweil – we have more to lose by betting against it.

  • Thanks Jof

  • Anon

    At the core, none of these future predictions about an artificial brain (“a Global Brain”), robots or nano-technology are the sole preserve of Kurzweil. He follows an established and respectable tradition of HG Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Douglas Adams, William Gibson, Isaac Asimov, Philip Dick and others. HG Wells actually wrote about something akin to the Internet back in 1938 when he proposed a “real World Encyclopedia’ with a true ‘planetary memory for all mankind’.”

    So any exponential technology trend of capturing and uploading our knowledge and memories doesn’t start nor end with Kurzweil and the Singularity theory.

    It’s simply the case that he labeled the point of exponential upside in a similar way that Malcolm Gladwell coined “the tipping point”.

    Labeling and language matter because it explains away Kurzweil’s notion that “we have evolved from no consciousness, to barely conscious to a more refined consciousness today” and that by inducting and instructing a machine to learn in the same way a baby brain is, the machine will likewise assume consciousness. There are two major issues with this construct. Firstly, as well as being taught to logically identify and label objects, babies are also……….emotionally and value socialized and have their senses of perception stimulated. That’s how they develop their consciousness; it’s not via functional logic and more rapid processing alone.

    Secondly, Man has always had a consciousness.

    Admittedly before the invention of language we didn’t know what to call it but we’ve always FELT it in one way or another: consciousness about temperature on our skins, consciousness about day and night, consciousness about Nature around us as a source of sustenance and water, consciousness about not going too near that T-Rex, consciousness about the difference between the male version and the female, etc.

    So Consciousness is a condition of our linguistic and emotional evolution as much as our functional development (walking upright, limbs shortening, losing our webbing etc.).

    Likewise, phenomenal technological growth has been happening a priori to anyone labeling it “The Singularity”. This term seems to be Kurzweil’s version of “We become One” — except of course, paradoxically, the Singularity graph plots to infinity not 1 and excludes the emotional-socio-relational dimensions that would make each of us and our technology truly in synch and integral with the other.

    Nonetheless, I too am an optimist and believe in human advancement in principle — particularly of the type where randomness and serendipity means scientists have a ‘Eureka!’ or apple on the head journey. It’s not the outcome of human advancement that Kurzweil advocates which attracts debate; it’s the path(s) and timelines by which it’s realized. There are concerns about pragmatic and realistic basis on which to build out those path(s) and how inclusive for more people and not less that those journeys are.

    Let’s make this final observation about an Artificial Brain: Kurzweil is credited for inventing the music synthesizer.

    This has given rise to dance music, electro-funk, the likes of Kraftwerk, auto-tuning to orientate pitching problems and music sampling from ‘Billie Jean’ to ‘Bad Romance’. Some people like the sounds produced whilst others regard it as artificial and inferior.

    To some people authentic and natural music means a live orchestra, opera, acoustic, a cappella, rock not pop and Bob Dylan.

    Interestingly, we can also note that synthesized music elicits different emotions, memories and a Consciousness in us than natural music.

    Ergo………a synthetic AI brain will likewise probably produce different emotions, memories and Consciousness than a natural organic brain.

    Both artificial and natural music and brains can co-exist. What it ultimately means for us is…….

    CHOICE — the economists, marketers and politicians’ favorite word.

    :*).

  • Anon

    Nic,

    Thanks for an interesting series; the posts were thought-provoking and provided a reprieve from news about the current malaise in the investment sector for some (not all) VC firms. Although material of this nature can be complicated and time-consuming to distill for others, it’s commendable that you gave it a shot and managed to do it really well.

    My opinion is that in addition to clarifying investment criteria and other functional processes, it’s important for the VC community to look at tech investment beyond its immediate confines for commonality with complementary disciplines that might add color to investment insights (art, manufacturing, mathematics and more which I’ve stranded into my comments).

    In certain ways if the challenges and potential declines faced by the VC sector continue to be viewed from any narrow prisms, then the players involved may not make those “leaps of faith”, take those risks and seek out solutions from other disciplines and cross-apply them to the VC sector to benefit every party along the relationships network — particularly the investee companies.

    It is an important series of posts and relevant to the potential future scope for entrepreneurs and investors alike.

    There’s notable work happening in areas associated with the concepts of the Singularity: Semantic metadata, data context, quantum computing (à la Wolfram Alpha), sentiment extraction, consequence mapping, nano-bio engineering and more that will enable leaps towards more intelligent systems (if not necessarily the Singularity).

    These innovations will need seed and development growth monies as well as VC financing in a seamless and integrated way.

    Unfortunately amidst all the conversations about IRR, the encroachment of super-angels and liquidity events it sometimes goes AWOL that the entrepreneur-investor dynamic works best when there’s symbiosis (give, take and tolerance) and when both sides are as informed about the other’s path to profit in addition to HANDS-ON COMMITMENT to collectively orientate and actualize the business plans.

    My suggestion would be that the VCs who have strong technical knowhow will be best positioned to enable their investee companies to optimize and realize their potential over the 3-5 year horizon — a critical time which will affect whether this 2025 deadline postulated by Kurzweil becomes a reality or whether it’s another competing variant with an ETA of 2040 that wins out. Ergo VCs (particularly European ones) should examine how to attract quality TECHNICAL Associates and Analysts who can help them navigate the minefield of what genuinely has upside potential and what’s a “me too” play (everyone investing in socnets or LBS mobile apps so let’s do it too, for example) in this space of:

    • nanotubes and nanotube circuitry

    • molecular computing

    • self assembly in nanatube circuits

    • biological systems emulating circuit assembly

    • computing with DNA

    • spintronics (computing with the spin of electrons)

    • computing with light

    • quantum computing

    As for me, within these next few weeks I fly Stateside because that’s where the relevant opportunities and teams are for what I need:

    * http://www.austinstartup.com/2010/08/bridging-the-gap-how-semantic-web-can-move-into-the-mainstream-through-sxsw/

    No, not heading to Austin but both coasts.

    I’m also mindful that the Chinese may be the ones who will make the breakthroughs for the Web in upcoming generational waves:

    http://inventorspot.com/articles/social_medias_transition_semantic_web_will_be_led_china

    Where and when will the next leap to counter any tailing off of the Product Life Cycle happen?

    Interesting times ahead and we’re innovating them…….

    Thanks again and I’ll continue to periodically lurk and enjoy this blog from abroad.

  • – you make a good point that Kurzweil’s thinking is a continuation and extension of others

    – on our debate about consciousness you have convinced me that the assertion consciousness will arrive in a reverse engineered artificial brain is non-provable conjecture. It still seems to me more likely than the contrary. Any other belief raises more questions – e.g. When did man first become conscious?

    – it seems to me the nature of ‘intelligence’ is changing over time as humans evolved from hunter gatherers to members of industrial society, and also as notions of integrity and EQ become more importance and general knowledge recedes. Artificial intelligence will change it again.

  • Glad you enjoyed the series and for one final time, thanks for your comments. The later posts were richer for your contribution.

    And, I agree with pretty much everything you say about the VC industry, particularly the need for sector expertise and commitment.

    Finally – good luck with your move to the US. I will read your links below later to get a better sense of who you are and then drop you an email.