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Reviewer Rob Slade wrote:
In the beginning was optimism, and the optimism was not quite
justified. Then came a great deal of experimentation in the real
world, and the dawning realization that there were a few things about
intelligence that we hadn't learned yet. In fact, I remember one
comment to the effect that, after all of this work, we were farther
from building an intelligent computer now, than when we started.
The field of artificial intelligence is obviously enjoying renewed
confidence. Buoyed by successes in areas such as chess (the very best
computers can now beat Grandmasters) and speech recognition (top end
personal computers can now transcribe speech faster than some people
can type), and with a few decades of hard won experience behind them,
leaders in the field are now willing to predict that usefully
intelligent machines are achievable within the foreseeable future.
Human levels of intelligence are predicted on the basis of ever
increasing processor speeds, and, given the apparent means of getting
around predictable limits on that increase, intelligence beyond
current human levels is seen as inevitable.
Kurzweil is no starry-eyed futurist, but his prologue does rely on
some simplifying assumptions. Models of the human brain are woefully
incomplete. A very large neural net may duplicate a number of
functions, but even now we know that there are purely chemical bases
for aspects of memory, at the very least. In addition, while
computers may be able to transcribe written material, the process of
"understanding" text will undoubtedly involve comparison against an
enormous base of prior data, and may take a lot longer to prepare and
communicate than is the case with current file transfers.
Chapter one (and, basically, chapter two) posits some superficially
interesting "laws" about time and evolution, but there is a nagging
feeling that these laws rely on the universe caring whether we exist
or not. The analysis of mind and consciousness, in chapter three, is
intended to prove that machines can be intelligent, but really only
indicates that we do not know what intelligence is. In addition, an
early discussion, reversing the "when does a machine become human"
question, passes off a very vital point as being trivial. At one
point the memory of an individual is replaced with a "perfect" machine
memory, and the person is said to be unchanged, even though Kurzweil
himself points out that there would be a very new awareness of things
we would rather have forgotten. There is a grab bag of AI history,
research, and algorithms in chapter four. Chapter five is a very
terse review of "expert," or knowledge based, systems.
Chapter six looks at a few proposals for new generations of computers.
(Including quantum computers, the discussions of which always lead to
unsettling visions of Douglas Adams' Infinite Improbability Drive and
A Really Hot Cup Of Tea.) The look at "bodies" meanders through
nanotechnology and virtual reality (with the obligatory detour through
cybersex) in chapter seven. Most of chapter eight touches on computer
generated art, although most of the examples were rather disappointing
in view of other, more ambitious projects that I have known, some
going back twenty years. (We are also treated to a resume of Great
Things Ray Has Done.)
Part three presents "views" of the future at ten, twenty, thirty, and
one hundred years distance. Basically, these are just predictions,
without backing or justification.
There is a great deal of similarity between this work and Hans
Moravec's "Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendant Mind" (see reviews
) (which Kurzweil quotes from). Moravec, however,
prepares a solid background from his research into what computers have
been able to do up to now, before he extrapolates what they might do
in the future. He also sticks to computer activity and behaviour.
When Moravec does take off into the far future, he is very clear about
what he is doing--and even then, buttresses his fancy with solid
research and reasonable theory. Kurzweil, on the other hand, blithely
assumes that we will all agree with his prediction of computers
duplicating, and then exceeding, human intelligence, a rather loose
target at best.
As for the spirituality, I think I must have missed it.
copyright Robert M. Slade, 1999
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