The Age of Spiritual Machines

Raymond Kurzweil

Shortly after moving to London, unexpectedly plunged into the world of professional web design, I joined my local library. I glanced around their computers section, and along with the usual out-of-date ‘how-to’ manuals, there was this provocatively-titled tome. Being fascinated by the idea of impending mass transformation, but not wholly convinced by the "aliens/Christ/Buddha will pop out of nowhere and change everything" line of reasoning, this persuasive argument about the radical nature of technology in this century was compelling for me.

Technology is of course just another ‘factor’—perhaps a crucial one, but by no means a cause which I intend to rally behind as the One Way to global mutation. Kurzweil is very close to subscribing to the Tech One Way—it’s his job after all (he’s an AI researcher). But even filtering out his bias leaves a hugely irresistible argument. Naturally he details Moore’s Law, governing the exponential increase in computer processing speeds and decrease in cost. However, he is a very intelligent guy, and does a good job of bringing some of the more sophisticated aspects of exponentially accelerating processes to light.

In fact, I would recommend this book to anyone who has been grabbed by Terence McKenna and Robert Anton Wilson’s theories about the speeding-up of evolution to some terminal concrescence or ‘Omega Point’. Kurzweil’s analysis of entropy and exponential processes in the early chapters is a good review of the complexities behind that apparently simple ever-rising curve into the transcendant future. For instance, he points out that the evolution of the universe and of individuals actually slows down. The pace of transformation just after the Big Bang (in the universe) and conception (in the individual) is astonishingly rapid compared to later in these processes. Organic evolution, however, follows the exponentially-accelerating trend; as does this book’s concern, technology, which Kurzweil labels "evolution by other means".

After this analysis of time and evolution, and a clear introduction to the different models involved in creating artificial intelligence, the book progresses with snapshots of the 21st century, summarising Kurzweil’s predictions for the state of computation, and its effects on education, politics, war, philosophy, business, law and the arts. Of course, this timeline presupposes our avoidance of massive catastrophes such as nuclear war, virulent biological agents or buggy nanomachines.

While he’s obviously got a big streak of tech-evangelism, Kurzweil doesn’t shy away from anti-tech arguments. He offers a crucial passage from Ted Kaczynski’s "Unabomber Manifesto", and acknowledges the strength of some of his arguments. Kurzweil’s predictions for this century are somewhat optimistic, but do include a recognition that ‘neo-luddism’ is, for very good reasons, going to be a factor in the future of technology.

Each ‘snapshot’ ends with an imaginary conversation with a figure called Molly, giving the author a chance to counter his owns views and broaden the debate he’s engaged in. This tone of playfulness is evident throughout, enlivening what could have been quite a heavy-going book.

In all, while this doesn’t quite have the resounding vision of, say, Sadie Plant’s Zeroes & Ones, it is a brilliant introduction to the promises and perils of technology in the 21st century.

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