The Age of Spiritual Machines?

That Ray Kurzweil is a smart, creative, inventive and prolific person is beyond dispute. In addition, it cannot be said that he hasn’t made numerous accurate predictions, most with 10-year lead times, such as IBM’s Deep Blue computer beating world champion Gary Kasparov in chess, the growth of the Internet and emergence of flash memory drives. However, he goes way too far in his belief in “spiritual machines” and the advent of a technical singularity.

The spiritual machines argument is quite old (1999) and with little progress in that direction, it surprises me that his 2005 book The Singularity is Near still suggested that, as Wikipedia puts it, “the functionality of the human brain is quantifiable in terms of technology that we can build in the near future.” Why do I say there is little progress? Computers are faster and can perform more tasks than ever, but are still limited to what human programmers tell them to do. In addition, human consciousness is far from being understood today. Our brains are not machines that simply perform clever mathematical operations, developed by computer programmers.

All this somewhat dated information was brought back to me in an interview on Fox News recently. Kurzweil predicts that a computer will passing the Turing Test by 2019, and that by 2029 a computer-based machine would be recognized as having consciousness.

Why am I not a believer? Computers are terrific at mathematical operations. Many felt that computers would never beat a world champion at chess. But consider: chess can be described in strictly mathematical terms. Deep Blue did what computers do well, math, not human thought. As one person said upon hearing of the news of Deep Blue’s victory, “I’ll be impressed when a computer can write and understand poetry.” The best computers today, connected to a vision system cannot do what a six-month-old child can, recognize and follow its mother’s face in a crowd.

All this reminds me of a book I read a few years ago by Robin Cook called Abduction. In this novel, the main characters, while exploring the sea, happen upon an opening to Interterra, a society of humans living under the earth’s crust. Their society is so advanced that when their bodies wear out, a new test tube baby is selected as a replacement. Their memories are downloaded to the babies and hence the babies become them. Their old body is destroyed and they live another life through the baby. Many of Kurzweil’s farout ideas are similar to this type of human/technological immortality.

I can’t be the only person who believes there is something uniquely me and uniquely you, uniquely human, that goes beyond our memories and can’t be downloaded from our bodies.

Interesting stuff. Why am I discussing this? We will be the ones assembling the electronics for Kurzweil’s machines. It will be interesting to watch.

About Dr. Ron

Materials expert Dr. Ron Lasky is a professor of engineering and senior lecturer at Dartmouth, and senior technologist at Indium Corp. He has a Ph.D. in materials science from Cornell University, and is a prolific author and lecturer, having published more than 40 papers. He received the SMTA Founders Award in 2003.
This entry was posted in Dr. Ron and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Age of Spiritual Machines?

  1. Ken says:

    My son and I were just discussing these kind of thoughts the other day, after I read that there are renewed warnings that we should be wary of the potential for a “Terminator” style takeover by increasingly “aware” military bots.

    I couldn’t agree with your comments more. Very interesting.

Comments are closed.