Singularitarianism?

Ray Kurzweil is a genius. One of the greatest hucksters of the age. That’s the only way I can explain how his nonsense gets so much press and has such a following. Now he has the cover of Time magazine, and an article called 2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal. It certainly couldn’t be taken seriously anywhere else; once again, Kurzweil wiggles his fingers and mumbles a few catchphrases and upchucks a remarkable prediction, that in 35 years (a number dredged out of his compendium of biased estimates), Man (one, a few, many? How? He doesn’t know) will finally achieve immortality (seems to me you’d need to wait a few years beyond that goal to know if it was true). Now we’ve even got a name for the Kurzweil delusion: Singularitarianism.

There’s room inside Singularitarianism for considerable diversity of opinion about what the Singularity means and when and how it will or won’t happen. But Singularitarians share a worldview. They think in terms of deep time, they believe in the power of technology to shape history, they have little interest in the conventional wisdom about anything, and they cannot believe you’re walking around living your life and watching TV as if the artificial-intelligence revolution were not about to erupt and change absolutely everything. They have no fear of sounding ridiculous; your ordinary citizen’s distaste for apparently absurd ideas is just an example of irrational bias, and Singularitarians have no truck with irrationality. When you enter their mind-space you pass through an extreme gradient in worldview, a hard ontological shear that separates Singularitarians from the common run of humanity. Expect turbulence.

Wow. Sounds just like the Raelians, or Hercolubians, or Scientologists, or any of the modern New Age pseudosciences that appropriate a bit of jargon and blow it up into a huge mythology. Nice hyperbole there, though. Too bad the whole movement is empty of evidence.

One of the things I do really despise about the Kurzweil approach is their dishonest management of critics, and Kurzweil is the master. He loves to tell everyone what’s wrong with his critics, but he doesn’t actually address the criticisms.

Take the question of whether computers can replicate the biochemical complexity of an organic brain. Kurzweil yields no ground there whatsoever. He does not see any fundamental difference between flesh and silicon that would prevent the latter from thinking. He defies biologists to come up with a neurological mechanism that could not be modeled or at least matched in power and flexibility by software running on a computer. He refuses to fall on his knees before the mystery of the human brain. “Generally speaking,” he says, “the core of a disagreement I’ll have with a critic is, they’ll say, Oh, Kurzweil is underestimating the complexity of reverse-engineering of the human brain or the complexity of biology. But I don’t believe I’m underestimating the challenge. I think they’re underestimating the power of exponential growth.”

This is wrong. For instance, I think reverse-engineering the general principles of a human brain might well be doable in a few or several decades, and I do suspect that we’ll be able to do things in ten years, 20 years, a century that I can’t even imagine. I don’t find Kurzweil silly because I’m blind to the power of exponential growth, but because:

  • Kurzweil hasn’t demonstrated that there is exponential growth at play here. I’ve read his absurd book, and his “data” is phony and fudged to fit his conclusion. He cheerfully makes stuff up or drops data that goes against his desires to invent these ridiculous charts.

  • I’m not claiming he underestimates the complexity of the brain, I’m saying he doesn’t understand biology, period. Handwaving is not enough — if he’s going to make fairly specific claims of “immortality in 35 years”, there had better be some understanding of the path that will be taken.

  • There is a vast difference between grasping a principle and implementing the specifics. If we understand how the brain works, if we can create a computer simulation that replicates and improves upon the function of our brain, that does not in any way imply that my identity and experiences can be translated into the digital realm. Again, Kurzweil doesn’t have even a hint of a path that can be taken to do that, so he has no basis for making the prediction.

  • Smooth curves that climb upward into infinity can exist in mathematics (although Kurzweil’s predictions don’t live in state of rigor that would justify calling them “mathematical”), but they don’t work in the real world. There are limits. We’ve been building better and more powerful power plants for aircraft for a century, but they haven’t gotten to a size and efficiency to allow me to fly off with a personal jetpack. I have no reason to expect that they will, either.

  • While I don’t doubt that science will advance rapidly, I also expect that the directions it takes will be unpredictable. Kurzweil confuses engineering, where you build something to fit a predetermined set of specifications, with science, in which you follow the evidence wherever it leads. Look at the so-called war on cancer: it isn’t won, no one expects that it will be, but what it has accomplished is to provide limited success in improving health and quality of life, extending survival times, and developing new tools for earlier diagnosis — that’s reality, and understanding reality is achieved incrementally, not by sudden surges in technology independent of human effort. It also generates unexpected spinoffs in deeper knowledge about cell cycles, signaling, gene regulation, etc. The problems get more interesting and diverse, and it’s awfully silly of one non-biologist in 2011 to try to predict what surprises will pop out.

  • Kurzweil is a typical technocrat with limited breadth of knowledge. Imagine what happens IF we actually converge on some kind of immortality. Who gets it? If it’s restricted, what makes Kurzweil think he, and not Senator Dumbbum who controls federal spending on health, or Tycoon Greedo the trillionaire, gets it? How would the world react if such a capability were available, and they (or their dying mother, or their sick child) don’t have access? What if it’s cheap and easy, and everyone gets it? Kurzweil is talking about a technology that would almost certainly destroy every human society on the planet, and he treats it as blithely as the prospect of getting new options for his cell phone. In case he hadn’t noticed, human sociology and politics shows no sign of being on an exponential trend towards greater wisdom. Yeah, “expect turbulence.”

  • He’s guilty of a very weird form of reductionism that considers a human life can be reduced to patterns in a computer. I have no stock in spiritualism or dualism, but we are very much a product of our crude and messy biology — we percieve the world through imprecise chemical reactions, our brains send signals by shuffling ions in salt water, our attitudes and reactions are shaped by chemicals secreted by glands in our guts. Replicating the lightning while ignoring the clouds and rain and pressure changes will not give you a copy of the storm. It will give you something different, which would be interesting still, but it’s not the same.

  • Kurzweil shows other signs of kookery. Two hundred pills a day? Weekly intravenous transfusions? Drinking alkalized water because he’s afraid of acidosis? The man is an intelligent engineer, but he’s also an obsessive crackpot.

Oh, well. I’ll make my own predictions. Magazines will continue to praise Kurzweil’s techno-religion in sporadic bursts, and followers will continue to gullibly accept what he says because it is what they wish would happen. Kurzweil will die while brain-uploading and immortality are still vague dreams; he will be frozen in liquid nitrogen, which will so thoroughly disrupt his cells that even if we discover how to cure whatever kills him, there will be no hope of recovering the mind and personality of Kurzweil from the scrambled chaos of his dead brain. 2045 will come, and those of us who are alive to see it, will look back and realize it is very, very different from what life was like in 2011, and also very different from what we expected life to be like. At some point, I expect artificial intelligences to be part of our culture, if we persist; they’ll work in radically different ways than human brains, and they will revolutionize society, but I have no way of guessing how. Ray Kurzweil will be forgotten, mostly, but records of the existence of a strange shaman of the circuitry from the late 20th and early 21st century will be tucked away in whatever the future databases are like, and people and machines will sometimes stumble across them and laugh or zotigrate and say, “How quaint and amusing!”, or whatever the equivalent in the frangitwidian language of the trans-entity circumsolar ansible network might be.

And that’ll be kinda cool. I wish I could live to see it.

An interesting thread tangent

The indefatigable Kurzweil threads do occasionally spawn some interesting discussion, and the latest has gone down a few odd byways thanks to this comment by Cerberus:

Creating a robotic brain to “download your consciousness” into or the “I’ll make a clone version of myself with all my memories” sci-fi fiction immortality ideas are kinda false immortalities.

It’s at best, assuming a complete successful procedure a process of ending one’s consciousness so that a puppet version of yourself can emulate your life possibly for all eternity.

Great, but what does that do for real you?

Real you is just as dead and gone and unable to be a part of and appreciate what your puppet is doing in its absence. I’m sure this has been repeatedly addressed in the various thread wars during my absence, but it seems kind of stupid.

I’d love to extend lifespans, I’d love to live forever if that was possible, but as long as we’re talking fantasies, asking for the power to fart sparkly flying unicorns seems less stupid than asking for a robot facsimile to live forever on your behalf.

I mean, if you’re going to be all cult about this, pick something that wouldn’t be completely contrary to your intended desire if you got it.

I would imagine that any ‘brain scan’ (the currently hypothesized method du jour for turning an organic brain into a digital analog in a computer) that broke it down to a sufficiently complete description of the whole state of the brain, would have to be destructive — you’d have to submit yourself to an imaginary technology that would rapidly peel you apart, molecule by molecule, to create a precisely specified copy. That’s death. That’s being disintegrated.

Now if there were a complementary technology that allowed a complete reassembly of a previously recorded state into a physical form, that would be interesting, and I’d argue that the perceived continuity of consciousness would mean you’d be disintegrated and reintegrated, and there’d be no perception of death, but there’d be no point to it unless it were used as some kind of transporter device ala Star Trek, or a way to store a person long term without the corpsicle problem.

But then, Star Trek always let me down — if they could do that, they should have made a few dozen copies of Captain Kirk and sent them out to conquer the universe.

Then there are all the followup concerns about identity and self in a world of cloned minds. I like the classic SMBC answer that ends with this punch line:

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Singularly silly singularity

Since I had the effrontery to critize futurism and especially Ray Kurzweil, here’s a repost of something I wrote on the subject a while back…and I’ll expand on it at the end.


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Kevin Drum picks at Kurzweil—a very good thing, I think—and expresses bafflement at this graph (another version is here, but it’s no better):

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(Another try: here’s a cleaner scan of the chart.)

You see, Kurzweil is predicting that the accelerating pace of technological development is going to lead to a revolutionary event called the Singularity in our lifetimes. Drum has extended his graph (the pink areas) to show that, if it were correct, these changes ought to be occurring at a still faster rate now…something we aren’t seeing. There’s something wrong in this.

I peered at that graph myself, and the flaws go even deeper. It’s bogus through and through.

Kurzweil cheats. The most obvious flaw is the way he lumps multiple events together as one to keep the distribution linear. For example, one “event” is “Genus Homo, Homo erectus, specialized stone tools”, and another is “Printing, experimental method” and “Writing, wheel”. If those were treated as separate events, they would have inserted major downward deflections in his chart a million years ago, and about 500 to a few thousand years ago.

The biology is fudged, too. Other “events” are “Class Mammalia“, “Superfamily Hominoidea“, “Family Hominidae“, the species “Homo sapiens“, and the subspecies “Homo sapiens sapiens“. Think about it. If the formation of a species, let alone a subspecies, is a major event about a million years ago, why isn’t each species back to the Cambrian awarded equivalent significance? Because it wouldn’t fit his line, of course. As he goes back farther in time, he’s using larger and larger artificial taxonomic distinctions to inflate the time between taxa.

It’s also simplifying the complex. “Spoken language” is treated as a discrete event, one little dot with a specific point of origin, as if it just poofed into existence. However, it was almost certainly a long-drawn-out, gradual process stretched out over hundreds of thousands of years. Primates communicate with vocalizations; why not smear that “spoken language” point into a fuzzy blur stretching back another million years or so?

Here’s another problem: cows. If you’re going to use basic biology as milestones in the countdown to singularity, we can find similar taxonomic divisions in the cow lineage, so they were tracking along with us primates all through the first few billion years of this chart. Were they on course to the Singularity? Are they still? If not, why has the cow curve flattened out, and doesn’t that suggest that the continued linearity of the human curve is not an ineluctable trend? This objection also applies to every single species on the planet—ants, monkeys, and banana plants all exhibit a “trend” if you look backwards on it (a phenomenon Gould called “retrospective coronation”), and you can even pretend it is an accelerating trend if you gin it up by using larger and larger taxonomic divisions the farther back you go.

Even the technologies are selectively presented. Don’t the Oldowan, Acheulian, and Mousterian stone tool technologies represent major advances? Why isn’t the Levallois flake in the chart as a major event, comparable to agriculture or the Industrial Revolution? Copper and iron smelting? How about hygiene or vaccination?

I’ll tell you why. Because not only is the chart an artificial and perhaps even conscious attempt to fit the data to a predetermined conclusion, but what it actually represents is the proximity of the familiar. We are much more aware of innovations in our current time and environment, and the farther back we look, the blurrier the distinctions get. We may think it’s a grand step forward to have these fancy cell phones that don’t tie you to a cord coming from the wall, but there was also a time when people thought it was radical to be using this new bow & arrow thingie, instead of the good ol’ atlatl. We just lump that prior event into a “flinging pointy things” category and don’t think much of it. When Kurzweil reifies biases that way, he gets garbage, like this graph, out.

Now I do think that human culture has allowed and encouraged greater rates of change than are possible without active, intelligent engagement—but this techno-mystical crap is just kookery, plain and simple, and the rationale is disgracefully bad. One thing I will say for Kurzweil, though, is that he seems to be a first-rate bullshit artist.

I don’t think he’ll be sending me a copy of his book to review.


I got one thing wrong in my original article: he did send me a copy of his book, The Singularity is Near! I even read it. It was horrible.

Most of it was exactly like the example above: Kurzweil tosses a bunch of things into a graph, shows a curve that goes upward, and gets all misty-eyed and spiritual over our Bold Future. Some places it’s OK, when he’s actually looking at something measurable, like processor speed over time. In other places, where he puts bacteria and monkeys on the Y-axis and pontificates about the future of evolution, it’s absurd. I am completely baffled by Kurzweil’s popularity, and in particular the respect he gets in some circles, since his claims simply do not hold up to even casually critical examination.

I actually am optimistic about technological progress, and I think some of the things he talks about (nanotechnology, AI, etc.) will come to pass. But I do not believe in the Singularity at all.

Nanotech is overhyped, though. They seem to be aspiring to build little machines that do exactly what bacteria and viruses do right now…and don’t seem to appreciate the compromises and restrictions that are a natural consequence of multifunctional systems. I also don’t believe in the gray goo nightmare scenario: we’re already surrounded by a cloud of miniscule replicating machines that want to break our bodies down into their constituent molecules. We seem to cope, usually.

I think we will develop amazing new technologies, and they will affect human evolution, but it will be nothing like what Kurzweil imagines. We have already experienced a ‘singularity’ — the combination of agriculture, urbanization, and literacy transformed our species, but did not result in a speciation event, nor did it have quite the abrupt change an Iron Age Kurzweil might have predicted. Probably the most radical evolutionary changes would be found in our immune systems as we adapted to new diets and pathogens, but people are still people, and we can find cultures living a neolithic life style and an information age lifestyle, and they can still communicate and even interbreed. Maybe this information age will have as dramatic and as important an effect on humanity as the invention of writing, but even if it does, don’t expect a nerd rapture to come of it. Just more cool stuff, and a bigger, shinier, fancier playground for humanity to gambol about in.

Futurists make me cranky

And I don’t want to hear you complaining that everything makes me cranky! I get especially grumpy about armchair futurists making pronouncements about biology when they don’t know a thing about it.

Chairman and CEO of Biotechonomy, Enriquez says that humanity is on the verge of becoming a new and utterly unique species, which he dubs Homo Evolutis. What makes this species so unique is that it “takes direct and deliberate control over the evolution of the species.” Calling it the “ultimate reboot,” he points to the conflux of DNA manipulation and therapy, tissue generation, and robotics as making this great leap possible.

The day may come when we are able to take the best biology of the known animal kingdom and make it part of our own. This isn’t just about being a bit stronger, or having perfect eyesight our whole lives. All of our organs and limbs have weaknesses that can be addressed, and there are also opportunities to go beyond basic fixes and perform more elaborate enhancements. At a private lunch on Thursday, Enriquez spoke of a young girl who, after suffering a knee injury, received tendon replacement therapy centered around tendons grown in a lab. It not only fixed her knee, but made it stronger than normal. Later in life as she pursued life as a professional skier, he coach actually asked that she have the same surgery on her other knee to increase her abilities.

Every species is new and unique. Humans have some unusual specializations, but it doesn’t warrant his misplaced enthusiasm. Every species also takes control over its own evolution, in a sense; individuals make choices of all sorts that influence what will happen in the next generation. You could rightly argue that they don’t do it with planning and intent, but I have seen nothing that suggests that our attempts to modify our species, low tech and high tech together, are any wiser or better informed about the long-term consequences than those of any rat fighting for an opportunity to mate. We do what we do; don’t pretend it’s part of a long term plan that is actually prepared for all of the unexpected eventualities.

And then, of course, what does he talk about? Phenotypic patchwork! That isn’t evolution at all. That girl’s children will have whatever tendons her genetics grant them, without regard for the surgeon’s tinkering. Then he has the gall to claim that this warrants the designation of a new species? Hah. I wear eyeglasses. I declare that I am a member of Homo oculis! I read and communicate with text, so I’m now a member of Homo literatus! I’ve had my appendix removed, therefore I am part of the bold vanguard of Homo sanscecum!

And don’t get me started on Ray Kurzweil. That guy is bonkers.

Bad books

Horgan lists the Ten worst science books. Here’s his criteria for a bad science book:

These books aren’t merely awful, of course, but harmful. Most have been bestsellers, or had some sort of significant impact, which often means–paradoxically–that they are rhetorical masterpieces.

I find myself agreeing with his choices, at least of the ones I’ve read.

Capra, Frifjof, The Tao of Physics. Helped inspire the tedious New Age obsession with quantum mechanics.

I remember having to read this in some liberal-artsy class in college, and deciding that this lump of silly crap had convinced me that physics wasn’t for me. Not that I’d even been tempted, but man, this was bad.

Edelman, Gerald, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire. Oliver Sacks, inexplicably, reveres the pretentious, obscure neural theories of the egomaniacal Edelman. Why, Oliver, why?

Were Edelman’s books really that popular? I agree with the assessment, but I figured laymen would find it impenetrable, and those of us who knew something about neuroscience would all find it useless jabberwocky.

Gould, Stephen Jay, Rocks of Ages. Gould at his pompous, verbose worst. He managed somehow both to pander and condescend to readers.

Some of us like Gould, but this is one book that I think most of us would agree is awfully poor stuff. I’ve encountered a few religious people who think it’s great, but they usually seem to have the impression he’s being generous to religion.

Hamer, Dean, The God Gene. Any book by Hamer, “discoverer” of the “gay gene” and “God gene,” would have sufficed. He is an embarrassment to genetics.

Amen, brother. The whole “gene for X” genre is the domain of people who think simplistically about genetics, and it feeds popular misconceptions.

Kurzweil, Ray, The Age of Spiritual Machines. Bible of the pseudo-scientific cult of cyber-evangelism.

And he keeps going and going and going, and his books get thicker and thicker! Kurzweil is a nut in more ways than one. I was just reading a review of his latest in Skeptic magazine—the man hopes to live forever on a regimen of 250 pills, chinese herbs, weekly IV supplements and chelation therapy, acupuncture, alkalinized water, and ionic filtered air, and avoids showers and sugar.

Murray, Charles, and Richard Herrnstein, The Bell Curve. The worst of the worst, ethically, scientifically, intellectually.

It’s still cited and defended by racists and eugenicists and fans of wacky genetic elitism. This is probably the most actively evil book of the bunch.

Wilson, Edward, Consilience. Sorry, Ed, but even your writerly charm cannot mitigate this misguided manifesto for scientific imperialism. Stick with ants and biodiversity!

I’m not quite as down on this one as Horgan, although I do have misgivings—I think the difference is that I like scientific imperialism.


I’d add some others. I think Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box definitely deserves a place on the list, as an example of pseudoscientific dreck that has been enormously influential, giving new life and a veneer of respectability to creationism. That issue of the Skeptic also mentions altie con artist Andrew Weil, another New Age fraud who has made a fortune with a published line of quackery. Maybe there should be a special place for generic ‘health’ books.

I think it will sink without a trace soon enough so it probably doesn’t belong on such a list, but the absolute worst book on “science” I’ve read this year is Francis Collins’ Language of God. Unfortunately, I think it’s enduring influence will be that for years to come, Collins will be listed vaguely as a Great Scientist Who Believes In God.

McEwan on the afterlife

Seed sent me a copy of this book, What We Believe but Cannot Prove : Today’s Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), and I’ve been browsing. It’s a collection of short essays (sometimes very short) on assumptions held by individual thinkers without solid evidence. It’s thought-provoking, even where I think the writer is a dingbat (Ray Kurzweil) or blithering banalities (Kevin Kelly). I rather liked Brian Goodwin’s essay on the fallacy of the nature-nurture problem, but so far, my favorite is one by the author Ian McEwan:

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