11 December 2005

Notes from the future:

I recently finished reading The Singularity is Near, the new book by Ray Kurzweil, the inventor and futurist best known (outside of technological circles) for believing that human beings will soon become effectively immortal through genetics and nanotechnology. Kurzweil's argument is a simple one: the reverse engineering of the human brain, combined with the explosive growth of computational power, will lead to the development of a superhuman artificial intelligence within the next three decades. Because this superhuman intelligence will, among other things, be able to design computers that are even faster and smarter than itself, the pace of technological innovation will grow exponentially until our region of the solar system is completely saturated with intelligence, after which it will proceed to colonize the rest of the universe. Meanwhile, technology will rapidly solve mankind's remaining problems, until we're immortal and omnipotent. This technological singularity will mark both the beginning and the end of human history. And this will all take place within our lifetime.

Obviously, Kurzweil is an optimist, and his vision of the future is open to a number of objections (which, to his credit, he anticipates and tries to address). Still, he makes a convincing case. Too bad his book isn't a better read: it's one-third spellbinding, one-third tedious, and one-third vaguely embarrassing. (His chapters alternate with short dialogues that are so poorly written that they serve as a reminder of how good Douglas Hofstadter is at this sort of thing.) And yet this is an important book. Everyone should, at least, try to read pages 342-366, in which Kurzweil explains why we're probably alone in our corner of the galaxy, and why it might be our destiny to bring consciousness to the entire universe. If he's right—and his argument, once you peel away the hype, is elegant and almost irrefutable—obviously the stakes are very high. As he writes:
A common view is that science has consistently been correcting our overly inflated view of our own significance. Stephen Jay Gould said, "The most important scientific revolutions all include, as their only common feature, the dethronement of human arrogance from one pedestal after another of previous convictions about our centrality in the cosmos."

But it turns out that we are central, after all.
All in all, I'd be feeling pretty optimistic about the future if it weren't for another book I bought this week: Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library. I like Chris Ware a lot, and think that his graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth is the best novel of any kind published in my lifetime. But God, this book is depressing. It's a collection of gorgeous full-page comic strips of astonishing bitterness and pessimism, in which the punchline almost always involves the main character dying alone—or, in one case, becoming immortal and alone. One recurring feature, Tales of Tomorrow, shows a pudgy man in a spacesuit sitting alone on a park bench, doing his laundry, watching television, and crying bitterly. Other strips are even more bitter, even hateful. All in all, they serve as a savage rebuttal to Kurzweil's considerably more rosy vision, and suggest that even after the singularity, we'll just be a bunch of lonely, unfulfilled, suicidal gods. Which version is more accurate? Well, I guess we'll find out soon enough.

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