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Book details of 'The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence'

Cover of The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence
TitleThe Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence
Author(s)Ray Kurzweil
PublishedJanuary 1999
PublisherViking Press
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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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Book description:

In his provocative new book The Age of Spiritual Machines, Ray Kurzweil, who Forbes Magazine calls "the ultimate thinking machine," takes readers on an breathtaking tour of the history of computation and artificial intelligence and makes startling predictions for the future of technology, such as: * 2010: A translating telephone will allow you to speak in any language and be heard in the listener's native tongue, in real time, in your own voice. * 2020: a $1000 computer will match the processing speed of the human brain -- about 20 billion calculations per second. * 2030: Most humans will have neural implants to improve their vision, hearing, memory, and thinking skills. It will become increasingly difficult for people without implants to function in human society. The Age of Spiritual Machines is a prophetic blueprint for the future. Kurzweil begins by asking a critical question for understanding the twenty-first century: Can humans create another intelligence more intelligent than ourselves? Kurzweil answers this question by probing into the intelligent process that created us: evolution. According to him "evolution's grandest creation -- human intelligence -- is providing the means for the next stage of evolution, which is technology." Because his Law of Accelerating Returns holds that technology is exponentially speeding up, Kurzweil predicts that early in this next century, machines will attain human level intelligence through reverse engineering of the brain. Once this critical threshold is achieved, computers will necessarily soar past human limitations. By 2020, we will begin to have relationships with automated personalities and use them as teachers, companions, and lovers. By 2030, the distinction between us and computers will have been so sufficiently blurred that when machines claim to be conscious, we will have no choice but to believe them. Human identity will be called into question as never before, as a billion years of evolution are superseded in a mere hundred by machine technology that we have created. We will become cyborgs, but what will computers become?

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