three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
21-Mar-Apr-2006
By: 
Ray Kurzweil
user_rating: 
0

When Humans Transcend Biology

A-TheSingularityIsNearIn The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999), inventor, futurist, and artificial-intelligence expert Kurzweil argued that computers might soon trump human intelligence. In this sequel, he postulates that by 2045, the rate of technological change will occur so rapidly that "human life will be irreversibly transformed"—to everyone’s benefit. This merging of mind, body, and machine (the "singularity") will create a new civilization based on virtual reality and a species with intelligence trillions of times greater than today. It will also reverse human aging and degenerative disease, solve pollution and world hunger, and overcome all biological limitations—including death.
Viking. 652 pages. $29.95. ISBN: 0670033847

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Most science books at this level of sophistication leave the armchair quantum-mechanics buff in the dust. But The Singularity Is Near works simultaneously on different levels. … Where Mr. Kurzweil’s thinking turns quidditch-wizardly is with concepts like virtual reality created by tiny computers in eyeglasses and clothing, or cell-size devices that can operate within the bloodstream." Janet Maslin

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Of course, [Kurzweil’s] visions are as untested as they are seductive. … Kurzweil, in his optimism, often fails to take our ornery natures into account, but he does artfully envision a breathtakingly better world." Gregory Benford

San Antonio Exp-News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"He is a visionary with a grasp of disparate fields—technology, engineering, biology, genetics, physics, cosmology—and recognizes how they are merging together with a potential to benefit mankind. Of course, the opposite may happen, but Kurzweil is an optimist and shrugs off negative scenarios as easily as he swallows pills." Jerald Winakur

Oregonian 3 of 5 Stars
"The result is both frightening and enlightening. … Like the graph of a mathematical singularity flipped on its side, it is a road that leads straight upward toward a momentous event that, in Kurzweil’s scary phrase, will be ‘capable of rupturing the fabric of human history.’" James N. Gardner

Rocky Mountain News 3 of 5 Stars
"His faith in the law of accelerating returns prevents him from considering another important principle of technological progress: the law of unintended consequences. … For all his seemingly wild prognosticating, Kurzweil is a visionary futurist with unquestionable credibility." Steve Ruskin

San Jose Mercury News 3 of 5 Stars
"Reading Kurzweil is always a treat, because he knows a lot about the technologies he describes so well, and is never shy about expressing, or defending, opinions that are out there. … In his fascinating riffs on what will be technologically possible over the next few decades, he does not adequately address whether the technologically possible will be politically feasible or economically practical." Lynn Yarris

Critical Summary

Kurzweil is one of the world’s most respected thinkers and entrepreneurs. Yet the thesis he posits in Singularity is so singular that many readers will be astounded—and perhaps skeptical. Think Blade Runner or Being John Malkovich magnified trillion-fold. Even if one were to embrace his techno-optimism, which he backs up with fascinating details, Kurzweil leaves some important questions relating to politics, economics, and morality unanswered. If machines in our bodies can rebuild cells, for example, why couldn’t they be reengineered as weapons? Or think of singularity, notes the New York Times Book Review, as the "Manhattan Project model of pure science without ethical constraints." Kurzweil’s vision requires technology, which we continue to build. But it also requires mass acceptance and faith.

Cited by the Critics

Radical Evolution The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies—and What It Means to Be Human | Joel Garreau (2005): Framed by a discussion of GRIN technologies (genetic, robotic, information, and nano), this book explores these developments via scientists in two camps: those with techno-utopian outlooks like Kurzweil and those who argue that such advances will backfire on humanity.