Thoughts on Kurzweil’s Law

I heard Ray Kurzweil speak last night at the Long Now seminar. A friend who also attended says it was essentially the exact same talk he’d heard him give five years ago (ironic considering how fast things are supposed to be changing nowadays), but this was my first time hearing him in person. I must say it’s rare where a talk makes me alternate between thinking“Well, that’s completely bogus!” and “OK, that makes sense…” so many times.

Where I think he’s got it right:

  • People are inherently bad at extrapolating exponential trends, and we are currently experiencing technological exponential growth. This is especially true in the information and communication technologies, namely information processing, sensing and pattern-recognition, and human-to-human communications.

  • Reading between the lines of his talk, information technologies are bootstrapping technologies: once you have them, they make inventing the next stage easier, faster and cheaper.

  • The combination of biotech, new biological sensors and the ability to simulate complex processes are going to seriously challenge how we currently think of ourselves as individuals and even what it means to be human.

Where I think he’s got it wrong:

  • As I mentioned a few days ago, I think some of his exponential curves are the result of our natural tendency to gloss over things that happened in the past and focus on recent developments. (A less generous assessment would say he just did it to make his curve work out, but this isn’t limited to Ray’s charts; in fact, he showed the same graph with points plotted from other lists of momentous inventions drawn from various encyclopedia.) This is not to say there aren’t several exponential growth curves in play at the moment, but I don’t think this is a trend that has been going on for hundreds of thousands of years.

  • It’s an old saw that people overestimate what will be possible in five years and underestimate what will be possible in 20 years. I think his predictions of ubiquitous augmented reality, computers distributed throughout one’s clothing, and head-up display contact lenses (or direct-to retina/optic nerve) will all happen at some point, but not in the next 5 years.

  • Ray talks about the creation of artificial intelligences as if some day in the near future we’ll invent HAL and start talking to it. Ever since Alan Turing described the Turing Test, people have described artificial intelligences in terms of ability to generate and understand language, ability to make human-like decisions, ability to show and understand emotion — in other words, the ability to relate to humans. I see no reason to think the first AIs will think or communicate like us at all, nor do I think they will exist at human scale.

    In fact, I would say several species of human-made hyper-intelligences already walk among us: we call them corporations, nation-states, philosophical or political movements, and civilizations. Their neurons are the people, documents and cognitive artifacts that make up the whole. Their synapses are the communication and social networks that run between these individuals. The specific structure of the intelligence is set by its laws, traditions and culture.

    The dual of the idea that groups of people, documents and cognitive artifacts can be a single intelligence is the idea that my own human intelligence, as an individual, is actually made up of more than just what I can think when I’m lying naked and alone. As Edwin Hutchins points out in Cognition in the Wild, human intelligence is not just the product of what’s inside our skull but stems from the combination of our brains, our culture, and tools such as the paper we write on and the skill of writing itself. I expect by the time a machine with no human in the loop has passed the Turing Test, the continuing augmentation of humans will have long-since forced us to recognize that the test wasn’t all that good a criterion for intelligence in the first place.

  • Even though our knowledge and our information technologies are improving exponentially in many fields, there are some parts of human knowledge that are not growing at this incredible rate. Notably, our understanding of existential questions about the purpose of life, what we as humans value, and the meaning of free will and have not kept apace with technology — even though in many cases new technology and new understandings about the world have pulled the rug out of our previous answers. These questions will become especially important as we start fundamentally modifying our biology and finally unravel the mysteries of the mind itself.