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« Who Believes in Truth? | Main | Kurzweil and the Axis of Horganism »

The Singular Ray Kurzweil

Yesterday I attended the “World Scientific Forum” in New York City, where corporate types looking for an edge on the competition shelled out $2,800 each to hear scientific pundits pontificate about the future of neuroscience, sustainable economic development, artificial intelligence, complexity, global warming, communications, genomics and, you know, everything.

Being an esteemed member of the press, I got a free pass, and naturally I went hunting for hype. Some of the presentations were excellent, cogent and timely. James Hansen of NASA gave a sobering summary of the vast evidence for human-induced global warming, and Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute showed how we can combat that and other environmental threats with better sources and uses of energy—but not nukes!

Then the nerdy techno-evangelist Ray Kurzweil took the stage. Kurzweil is a bizarre character. He is clearly very intelligent and scientifically sophisticated. And yet he espouses a vision of the world as fantastic in its way as that of Christians who believe we are on the verge of the end times prophesied in the Bible.

Kurzweil insists we are hurtling toward what he calls “The Singularity,” in which advances in AI, genetics and nanotechnology allow us to transcend our flesh-and-blood bodies and dwell happily in cyber-space, where we never need to look for a parking space (apologies to Woody Allen). To back up this claim, Kurzweil shows graph after graph documenting the explosive advances over the past few decades in information technologies, including computers, the internet, cell phones and so on. Of course he doesn’t mention all of science’s embarrassing failures, the kind of stuff I dwell on in my writings.

One of the greatest failures is artificial intelligence, Kurzweil’s own field. Kurzweil insisted to us that AI is a tremendous success. But earlier in the day the AI pioneer Marvin Minsky—who shares Kurzweil’s hopes for a cyber-future—said wearily, “I wish I could tell you that we have intelligent machines, but we don’t.” Even the world’s most powerful computers, Minsky acknowledged, lack the common sense of a four-year-old child; they can't even tell the difference between cats and dogs.

Minsky’s honesty qualifies him as a scientist, in stark contrast to Kurzweil. During his talk, Kurzweil kept bragging about his meetings with corporate, military and political bigshots. No one should be taking this man seriously.


nigel cook

I agree: many things can increase exponentially for a while, but they obviously can't go on doing that. If you plot the exponential increases in particle accelerator diameters as a function of time, you see clearly that if the law continues the particle accelerators will soon be bigger than the planet (which would be good news to string theorists, because once the accelerator is the size of the galaxy you could in principle probe the planck scale, probably only to find out that string theory is false, and the ultimate scale is say the black hole event horizon radius of an electron, 2GM/c^2, which is way smaller than the planck scale, and possibly needs an accelerator merely the size of the universe).

The crucial exponential graph regards global warming is discredited by Tony Smith here:

The mathematical models the lying global warming "predictions" use assume we are NOT running out of fossil fuels.

If they put the expected decline (see ha...urationcheapoil for graph) into the model, you'd see that the coming end of fossil fuels terminates the global warming issue.

The affordable reserves of oil and other fuels which produce vast quantities of CO2 when used are not sufficient to allow global warming to continue at present levels.

Consensus holds that:

(1) we're running out of CO2 generating fossil fuels from the point of view of resources diminishing, and

(2) we're NOT running out of CO2 generating fossil fuels from the point of view of climatic predictions, which assume CO2 output either REMAINING STABLE, or in most cases INCREASING.

So consensus is self-contradictory (due to political expediency). Presently almost 50% the world's free-flowing global warming-producing oil is coming from the middle east, but.

The world is supposedly going to suffer panic share selling and economic collapse when oil production passes its peak and begins to subside, anyday now:

"The oil coming out of Saudis biggest oil fields now contains more than 50% water, and they are injecting 3 barrels of sea water to get one barrel of this mixed liquid out. That's a fact, not fiction. How much longer do you think the oil can continue to flow from the ground?" - Quantoken, comment on:

More on the alleged looming "peak oil" price flip / economic crisis: and also see and

Frederick Forsyth (author of “The Day of the Jackal” etc.) has published a good article on global warming:

“We’re all doomed ... to listen to hot air”, Daily Express newspaper, 10 November 2006, p 13:

“Climate mania ... has graduated from a concern to an obsession and now into the realm of mass hysteria. ...

“We are in the hands of three communities, all with a huge vested interest. ...

“First, we have the politicians. They want to charge you many billions in extra taxes. If they called them stealth taxes, you would complain. If they call them saving-the-planet taxes, they reckon you will pay up without a murmur. ...

“Then we have the scientists. Banish the idea that scientists are absent-minded boffins. No chance. Modern eggheads lust after huge research budgets and climate change will keep them going for decades because, with several million variables, world climate is so complex that even Cray supercomputers cannot work it out.

“(These are the same genii who told us in the Seventies that we would all soon die of hypothermia as the planet moved remorselessly into a new Ice Age [due to pollution haze blocking out sunlight]. Whatever happened to that? Never mind, madam, it generated lots of research funds.)

“And we have the media, or some of them. In the ‘Britain is always wrong’ constituency, few stories go down such a treat as news of doom and imminent wipe-out, especially when it is all our fault. (And of course it always is.) ...

“It seems to me that climate change is happening all right but ... 1,500 years ago the Romans guarding Hadrian’s Wall in the far north of Cumbria used to drink wine from their own locally-grown grapes. Vineyards in Cumbria? Yep. You see, it was warmer then.”

James McWilliams

Kurzweil certainly is delusional. Anyone heard of AARON? the 'cyber artist' program... kurzweil purchased it from it's creator and made a screensaver out of it. It basically has a very simple pre-set procedural library of body part shapes that it seems to mishmash together to make very poor human shaped 'drawings' and then randomises within certain composition parameters to produce images.
On it's site kurzweil describes it as if it's some kind of 'creative AI' and actually says something along the lines of "if human artists would have created these works of art, they would have been celebrated as great artists!". Er no mr Kurzweil... they wouldn't.
Of course, the real artist behind AARONS "works" is it's creator. But despite the fact that it really is just a very limited procedural generator seems to escape the so called genius mind of Ray Kurzweil.


I like the quote by Robert Cringely that says: "people tend to overestimate change in the short term and underestimate it in the long term."

I don't believe computers will ever be able to think, and I certainly don't think it will be possible to transfer a mind to a computer. Nonetheless, the human species is in for some radical technology-driven changes, and it seems likely that in the next million years or so a combination of biological and technological evolution will lead to a form of intelligent life that would be all but unrecognizable to us now.

Andrei Kirilyuk

Another Singularity

OK, John, that was easy, too easy with Kurzweil. It will, however, be a little more difficult to tell why then such “characters” prevail, or are at least very successful, can do and impose what they want, at any desired level, while many much more “reasonable”, creative approaches and ideas are doomed to misery and disappearance, in so allegedly “progressive” parts of the world. There IS a singularity here, not the “technological” one Kurzweil and others try to promote, but rather a particular, indeed ever more acute (and disturbing) “state of mind” (including everything, intelligence, “psyche”, “spirit”, “emotions”), i.e. something related to natural, human, rather than nonexistent artificial, intelligence. You see, criticism of various cases alone, however necessary, justified and attractive it may be, cannot change the situation. If modern science and its “golden” leaders have something POSITIVE to specify, why can it never be seen on the background of those negative examples?

Indeed, if one looks more attentively at other cited participants of this meeting (and many other similar ones), it is not very difficult to note that truly “positive”, inspiring examples are practically absent, there may be only more acute (Kurzweil) and less acute external manifestations of the same disease that can be described as a strong “vertical” barrier to natural intelligence and knowledge development (and the inevitably resulting “singularity”). [Cf. my other comment, ] Thus, NASA's involvement in ecological “research” is a canonical case of “political science”: they just try to hide the absent real progress in their main application, cosmic space exploration, which consumes astronomical sums of public money, behind a “useful” down-to-earth application, such as “climate change”. Do their very expensive results REALLY provide something essential, indispensable to induce a practical change for better? No, they don't, it's just another contribution to a gigantic ecological “science” fraud. Just “measuring” climate change is not yet science, one can often observe it without those multibillion investments. Science starts with a reliable understanding and related practically useful, “provable” conclusions. There's none of it in the above kind of “green” manipulation, which naturally gives rise to doubts, new vain investments, etc. When one looks, for example, at various results of expensive “supercomputer” simulations of climate evolution differing among themselves and “walking around” by the same amount as the main predicted effect, what should one deduce about the real value of such “science”? Nigel Cook also gives several relevant estimates in his above comment. Without going into (rather evident) detail, I would add that “combating” the growing ecological threats with “better use” of existing tools and a “greener” life style version is another costly and actually dangerous illusion (when people put all their resources into a mere illusion, it makes the eco-singularity ever more “sustainable”).

So the same question appears again, why isn't there something else in your best of all possible worlds, something qualitatively different and truly reliable, what could it actually be and how to practically replace the overpaid empty exercises of self-chosen “intellectual elite” by simply useful, truly creative and inspiring scientific work (at least at the level of other spheres of human activity)? In other words, how to get out of the progressing mental “singularity” to a qualitatively better level of intellectual (and practical) creativity? I am sure they were not discussing it on that meeting, were they, John?

Finally, let me kill another example of “honest scientist” from this post, Marvin Minsky and their entire AI corporation. It's true that they readily acknowledge NOW the TOO EVIDENT total failure of all their Giga-projects and Mega-promises (after 50 years of money wasting “efforts”!), but if you try to propose them another approach containing a proven possibility of real problem solution, you'll end up there where you start. I was trying to do that, for example, at a “top” meeting celebrating 50 years of AI last summer in a top place in Switzerland (Minsky probably was not there, but another AI patriarch, Rodney Brooks from MIT, was one of organisers). In a rarely open invitation, organisers were explicitly and even “emotionally” insisting on a total failure of the canonical AI quest and were asking anxiously for “new AI paradigms” (for the “next 50 years”, probably). My rigorously substantiated proposition (without any “hype”) was first welcome by European organisers, but got unexpectedly rejected at the last moment by an American “referee” (unknown to me) with only one phrase, that “it is too special to be of public interest” (it was a professionally “serious”, ambitious event). No professional explanations, no answers to my inquiries, nothing, just that small phrase from an unknown “American friend” meaning actually “get out of here, poor idiot!” (after my rather concentrated efforts to produce presentation, respective plans, etc.). Such are attitudes, ethics, and ways of doing “research” of the “world scientific elite” in AI, which should be considered as the top of all computer-related and “numeric” research (waiting for a separate discussion!). As a result, after those “honest” and very “inspiring” accents in the meeting announcement (= its financial support, among other things), there were NO noticeable propositions of a “new paradigm” or anything essentially new at all, but a lot of empty “post-modern” philosophy, “futuristic” references to robots, and open discussion about how to better sell “our stuff” to financial sources. In summary, the celebration was very successful, with all the exquisite pleasures they could have in that indeed magic place of Southern Switzerland.

All in all, I think that actually it is Kurzweil who is more “honest”, in a way, because in his case everything is more or less clear from the beginning... But how to heal the general, omnipresent disease of the SO developed world? And how shall we get out of the mental “singularity”? In the apparent absence of reliable and practically supported answer from “intellectual elite”, Jesus Christ or ET (coming to save us all) are simply the only ones that remain, should one really blame some fervent believers for that? I do not want to repeat MY answer here, just wouldn't like to be even more annoying than I am...

Mike Cook

The only true test of AI will be if computers start breeding in basements and send out a list of demands. Seriously, a strong urge for personal survival and reproduction are the best evidence we can have of both consciousness and intelligence (putting aside suicide bombers.)
The urge to survive becomes most convincing when an entity starts lying to advance its own interests. In order to tell a good lie, however, an entity can not be autistic. It not only must comprehend that other minds exist, it must understand what those other minds think about the entity itself, the better to fool them.
In a way, this is like the importance of recognizing yourself in a mirror, which is what we recently learned elephants can do. Once you understand that you do have an appearance, you can start putting on ceremonial make-up or cosmetic disguises to fool someone into marrying you, if you are female, or terrifying them if they are an enemy.
When your household robot starts trying to adorn itself without being programmed to do so, we will know something is up.
I lived a number of years on Native American reservations and with the Inupiaq and Yupik eskimoes in Alaska. They did not really have dozens of different names for snow, but they did really hate the idea of throwing anything away. These were people who would use every last bit of a seal or a whale. They look at an old snowmobile or boat motor the same way--let them sit in yard because someday you might really need some little part of them for something the original designer never intended.
I'm the same way about ideas. I have a notion that Dirac's quantum algebra, string theory, and the thermodynamic reactions of precursor molecules in forming the first living cell should all be somehow following a basically mathematic formula. If we knew that formula it would be much easier to reverse-engineer life in a test tube.
We have to postulate enormous quantities of both dark matter and dark energy in order to save general relativity on the largest scales. Like multiverses, these postulations of unseen things are inelegant and ultimately unconvincing.
In Darwin dogma, the survival of the fittest seems to have become the survival of the luckiest. That only works if you believe in luck, chance, randomness, and the honesty of any supposed random chance generator. We might suppose that the formula for pi is a kind of random number generator because the only patterns are really whacky, but pi obviously is not a random number itself because the formula produces reliably repeatable strings of quite particular numbers. Will the string ever stop or settle down to all zero's or all 9's? We don't know.
Then there is chaos theory, which can be viewed as ultimate determinism. The butterfly flapping its wings in Siberia made more rain in Paris next Spring because it HAD to. It was an intricate chain of events, but all quite mechanical and reproducible, if not reversible. An omniscient computer might even have predicted the increased Parisian rain, except that its own bulk and energy demands would certainly have disrupted the ecosystem and the result.
Let's view the butterfly--rain progression as a working analog computer itself. Only it knows if if is getting the right answer. Analog computers always have a certain amount of slop in the gears, especially when you get down to quantum event scale.

Hal K

"Will the string ever stop or settle down to all zero's or all 9's? We don't know."

We do know it will not settle down to all zero's etc. because it is an "irrational number." On the other hand, there are things that we don't know about the infinite decimal expansion of pi.

" I have a notion that Dirac's quantum algebra, string theory, and the thermodynamic reactions of precursor molecules in forming the first living cell should all be somehow following a basically mathematic formula. If we knew that formula it would be much easier to reverse-engineer life in a test tube."

I think you are talking about a theory of everything here. My opinion/belief is that there will never be a theory of everything.

Mike Cook

At the minimum, there should be theories that simplify the picture. Or is this precisely what Horganism is getting at--there can be no more brilliant little theories that illustrate and expose some subtle but universal operating principle of the universe?

Hal K

"there can be no more brilliant little theories that illustrate and expose some subtle but universal operating principle of the universe?"

My own view is that there WILL more results like this, but there will never be one final theory (of everything) from which all other physical theories can be mathematically derived. In fact I do believe there is a theory of everything, but it cannot be finitely described. It would be sort of like the infinite digits of pi, except with pi we can write computer programs to generate the digits, but with the physical "theory of everything" we have to keep thinking and doing experiments.

Maybe John Horgan thinks there could be a finite theory of everything but it is just extremely difficult to discover it. Recently he made a similar statement about consciousness, saying that we may eventually have an explanation but that it will be extremely difficult to understand.


Richard Feynman wrote “There is nothing in biology yet found that indicates the inevitability of death………….This suggests to me that it is not at all inevitable” Stephan Hawking has suggested that humanity will spread into space and even to other stars. And of course Turing suggested the possibility that computers would one day be at least as smart as humans.

These are three of the most brilliant minds of the past 100 years. Their writings seem to support the basic thesis of Kurzweil. It seems to me that any merely bright person should be very cautious in casually dismissing his ideas.

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