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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Book Review: The Singularity is Near

by John Gavazzi, PsyD, ABPP

Disclaimer: The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil is dense with facts, ideas, and future projections. However, space limitations of this blog post prevent me from a much more detailed review.

If you are interested in the interface of technology and human existence, then this book is a meaningful read. While the text is dated (published in 2004), I never imagined that this book would try to deal with consciousness and “self” within the context of non-biological intelligence.

Consciousness is the most complex outcome of evolution, so far. However, The Singularity focuses on possible paths in which the human brain will be enhanced through nanotechnology and other engineering developments. Kurzweil also makes the claim that non-biological entities will achieve consciousness, most likely near 2045!!

Sound farfetched? Too Star Trek for you?

Kurzweil covers a wide range of topics including brain science, technological advances, nanotechnology, reverse engineering the brain, the importance of chaos theory and algorithms, and some advances in medical research. The brain science portions of the book explore the human brain from intracellular processes of the neurons, to neurotransmitters and synapses, to localized brain functioning, to overall brain functioning, to mind as an emergent function of a chaotic, complex system.

Kurzweil’s engineering perspective and sharp insights are effective throughout the text. While Kurzweil writes in a friendly, easy manner, make sure that you have a working knowledge of complexity theory (chaos theory), quantum physics, and biological conceptualizations (DNA, RNA, epigenetics) to appreciate fully the depth and breadth of his points.

There are some minor weaknesses. First, Kurzweil gives short shrift to the general idea of consciousness. Because consciousness is not well defined or well measured, the author does not spend much time on consciousness. However, he addresses that non-biological entities will achieve consciousness, but, other than passing the Turing test, he does not elaborate in a meaningful way. Furthermore, consciousness is tied up with sensation, perception, acculturation, expectations, etc. that are not addressed within the context of non-biological enhancements.

Second, the concept of “self” is sketchy at best for Kurzweil. He does not connect how a "centered self" applies to non-biological intelligence or enhanced intelligence. Kurzweil seems to argue for a de-centered “self” or a distributed model of consciousness. While I agree with this premise (that many portions of consciousness are distributed), Kurweil only implies this possibility, without spelling out all of the ramifications of a de-centered self.

Overall, the book is a fascinating foray into the melding of human intelligence and non-biological enhancements to human existence. The book raises the issue of what makes us human, and, how far can we create hybrid life forms that are still considered human?  So, the ethical issue stems from the degree to which human beings are willing to use cognitive and physiological enhancements and still consider us to be human.  Medical devices have already been implanted into the human body to repair damaged or unhealthy organs (implantable cardioverter-defibrillator).  The future challenge is: how far will individuals go with cognitive, emotional and physiological enhancements and society still considers that hybrid entity to be “human”? 
Kurzweil makes some interesting projections as to how possible inventions will change the human race in 20, 30, or 40 years.  This brief video highlights some of the main points in this book.

If you choose to read this book, hopefully you will enjoy it as much as I have.  The Transcendent Man is a related movie that I have yet to see.