Sunday, August 1

The Age of Kurzweil Inc.

Book Review: The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil

I have long been interested in AI and more recently reading about an idea called the "singularity" on the Internet: the idea that technology, specifically computing power, is improving so rapidly that were will soon live in a world of superintelligent AI. The average 2004 computer may have the equivalent intellectual capacity of a mouse, but by 2020 (or 2030 or 2010) a computer will have the processing power of a human brain, with capacities way beyond the human brain shortly thereafter.

The manifesto of "accelerating returns" reaches its most detailed expression in "The Age of Spiritual Machines" by Ray Kurzweil.

Most of the book is philosophy of mind, something I am familiar with having taken philosophy of mind to Masters level. The basis with which Kurzweil argues is called "physicalism": the belief that all processes are ultimately physical processes. Thus all states in humans are due to the states of their cells, specifically neurons (hormones are not mentioned: perhaps because they are too messy). The brain is thus a kind of computer.

I was surprised he did not cite the bible of neural physicalism, Churchlands' "Neurophilosophy".

There is a branch of AI that seeks to model computational processes after neurons called "neural networking" or "connectionism". Software has been developed in attempt to have computers function in ways analogous to a human brain. Experiments in this area have proven fruitious, it is possible to teach neural networks to recognise patterns and learn in remarkably human way. Kurzweil has examples of computer generated poetry and even painting that defy judgement that it is machine made. I found this section of the book interesting. Since computers are able to do so much that we previously though to be exclusively human, Kurzweil argues, we can extrapolate this trend into the future to find there will be (virtually) nothing a human can do that can't be done by a machine. If a machine has as much processing power as a human, can do all a human can, its spiritual status is something like that of a human. It will have a mind because "mind", according to physicalism-connectionism, is a by-product of complex computational ability.

This is a well known position in philosophy of mind called "epiphenomenalism".

Although Kurzweil doesn’t use the term, his entire book is based around it. I was surprised to find that the basis for Kurzweil’s position was a citing of all the things computers can do that are considered "intelligent" in humans. While this may be a basis for an argument that machines could be considered intelligent, it says nothing on the possibility of machine consciousness or spirituality. It is just assumed they will follow. Now I'm not saying they will not follow, it could happen IF physicalism AND connectionism AND epiphenomenalism were true. But Kurzweil never enters into any arguments about this, instead he spends much of the book providing screeds of evidence for the ongoing increasing processing power of computers.

Kurzweil uses the time honoured method of developing an argument ignoring the strongest objections whilst deftly demolishing the "straw men", or minor ones.

Yes, Ray, carbon nanotube computing will provide the power of the worlds current fastest computer, the NEC Earth Simulator, in a cubic millimetre. Great! But will they be conscious? Will they be spiritual? Will it be immoral for us to pull the plug on such machines?

To me the book lacked a sense of spirituality. Ray's trinity appears to be cybersex, self-promotion and money.

Sometimes I got the feeling the book was just a big promo for Ray Kurzweil Enterprises Incorporated. But I hasten to add it is well written as far as it goes, with lots of provocative ideas. Plenty of food for the mind, if not the soul.