Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Wednesday Reading - The Age of Spiritual Machines

You may have noticed the last couple Fridays I haven’t posted a weekend book recommendation. It turns out Fridays are just too hectic for me to do a regular post, so starting this week I’m switching the weekly book post to Wednesdays.

This week I’m starting the Wednesday recommendation with Ray Kurzweil’s “The Age of Spiritual Machines.” I’ve actually been reading this book for the last two and a half weeks, which is a lot of time for me to spend on one book. Between commute time, stationary bike time, and pre-bed reading, I spend an average of 2 hours every day reading. I have to believe our reliable public transportation system is a big part of the reason Bostonians are so well read, but … that’s a discussion for another time.

Anyway, the reason Spiritual Machines is taking me so long to read is that I’m literally re-reading every line twice. This book completely blew my mind. I have a hard time classifying Kurzweil. I guess the best term, which I’ve seen several times, is “Futurist”– he focuses mainly on the future of technology and the human race. But this is not to be confused with the early 20th century futurist painters, who embraced violence and anarchy.

The Age of Spiritual Machines was written in 1999, which means Kurzweil’s ideas have had a little time to age. Some of his predictions were surprisingly accurate -- the ubiquity of cell phones, video conferencing, etc – and some were not so – like cochlear implants being used to enhance everyone’s hearing and telephones being able to translate between two different languages.

I think the biggest idea he gets right is that as technology becomes more integrated into the world around us, it becomes integrated into our brains too. The kinds of things that used to be intelligent – memorizing facts and figures – isn’t intelligent anymore, because finding a specific answer to a question is as easy as looking it up online on your phone. Creativity is intelligence for humans now, but the expense is we rely on technology to fill in the knowledge gaps. Eventually, when machines are able to think creatively and make new connections, humanity will enter a new era of intelligence.

The biggest failure of the book -- I think Kurzweil fails to take into account the other forces at work besides evolution. He predicted a steady rise in the stock market from 1999 to 2099. And, he expected the US to be the reigning superpower of the world forever, with the rest of the world foregoing wars to compete with us economically. (although he did predict a rise in terrorism and fears of bioterrorism).

Is it really possible to predict what the world will be like 100 years in the future? Maybe not – there are so many variables. But Kurzweil makes some convincing arguments. If nothing else it’s worth reading so you can look back in 2099 and see what he got right and what he got wrong.

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