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(Ray Kurzweil "The Age of Spiritual Machines" and Hans Moravec's "Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind"



Twenty years ago, back in high school (Yes, the writer is old.) when we were reading the two great anti-utopian novels of the century, Brave New World and 1984, there was some discussion as to which place we would rather live. We sort of chose Brave New World because there was some happiness, even though it was kind of programmed in you. Where 1984 was just this relentless fascist state that got a kick out of that boot stomping your face forever.

If I had to choose between the futures outlined by both Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil in their dual books about the future and the ultimate transcendence of machine intelligence, then I’d have to say that Ray’s world is definitely the place I’d want to be.

The Kurzweil world is full of really cool gadgets, revealing conversations with AIs and is a place where machines and man sort of emerge peacefully and beneficially into each other. We become Data and Data becomes us.

Where Hans gives us a pretty dark Survival of the Fittest kind of future, the kind envisioned in those Terminator films. But in the Moravec director’s cut, there will be no scrappy human resistance, no chance for a third film where humanity triumphs. Or as he states it: "Biological species almost never survive encounters with superior competitors." He constantly brings up Deep Blue’s trouncing of Kasparov as his metaphor for the future. Gary's shock and bewilderment will soon be our own.

In fact, if anything the Moravec vision resembles a film not yet made, namely Greg Bear’s "Blood Music". If you haven’t read the book, then let me explain: Cells that think like computers take over the Earth. It really isn’t much of a fight. They sort of take over everything and remake the Earth, and later on it’s hinted, the Stars, into a different kind of intelligence. It would not be unlike your table started to walk and it decided to merge you with it at the molecular level. You would no longer be you. You would simply be a part of your table’s collective consciousness, doing its dreams, following its dictates. No more lunch for you. That’s not what smart tables do.

While the Kurzweil view is that you will be assimilated--albeit pleasantly--or you will be left hopelessly behind. You decide. It's not really a matter of good or bad, that's just the way it is. Grow up, plug in your nan based neural implant or die.

The writers also go about their way of detailing the future a bit differently as well. And even though Moravec is a local boy, I'd say Kurzweil is a better writer. While they both outline the probable future of tech advancement, Kurzweil's vision of the future is broader, it has specific tastes and smells. It has sexbots, sensoriums, haptic responses, capable machine poetry, luddite terrorists and nanogens. K even uses a literary character who talks to us from the future--specifically 2009, 2019, 2029 and 2099--who gives us the average posthuman view of those times. K is no Paul Di Filippo, but he is effective.

The other thing I liked about the Kurzweil book is that it was very broad in laying out the many scientific advances that have already taken place. If you haven't been studying Wired for the last several years, then you can catch up right here. Nanotech, nanotubes, quantum computing, optical computing, DNA computing, foglets, nano swarms…The future stuff is all here. Kurzweil, a prolific inventor in case you didn't know, even tells you how he's creating the future by patenting and building what sounds a whole lot like a phone based Universal Translator. I suppose he's confident about it because he's working with Microsoft and Bill Gates to build it.

There's also more humor in K's book. He quotes Woody Allen, the Unabomber and even Dogbert to make a point or two.

Moravec's view is much more, well, scientific. He's very methodical about laying out the past and future of primarily machine intelligence. He just says it's going to advance he doesn't specify whether it will be through assemblers or q-bits.

What's very disturbing is that Moravec has lived and worked through these changes. I find his future timeline very convincing because he's had his hands on how Progress has worked in the past so I believe him when he writes about what will be. He's even worked out a timeline for the evolution of robots. He also tries to do something that K doesn't wrestle with quite as much, but I imagine its something that an AI/robotics specialist would have to do, and that's wrestle with the nature of consciousness itself. What is self. Who defines Self. Can Robby the Robot declare itself sentient and so forth.

Both Moravec and K have some interesting ideas about the far future. Moravec flatly says that posthumans who wish to augment themselves with advanced robotics should be kicked off planet, where their new found egos and powers would have more room to stretch. Yet another similarity between his far future and the one Bear dreamed up in "Blood Music" is that these post human "things" or "Exes" as he calls them will grow to the size of planets, and be an unstoppable force. He imagines people would be like bacteria to them and that we would simply be the amusing players in some future recreation. He even thinks that this Truman show like reality might already be a reality.

Or to quote him:

"Most things that are experienced--this very moment, for instance, or your entire life--are far more likely to be a mind's musings than the physical processes they seem to be…There is no way to tell for sure…To a simulated entity, the simulation is reality and must be lived by its internal rules."

Meanwhile, back in K's version of 2099, people and machines have kind of merged. You don't really know where you starts and the machine ends. But it seems pleasant, compared to the pet show I will become in that Moravec future.

I don't know which one will be true. I guess it depends on whether you're a pessimist or an optimist.


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(Freeman Dyson, "The Sun, The Genome, The Internet")


Freeman Dyson's new book "The Sun, the Genome and the Internet" kind of treads the same ground as the books by Moravec and Kurzweil, but it's a lot shorter, about 120 pages as opposed to 300 or so in the others and the perspective is different, wizened, and, just well older.

Dyson is a legendary figure in science and after reading this book I can see why. Even though his primary field is physics he writes effectively and authoritatively--to me anyway, but I'm an English major--about everything else: biology, astronomy, computers and even throws in the wild speculation or two.

He's also famous in science fiction because of something that he created called the Dyson Sphere, a habitat that he believes advanced species would build. It's shown up in a few novels.

Dyson takes a more interesting and singular view of both science history and the possibility of the future than the aforementioned. For one thing, he believes that we should actively try to create a future that has social justice. He asks a very interesting question that I believe that these newly minted net billionaires never ask and that's:

"How may we make ethics drive technology in such a way that the evil consequences are minimized and the good maximized? I shall argue that the chain of causation, from ethics to technology and back to ethics, leaves open a possibility of making technological progress and ethical progress run hand in hand."

There's kind of a relaxed tone to the work. It kind of goes all over the place. I understand that the work is a distillation of some of his lectures. It sure is interesting though. He does make an argument I can't really agree with though. He sort of makes the argument that superior technology always wins the day and that the followers of Thomas Kuhn--who wrote a very influential book called the "Structure of Scientific Revolutions" that, apparently, made the argument that science is influenced by politics--are wrong and misguided.

I actually think he's wrong on this point. The one thing that I'm learning about the computer industry is that the superiority of technology has nothing to do with how well it succeeds. Open Source might well prevail, but not without some opposition by that guy from Redmond. That has nothing to do with the validity of the technology. It has everything to do with the politics of technology.

But that's a minor point. I found this to be a very enjoyable read. His pieces on science history were fascinating because, well, he was there for the most part. It felt like that Connections show.

Dyson also comes up with a wild idea for creating habitats for Mars and creating workable and affordable solar cells here on Earth. He thinks we should genetically engineer plants that do both jobs. It would be a world where augmented plants would replace solar cells. And instead of having to carry supplies to Mars, worrying about payloads and fuel and such, why not just seed Mars with plants designed to grow large enough to serve as housing. One Mile High Dandelion coming right up.

The book is sprinkled with cool ideas like that. It's also short, unlike Cryptonomicon, the new 900 page behemoth by Neal Stephenson. A great book that will have to go unread for quite a while longer.


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